OK, So Now What?…Reading List

now-what

Problem Statements

The state of our nation demands a new way of thinking about democracy.  I’m less interested in why the Democrats lost this election than to understand how we have come to such a bifurcated society.

A casual morning’s coffee reflection suggests a sobering list of structural problems, related but distinct, and each requiring a diagnosis and resolution.

  1. We seemingly lack an agreed upon collective identity as a nation, that contains and imposes normative standards on our sub-group conflicts.  Dewey’s The Public and It’s Problems (1927), assumed the boundary conditions of the larger “public” body, and focused his analysis on how we bring the rich, local, and contextual mutual regard of the small town to a great nation of 119 million.  In 2017, we are roughly three times that size (323 million).
  2. The “central tendency” of agreed upon truth that largely held in the 20th century is now gone.  By “truth” I mean agreement on the laws of the physical and social worlds — the facts — against which, strategies and tactics to change the facts could be debated (here I am using a loose view of Pierce and Dewey’s Pragmatist definition of truth is what inquirers agree is true at any moment in time).  Media elites – national and major city newspapers and post-war broadcast media – defined a generally shared narrow spectrum of what they agreed was the “truth”.  Importantly, the media elites actively managed this agreed upon definition of truth and the boundaries of who could contest their agreed “truth.”  Yeah, I know there are all sorts of problems with the above: (i) Is the Pragmatists’ definition of inquirers’ truth valid (ii) did the 20th century media elites really hold a central tendency of truth; (iii) if so, was that central tendency truth unbiased and representative of the entire society? (I think we all know the answer to this one).  While the central tendency of the conversation was distorted, the normative impulse to have a single conversation was important. Today, groups seem to be not just talking past one another but engaging in increasingly separate, intra-group optimized conversations.  Persuasion through rhetoric, logic and facts are no longer considered necessary (remember “truthiness” and now look at Trump, Kelly Anne Conway and climate change deniers).  There was a lower level of “talking past each other” than appears to be the case today.  The question is, was this true?  Is a single conversation good?  Is it possible to have a single conversation without the distortion of power?
  3. We don’t know why people vote the way they do.  People don’t vote their economic self-interest. So what motivates them?  If they are seeking to optimize something (but see below) what are they seeking to optimize? – Religious belief, social morality, collective identity, family and small group cohesion, …?
  4. Are our citizens rational? Even if they wanted to and claim to, can people calculate what is optimal for themselves? Behavioral Economics suggests that we are not; that we cannot calculate risk; that we cannot think strategically for more than a few minutes at a time.
  5. Can we put the genie back in the bottle?  Now that we are in this state of discourse and democracy highly corroded by market logic, can we ever go back to a stronger balancing assertion of social and political logic and power?

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My Reading List

I have a few books on my Q1-2017 Reading List. What’s yours?

Arlie Hochschild Strangers in Their Own Land.

Five-years studying Tea Party friendly working class residents of one of the poorest and highest per capita Federal support recipient states – Louisiana.

George Packer. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.

NYTimes review here.

J. D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy.

See my review here.

NYTimes review here.

Katherine J. Cramer.  The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

Nancy Isenberg. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

NYTimes review here.

Thomas Frank. Listen Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People.

Frank argues that the Democratic party―once “the Party of the People”―now caters to the interests of a “professional managerial class” consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers.

NYTimes review here.

Chris Hayes. Twighlight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.

David Brooks’ comments on the current state of American elites here.  This quote says its all:

Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this. (emphasis added)

We may not like the quaint paternalism associated with past elites, but implicit in Brooks’ contrast with today’s elite attitudes, paternalism has been replaced by a pure market logic of self-interest.

Matthew Desmond.  Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

NYTimes review here.

Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer.  $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.

NYTimes review here.

Daniel Kahnemann.  Thinking Fast and Slow.  And for those who don’t want to read the must read opus, Michael Lewis’ recent biography and summary of Kahneman’s and his partner, Tversky’s work (The Undoing Project).

NYTimes review of Thinking Fast and Slow here.

 

So, Who Do You Trust?

