Category Archives: The Sifted Bookshelf

book reviews

Rethinking Immigration

We don’t understand “illegal”. We just think we do.


My favorite books are the ones that take the stuff everybody knows and ask “Really?”.

David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years was like that. At a party in Westminster Abbey, an activist lawyer says to Graeber, “Surely one has to pay one’s debts!” as if nothing could be more obvious, no matter how liberal you are. His entire book is a challenge to that certainty: Really? What is debt? Where does it come from? He finds that the history of debt is all tangled up with slavery, and that even today debt is often an expression of power relationships that we would challenge in any other setting.

Aviva Chomsky’s* Undocumented is another “really?” book. What everybody knows about immigration is that undocumented Hispanic immigrants have broken the law, and there have to be consequences for that. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” demand the protest signs. We have to secure our borders, and you can’t just let people walk into the United States.

Really? Chomsky writes: “The purpose of this book is to denaturalize illegality.” In other words, we don’t really understand “illegal immigrant”; we just think we do. Realizing how strange an idea it is, and the historical freight it carries, is a step forward.

So before we even start imagining our future immigration policy, we have some things to unlearn about the past.

1. For the longest time, we did just let people walk into the United States. Whether they became citizens or not depended on their race. If you’re white and your family has been in the U.S. for several generations, you probably think they came “the right way”, through some sort of legal process comparable to our current immigration procedures. That’s not true. Back in the 1840s, my German ancestors didn’t get visas or put their names on the waiting list for the next year’s German immigrant quota. They just got on a boat and came.

Before the Civil War, it was taken for granted that white people who turned up on our doorstep would become citizens and non-whites wouldn’t. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization to “free white aliens” of “good character”. White people could just show up, and if they lived here for two years (later extended to five) without incident, they could apply to any local court for citizenship.

Of course the rules were different for blacks, who were mostly slaves in the South, and weren’t wanted as citizens in many northern states. Indiana’s constitution of 1851 said “No Negro or Mulatto shall come into, or settle in, the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” In the West, the cheap labor was Chinese; and while they weren’t exactly slaves, they were never going to become Americans either.

The 14th Amendment changed all that, making any baby born in the United States a citizen (except for Indians). So suddenly it was important who was allowed across the border. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 kept out the Chinese, and the Immigration Act of 1917 extended the ban to all Asians. The early 20th-century flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe — Jews! Catholics! anarchists! — was throttled in 1921 by restricting annual immigration from any country to 3% (later 2%) of the number of Americans who claimed that ancestry on the 1910 (later 1890) census.

So (except for Asians) national origin replaced race as the decisive factor. But the national origin of American blacks was defined in such a way that the annual immigration quota from all of non-Egyptian Africa was only 1,100.

That law was the baseline for refusing entry to Holocaust survivors after World War II: Nothing against you personally, but (even though you’re Jewish) we classify you as Czech, and the quota is low because there weren’t many Czech-Americans in 1890.

2. Mexican immigration has always been a special case. Until 1965, the law didn’t consider Mexicans who crossed the border to be immigrants at all. They were migrant workers who would someday return to Mexico. So there was no reason not to let them in, no reason not to deport them whenever the economy went south, and no clear path to citizenship for the ones who stayed. 

By 1965 our openly racist immigration laws had become an embarrassment, so we changed them. For the first time, Mexicans were considered immigrants, and seasonally wandering back and forth across the border became illegal. The “illegal Mexican immigrant” was born — not because a flood of law-breaking Mexicans surged over the border, but because we re-classified the traditional migration pattern of many Mexican workers.

Chomsky points out that some of the stereotypes about fence-jumping Mexicans are wrong.

  • The easier way to cross the border is to get a tourist visa, fly in, and forget to leave. About half of our undocumented residents got here that way. They tend to be the wealthier ones. But if the incentives are high enough, just building a wall isn’t going to stop people from coming.
  • A lot of undocumented immigrants were recruited to come here by middlemen working for American employers. Some from more remote areas didn’t even know they were breaking our rules.
  • Free-trade agreements have flooded Mexico with cheap American corn, making many small-scale Mexican farms unsustainable. A set of rules that allows us to keep out the Mexican farmers made destitute by our exports isn’t really fair.

3. Our current policy maintains a two-tier labor market that has its roots in slavery. Throughout our history, America has had two classes of workers; one that had a chance to move up and one that didn’t. Chomsky writes:

From the eighteenth and, especially, the nineteenth centuries on , the United States benefited from its place in the global industrial economy, and white people in the United States benefited from their place in the racial order. A dual labor market developed in which some workers began to become upwardly mobile and enjoy the benefits of industrial society, while others were legally and structurally stuck at the bottom.

The Northeast mechanized, and lower-tier work that was hard to mechanize (mostly in fields or mines) shifted to the South (where it was done by blacks, first as slaves and then as victims of Jim Crow) or the West (where Chinese and then Mexicans did it).

The justification for separating the two tiers of workers has shifted with time. Originally the separating criterion was race, then partly race and partly national origin. Now it’s legal status. In spite of what our laws say, our economy still creates and depends on millions of sub-minimum-wage jobs where first-tier standards of job safety and protection against abuse don’t apply. They aren’t limited to the South and West any more, they’re everywhere. But they’re no longer done by blacks or Chinese or even Mexicans (per se); they’re done by illegals.

From Chomsky’s point of view, the point of our laws about “illegal immigrants” isn’t to get rid of these people or even to keep more from coming; it’s to make their labor more exploitable. Being “illegal”, they can’t demand their rights or complain about their mistreatment.**

4. So the place to start isn’t “What are we going to do about these people?”. It’s “What are we going to do about these jobs?”

Our fundamental argument about the “illegals” bounces between two poles, neither of which is quite right.

  • They steal American jobs.
  • They do necessary jobs that Americans won’t do.

The truth is that the terms offered to undocumented workers — wages, working conditions, etc. — would be unacceptable (and often even illegal) for American workers. If the undocumented workers weren’t there (a situation dramatized in the movie A Day Without a Mexican, and played out in real life in Georgia, until the old ways re-asserted themselves), those jobs — and the economy based on them — would have to change.

Some of those jobs would go away. If, say, you could only hire documented American residents to be your live-in nanny — even if you could hire the same undocumented woman suddenly documented, protected by American laws, and open to a wider range of employment opportunities — you might decide a day-care center was a better option. Maybe farmers would conclude that growing certain labor-intensive crops in the U.S. isn’t economical (or is economical only in small quantities for foodies willing to pay high prices), so we would import more Mexican vegetables and fewer Mexican workers. Those farmers would grow something else, buy more machinery, and probably make less money; the market value of their land would go down accordingly. Some loans collateralized by that land would go underwater, and some banks might fail.

Others jobs would upgrade, and the products based on them would become more expensive.*** You might have to pay more at restaurants, or more to get someone to clean your house. But the wages paid for those upgraded jobs would increase demand for the kinds of things American workers buy, creating new jobs that might or might not balance the ones that went away.

In short, it’s not just a question of “kick them out” or “secure the border” or even “crack down on the employers”. The whole economy would change if we had a one-tier system of labor rather than the two-tier system we’ve had for our entire history. Until we’re ready to face that change, all our debates about “illegals” will go round in circles. Because if you don’t want the people, but you do want their labor, you’ve got a problem.


* Yes, she is related to Noam. He’s her Dad.

** There’s an obvious parallel to prison labor, whose workers are similarly limited and unprotected because of their legal status. Prison labor is also largely non-white, as Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow.

*** Though maybe not by as much as you think. William Finnegan writes in The New Yorker: “But in Denmark McDonald’s workers over the age of eighteen earn more than twenty dollars an hour—they are also unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only thirty-five cents more than it is in the United States.”

Are You Sure You’re White?

Daniel Sharfstein tells the story of three families who crossed the color line, and their descendents who forgot.


One of Dave Chappelle’s most memorable bits is his portrayal of Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who doesn’t know he’s black. Bigsby writes racist books whose readers also think he’s white. He lives in a remote area with few neighbors, and only appears in public in his KKK hood. A few white supremacist friends know the truth, but they keep the secret because “He’s too important to the movement.”

Bigsby is an exaggerated version of Mr. Oreo, a character created as a thought experiment by philosopher Charles W. Mills of Northwestern. Mr. Oreo was born to parents who identified as black and he appears black himself, but he has always thought of himself and described himself as white. At some point he goes through a medical process that alters his features, hair, and skin color so that he becomes indistinguishable from whites. Is he white? Or is there an unalterable underlying reality to his blackness?

According to professors who have discussed Mr. Oreo in class, students almost unanimously judge Mr. Oreo to be black. As David Livingston Smith explains in Less Than Human (his fascinating book on dehumanization, which devotes a lot of time to the belief that certain races are subhuman), our culture commonly believes that some personal traits are changeable (a weak man can go through a muscle-building process to become a strong man) while others, like race, are not.

We tend to think — perhaps in spite of ourselves — that black people constitute a natural kind, whereas weak people don’t. … We say a person has large muscles, but we say they are of a certain race. … A person can gain or lose muscle while remaining the same person, but we tend to think that if they were to change their race, it would amount to becoming an entirely different person.

Real life provides its own examples, some even more compelling than Mr. Oreo. In her 1949 autobiographical essay collection Killers of the Dream, Lillian Smith recalls Janie, a white-skinned little girl taken from a poor black family newly arrived in the colored part of town. (They “must have kidnapped her”, the local whites decided.) Janie was brought to live with the Smiths, and Lillian fell into a big-sister role.

It was easy for one more to fit into our ample household and Janie was soon at home there. She roomed with me, sat next to me at the table; I found Bible verses for her to say at breakfast; she wore my clothes, played with my dolls, and followed me around from morning to night.

But in a few weeks, word came from a distant colored orphanage: Janie only appeared to be white; she was “really” black and had to return to the black family who had adopted her. At first, Lillian could not see the sense in this, but eventually she yielded to superior adult wisdom.

I was overcome with guilt. For three weeks I had done things that white children are not supposed to do. And now I knew these things had been wrong.

In The Invisible Line: a secret history of race in America, Daniel J. Sharfstein tells a more elaborate and challenging story, one that “has been hiding in plain sight” for centuries. He describes it as a “hidden migration”:

African Americans began to migrate from black to white as soon as slaves arrived on the American shore. This centuries-long migration fundamentally challenges how Americans have understood and experienced race, yet it is a history that is largely forgotten.

In earlier eras historians have acknowledged the passing-for-white phenomenon, but considered it virtually untraceable. After all, anyone motivated to pass for white was even more motivated to hide the evidence. But the genealogy boom (empowered by easy access to records over the internet and the possibility of analyzing your DNA for information about your ancestors) has unleashed thousands of amateur investigators and turned up many new cases. Lots of Americans are not as white as they think they are, and some are starting to find out.

Sharfstein traces three families who crossed the color line at different points in American history.

The Gibsons. Prior to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, race was not nearly as significant in Virginia as it later became. White indentured servants had more in common with the black slaves than with their upper-class masters, and mixed-race children were not unusual. The law classed a child as belonging to the same race as its mother. Gibby and Hubbard Gibson were mixed-race children of a white mother, and so were free. They moved inland, cleared land, and intermarried with the other frontier property-owning families.

As racial standards tightened generation-by-generation, the Gibsons stayed just on the favored side of the color line, and just far enough away from the race-conscious coastal cities that few cared enough to make an issue of their darker-than-average skin. They moved to North Carolina, and then to the wild western side of South Carolina. By the time they reached Kentucky and Louisiana in the 1800s, no one remembered that the family’s race had ever been an issue.

Gibson boys became officers in the Confederate Army, and Yale-educated Senator Randall Gibson of Louisiana played a key role in the negotiations that resolved the contested 1876 presidential election by trading Southern electoral votes for President Hayes’ promise to end Reconstruction. Randall also was a major player in the founding of Tulane University, convincing Paul Tulane to revise his bequest from “serve young men in the City of New Orleans” to “serve young white men in the City of New Orleans”.

A later generation married into the Marshall Field family of Chicago. As curator of the Field Museum of Natural History, Henry Field commissioned a series of sculptures illustrating over a hundred separate “races” for the Hall of Races of Mankind that opened in 1933. He had no clue he was anything but 100% European.

If anyone out there has media connections, I think The Gibsons would make a fabulous miniseries.

The Walls. Stephen Wall was a North Carolina plantation owner who never married, but fathered several children with his female slaves. In the 1830s he appeared to be selling his children to a plantation in Alabama, but in fact this was a ruse. Instead, a family friend delivered the Wall children to a Quaker settlement in Indiana, where Stephen provided resources for them to be raised and educated.

One of those children, O.S.B. Wall, was instrumental in convincing the Ohio governor to field a black regiment in the Civil War. He recruited black soldiers across the state and became a captain, though he arrived at the front too late to see combat. After the war, Wall moved to Washington, D.C., where he became part of a budding freedman aristocracy and held several positions in the local political machine.

But D. C. became one of the first places to disenfranchise blacks after the war. When the city ran into financial difficulties in the Panic of 1873, the federal government took direct authority over local affairs, shunting local elected officials aside for decades. When Democrats (who at the time openly identified themselves as “the white man’s party”) came to power with Grover Cleveland in 1884, white supremacy followed.

Captain Wall married a light-skinned woman, and his children found that they were frequently mistaken for white. His son Stephen married a white woman, but continued to identify as the son of a prominent leader in the black community, for all the good it did him. He was repeatedly let go from his job in the government printing office without cause, only to be rehired later. The final straw came when his indistinguishable-from-white daughter was barred from the public school in his suburban neighborhood, and he lost a series of court cases to have her reinstated, despite being legally in the right. (By prevailing definitions, Isabel’s black ancestry was sufficiently diluted that she should have been considered white. But whatever the text said, the spirit of the law was to protect white families from “falling” into the black community due to the discovery of an unexpected dark ancestor, not to allow a Negro man to marry a white woman and launch his children into white society.)

The family moved, changed its name to Gates, and began passing for white. Two generations later, Thomas Murphy (a “white” Georgian with considerable prejudice against blacks) got a nasty shock from his genealogy research. “You can’t call me a racist because I is one of you,” he told his black co-workers at the Atlanta airport.

The Spencers. Freed slaves had a hard time finding a place for themselves. Slave-owners viewed freedom as a contagious notion, so they didn’t want the freedmen around, and no state wanted to advertise itself as a destination for other states’ former slaves. For many, the solution was to go someplace without a lot of neighbors.

George Freeman and Jordan Spencer (who might been his son) were mixed-race freed slaves (of the white Spencer family) who settled in the hill country of eastern Kentucky in the early 1800s. They married sisters from a white family that passed through and left their daughters behind. When they ran into legal trouble from the local whites, Freeman stayed and hired a lawyer, but Spencer moved deeper into the wilderness. After he arrived in Johnson County, Kentucky, he didn’t exactly proclaim himself a white man, but he just started acting like one. White men, for example, were required to muster with the local militia and drill, while black men were forbidden to have weapons. Spencer showed up for drills, and nobody took it on themselves to tell him he shouldn’t.

At the time, even the South Carolina Supreme Court was recognizing the extent to which race was socially constructed. In an 1835 case, Justice William Harper wrote:

The condition of the individual is not to be determined solely by the distinct and visible mixture of negro blood, but by reputation, by his reception into society, and his having commonly exercised the privileges of a white man. But his admission to these privileges, regulated by the public opinion of the community in which he lives, will very much depend on his own character and conduct; and it may be well and proper, that a man of worth, honesty, industry, and respectability, should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste.

The hill country was more focused on clans than on races, and over time the Spencers became just another clan, darker than most, but respectable in their way. Jordan’s children intermarried with other clans — some of whom were not too clear about their own ancestry — who then found it convenient to describe the Spencers as white, if they were forced to describe them at all.

Two generations later, slavery was gone and Jim Crow had begun. Suddenly, one provable drop of “black blood” might be all it took to find yourself on the wrong side of the color line. George Spencer had moved across the border to the hill country of western Virginia, where he was doing fine until a feud started with a wealthier family, who started spreading rumors that the Spencers were “God damned negroes”. A slander trial ensued, with detectives going back to Kentucky to interview old people about where Jordan Spencer might have come from and whether he anyone had ever suggested he might not be white. A jury found against the Spencers, but the Virginia Supreme Court threw the verdict out and the case was never retried. That was enough for the locals to go on treating the Spencers as white, maybe with an occasional wink or nod.

