Wednesday, April 12, 2017

When the cattle-masses get bored, they cook up identity-politics and junk-science nonsense

Hackneyed adages endure for a reason. Their lack of dependency on circumstantial factors imparts to them a reliability that allows us to quickly size up situations in which we sense their application.

Take idle hands being the devil's workshop. Evidence for this one's veracity abounds.

George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen senses that, in recent decades, America has become a society of idle hands. His new book, The Complacent Class, fleshes out his observation, as does an interview with the American Enterprise Institute's James Pethokoukis:

PETHOKOUKIS: Instead of calling it “The Complacent Class” you could have titled it “The Stagnant Society.” I think your thesis is, since the 1980s, American society has become less dynamic, more risk averse. We’re not starting businesses, we’re not moving, and this is a bad thing. Is that about right?

COWEN: Yes, it’s a bad thing but it’s quite tricky. Mostly, we’re doing this because it makes us happier. Life is safer, more convenient and more comfortable – no one wants to say those are bad things. But, at the margin, if you don’t take enough risk, there does come a time where you start moving backwards, can’t pay the bills, or have decent governance. So over the longer run it’s a bad thing.

What are the key data points you think which would support the idea? First, that we’re a complacent society.

Most of the book looks at different ways in which change in the United States has slowed down. So, for instance, we move across state lines at much lower rates, about 50% lower, that we used to, we Medicaid ourselves much more frequently, we’re not so willing to let our children even play outside, there are schools that have banned the game of tag because it’s too violent, startups are a percentage of overall businesses activity, our DOW, rates of productivity growth, innovation, as we best can measure them – they too are down, our physical infrastructure has barely progressed in many parts of the country, it’s gotten worse, travelling is harder than it used to be.
So we’re in this world where there’s one wonderful, souped up sector – information technology — but we’re using those games to just slow down change in so many other parts of our world.
Cowen sees plenty of political-level culpability across the spectrum for abetting of this phenomenon:

Looking at what’s happening in Washington I don’t sense that policy-makers are looking at the world the way that you’re looking at it right now.

Washington is a mix of the most foolish place in our country, but actually the part with the deepest understanding. It’s the one part of America that gets why it’s so hard to change things. I agree the campaigns were very backward looking. When Trump talked about infrastructure it was repairing roads, tunnels, and bridges – an idea I’m not against by the way – but when that’s the entirety of your positive vision I think that’s quite sad.
And now we see the Republicans controlling the major branches of government and not actually being able to do much with that. And I think that too is reflecting just how deep and far reaching the stasis is. The government is often where some problems show up first.

So we need some sort of external shock. It’s not that we necessarily want it, but it’s just this coming that will shake us up out of places. Is Trump that shock?

Trump is the beginning of that shock, but Trump is not the end of the process. My view is not that Trump will bring fascism, but he will be too weak of a president and he will be at another step along an ongoing deterioration of governance in this country. He’s not well informed, he does not know how to work the levers of power, and this country’s not solving its problems under him.
So yes, it seems that Trump has won that race and arrived in first place as the disruptive shock. But it’s also, oddly, a presidency of stasis. The disruption is that you cannot refuse to solve your problems for ever; sooner or later those problems will get their revenge on you. 
I sometimes take flack in the comment threads here at LITD for my use of the term "cattle-masses" to describe the swath of American society that has embraced the complacency on which Cowen focuses. The accusation is that it takes an unduly dim view of this magnificent species of which we're members. But is there not a sort of abnegation of the full depth and breadth of our humanity at work in the acceptance of the state's having become a provider of services, the entity that addresses the big questions of the human condition, such as sickness, old age and economic security?