Public trust in government is at an all-time low, since the 1950s, according to recent Pew research:

Public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%)

pew-trust-in-goverment

But it is not just the government,as an institution, that the public no longer trusts, it seems to be most institutions. Of 14 institutions (government, military, Supreme Court, Congress, banks, big business, small business, medical system, public education, labor unions, etc.), the percentage of Americans who by and large trust these institutions has gone down because of the Great Recession and has not recovered (Gallup research)

gallup-inst-trust-average

And specific institutions have precipitously fallen out of favor since the Great Recession, as shown in the table below.  Only the Military and Police have had greater than 50% strong confidence of the public and kept it, since 2006.

gallup-inst-confidence-deltas

 

We’ve Seen This Movie Before…

William Greider, made the same argument that is being made today about the failures of our American democracy, in 1992. It is still relevant.

Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy was either prescient or we as a nation have lived in denial for 15 years.   Compare the below excerpt with the Jonathan Rauch Atlantic piece.

… As American democracy evolved, multiple balance wheels and self-correcting mechanisms were put in place that encouraged this.  They promoted stability, but they also leave space for intervention and new ideas, reform and change.

These self-correcting mechanisms are such familiar features of politics as the running competition for power between the two political parties, the scrutiny by the press and reform critics, the natural tension inherent in the coequal branches of government, the sober monitor imposed by law and the Constitution, the political energies that arise naturally from free people when they organize themselves for collective expression.  People are counting on these corrective mechanisms to assert themselves again, as they usually have in the past.

The most troubling proposition of this book is that the self-correcting mechanisms of politics are no longer working.  Most of them are still in place and functioning but, for the most part, do not produce the expected results. Some of the mechanisms have disappeared entirely. Some are atrophied or blocked by new circumstances.  Some have become so warped and disfigured that they now concretely aggravate the imbalance of power between the many and the few.

That breakdown describes a democratic problem in its bleakest dimensions: instead of a politics that leads the society sooner or later to confront its problems, American politics has developed new ways to hide from them.

The consequences of democratic failure are enormous for the country, not simply because important public matters are neglected, but because America won’t work as a society if the civic faith is lost. …

 

 

Exit, Voice and Loyalty – Albert O. Hirschman

Albert O. Hirschman – Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

 

hirschman

Albert Hirschman defined three modes of responding to unresponsive governments that apply to our times too, in his monograph, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

I’m choosing “voice.”

Read about Hirschman’s intellectual legacy in Cass Sunstein’s New York Review of Books tribute.

The Mother of All Externalities: Superfund Sites Cleanup List

The US EPA’s Superfund site list is the mother of all economic externalities.

 

do-not-play-in-the-dirtExternalities, as defined elsewhere, is the shifting of costs from the buyer-seller pair to a third party.  Externalities are a form of market failure — when the pricing mechanism fails to capture the full and true cost of the product or service.

The U.S. Superfund Sites list, is the list sites requiring a toxic contamination cleanup. Typically, these sites are the where now defunct manufacturing businesses operated in the days when “dumping out the back of the factory” was the cheapest toxic chemical disposal method.  The sites are contaminated beyond safe use — and they often pose hazards to people downwind or downstream of them — until they are cleaned up (remediated).

Under the US law creating the Superfund, polluting companies are responsible for the cleanup costs.toxic-waste-barrels  If the companies are bankrupt or no longer exist then US taxpayers pay for the cleanup.  In the former case, that is shifting externality/costs from prior stockholders of the polluting company to current stockholders.  In the later case, it is shifting externalities/costs from the stockholders of the polluting company to today’s US taxpayers.

As of 2014, there were 1,322 sites on the list; 53 more proposed additions; and 375 sites removed from the list because they have been remediated and do not require on-going management (source).

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US EPA Superfund Sites

This National Geographic interactive site lets you find Superfund sites near you.

More broadly, the ToxMap site plots a broader list of contaminated toxic sites — it is largely a map of urban populations, railroads, and US highways but with some notable “off the beaten path” exceptions.

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ToxMap