Summing up. We look back on American history and say that people (including our own ancestors) were “white” or “black” as if those words had some natural meaning that remained constant through time and space. But in fact, the lines between the races have fluctuated, and even the apparent rules have applied differently to one family than to another. Sometimes all you had to do to cross the color line was move somewhere new and let people make assumptions about you.

At all times in American history, being considered white has brought certain advantages, and in every generation there have been light-skinned people who didn’t see why they or their children shouldn’t have those advantages. Both sides of the racial divide have had reason to minimize this phenomenon. For whites, the fact that the color line was fluid and permeable undermined the whole concept of white superiority. For blacks, those who forsook their black heritage lent credence to the notion that African ancestry was something to be ashamed of. And those who crossed over had reason to hope no one would ever find out, including, perhaps, their own children.

But reclaiming the “hidden migration” has a role to play in ending racism and healing the racial divide. Not only is racial purity an unworthy goal, it is a myth. We have never had racial purity in America. We are a lot closer to being one big family than most of us ever suspected.


BTW, I thought I’d head off an obvious comment: I realize that this post’s title assumes the reader is white (or thinks s/he is). I ask the indulgence and forgiveness of the Sift’s non-white readers. No inclusive title I could think of brought the issue to a head quite so sharply.

The Sifted Bookshelf: Angry White Men

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.


One of the privileges that still comes with being white or male is that you get to be an individual. When you do something unusually good or bad, the media doesn’t take you as a representative of all whites or all men. You’re just you; you did something; it’s news.

So nobody remarked on George W. Bush being the United States’ 43rd consecutive white male president, but 2008 buzzed with speculation that the 44th might be black or female. For example, pundits questioned whether a woman could be tough enough to be commander-in-chief of the military, but nobody has ever successfully made an issue of whether a man can be compassionate enough to be nurse-in-chief of Medicare, or understand small children well enough to be teacher-in-chief of Head Start.

Nobody ever asked why a white man had killed President Kennedy or tried to kill President Reagan. The gunmen had names; their stories were presumed to be personal. When Bernie Madoff conned his investors out of billions, nobody asked “What makes a white man do something like that?” or “What should be done about the white male swindler problem?”

Sikh temple shooter.

Even when the perpetrators themselves frame whiteness or masculinity as an issue, the media tends not to pick it up. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 69 people at a camp for liberal youth in Norway, saw himself as a crusader against a Muslim takeover of Europe. His manifesto advocated a restoration of European “monoculturalism” and “patriarchy”. Wade Michael Page, killer of six in the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin, was acting on his long-held white supremacist views. In each case, this motivation was spun mostly as a symptom of personal instability, and not of a dangerous cancer in the white community.

Mad as hell.

The upshot is that although we are surrounded by angry white men — on talk radio, on the internet, on the highways, in the workplace, in the NRA and the Tea Party, in the “men’s rights” movement, and in countless acts of domestic violence or public mayhem from Columbine to Sandy Hook — we aren’t having a national discussion about the anger problem of whites or men or white men. That’s because we don’t see them as “white men”; we see them as individuals whose stories reflect unique psychological, political, or social issues. (By contrast, consider how little Michelle Obama has to do to evoke the angry-black-woman stereotype.)

Enter Michael Kimmel and his book Angry White Men.

Chapter by chapter, Kimmel calls attention to angry white men wherever they are found: the loudest voices on the radio, the school shooters, the anti-feminist men’s-rights movement and its Dad’s-rights subculture, the wife beaters, the workers who go postal, and the white supremacists. He asks and answers the question you seldom hear: What makes white men so angry?

What links all these different groups … is a single core experience: what I call aggrieved entitlement.

Aggrieved entitlement is the belief that you have been cheated out of status and power that should have been part of your birthright. (It’s a close relative of what I have called privileged distress: the feeling that advantages you never consciously acknowledged are slipping away from you.) White men are angry, Kimmel claims, because

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.

How it was supposed to be.

High standards and failure. White men also feel judged (and judge themselves) according to the standards of fathers and grandfathers who received the full white-male birthright, who didn’t have to compete with other races on an almost-level playing field, and who could count on subservient wives, mothers, daughters, and Girls Friday at the office to rally behind their leadership rather than outshine them or make demands.

You want a recipe for anger? Here it is: I’m a failure and it’s not my fault.

The seldom-examined setting for white male anger is failure, or at least failure according to the standards of another era. Dad and/or Grandpa supported a family on one job, and when he got home he commanded respect from his family. His marriage lasted, and his kids were not being raised by a resentful ex-wife on the other side of the country. When Dad or Grandpa was young, he was comfortable in his masculinity. He hunted deer and lettered in football. Girls waited by the phone for him to call, and when he paid for dinner they knew they owed him something.

It’s not that way any more, and it’s not my fault. Don’t look at me like that.

The rich and powerful speak for me.

The visible spokesmen for angry white men may be millionaires like Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump. But such success is what their listeners wish they had, not what they do have or will ever have. Kimmel observes:

It’s largely the downwardly mobile middle and lower middle classes who form the backbone of the Tea Party, of the listeners of outrage radio, of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists— in many cases literally the sons of those very farmers and workers who’ve lost the family farms or shuttered for good the businesses that had been family owned and operated for generations.

Violence. This sense of being cheated out of what was promised — and being judged as if it had been delivered — interacts badly with another part of the traditional male identity: Men have the privilege/right/duty to make things right by violence.

I don’t want to be violent, but I can be.

That is the plot of just about every action movie with a male hero: A man who would rather be left alone to live his life and take care of his family is confronted with an injustice that can only end if he becomes violent and defeats it. If he successfully wields violence he is a hero. If he remains peaceful he is a wimp.

And so, while many women also feel cheated and judged unfairly, they tend not to snap in a violent way. Kimmel observes that all the recent rampage school shooters (other than the Korean Virginia Tech shooter, whose race evoked a discussion, and another Korean shooter since Kimmel finished writing) have been white males, mostly from rural and suburban areas. Kimmel imagines what would happen if they’d all been, say, inner-city black girls

Can you picture the national debate, the headlines, the hand-wringing? There is no doubt we’d be having a national debate about inner-city poor black girls. The entire focus would be on race, class, and gender. The media would doubtless invent a new term for their behavior, as with wilding two decades ago.

Likewise,

In my research, I could find no cases of working women coming into their workplaces, packing assault weapons, and opening fire, seemingly indiscriminately.

The explanation is simple: When a man feels disrespected — on the job, in his school, in his family — the disrespect threatens not just his personal identity, but his identity as a man. (The archetypal Man is entitled to respect; if you are not being respected, you are failing as a man.) The obvious response is to re-assert manhood through violence, simultaneously righting the scales both socially and psychologically.

The Real and the True. One point I made in “The Distress of the Privileged” was that the “distress” part of privileged distress is very real: If you have convinced yourself that you don’t have any unfair advantages, and then those advantages start to go away, it feels like persecution. You’re not making it up; there are real events you can point to.

Kimmel covers this ground by distinguishing between what is “real” and what is “true”.

White men’s anger is “real”— that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely. But it is not “true”— that is, it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of their situation.

And what is most likely to be untrue is the object of the anger. When your well-paid factory job is shipped overseas and you can’t find another one, the villain isn’t the teen-age Chinese girl who does your old job for fifty cents an hour. If you can’t support a family on your income, the villain isn’t your working wife or her reasonable demand that you share the housewife duties she doesn’t have time for any more. If the value of your house crashes, the villain isn’t the black family that got talked into a sub-prime mortgage it couldn’t afford. If you judge yourself by the standards of another era, the villains are not the people whose fair competition keeps you from meeting those standards.

The collapsing pyramid. Patriarchy and racism are both systems of dominance that are coming apart. The white men who feel the change first are the ones just one step up from the bottom: Their step collapses, throwing them in with the “lesser” blacks and women, and the pyramid resettles on top of them. The white men higher up the pyramid want the victims of this collapse to identify with them and with the pyramid that gives them their status: What’s wrong isn’t that the pyramid itself is unfair — as you now can clearly see, being at the bottom of it. What’s wrong, they want you to believe, is that the pyramid is collapsing. You should defend the pyramid, blame the other bottom-dwellers for your loss of status, and maybe one day your one-step-up can be restored.

They know that’s not going to happen; they’re just counting on you not figuring it out. The Masters of the Universe are not going to bring your job back from China. Wal-Mart is not going to make room for your family shop to re-open. Bank of America is not going to forgive your underwater mortgage. Agri-business is not going to rescue your family farm.

The rich white men are not going to rebuild the lower step of the pyramid, no matter how much power they get. And nobody is making room for you on the upper levels.

If you have to blame someone, blame the people who promised you something they couldn’t (or decided not to) deliver. They sold you a bill of goods. Don’t buy another bill of goods from them.

But the best solution of all would be to get past the anger, forget about how things were supposed to be, and just start dealing with the situation as it is. Like a lot of people you never expected to have anything in common with, you find yourself at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s an unfair pyramid.

Let’s bring it down.

Apocalyptic Optimism

It’s the end of the world as we know it*, but Gar Alperovitz and David Graeber feel fine.


Lately Robert Jensen has been importing religious terms into journalism. Borrowing from the seminal theologian Walter Brueggermann, Jensen defines three stances from which a journalist can report:

  • royal, relaying the vision of the Powers That Be
  • prophetic, calling the Powers That Be to repent and reform, as the prophets confronted the kings in the Old Testament
  • apocalyptic, announcing that the status quo is beyond reform and calling on the people to think in dramatically new ways

It’s easy for a royalist to be optimistic, because the system is basically sound and a few policy tweaks — a tax cut, a jobs bill, a new general with an improved strategy — will fix whatever temporary problems we might be having. A prophet may rail against current trends, but prophetic warnings rest on the optimistic subtext that we still have time to change our ways. If we just end the war or restore the Constitution or throw the crooks out, we’ll be back on track.

“I was planning to rebuild anyway.”

But the rarest kind of optimism is apocalyptic. The apocalyptic reporter sees that the cavalry won’t arrive in time or isn’t coming at all or will just make the destruction more complete. To be an apocalyptic optimist, you need to see the new seeds already sprouting in the shadow of the doomed sequoia.

In his new book What Then Must We Do?, Gar Alperovitz recognizes all the signs that the American-system-as-we-know-it can’t survive.

  • Even after crashing the world economy in 2008, the big banks are still too powerful to regulate, and the private-profit/public-risk dynamic still dominates. So given time, they’ll crash the economy again.
  • Greenhouse gases keep accumulating in the atmosphere, but even now that we’re seeing the results in droughts, heat waves, and violent storms, we still can’t raise the will to do anything about it.
  • Inequality keeps growing, regardless of which party holds power. For decades, all the apparent growth in the economy has been captured by the rich. The  average person’s standard of living is not improving at all, even as valuable intangibles (like job security) are being lost.
  • Our health-care system gets ever more expensive, and yet we get worse results than the other wealthy countries.
  • The unlimited corporate money pouring into political campaigns has captured both parties. The Democrats may be slightly less receptive to the corporate agenda, but they can’t stand against it either.

And while he by no means rejects traditional political organizing and movement-building, Alperovitz doesn’t think politics will solve the problem. Historically, progressive change in America happened in two big bursts — the New Deal and the Great Society — and both depended on external circumstances that aren’t likely to recur. The New Deal needed not just the desperation of the Depression, but a conservative president (Hoover) to blame for it. If things had shaken out differently, all that despair could have energized the Right, as in Germany. (Imagine the nativist backlash if the immigrant-backed Catholic liberal Al Smith had won in 1928 and been in the White House when the bottom fell out in 1929.) The Great Society couldn’t have happened without the confidence and generosity that resulted from two decades of widely-shared growth; and that couldn’t have happened if World War II hadn’t wrecked all our industrial competitors.

So yes, political reform movements can make a difference, but only in the presence of circumstances we can’t count on. And that’s pretty much what we’ve been seeing: We had three consecutive wave elections: Democratic in 2006 and 2008, and Republican  in 2010. But how much actual change did they bring?

And if we somehow managed the political will to, say, break up the too-big-to-fail banks, wouldn’t they just merge back together as soon as our attention shifted? Isn’t that what the old AT&T phone monopoly did?

Looking at things that way should make a person pessimistic, right? Not exactly. Alperovitz’s introductory chapter ends like this:

as a historian and political economist, it is obvious to me that difficult historical times do not always or even commonly persist forever. In my judgment “we shall overcome” is not simply a slogan but in fact the likely, though not inevitable, outcome of the long struggle ahead.

It is possible, quite simply, that we may lay the groundwork for a truly American form of community-sustaining and wealth-democratizing transformative change—and thereby also the reconstitution of genuine democracy, step by step, from the ground up.

The key phrase here is “long struggle”. We can’t just be socially conscious and politically active for a few months, elect President Wonderful, and then go back to sleep. We tried that; it didn’t work.

Alperovitz’s long struggle isn’t purely political. It’s more than just a series of marches and demonstrations that you attend before returning to your old life. The struggle he envisions involves creating institutions that democratize wealth: co-ops, credit unions, employee-owned businesses, and so on. Alperovitz envisions replacing the flighty government/capitalist partnerships of today with more stable alliances joining local governments with fixed local institutions (like hospitals and universities) and the worker-and-consumer-owned businesses that could service and supply them.

The seeds of that revolution are all around us. (I suggested painless ways you can start participating two weeks ago.) And Alperovitz believes they may sprout first and best in the places where the old system has failed most completely — rust belt wastelands like Detroit or Cleveland. (He cites Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, which are modeled on the successful Mondragon Cooperatives of the Basque region of Spain.) His logic is perverse but compelling: As long as capitalists can threaten to move the factory to China, they have the community over a barrel. But after the factory is gone, why listen to capitalists any more?

Alperovitz foresees a snowballing process as each new democratizing institution changes the consciousness of the people who participate and enlarges the constituency for democratically managed solutions. Before long, the resources that communities waste enticing corporations to locate there will instead become available to invest in the community solving its own problems.

David Graeber’s new book The Democracy Project, presents a somewhat different brand of apocalyptic optimism. (His last book, which I also reviewed, was a marvelous work of economic anthropology called Debt: the first 5,000 years.)

Graeber is one of the architects of Occupy Wall Street, and is at least partly responsible for coining the term “the 99%”. That makes him a leading voice in what The New Yorker has dubbed “the anarchist revival“, and puts him in something of a delicate situation: In order to promote anarchism, he has to shut down the media’s attempt to anoint him as the movement’s leader. Graeber is a “horizontal” activist who believes in groups finding consensus, not a “vertical” activist who wants to tell folks what to do. If you think people should either lead, follow, or get out of the way, Graeber is not for you.

The essence of Graeber’s worldview is a question: How would groups co-operate if they knew from the beginning that they couldn’t force dissenters to go along with what the group decides? That makes him more radical than a Libertarian, because Libertarians believe in a police-enforced property system.

Like Alperovitz, Graeber sees the approaching end of the current system, which he believes is based ever-more-nakedly on extracting value by force, under the pretense of increasingly empty rituals like elections and loans and trade agreements. Today’s young people, for example, face a choice between accepting unstable careers at minimum wage or borrowing heavily to get an education, then working as unpaid interns before beginning to earn money to pay off their debts. How different is that from feudalism or slavery?

But he also is optimistic that new ways are sprouting in the shadow of the old. The establishment view of Occupy is that it failed because it didn’t produce a set of demands that could become the platform of a political party. But to Graeber that outcome would have been failure. (In Jensen/Brueggermann terms, it would recast OWS as prophetic rather than apocalyptic.) To make that case, The Democracy Project not only retells the history of Occupy from the inside, it retells the history of American democracy and of revolutionary movements in general.

And the punch line is: The really successful revolutions don’t seize power, they change our common sense about what power is and what it can do. The French and Russian revolutions failed to the extent that they became new governments; Robespierre and Stalin represent the defeat of the revolutionary ideals, not their victory. But both revolutions succeeded as “planetwide transformations of political common sense”. The French Revolution ended monarchy as a viable option for forming new governments, and the Russian Revolution drew a line in the sand that capitalists didn’t dare cross. The New Deal and the social democracy of postwar Europe never would have happened happen without the Russian Revolution.

Similarly, Graeber points to another so-called “failure” — the antiwar movement of the Johnson/Nixon years. Arguably, it didn’t shorten the Vietnam War. But American governments have avoided high-casualty wars for the four decades since. (Put together, the Iraq and Afghan Wars have produced about 1/10th the number of combat deaths as each of the Vietnam and Korean Wars.) That attempt to avoid casualties led to increased “collateral damage” as we bombed from a distance rather than aimed down a barrel. That stiffened local resistance and

pretty much guarantee[d] that the United States couldn’t achieve its military objectives. And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.

So as Occupy morphs into the future, its goal should not be to launch a new party or seize control of an old one. It should be trying to change political common sense. Graeber closes his book by suggesting places where a change in common sense could make a significant difference. Most have to do with the nature of work, the virtue of working long hours, the value of helping people rather than producing more stuff, and bureaucracy as a problem in both the public and private sectors — a problem that could be avoided if groups organized in ways that didn’t require forcing dissenters to co-operate.

Graeber does not minimize or wish away the signs of global catastrophe, but Occupy has made him hopeful because

the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.


* I’ve never thought about R.E.M. and the Tarot in the same sitting before, so I never noticed: Isn’t that the Fool’s dog in the End of the World video?

Nobody Likes the New Capitalist Man

A number of insightful recent books and articles point out various pieces of the following picture:

  • People are fascinating bundles of benevolence and selfishness.
  • A well-designed market can channel people’s selfish tendencies into actions which, in the aggregate, achieve beneficial social ends.
  • Our economic theory models markets, not people, so only human selfishness is relevant. Homo economicus is entirely selfish.
  • Because the conditions that nurture benevolence are invisible to market theory, an “optimized” market system may inadvertently poison benevolence. In other words, market theory may create the perfectly selfish people it postulates.
  • For-profit corporations are artificial entities designed for the market. Consequently, they are defined to be the perfectly selfish, totally profit-driven players market theory postulates.
  • “Good management” means training each employee to internalize the values of the corporation.
  • Top managers are valued for their ability to “make the tough decisions”. In other words, they eliminate all human values other than profit from their decision process.
  • Increasingly, all the rewards of the corporate system flow to those at the top.

Put all that together, and you see that we have created a system that trains us to be bastards, and rewards us according to how well we have managed to stamp out our benevolence.

When you put it that way, it sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with the upside of this vision: If our economic system is making us into worse people than we would otherwise be, then we could be better people and live in a nicer world if we just stopped making ourselves worse. This is not the utopian vision of the “new Soviet man“, a society-centered being who will spontaneously appear (for the first time in human history) after the revolution. It’s the far more modest observation that human beings have benevolent as well as selfish tendencies, and that creative system-builders could figure out ways to make use of human benevolence and nurture it.

That’s the uplifting message of The Penguin and the Leviathan by Yochai Benkler. Benkler says that through most of history, big cooperative projects only happened through “the Leviathan” — the state, exercising top-down power to make people play their parts. (Picture slaves dragging blocks to build the pyramids.) With capitalism comes the alternative of “the Invisible Hand” — the market, in which many individual decisions can add up to something big. (Think about how we wound up with lots of personal computers rather than the “big iron” IBM originally offered.)

Most of our political debate is about the Leviathan vs. the Invisible Hand: Will we get things done through government or by manipulating the incentives of the market?

(One hybrid observation doesn’t get enough attention: A corporation or cartel can dominate a market to the point that it essentially becomes a government, usually an unelected and unaccountable one.)

Anarchists have long claimed that another choice is possible: voluntary cooperation. But until recently, it was hard to find examples on scales larger than a barn-raising.

Then came the open-source movement, which Benkler identifies with the Penguin, the logo of the open-source Linux computer operating system. The Internet grew up together with a host of open-source projects created and maintained by volunteers: Linux, Apache, Mozilla, and eventually Wikipedia. Each in its own way defeated corporate-sponsored for-profit competitors. (Some, like Linux, eventually drew in corporate support, but on their own terms. IBM pays employees to contribute to Linux, but IBM still can’t own Linux.)

Benkler doesn’t claim that we could live in a complete open-source utopia; only that the principles that make open-source projects work have unexplored potential. Many people in our society are starved for opportunities to express their inventiveness, skill, and creativity in ways that do not pay them money, but win them the admiration of a peer group that shares their values. Similar motivations could complement monetary incentives more broadly.

He reviews much of the recent research into cooperation, reaching this conclusion:

In hundreds of studies, conducted in numerous disciplines across dozens of societies, a basic pattern emerges. In any given experiment, a large minority of people (about 30 percent) behave as though they really are selfish, as the mainstream commonly assumes. But here is the rub: Fully half of all people systematically, significantly and predictably behave cooperatively. … In practically no human society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.

The bulk of the book explores non-internet examples of how these principles play out in Japanese management, in community policing, in politics, and elsewhere. He concludes by offering principles for “growing a penguin” — designing a system that nurtures cooperation rather than incentivizing selfishness.

One of Benkler’s political examples — the get-out-the-vote strategy of the Obama campaign — is examined in more detail in The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. It turns out that who people vote for may be determined by self-interest, but whether they vote isn’t. Nobody really believes their single vote will decide the election, so purely selfish people will stay home and pursue their other interests. The most effective method of motivating marginal voters, it turns out, is to appeal positively to their civic pride, while subtly reminding them that their non-voting will be a matter of public record. In laboratory experiments, this pride/guilt combination is more effective than paying people to vote.

Staying positive for a bit longer, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which I have reviewed before, finds that online gamers hunger for the chance to be a respected member of a questing community. She reports that many gamers feel their online persona is a better person than they are in their offline jobs and relationships. Like Benkler, she examines ways that the design principles of games could be used to encourage cooperative and altruistic behavior in real life.

Now let’s look at the negative side, starting with a book that walks the line between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek humor: Assholes, a theory by Aaron James. A sociopath is someone who lacks any moral core, but uses other people’s moral scruples to gain an advantage over them. An asshole, according to James, is different: He has a moral sense, but his moral vision comes with an unassailable sense of entitlement. So, for example, he understands perfectly why other people should wait their turn in a line, and is honestly incensed when they don’t. But he also feels — not occasionally, but constantly — that his special situation or status entitles him to cut to the front.

Like Benkler, James recognizes that most people aren’t assholes. (If they were, there would be no lines. We’d all just shove our way to the front.) But late in the book he considers whether a society can reach a tipping point, where there are so many assholes that the rest of us are driven to behave like assholes just to avoid constant exploitation.

From there he considers how capitalism can devolve into asshole capitalism. Suppose some social change causes the system to send

a powerful entitlement message, for instance, that having ever more is one’s moral right, even when it comes at a cost to others. As asshole thinking and culture spread and take hold, the asshole-dampening systems that used to keep assholery in check become overwhelmed. Parents start preparing their kids for an asshole economy, the law is increasingly compromised, the political system is increasingly captured, and so on. As some switch sides while others withdraw, cooperative people find it more difficult to uphold the practices and institutions needed for capitalism to do right by its own values. … Society becomes awash with people who are defensively unwilling to accept the burdens of cooperative life, out of a righteous sense that they deserve ever more.

James applies this model to various countries and concludes: “Japan is fine, Italy already qualifies as an asshole capitalist system, and the United States is in trouble.” (One symptom of Italy’s trouble: Even Silvio Berlusconi’s supporters understood that he was an asshole. Nobody cared.)

And that brings us to Gus DiZerega’s blog post Capitalism vs. the Market. In some ways this belongs to the same genre as my own Why I Am Not a Libertarian — insights that begin with a critique of a simplistically appealing libertarian worldview. DiZerega views the fundamental libertarian error as upholding corporate capitalism because markets are good. DiZerega agrees that markets are good, but corporate capitalism is something else entirely.

Markets, he says, are ways that producers and consumers send each other signals about supply and demand. The market doesn’t tell you what you should do, just what it will cost you. For example, the slave market won’t tell you whether or not you should free your slave, just how much money you’ll be passing up if you do.

But in corporate capitalism the market usurps the decisions once made by humans.

To succeed in managing a capitalist institution a person must always try and buy for the lowest price and sell for the highest before any other value enters in.  Any corporate CEO allowing other values to trump this principle will see his or her decisions reflected in lower share prices.  If these prices are much affected the corporation risks the likelihood of being taken over in an unfriendly acquisition, its management ousted, and financial values once again elevated above all others. In other words, as a system of economic organization capitalism defends itself against richer human values by penalizing and expelling people who to some degree put them ahead of profit when making economic decisions.

