06 February 2021
Each year I make a plan. This year is off to a challenging, unstable start. Here are themes I see in society; each relates to the other in complex ways. I’ll mostly be talking about the United States, because it’s what I know best.
Let’s start with what Americans always do: money.
The 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 50%, 165 million people.
That’s an oligarchy, a state where power rests with a small number of people. Economists have only recently been taking this seriously.
The richest 0.1% are not upstanding citizens. The opposite is true, and their power enables them to evade accountability. So much for ’..and justice for all’.
Society is becoming more competitive. Many industries are becoming monopolies or monopsonies, “winner take most”.
Lately, we’ve been talking about the immense power of tech companies and their lack of oversight. Another topic is the deadly impact of consolidated pharmaceutical companies. Oh, and larger companies are more likely to engage in fraud.
“It is difficult to get a person to understand something, when their salary depends on them not understanding it.” - Upton Sinclair
Incentives drive behavior. People are predictable when I think about their incentives. Morals don’t do that much. We are all skillful at rationalizing our behavior. No one sees themselves the villain, no matter what they do.
Systemic incentives matter. For example, CEOs have incentives to improve stock prices, and to ignore corruption or poor working conditions. They will let workers starve.
College students know a degree is more important to a middle-class lifestyle than knowledge. Cheating is becoming more widespread.
Insurance companies seek profit, and profit more if they pay fewer claims. They create barriers for the insured to get health care, car maintenance, home repairs. It’s telling that the “The percentage of insurance premiums we pay to peoples’ claims” is called the loss ratio.
Campaign money is critical to staying in power, so politicians reward donors.
Modern capitalism and politics: “Might makes right. Deny it”.
For 99.999% of us, this is bad. Higher minimum wages lead to lower suicide rates. Giving people money is better for mental health than therapy. Poverty hurts. Giving the homeless shelter is cheaper and better than dealing with the consequences of rough sleeping.
Inequality leads to more crime and low trust. There’s little reason to believe in fairness or justice when you’re living its absence. Social class shapes your behavior and worldview. Mistrust has a high price.
Heck, the secure, working-class lifestyle from “The Simpsons” is a fantasy now.
“If you’re poor, your life matters less”, maybe not at all, and your plight will be hidden.
We are able to do amazing things, but not the basics. I call it “competence inequality”. A focused, small group of people can make staggering breakthroughs.
But widespread, basic competence? Delays, mismanagement, chaos.
“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”
“Government IT project fails, is over budget, and poorly designed”. This is so common a headline I don’t notice anymore. We need digital public infrastructure more than ever. And I don’t mean no-bid contracts to companies to build broken websites like VAMS for vaccines. The US federal government is more corrupt than it was in 2015.
Neoliberalism and “public-private partnerships” are code for “worse outcomes that cost more”.
The US would have far fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths if it built good systems. Effective technologists can build systems for contact tracing, unemployment benefits, and vaccine distribution. Other countries have done just that.
If anyone remembers the Affordable Care Act rollout, this isn’t surprising. Government systems keep doing the same thing. They don’t change with the times.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
“Might makes right. Deny it”.
Every large company/organization I’ve encountered obsesses over appearances, “Optics”. The facts are often inconvenient, embarrassing, or lead liability. Companies put out carefully worded statements to mollify their critics, and to make you think they care. Anything to avoid saying the quiet part out loud.
It’s stylized nonsense. The average person reads these and knows something is hidden, but not what.
Spin is about lying and deception, but somehow we all pretend it isn’t.
Let’s look at an example: the Boeing 737 Max. The root cause of the crash was the push for short-term profit. That pressure led to questionable design decisions, ethical failures, faulty software development, and compromised FAA regulators.
Since the two crashes, Boeing has a credibility problem. After the crashes and grounding, Boeing was still pushing to weaken safety testing, fire inspectors, minimize fixes, and outsource training pilots.
The public doesn’t believe what Boeing says about safety, because they’ve said it before.
Boeing can do one thing to convince people the 737 MAX is safe to fly. Promise that all of Boeing leadership will fly only on the 737 MAX for a year. All corporate executives at Boeing, and all managers at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
I doubt it will happen. “We bet your life” is the company line when oligarchy meets rentier capitalism…
“Improvement Means Deterioration” - Hutber’s Law
“Rent-seeking behavior”: seeking to monopolize access to any kind of property, to extract profits without contributing to society.
“Crapification”: when everything becomes flawed, impermanent, and brittle.
I see this in 3 ways:
Movie tickets, health care, cars, college degrees, financial fees have become more expensive. Oh, and the big one, housing.
Things are shabbier, and producers have been impoverished: clothes, food, basic services, pension funds, basic health care.
Music, movies, books, tractors, thermostats, features in cars are harder to own. Subscriptions and licenses are everywhere. You don’t own something you can’t change, repair, or resell.
“Anytime someone puts a lock on something you own, against your wishes, and doesn’t give you the key, they’re not doing it for your benefit” - Doctorow’s Law
The rise of financial over industrial capitalism leads to…
We live in an age of expanding surveillance and vanishing privacy. Surveillance is so pervasive that undercover agents can’t hide. Recent events reinforce trends to increase surveillance. The remaining restrictions aren’t restrictions. Companies & agencies can buy location and license-plate tracking data.
Social media incentives encourage collection of horrifying amounts of personal information.
There’s no way to keep your information completely private, but there are ways to minimize your exposure. You can do gain a lot of privacy for less than $5/month, but you need to be technically savvy.
