Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Power of the Gatekeepers

I'm going to be writing a series of posts that are loosely connected to show, I hope, the subtle ways in which seemingly unrelated events and trends in our society combine in destructive ways. I believe that to truly move forward as a society, we need thinkers, citizens, and leaders who can see this interconnectedness. Any of these posts will be accessible from the following table:

Table of Contents

  1. The Smallness of our Extremism
  2. The Power of the Gatekeepers
  3. Blockbusters and Gatekeepers
  4. On the Importance of Literature and the Humanities
  5. Back to Dunning-Kruger

The Power of the Gatekeepers

The media, or more properly, the companies that own the media, function as Gatekeepers in our society. In many ways, they decide the issues that are presented to us, discussed, bandied about. It's a complicated relationship, as there are ways in which the media is simply chasing market share, and that if people are tired, say, of hearing about Ross Perot, Ross Perot will fade from our national dialogue. But while we as information-consumers also exercise significant responsibility, the Gatekeepers of our major media outlets have far more influence in what facts are presented to us, who gets coverage, how long any particular issue stays in the limelight, and the overall tone of coverage.

The power of Gatekeepers is illustrated in this Chronicle article:

Even when not wielding his blue pencil, Stalin's editorial zeal was all-consuming. He excised people—indeed whole peoples—out of the manuscript of worldly existence, had them vanished from photographs and lexicons, changed their words and the meanings of their words, edited conversations as they happened, backing his interlocutors into more desirable (to him) formulations. "The Poles have been visiting here," he told the former Comintern chief Georgi Dimitrov in 1948. "I ask them: What do you think of Dimitrov's statement? They say: A good thing. And I tell them that it isn't a good thing. Then they reply that they, too, think it isn't a good thing."

All editors, wrote the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, "show a common bias: ... what the editor would prefer is preferable." Being an author is well and good, and Stalin wrote several books—the word "author" does after all share a root with the word "authority"—but he knew that editing was a higher power. Naimark argues that editing is as much a part of Stalinist ideology as anything he said or wrote. This insight warrants amplification. Under Stalinism, anyone could speak or write, but since Stalin was the supreme gatekeeper of the censorship hierarchy and the gulag system, the power to edit was power itself.

I want to offer a couple of illustrations of how the tone our Gatekeepers set can warp issues that are in the national spotlight. Probably the easiest to digest, since I mentioned it in my last post, is how the media covers taxation. Imagine how public perception and discourse would change if every time an article or broadcast mentioned the dispute over, say, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, it also mentioned that the top personal tax rate in the 1950's was 91%, and that many corporations pay a corporate tax rate of 0% due to loopholes and company-specific exemptions. How many people have ever heard a media outlet point out that, in addition to being unpatriotic, large companies that pay very low corporate tax rates make it harder for small businesses, who pay rates 20-30% higher, to survive and prosper?

Another issue that the media slants with the tone of it's coverage is illegal immigration. I don't want to get into whether or not they should be granted amnesty for breaking our immigration laws, but I do want to affirm that I think breaking the law is a serious matter that requires some sort of punishment. But there are segments of our society that castigate immigrants as the root of many evils, and the media does more to encourage this perception than to correct it. In my experience, illegal immigrants are hard workers who often willing to do jobs that Americans won't, like picking strawberries as described in this CBS report. They often put up with conditions which would outrage American workers. And many times companies specifically seek them out, hire them illegally, and treat them poorly to keep costs down. I know in many communities in the wider New York City metro area there are street corners where immigrants gather where you can go, point to a couple young men, and have them climb in your truck and do whatever work you have for them for a day's (cash) pay. Imagine how perceptions might change if every time immigrants are portrayed as leeches on our social safety net who steal jobs from American workers, it is also mentioned that many of the jobs they take are jobs no Americans are willing to do, or jobs in which American bosses are specifically exploiting them to keep the prices the rest of us pay down.

To me the most powerful way Gatekeepers manipulate our society has to do with third-part politicians. I'd say the typical attitude I encounter when I discuss politicians with people I know is that they're all crooks, and we ought to throw the lot of them out. Yet these same people are always dismayed at the concept of actually voting for a third-party candidate, you know, of actually throwing them all out. The media absolutely encourages this view that voting for a third-party candidate is throwing your vote away. In truth, if every person who didn't vote, voted for a third party candidate, that candidate would win. In a landslide. As an example, in 2012, roughly 66 million people voted for President Obama and roughly 61 million people voted for Mitt Romney. The leading third party got over 1 million votes. Meanwhile, 93 million eligible citizens did not cast ballots.

The power to throw the bums out is in our hands, but due to a large degree to the way we've been trained to think by the Gatekeepers, we just never use it. That is the power of the Gatekeepers. Media companies that donate millions and millions of dollars to the two major political parties lead us to think that we have to vote for one of those two parties. I wonder why.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Smallness of our Extremism

I'm going to be writing a series of posts that are loosely connected to show, I hope, the subtle ways in which seemingly unrelated events and trends in our society combine in destructive ways. I believe that to truly move forward as a society, we need thinkers, citizens, and leaders who can see this interconnectedness. Any of these posts will be accessible from the following table:

Table of Contents

  1. The Smallness of our Extremism
  2. The Power of the Gatekeepers
  3. Blockbusters and Gatekeepers
  4. On the Importance of Literature and the Humanities
  5. Back to Dunning-Kruger

The Smallness of our Extremism

At the time of this post, the US government is shut down and negotiations are underway to reopen it. Currently, it seems that for shutting down the government and threatening the credit-worthiness of US debts, the Republicans will get a temporary waiver of a tax on medical devices. That's right, millions of lives were disrupted and a great deal of uncertainty was generated in the business world all so that a few companies could get a (temporary) special tax break that essentially amounts to pork spending.

But this is just a single example of how the ridiculously tiny differences between our two political parties are getting blown entirely out of proportion. As many know, the shutdown began in the first place because Republicans want to force the Democrats to not implement a health care plan that is essentially identical to the one their last Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, implemented in Massachusetts when he was governor there. Another example involves tax rates. The top tax bracket on personal income for the entirety of the 1950's was 91%. But now the two parties, Republicans in particular, are acting like it's the end of the free world because the top federal rate is 39.6% instead of 35%. Yes, there's talk of revolution over a less than five percent different in the top income bracket.

It will become apparent if you read this blog, that I don't fit easily within either political party. I generally find them both to be wrong about things more often than they are right, and, up until a few years ago, I found the wrongness fairly evenly divided between them. The range of political policies they represent is ridiculously narrow. Could you imagine someone advocating a 90% tax rate today? Could you imagine someone advocating a 23% tax rate on the top income bracket? By the way, that is the actual average paid by the top 0.1% of earners in 2010 as reported in the ultra-liberal magazine Forbes (/sarcasm). How about we have a national corporate tax level of 0% since, as CBS reports, many Fortune 500 companies already pay 0%?

These would be policies worth fighting over. Not worth shutting down a government and threatening a world economic crisis for, but definitely worth getting mad about. But given the smallness of the differences between the positions of the two current parties, the extremism currently on display is unwarranted, childish, and embarrassing.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How Will Robots Treat Us?

I've been thinking a lot about robot intelligence lately, and a quote from Pete Mandik brought something to the forefront of my mind and crystallized my thoughts for me. You can read the full interview here but the part I'm interested in is this:
I think our best guide to what we should think about any future beings that surpass us is to think about our current attitudes to beings that already surpass us. On the individual level, I’m not bothered, that is, I don’t feel the value sucked out of my life, by the knowledge that there are lots of individuals that are smarter than me. On the species level, I don’t feel that humans are devalued by the knowledge that other species are faster runners, better swimmers, etc. I think, then, by analogy, we should try to take similar attitudes to any post-humans (mechanical or biological) that outperform us. We should continue to value our own lives on our own terms. And also, you know, root for them, since they’ll be our children.
 I think his suggestion, that in considering superior beings potential relationships with us we should think about our relationships with the beings already around us, is great. But Pete seems a bit too eager to meet those superior beings for my tastes. I'd like to turn his suggestion in a different direction. Let's think about how those superior beings might treat us, their inferiors, based on examining how we treat the inferior species we're surrounded with. Yeah, you can see where this is going real fast, right? We squish many types of bugs without a second thought. We subject cows, pigs, and chickens to conditions tantamount to torture in preparation to eat them. Our closest and most respected relatives, the apes, we send to space and subject to various medical procedures we wouldn't dream of performing on other humans. Perhaps the best we could hope for, I think, is that whatever superior beings we encounter treat us like we treat cats and dogs, as curiosities to be domesticated and pampered.

I don't think the possibilities are all bad, however. It's possible, especially if our superiors are robots we've programmed, that they actually won't be able to do anything other than what we ask them to do. They also might recognize our strong points and wish to cooperate with us. But I don't like the odds. And I think anyone who longs to hurry along the creation of robots that rival or exceed our abilities is a fool who we ought to try with all our power to stop. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Pete when he suggests that it's going to be very, very hard for us as a society to muster the collective wisdom to slow down the research that is leading in this direction. Especially when that research is backed by a lot of people (and corporations, or are they people too?) with very deep pockets.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Capitalism

One of the reasons I've let this blog fall silent is that I feel I ought to explain my political beliefs before I comment on certain topics so people know where I stand, and to lay out a case for my impartiality and objectivity. But there is so much ignorant analysis of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I feel compelled to comment on them. Let me simply state that I consider myself Progressive. That is, I believe that there is always a way to make our country work better. Often that involves a stronger government, but just as often it involves trimming government, weakening the government, or exploring alternatives when the government isn't doing things efficiently. Perhaps my political position can be summed up concisely by stating that I think Obama is the best president we've had since Bush 41.

The biggest criticism I've heard of Occupy Wall Street is that many of the protestors are politically ignorant, naive, or incoherent. That anyone would make this criticism shows just how confused we've become about how a democracy works. They're protestors, not academics or politicians or bureaucrats or *gulp* members of the media. Their job isn't to come up with policies to cure our country's ills or even to necessarily be able to coherently define those ills. Their job is to protest and draw attention to a topic.

What has made me sad is how badly and uniformly pundits and purported journalists have failed to do their job and have made the Occupy Wall Street protests necessary. The problems our country is facing is economics 101, stuff I studied in high school, and I've yet to see these so-called experts, including many people with doctoral degrees in economics, even get close to the underlying problem in their analysis.

First, a little background. Free markets are good. We like free markets because they encourage competition. We like competition because it provides us with cheaper goods, it forces companies to innovate, and it generally makes our society more productive. There's a huge problem with free markets, though, one recognized by the father of capitalism himself, Adam Smith: Monoplies.

The logical end point of all free markets is a monopoly, a situation in which one company controls all of a certain product. That is the goal of every company, to either buy all of its competition or to drive them out of the market. Famous monopolies or near-monopolies include Standard Oil Trust, AT&T and Microsoft. Monopolies are very, very bad. When they exist, there is no competition in a given market any more. There is no incentive for a monopolistic company to price it's goods fairly or to innovate. It is almost impossible for a monopoly to fail or go out of business. The government is empowered to break-up monopolies because they can be so toxic to the well-being of our economy.

Related to the monopoly is the oligopoly, a situation in which a small number of businesses dominate a market. I'd give an example, but almost every commodity market in modern-day America is an oligopoly. From soft drinks to energy to car manufacturers to airlines to banks to cell phone carriers to software companies, our modern economic landscape is dominated by either oligopolies or monopolies. Oligopolies aren't necessarily bad, but they often lead to the same problems as monopolies. Those problems are poor price competition, failure to innovate, and companies becoming so entrenched they can't do anything dumb enough to fail. Beginning to sound familiar, right?

Thus the first half of our economic troubles can be summed up by two words: Monopoly and Oligopoly. How often have you heard those on the news lately? Pundits aren't entirely wrong when they talk about companies that are too big to fail being a problem. But that's really only identifying a single symptom of a deeper disease, and their mis-diagnosis explains why they uniformly have almost nothing productive to say about what might be done to fix the problem. Oligopolies and monopolies aren't only problems because the government sometimes has to bail them out, they're problems because they stifle innovation, overprice goods, and inhibit creative destruction (among other things). The later problems are far more dangerous than the first, especially if the government is able to negotiate favorable bailout terms in which most of the bailout funds are re-cupped (which is what happened in 2008).

More analysis to follow.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Inevitable Expenses

Over at the New York Times, Bruce Bartlett has a column on tax burdens across developed countries. His chart shows rather clearly that the US has pretty much the lowest tax burden in the developed world (depending on whether you consider Turkey, Chile and Mexico, the only nations with lower burdens, part of the developed world or not).

He goes on to talk about how, while we all know that death and taxes are inescapable, paying for our health care is also inescapable. In Europe, of course, taxes pay for the lion's share of the health care, while here that is only true for the poor and elderly. The rest of us pay personally, whether directly or in the form of lower salaries. If you combine both of these inescapable costs, our tax+health care burden in United States rises to very near the average for the countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (O.E.C.D.).

But why stop there? There is one other major service that many European countries provide that we normally pay for here in the United States: education. Those that attend college in the United States pay a steep price that can run into six figures for a degree, while in Denmark, for instance, not only is post-secondary education free, but many students also receive a stipend to help with living expenses. And while a whole society benefits if higher education is more readily available, not only because the better educated generally earn more money and pay more taxes, I think that in many European countries the less educated also directly benefit.

After all, our education system consistently ranks as one of the worst in the developed world. It's no secret that while our university system is outstanding, our public K-12 system is in such a shambles that in many areas of the country almost everyone who can afford it sends their children to private schools. And in our current economic downturn, school budgets and teachers' jobs are being cut at unprecedented rates in many states. I know that part of the failure on this level is simply inefficient spending, especially on pensions and on tenured ineffective teachers, but a lot also has to do with the fact that we're not willing to pay for our best and brightest to become teachers, as they do in countries with the best K-12 systems like Singapore and Finland.

I don't think anyone can calculate the combined out-of-pocket expenses and lost opportunity cost our educational system engenders. But I'm absolutely certain that if we could somehow calculate and tabulate it as we have for health care costs, we would find that the education+health care+taxes trio of inevitable expenses born by our citizenry is comparatively much higher than in the chart above.

And if you don't think education is an inevitable expense, try thinking about what would happen if we stopped investing in it altogether.

The point is, whatever some people would have you believe, the overall tax burden is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is how efficiently a country divides its resources. Certain things the government does better, and certain things private enterprise does better.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Torture is Wrong (It's Effectiveness is Irrelevant)

Torture has been a hot topic lately. But a disturbingly large portion of the dialogue has been about whether or not it works, whether or not using torture is in the best interests of our country. This article in the Atlantic is a great example of this trend.

Arguments about utility are dangerous things though. Torture is wrong. Full stop. It has no place in a civilized society. Full stop. End of discussion, or at least so it should be.

Otherwise, if we're really going to consider the utility of immoral acts, we can't stop at torture. What about murder? Sure, killing people is wrong, but what if it's useful? It's hard to doubt that America would be a more efficient place if, instead of paying to imprison inmates, we just executed the lot. Maybe we should put together commissions, as well, to determine if it might not be more efficient to round up all those people living on the public dole and see if, at the very least, we couldn't send them to an island somewhere to fend for themselves. I hear Australia is nice this time of year.

Torture is morally wrong. Anyone who employs it is a reprehensible, disgusting war criminal no better than Saddam Hussein. That a sizable portion of the country thinks that the possibility of torturing people should be a topic of debate shows how close we are to undoing the bonds of civilization that hold us together. There are few greater ironies in the world than that torture's supporters in this country are often the same who profess to be concerned about America's moral degredation.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Scott Adams and the Education Complexity Shift

Scott Adams, the comic strip writer behind Dilbert, recently had an editorial in the WSJ and a follow-up blog post about something he calls the Education Complexity Shift. You can read the blog post here.

Now, I think he's wrong on several counts,  but the most important is crystallized by this sentence:
But if you compare teaching history with, for example, teaching a kid how to compare complicated financial alternatives, I'd always choose the skill that has the most practical value. 
Education has become increasingly concerned with things of "practical value". Where to find meaning in life, how to lead a rich and full life, and the difference between right and wrong will never have this so-called practical value. But from what I've seen, our world doesn't suffer from too few people trying to compare complicated financial alternatives (thank you Lehman Brothers, AIG, and most recently the people in the GE tax division) but from too few people trying to do what is best for their country and for their fellow citizens. That is what happens when you let science and progress define the terms of the debate on the merits of a liberal arts education. (And yes, the name of this blog is no mistake.) Specifically, I'm thinking of the way that modern-day Republicans are more intent on making Democrats look bad than on helping our economy grow again, but I also think there's a sense of entitlement in this country that is very disturbing, perhaps best characterized by this example.

But I think Adams is also wrong on a wider level, and it's obvious when he tries to talk about why education used to be important two hundred years ago:
you needed to make school artificially complicated to stretch a student's mind. Once a student's mind was expanded, stressed, stretched and challenged, it became a powerful tool when released back into the relatively simple "real world."
Even back then, the world was by no means simple. Morality and spirituality (and even politics) are the most complicated subjects known to man, and nothing about that has changed in the last two hundred years. That is why a solid education was and remains irreplaceable. But it has also been my experience that the real world is what is simple and it is school that is complex. In the jobs I've had, true, I have had to use many complex software and hardware packages that the schools I attended never had the money to purchase or train me on. But once I learned them, usually in about six months, I was done. I had mastered the job. Like planning the most efficient trip by plane, there was little about those packages that a child couldn't learn. In school, on the other hand, every six months I was freshly presented with a new set of four or five potentially very different classes which were attempts to study different aspects of reality in all its gory detail, dealing with situations both practical and impractical, but absolutely covering a much wider and more complex array of phenomenon than I would ever encounter in my jobs.

Now, I would agree that often in a modern university teachers are more interested in doing research than in teaching and often students don't take advantage of the opportunities for self-improvement presented to them. But these flaws are only going to get worse if people focus only on practical benefits.