In theory corporations are owned by people. But in practice you cannot remove your capital from a corporation. All you can do is sell your shares to someone else. By selling, you disassociate yourself from practices you may consider immoral, but you do nothing to end them. Think of slavery again: You can free your slave, even if it lowers your net worth. But if instead you own shares in Rent-a-Slave, Inc., all you can do is give or sell those shares to someone else. No slaves are freed when you do.

So if I don’t want to profit by addicting people to drugs that kill them, I can sell my shares in tobacco companies. But the tobacco companies themselves roll on. To the extent that they are profitable, the new owner of my shares will make money and gain power in society. Even individually, power accrues to people who have no values beyond profit.

The libertarian ideal is of people who are free to live by their own values, trading with each other without coercion.

Capitalism is different. It is the gradual overwhelming and destruction of all values that are not instrumental. … Once capitalism exists non-instrumental values are actively selected against, and receive little opportunity for expression.  Human beings become profit centers for corporations, and nothing more. … Capitalism cannot distinguish love from prostitution.

I wish DiZerega had said “corporate capitalism” rather than just capitalism, but otherwise I agree. As I put forward two years ago in Corporations Are Sociopaths, we have created entities that embody all of our worst traits. James and DiZerega are pointing out what then happens to us and our society when those created entities are allowed to dominate.

How do you know what you know?

why the internet isn’t making us wiser

If you’d never experienced the flood of information that comes from a revolutionary new technology, you might expect it to power growth in everything downstream from information: knowledge, understanding, and even wisdom. If it’s easier to find things out, then people should know more, understand more, and make better choices. You might even expect more consensus. Ignorant people can come to blows debating whether Kansas is north or south of Nebraska, but the more we know and understand about the world we all live in, the more agreement we should find.

Since you’re living through the internet revolution right now, though, you know better. More knowledge? Maybe. Understanding? Hard to say. But wisdom? Surely you jest. And consensus … some days we seem lucky just to avoid civil war.

Nate Silver thinks we could have seen this coming, because the same thing happened in the last information revolution. Eventually Gutenberg’s printing press led to the Enlightenment, democracy, modern science, and the Industrial Revolution. But that light came at the end of a nasty 300-year tunnel of constant strife and near-genocidal religious wars. In the Thirty Years War alone “the male population of the German states was reduced by almost half.”

But why? Nate explains:

The informational shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.

Reducing that to a bumpersticker: TMI equals polarization.

Picture it: Before Gutenberg, baptism was baptism. The priest did it, and if we wondered what it meant or why he did it that way, maybe we could ask him and maybe he’d explain by waving in the direction of a Bible that some monk had spent years producing by hand. (You could get your own — in Latin, a language that neither you nor Moses ever spoke — for about the cost of a Mercedes today.)

After Gutenberg, you say babies can be baptized by sprinkling water on them, while I accept only full-submersion adult baptism. We each own pamphlets from our own theologians, quoting passages of scripture that we have each checked in our translated Bibles at home. We each belong to religious communities that agree with us, and our respective church libraries are stocked with many other pamphlets listing the outrages that the opposing community has committed against us and providing reams of evidence proving that the conflict is all their fault.

What can we do but kill each other?

Information is great when you have some reasonable way of processing it. But when you don’t, it’s overwhelming and even threatening. If you try to pay attention to all of it, you’ll freeze. And then the people who didn’t freeze will eat your lunch — or eat you for lunch.

There are two easy ways to deal with information overload:

  • Submit unquestioningly to an authority who decides what’s what.
  • Find a simple worldview that pleasingly organizes the wild flood of facts and interpretations, and then ally with people who subscribe to that worldview.

Both choices are cultish, but the second can seem downright enlightened, at least from the inside. Unlike the unquestioning follower, you’re always learning new facts and interpretations. You’re getting better and better at explaining why your tribe’s view is right and the opposing view is wrong. And you do ask questions, but you’ve learned to ask the right questions — unlike those mindless sheep in the opposing tribe.

In other words, you live inside a tribal bubble that lets pleasing information in and keeps disturbing information out. The information flood actually helps you do this, because the more details, the easier to cherry-pick support for whatever you want to believe.

These delusions are easy to see in other people: conspiracy theorists, global-warming deniers, Birthers, and so on. You can never win an argument against such folks, because there is always more information you haven’t explained, some new micro-analysis that “proves” Obama’s birth certificate is fake or explains why the world is really cooling. You never reach the end of it, precisely because the 21st-century information barrel is bottomless.

That’s why liberals like me — and probably Nate Silver more than anybody — had to love watching Republicans cope with the election returns. Nate had dispassionately put together a prediction model and he faithfully ran new polling data through it every day. It turned out to be down-the-line accurate, but until the votes were actually counted he was vilified by people who wanted to believe Romney would win. And not just ignorantly vilified, vilified with spreadsheets and graphs and detailed explanations of what he must be doing wrong.

It’s rare to run into such a perfect bubble-pricking.

But Silver’s book (published before the election) isn’t about self-congratulation. It’s about why accurate prediction is hard and how to do it better. Each chapter describes a prediction-making community — meteorologists, baseball stat geeks, poker players, etc. — and draws some general lesson from their collective success or failure.

Some of those lessons are technical, but a few general-public themes come through:

  • Foxes beat hedgehogs. People who have one big idea do badly in an information flood, because they can always explain away their failures without changing their big idea. But people who juggle multiple competing ideas can use new data to develop the good ones and discredit the bad ones.
  • Data doesn’t interpret itself. The best predictions don’t come from pure pattern matching, but from a plausible theory that is then proven by experiment. If you just pattern-match, you’ll end up modeling the noise rather than the signal.
  • Make specific predictions so you can recognize your mistakes. Since it always rains eventually, if you aren’t specific about when you expect rain and how much, you’ll always be able to claim you were right — and you won’t learn anything.
  • Be methodical. If you don’t define how you’re going to judge your results, the temptation to cherry-pick will overwhelm you.

Always in the background lies this lesson: Bubbles don’t just happen to other people. It’s a universal human tendency in the face of too much information. If you’re not constantly on guard — and maybe even if you are — you will fall prey to it.

Western civilization came out of the Gutenberg Tunnel when it developed more rigorous collective methods of handling the increased information flow: Science, most obviously, but also market capitalism, journalism, and constitutional democracies that could balance majority rule with tolerance for minority rights. Maybe a similar leap will get us through the Internet Tunnel eventually — better sooner than later.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have a less sweeping focus: How are you personally going to cope?

If we continue the Gutenberg analogy, there’s a clear analog to the priest and the universal church he represented: the editor and the culture of journalistic objectivity.

Once upon a time, national news outlets were few and were controlled by gatekeepers who told you “the way it is“. Every evening, the remarkably similar news departments of the three major networks told you what you needed to know. If you wanted more detail, you read a daily newspaper or weekly news magazines, but even they wouldn’t give you a fundamentally different worldview.

As I’ve described in more detail elsewhere, this system was both good and bad. (The same could be said of the pre-Gutenberg Catholic Church). The gatekeepers tried to be accurate, and they had the power to hold a story back until they could verify it. So rumors got squashed, hucksters were weeded out, and special-interest groups couldn’t trump up a story out of nothing. And because the gatekeepers defined news by what people should know rather than what they wanted to know, the Vietnam War never vanished from public awareness the way the Afghan War often has.

On the downside, the range of views presented was narrow. Only by staging artificial public events (like Martin Luther King’s March on Washington) could marginalized groups push their message through the editorial bottleneck.

Now that’s all gone. There is no priest, or rather there are too many would-be priests sprinkling dubious holy water in all directions.

In essence, we are all editors now. We used to get a filtered flow of information, pre-tested and pre-sanitized by experts. Now we’re exposed to the raw flood, which we have to test and sanitize for ourselves. So we all need to learn the ways of thought that used to only be taught in journalism school.

That’s what Blur is about.

A lot of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s advice is common sense. Before you react to a news article or factoid, you need to take a step back and judge it like an editor: Where does this information come from? Are the sources in a position to know? Do they have reason to lie? Am I just being told a story, or are there checkable facts here? Has anybody checked them? What is left out of this article? Does it raise obvious questions that are not answered? If the article focuses on only a few characters in the story, would other characters tell it differently? And so on. If you have a critical, analytical mind, the questions aren’t hard to generate once you realize that you need to take a step back and judge.