Social media is ‘personalized’ - we each see something different. The problem is society needs common ground/facts to exist, not echo chambers. Institutions aren’t trusted.
The best way to keep people hooked: feed them extreme, polarizing information. Algorithms that reward polarization are sowing division for profit. Social media companies are conflicted. They peddle lip service about removing/hiding toxic groups while funneling users to new ones. Madness ensues: ads for military gear showing up alongside groups organizing Capitol riots, thus rewarding extremist views. Social media companies have carefully minimized their role in the January 6 riots. The role of venture capital pushing a “engagement at any cost” model is even less well known.
Historically, this doesn’t end well. President Biden bringing everyone together? I wish him luck, but I’m not holding my breath.
The incentives of social media companies are ‘more attention = more money’. This leads to algorithms that prioritize attention (‘engagement’) above all else. This became so troubling that investors got scared, and that led to quick change.
I went looking for systemic causes of polarization and found one: winner-take-all voting. “A simple-majority single-ballot system favors the two-party system” - Duverger’s Law. Do you want more complex thought, less polarization, and more discussion? You need proportional representation.
“If a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant”
Functional society needs the ‘paradox of tolerance’. It’s an old idea:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” - Abraham Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural Address.
And yet, now people in powerful positions advocate for political violence, deceit, and broken elections. Other powerful people pretend to ignore them.
“All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good people do nothing.” - Edmund Burke
People want power for many reasons: security, safety, or because their parents didn’t love them.
In the US, this often shows up as greed, a lust for money. The traits you need to become rich are psychopathic. This isn’t surprising: “I’ll fire people to bump up stock prices” and “I care about others” are contradictory.
Society exists so people can survive in large groups. Humans have needs. Beyond physical needs, we crave safety, security, and to belong.
Our social orientation around individualism doesn’t help.
We are in an epidemic of loneliness and instability. A huge number of people face a future with little chance of love, stability, or a sense of purpose. It’s creating another epidemic, despair. Given the history of drug use and addiction, that’s the root cause of the opioid crisis.
Loneliness is extremism fuel, and so this is a systemic problem.
These trends lead to division, manifesting as racism and sexism.
I live in the United States, a country whose original sins are colonialism, racism, and slavery.
They are still here. There was an attempted coup on January 6th, driven by white supremacy. It got as far as it did for many reasons.
Police react more to left-wing protests than right-wing ones, often with violent tactics. The leadership of the Capitol Police failed days before January 6th, putting line officers in an untenable position. The plans for the January 6th insurrection were public months in the making, as white supremacists find each other online. It’s not a normal protest movement, and it’s not going away.
Racism is more powerful than money. There are huge structural barriers, some going back to Reconstruction.
How do we as a society end racism & white supremacy without making things worse, causing a backlash, encouraging extremists to organize, polarize society further, or give domestic surveillance the same legal carte blance we did for foreign surveillance after 9/11?
“The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism” - Lewis’s Law.
Women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. The gap is larger for women of color (as low as 54 cents). It’s global.
The pandemic and sexism are leading to shocking numbers of women dropping out of the labor force. Domestic violence is on the rise, often a precursor to wide-scale violence.
This, at a time when women’s influence is growing.
Just when you thought you’ve had enough good news, there’s a pandemic going on…
Given the state of the United States before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, what’s happened since January 2020 was predictable.
Given the precarious nature of most people’s finances, of course there is spread. There isn’t enough government/business support for people to stay home when they’re sick, or taking care of sick loved ones.
Given the political power of the affluent, an effective way to reduce COVID-19 spread isn’t talked about:
eviction and utility shut-off bans:
Study finds that uniform moratoria on evictions and utility shutoffs through November of last year could have saved 164,000 lives lost to COVID-19. “If real, that would make reducing housing precarity easily the best public health measure we’ve got.”
Given that ‘reopening’ decisions were done for political reasons (open bars, restaurants) rather than public safety (open parks, outdoor schooling), ‘reopening’ is inevitably followed by a spike in cases. States don’t follow the best available science. They’re losing their top health officials.
Given the incentives to polarize anything for profit, basic measures like mask-wearing have become politicized. Other policies (hand washing, social distancing) don’t have that divide. Effective policies like ventilation aren’t even talked about.
Given the disinformation and uneven competence of large institutions, we don’t have widespread access to better masks.
Given the every-country-for-itself approach to pandemic policies, vaccines are wrapped up in nationalism, even when it’s counterproductive for everyone.
Given the immense uncertainty and fear about the pandemic and its impact, many of us are doomscrolling. It is healthier to get outside.
Finally, we get to the elephant in the room: climate change.
Human-caused climate change destabilizes everything. You read about this in economic terms, because the established order revolves around money. For example, consumerism, a manufactured trend, is unsustainable.
Even ‘responsible’ companies like Apple have incentives countering sustainability. Easy-to-repair devices are more sustainable, but less profitable. Movements like the Right to Repair are good for your wallet and climate change.
Current climate changes matches the worst-case scenarios. We could see the change and collapse of entire nations and populations. The problem is larger than money.
A lot of the US may be uninhabitable by 2050, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Heat waves, wildfire, water shortages, sea-level rise, famine…it’s getting worse. Climate-change induced migration may destabilize entire regions; it’s happened before.
Our infrastructure isn’t ready. though bright spots exist.
I learned to “expect the worst and hope for the best”. We are doing the opposite as a civilization.
Here are truisms I live by: