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Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...

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OUR CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES


Saturday April 14, 2018

            The Darwin Award confers mock recognition on individuals killed by their own stupidity, thereby improving the gene pool by removing themselves from it. If there existed such an award at the national level, the U.S. of today would be a lock to win. Put aside ideology and step back from the drumbeat of constant crises that has characterized the Trump Presidency, and the sheer stupidity of our current posture on major issues comes into focus, along with a big question: How could a superpower with an incomparable network of universities, scientific institutions, and think tanks be so colossally dumb when it comes to government policy?  Simple answer; that’s the path we’ve chosen.

            Let’s look at a few of the particulars.

            Gun Violence:  We have roughly the same crime rate as other industrial countries, but we’re the most trigger-happy developed nation on earth with more than 10 times the rate of gun-related deaths as does Australia and Germany, 20 times the rate of gun deaths as Spain, 50 times that of the United Kingdom, and an infinitely greater rate than Japan and South Korea, which really don’t have statistically significant, gun-related deaths at all. Yet, the Trump’s first response to the Parkland slaughter is that we need more guns, with the current push being to arm teachers in schools. Consider the counterfactual: If more guns were the solution, wouldn’t all those other developed nations that have vastly fewer guns and strict gun control laws be collapsing amid rampant killings?   

            Climate Change: After 2017’s $307 billion dollars in losses from hurricanes, drought-related wildfires and other severe weather, one might think that the federal government would want to understand whether a warming world might increase the risk of more such events. One would be wrong. Instead, the administration has been stripping all mention of climate change from its publications and policies, and installing people who deny the threat in key positions. And given those losses, wouldn’t governments at all level want to update flood zone maps to take in the threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms? Apparently not; there’s active opposition to updating the maps at all levels of government, all but guaranteeing that future storms will produce even more losses for taxpayers (because private insurers will update their own loss projections and pull out of vulnerable areas). Dumb? As Trump often says, “you tell me.”

            Finance and the Economy: After 2008’s near death experience for the U.S. financial system, the Congress enacted Dodd-Frank, with rules limiting risk taking by large financial institutions. Before that, risk-taking in the opaque world of derivatives had been involved the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998, as well as in the fall of the energy trading giant Enron. Now, Congress apparently feels that bankers will never again try to game the system, because there is a bi-partisan effort to roll back regulations on banks with under $250 billion in assets (up from the current $50 billion threshold), a move that would deregulate lenders as large as some of the worst actors in the housing bubble collapse. Not content to unleash the banks, Congress and administration are also dismantling the Consumer Protection Bureau, which was set up to protect people from the predatory practices rampant before the financial crisis.

            The Fourth Estate: Journalists in this country have already been marginalized by the rise of free digital news and the spread of social media. Now the Trump administration has been attacking the very concept of a free press with its dismissal of any reporting it doesn’t like as “fake news.”  At a time when politicians routinely lie, and big corporations have been freed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision to devote massive efforts to influencing public opinion, access to independent, credible reporting becomes the last check on the abuse of power and corruption. The campaign to discredit this vital backstop may be the most short sighted Trump initiative of all -- just ask the citizens of North Korea, Iran, or Russia what are their checks on power in countries without a free press?

            Diplomacy: With ambassadorships in crucial posts such as Riyadh and Seoul still waiting to be filled and senior positions at the State Department left vacant, the Trump administration seems to believe that diplomacy does not require diplomats, particularly when we have a lot of nuclear weapons, and a President willing to use them. With a growing number of unstable nations trying to join the nuclear club, this approach to foreign policy seems like a promising fast track for the U.S. to win a collective Darwin Award, dragging the rest of the world to the podium along with us.

           And so it goes: Trump looks back to the days of Herbert Hoover in his trade policy; the Energy Department is busy trying to revitalize coal burning as the rest of the world pushes full throttle towards the transition away from fossil fuels. We’re looking back, while others look forward. It’s as though the loud, ignorant bully in the back of the classroom has come to the front, shoved aside the teacher and taken over the curriculum.

            We have only ourselves to blame. Long before Trump won in 2016, voter disengagement abetted the election of governors and state legislators who pandered to the more motivated extremes, and, once in power, who then gerrymandered districts to solidify their grip. We started down the path of stupid years ago. If we want to change direction, voters need to rouse from their apathy lest, as the Chinese proverb holds, we end up where we’re headed. If, however, the above policies represent who we truly are; we deserve what we reap.

           

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Short Take

A Slippery Slope?

I’ve had some back and forth with some friends on the insurrection last week and the subsequent media bans. Some see a slippery slope towards censorship; I see a unique set of circumstances. 

With regard to the invasion of the Capitol, it speaks to the sheer lunacy of the moment I would be quoting a  Wall Street Journal editorial, but they put it best: The head of the executive branch incited an attack on the legislative branch with the hope of overturning a lawful election. Zip-tie carrying paramilitary troops thinking that they were aiding Trump’s cause, came within minutes of kidnapping members of Congress. They were actively seeking Pelosi and knew where they were going. Trump had urged them to come to DC, and then urged the march on Congress, using the word “fight” 20 times in his speech, and saying he would be with them.

Even before the insurrectionists were driven from the Capitol, violent fringe elements had begun planning major events for Jan. 17, and also to disrupt the inauguration.

This is a unique set of circumstances.

The uniqueness comes from the relatively new element of social media, particularly Twitter, and the instantaneous reach and enormous scale of the internet.  These factors turbocharged the volatility of this already combustible situation. Never before in our history have people been able to instantaneously recruit like-minded people. Given the explosion of human numbers, this means that truly dangerous psychotics have a lot of company. 

They no longer have to seethe alone and can join with others who share their delusions. And they have guns.

Truly dangerous psychotics are rare. I don’t know what the numbers are, but probably upwards of one in a thousand. Even that low guess would amount to 330,000 people in the U.S., and the number is probably far larger. 

The point is that if a meme gets out there – e.g. that Democrats are led by blood-drinking pedophiles who stole the election – it might gain casual traction with large numbers of people due to a long-standing susceptibility to conspiracies in the U.S.  (I’ve been thinking about this susceptibility since I first investigated fragging in Vietnam).  Much more dangerous: the meme will also gain recruits among that tiny, really violent, really delusional, fringe. And if there’s a goal or an event, even though that cohort represents a tiny percentage of the population, they can be rallied and brought together to become a significant force. And again, they have guns.

We saw this last week. Yes, there were a lot of people who sincerely bought Trump’s lie that the election was stolen, and came to DC thinking there was still a chance to pressure Pence and others to overturn the election.

But, we also saw a Who’s Who of nut groups leading the charge -- neo-Nazi’s, Proud Boys, Confederate flags wavers, holocaust deniers, holocaust embracers (!), militia members, and God knows who else. Most of these were feckless blowhards, but the invaders also included  the zip tie guys, and others who were blood brothers to the fanatics who wanted to kidnap and lynch Gretchen Whitmer.

The execs of Twitter, Facebook, etc. saw what happened and recognized that their platforms were being used, either directly or through Parler, to organize similar, violent events in the run-up to the inauguration. They also saw that the fomenters were using Trump’s tweets to bless their crusades with a patina of legitimacy, even nobility. 

At Twitter the staff was in near open rebellion, and I’m sure that execs at the other companies wondered about liability, culpability, ad boycotts, and Elizabeth Warren campaigning to break them up if another violent event resulted from their passivity. (Apparently, a potential ad boycott was one reason why the head of content at Cumulus radio threatened to fire Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro, and Dan Bongino if they didn’t STFU about the election being stolen.)

So, the tech and social media giants acted, and in doing so, dramatically underscored their awesome power. This show of force is going to provoke a lot of discussion about how these companies exercise discretion about content, about whether they should be broken up, regulated, or otherwise held responsible for their content and their decisions about content (which would dramatically shrink them). 

I don’t think they are going to come out of this unscathed. 

One other thought. IMO, the biggest disruption of the internet can be summed up in one word: disintermedition. The internet has given people direct access to data, markets, people, information, and endowed everyone with the ability to be a pundit, reporter, influencer, or brand. 

The disappearing intermediaries are the editors, producers, fact checkers, brokers, market makers, etc., who previously, maintained standards, buffered markets, and in myriad ways provided some friction that in the case of mainstream media, prevented complete fabrications from gaining traction with the broader public, and, in the case of markets, modulated price movements and reduced the probability of panics. We’re going to miss them.

 



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