I found one piece of their analysis very insightful, and I may start using their terminology. They identify three models of journalism: verification, assertion, and affirmation. I don’t like how they present affirmation (probably because they belong to the verification tribe and the Weekly Sift is affirmation journalism), but the distinctions themselves are worthwhile.

Journalism of verification. This is the gatekeeper model of the Cronkite Era and the ideal that you will hear expressed by the editors of publications like the New York Times. (For now let’s leave alone the question of how well they live up to that ideal.) Check everything. Get it right before you publish. Be objective. Be complete. Put a wall between news and opinion.

Journalism of assertion. The model most often seen on CNN. Put newsmakers on camera and see what they say. (If you can only get them on camera by agreeing not to raise certain subjects, fine.) Let viewers judge for themselves whether they’re being lied to. Get information out as quickly as possible, even if you haven’t checked that it’s true. Strive for balance rather than accuracy; let liberals and conservatives alike spin the story for your audience, and then “leave it there” rather than check who’s right.

Journalism of affirmation. The model shared by Fox News, the nighttime line-up of MSNBC, and (mostly) the Weekly Sift. Have a point of view and attract an audience that (mostly) shares that view.

Reading Blur, you will get the idea that verification is the gold standard, while assertion and affirmation are in some way illegitimate. (I was struck by how often Rachel Maddow — who I admire — came up as a bad example.) I’d express this differently: assertion and affirmation journalism are illegitimate if they pretend to be verification journalism.

That is my biggest objection to Fox News — the pretense that they’re “fair and balanced”. If they billed themselves as “interpreting the world through a conservative prism”, I’d respect them more.

Affirmation journalism is legitimate to the extent that it’s honest and tries to serve its audience rather than pander to them so their attention can be sold to advertisers. Like verification journalists, an affirmation journalist should be trying to get it right, and also should provide a verification trail (that’s what the links are for on the Weekly Sift), honestly represent the people s/he quotes, endorse only arguments s/he believes are valid, not intentionally hide facts or points of view from its audience, and so on. (That’s my other problem with Fox. I don’t think they’re just conservative. I think they repeat talking points they know are false and use frames designed to deceive.)

In short, I think affirmation (and assertion too) can be done well. Rachel Maddow isn’t just Sean Hannity’s mirror image.

Tying this back to Nate Silver and the bubble tendency: Part of being honest and doing affirmation journalism well is recognizing the constant danger of winding up in a delusional bubble. Because there is a real world out there, and it will bite you if you turn your back on it, as Fox News viewers discovered on election night.

So serving you as a reader means not pleasing you too well. I could tell you a lot of things that would make you feel good about yourself and say “Hell yes!”. But some of them would set you up for a comeuppance.

And as for the horrors that might still await in the Internet Tunnel: Wishing to be out the other side doesn’t make it so, and affirmation journalism is popular because the priesthood of verification journalism is broken; it doesn’t know how to handle the flood. Maybe someday they will figure it out, or some new information-processing methodology will burst onto the scene the way science did in the 1600s. But for now, all I know how to do is to choose my simplifying assumptions as best I can, revisit them from time to time, and proceed honestly from there.

The Sifted Books of 2012

This year the Sift reviewed, recommended, or based an article on 21 different books.

Novels: 11/22/63 by Stephen King, The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

Religion/spirituality: Flunking Sainthood by Jana Reiss, The New Religious Intolerance by Martha Nussbaum, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul by John Barry, Sacred Ground by Eboo Patel, Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans

American politics/policy/political history: Rule and Ruin by Geoffrey Kabaservice, Delirium: How the sexual counter-revolution is polarizing America by Nancy Cohen, Drift by Rachel Maddow, With Liberty and Justice for Some by Glenn Greenwald, Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig, Twilight of the Elites by Chris Hayes

Economics: Cornered by Barry Lynn, End This Depression Now by Paul Krugman

Deep history/anthropology/why-people-are-the-way-they-are: Catching Fire: How cooking made us human by Richard Wrangham, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, The Myth of Choice by Kurt Greenfield

What the Founders intended: Wrong and Dangerous by Garrett Epps, Common as Air by Lewis Hyde

Food policy: Bet the Farm by Frederick Kaufman

Four Books to Ask Santa For

1. Wrong and Dangerous: ten right-wing myths about our constitution

by Garrett Epps

Tea Partiers have the same attitude towards the Constitution that Christian fundamentalists have towards the Bible: They speak of it with awe and reverence, but they interpret it according to their own inner sense of what it must be saying. In practice, they end up projecting their own desires onto the document.

Liberals usually answer populist nonsense with academic research, which is a bad political strategy. Again and again — global warming denial and “creation science” pop to mind — ridiculous ideas circulate (in the part of the population that doesn’t read Scientific American) without an effective answer from the experts in the field. We lack direct, everyday-language books and articles that take on know-nothing myths.

Epps’ book fills that hole for the Constitution. He provides easy-to-understand-and-remember labels for the kinds of fallacies  conservatives use when they “prove” their points about the Constitution, and then shows how ten conservative articles-of-faith about what the Constitution says are just flat wrong.

Myth 1, “the Right is originalist”, prepares the way for the rest. The myth is that only right-wingers care about the literal text of the Constitution or what the Founders meant when they wrote it, while liberals are just making law up as we go along. The problem is that right-wingers also believe they are the only ones who know what the Founders meant, and the result is that crazy right-wing theories about history become crazy right-wing theories about law.

From there, Epps takes on myths about states’ rights, international law, the Commerce clause, separation of church and state, and many others you will quickly recognize. My absolute favorite line comes out of his chapter on Myth 6: “The Second Amendment Allows Citizens to Threaten the Government”.

If good government actually came from a violent, armed population, then Somalia would be the best-governed place on earth.

2. Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul
by John Barry

If conservatives are going to make saints out of America’s founders, liberals need to learn about our own colonial heroes. Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island after escaping with his life from the Massachusetts Bay Colony theocracy, is a good candidate.

You know where the image of a “wall of separation between church and state” comes from? Not Jefferson, though he used it. In 1644, Williams wrote:

When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world, God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day.

Barry summarizes: “When one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics.”

3. Sacred Ground: pluralism, prejudice, and the promise of America
by Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and the author of Acts of Faith, a highly acclaimed memoir about finding his identity as both a Muslim and an American.

Patel is one of those people who got his name into the Big Rolodex at an early age. He could easily spend the next 30 years playing riffs on the same themes: interfaith cooperation, young people will grow past the prejudices of their elders, Muslims can be pluralists, and so on. I’m not going to name names, but it’s not hard to look around and see Big-Rolodex people who do just that. They have nice, pleasant careers giving talks at conferences, writing an occasional book saying the same things as their other books, and being a TV talking-head whenever their issues come up in the news.

That’s what makes Sacred Ground such a remarkable book. On the surface, it’s about the Ground Zero Mosque controversy and all the anti-Muslim bigotry that rose up around it. But it ends up revolving around an unexpected question Christiane Amanpour asks Patel on CNN. She beats him to the punch by quoting all the rising-religious-prejudice statistics he had been using on other shows, and then jumps to: “So what has all your work done?”

Patel dodges that question on the air — that’s his description — but later it gets under his skin: The promise of his Interfaith Youth Core was that young people of every faith would get experience working side-by-side with young people of every other faith on issues of common concern, and so develop mutual respect that would make religious bigotry a thing of the past in a single generation.

It’s not happening, is it?

So Patel has a business-consultant/friend look into why it isn’t happening, and the friend comes back with a blunt and unwelcome answer: The problem is you. You like running all over the world giving inspirational talks and presenting your Big Idea as the universal answer to every problem, but you haven’t bothered to figure out what those inspired people in your audience are supposed to do. Your organization reflects that; it does everything and nothing.

From there, Patel studies how a Big Idea becomes real change, and where IFYC needs to focus. And then the Ground Zero Mosque becomes a teaching moment for him: What kind of people did the community need and not have, who could have kept this issue from getting so out of hand? How could IFYC help make sure that such people will be there next time?

It doesn’t come to a sound-bite conclusion. Sacred Ground isn’t a finished book, but that’s because Patel himself is a work in progress. That’s what makes him fascinating.