(And allow me here the liberty of a brief digression. Speaking of AEI economists, I am deeply dismayed at the turn Pethokoukis's college James C. Capretta has taken lately. He is the Institute's specialist in health-care economics, and his last few columns, as the abortive Paul Ryan "repeal-and-replace" plan was crafted and then yanked for lack of votes, has been touting statist proposals of the rankest sort: incentivizing people to keep insurance coverage consistent (Mr, Capretta, it is not the government's role  to be "incentivizing" anything), automatic enrollment into insurance, more subisidization, and "compromise" on Medicaid. Someone needs to stand at the front door of the AEI building and waylay Mr. Capretta's Kool-Aid supplier.)

And consider what else has been morphing and metastasizing during the same time frame in which Professor Cowen's complacency has gained its foothold: identity politics and junk science.

They've been morphing and metastasizing to the point at which we get this kind of infantile confluence:

 Witness the upcoming March for Science, scheduled for Saturday, April 22. This also happens to be Earth Day, which is nice enough — and hey, who could object to a good old-fashioned rah-rah session for science? I, for one, always welcome a refresher on string theory, or the confounding conflict between the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, or that long, troubling episode in our planet’s history when a few impertinent continents apparently traipsed all the way over to the other side of the globe and no one was there to panic about it.

Alas, this March for Science does not appear to be largely about science, or about people who know a great deal about science, or even about people who want to know a great deal about science. (It would be kind of fun, in fact, to quiz earnest potential attendees about the details of the scientific method, or whether Johannes Kepler should finally win that well-deserved Oscar.) Keeping up with today’s hottest trends, the March for Science has wrapped itself in identity politics, cranked up the oven to “scorch,” and potentially set things on track to unceremoniously collapse into one giant intersectional soufflĂ©.
The troubles brewing within the March for Science surfaced in January, marked by a now-deleted official tweet: “Colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia, & econ justice are scientific issues.” Since then, the addled march has torn through four different diversity statements, shellacked by critics on both sides. (Harvard’s Steven Pinker bashed the march’s “anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric,” while others complained the statement didn’t go far enough.) The march’s latest set of “Diversity and Inclusion Principles,” when paired with its more shame-faced and apologetic sibling, the “Statement on Diversity and Inclusion,” tops out at over 1,000 words.
You might think that this amounts to a protest march protesting too much. But the hits keep coming. When Bill Nye, the children’s TV personality-turned-science-advocate, was announced as an honorary chair of the march last week, critics bemoaned his status as a white male. Oddly, no one seemed particularly riled up about the fact that Nye is not an actual “scientist” at all. “I was born a dorky white guy who became an engineer,” Nye told BuzzFeed, reportedly “baffled” at the brouhaha. “I’m playing the hand I was dealt. We can’t — this march can’t solve every problem at once.” 
But “science,” at least according to the new dogma, can. Since the election of Donald Trump, a trendy new sign has popped up in yards across America: “In this house, we believe black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, kindness is everything.” People of various political leanings could talk for hours about some of the tenets of the sign — which specific “women’s rights” are we referring to, for instance? — but the “science is real” line confuses me every time.

What, after all, can it mean? Most likely, the line refers to anthropogenic climate change, and a beef with the Trump administration’s approach to that contentious issue. But if that’s the case, why not just have your sign say “Manmade climate change is real”? There’s clearly something else afoot, and it strikes deep into the heart of progressive politics today. 
Could this kind of nonsense have occurred in, say, the 1940s - let alone the 1870s, not to even mention the 1660s?

No, we had a grasp on the parameters of reality that has come to elude us.

And a vicious-cycle trend seems to be at play here. The less robust and vital our God-given ingenuity, the more we cook up ridiculous fantasies that further dull it.

I think Pethokoukis and Cowen are onto something with the notion of a shock. I don't know what form it will take, and neither does anybody else. Let us just hope that it's not something so rude that it takes from us the benefits of the material advancements of the last few decades.

The information revolution may not have had the impact of the discovery of electricity or the invention of the internal combustion engine, but the fruits of those advancements come to a screaming halt without the IT overlay which now drives it.

It would be good for the whole thing to not go kablooey in the course of our learning our lessons about human nature and how reality works.

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