4. Bet the Farm: how food stopped being food
by Frederick Kaufman

Bet the Farm is a vicarious journey: What if you started with a question that puzzled you, and had the kind of access that let you go wherever you needed to go and talk to whoever you needed to talk to?

Kaufman is a journalist who has been writing about the food system for decades. He starts with the question: “Why doesn’t everybody get the food they need?” and follows the answer wherever it goes. It takes him to the giant food marketers like Domino’s Pizza; to the giant enterprises that produce the components of pizza: tomato sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoni; to the data-crunchers who are trying to produce a measurable “sustainability index” for food production; to the engineers who are trying to produce better seeds for better crops; to the international technocrats putting together development strategies for the U. N.; to the grain futures market and the monied interests who profit from it.

Best observation: The market for food is the exact opposite of a “free” market, because every person in the world has to participate in it on penalty of death.

The overall message of the book is that hunger is a question not of food production or even economics, but of power. Power comes from profit, and profit comes from keeping prices low for the farmer and high for the eater. So that’s what our current food system is set up to do. Don’t be surprised when it succeeds.

Monopoly’s Role in Inequality

For several years I’ve been dipping into the subject of rising inequality, usually in book reviews like this one of Hacker and Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics. But all along a mystery has been nagging at me, and I think I’m finally getting to the bottom of it.

Inequality. The basic story is simple: Inequality in the United States has risen dramatically since the mid-70s. And the effect gets more extreme the farther out you go. It isn’t just that the top 10% is pulling away from the bottom 90%. The top .01% is pulling away from the top .1% even faster. The multi-billionaires are pulling away from the mere billionaires. (If you want graphs and numbers, look here.)

Obviously you can’t account for all that with education or competition from China. Maybe those factors explain why unskilled workers are having such a tough time, but they say little about the millionaire/billionaire divergence. Ditto for tax rates. Sure, the rich pay a much lower tax rate than they used to, but the explosive growth in their net worth is much bigger than tax rates can account for, and the mega-rich don’t get a significantly better tax deal than the ordinary rich. (Plus, tax cuts start with Reagan in 1982, not the mid-70s.)

Clearly something has happened to the structure of the market, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what.

Monopoly. Barry Lynn’s book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction looks like the puzzle piece I was missing. Lynn claims our economy is now full of monopolies and near-monopolies — businesses big enough to dictate terms to their customers and/or suppliers.

In the mid-20th-century industrial economy, you got mega-rich by imitating Henry Ford: You figured out how to make things people wanted for a price they wanted to pay. Now you get mega-rich by building choke-points between producers and consumers.

WalMart exemplifies the current paradigm. WalMart makes nothing, but it is big enough to dictate how its suppliers will make things and what prices they can charge. In many of its rural markets, WalMart also dictates what people can buy. If your product isn’t on WalMart’s shelves, it’s not for sale. (WalMart also drives consolidation elsewhere in the economy, which produces big fees for Wall Street. For example, Procter & Gamble bought Gillette largely to improve its negotiating position with WalMart. In slightly different ways, Amazon and Google are trying to duplicate the WalMart model in the online economy. If your book isn’t on Amazon, it’s not for sale.)

Many near-monopolies are less visible than WalMart or Amazon. Lynn begins his book with the story of a pet-food recall, which suddenly made it obvious that many “competing” brands of pet food were actually all packed in the same factory. And Ford lobbied for the government bailout of “competitors” GM and Chrysler because it feared their common suppliers would go bankrupt. Many markets, Lynn says, are hydras: The countless brands on the shelves are just heads that spring from a common body.

The ends against the middle. Reading Lynn, I’m getting a clearer vision of how markets work. The purest form of market is what you can see at any big farmer’s market: Lots of consumers dealing directly with lots of producers. It’s rare that anybody gets really rich from these interactions, but many small producers have a chance to make a living and become independent.

Obviously the global economy has to be more complicated than that. But markets are created by rules, and the rules can be structured to favor either the ends (producers and consumers) or the middle. Producers and consumers benefit from transparent markets, where the rules force middlemen to treat everyone more-or-less the same.

But markets can also be structured to give middlemen as much freedom as possible. The most profitable way to use that freedom is to create choke-points where a toll can be extracted or one producer can be played off against another. In an opaque market, the way to get rich is not to produce things, but to build middleman power that allows you to dictate terms up and down the supply chain. (I don’t have space to go into it here, but keeping the internet transparent is what net neutrality is about, and why Comcast doesn’t like it.)

In a nutshell, what has happened since the mid-70s is that deregulation of old markets and under-regulation of new markets has made our economy more opaque. The people in the best position to take advantage of this are the very rich. Meanwhile, workers and small businessmen — the middle-class people who actually make stuff and deliver services — lose out. In the short term consumers may win or lose, depending on whether the middlemen’s advantage is in raising or lowering prices. But in the long run consumers lose options, power, and quality.

The most interesting thing politically is how the rhetoric of freedom works. Freedom for the middleman leads to domination of producers and consumers. “Freedom” seldom works out to mean more options for everybody.

One worked-out example. If you’ve watched much cable or satellite TV lately, you probably saw Viacom’s ads against DirectTV, like this one.

If you’re a DirectTV subscriber, Comedy Central (and other Viacom channels) went dark for nine days before the two corporations resolved their dispute, so you had to do without The Daily Show or watch it online.

Here’s the point: Maybe you couldn’t watch Jon Stewart for a week, but the problem had nothing to do with either you or Jon Stewart. He wasn’t asking for a raise; you weren’t balking at the price of watching the Daily Show. But both you and Jon were irrelevant when two giant middlemen had a power struggle.

Each brought a lot of power to the struggle. In most of its markets, DirectTV is the only alternative to the local cable monopoly, while Viacom is one of a handful of megacorps that dominate TV content. (Disney, Time Warner, NBCUniversal, NewsCorp, and CBS are the others. National Amusements owns a big chunk of both Viacom and CBS. Comcast plays both sides of the street, being both a cable monopoly and a partner with GE in NBCUniversal.)

Viacom thought it had the upper hand, so it was demanding a bigger payout from DirectTV and insisting DirectTV carry its new Epix channel. I haven’t sorted out yet who won.

These middlemen outweigh both you and Jon Stewart. If Jon doesn’t work for one of the six big media companies, he can’t reach a major audience. If you don’t deal with either DirectTV or a cable monopoly, your TV choices shrink considerably.

Transparent markets. But it’s not hard to imagine a TV system that works differently: Cable or satellite systems could be common carriers, making a fixed amount whenever they connect a TV producer with a TV consumer. Cable and satellite would still compete, but only by changing that fixed amount or by offering more reliable service to the consumer.

With that kind of middleman transparency, small TV companies could spring up and get their shows seen, so Jon Stewart would have a lot more than six choices. You and Jon would have more power, Viacom and DirectTV less.

Even more interesting is what happens to the profit motive: The way to make money in this transparent system is to create shows people want to watch and deliver them reliably. Wheeling and dealing to amass middleman power wouldn’t accomplish much.

Government regulation would probably be necessary to bring this system about, but it would still be capitalism. The marketplace would just be structured differently, so that the benefits and opportunities of capitalism would accrue to producers and consumers rather than to financiers and empire-builders.

Probably this restructured marketplace would lead to more small companies and fewer megacorps, more millionaires and fewer billionaires.

Picture the same transparent-market principle spreading across the economy: More small businesses, more places to look for jobs, greater variety of products, and more opportunity to go into business for yourself. Less inequality.

When Centralized Institutions Fail, Is Anarchy an Answer?


Last week I raised the topic of institutional failure: Why is institutional trust and trustworthiness failing more-or-less across the board? Corporations, political parties, the various layers and branches of government, churches, academia, the banking system, the media — none provides a solid base to stand on while we reform the others.

Two leaps. Then I made a leap you might not agree with: Even though each institution has its own failure story, I decided to look for some common cause, which I called a UFT (Unified Fuck-up Theory). I chose a tongue-in-cheek label because I realize I’m getting uncomfortably close to conspiracy-theory territory. (In Valis, Philip Dick wrote, “It certainly constitutes bad news if the people who agree with you are buggier than batshit.”) But the alternative is big-coincidence territory, and I’m not comfortable there either.

I followed that leap with another, which I’ve since come to call the Agatha Christie Hypothesis: If the clues don’t add up, it means that the culprit never made it onto your suspect list. So the common cause is likely to be something we instinctively don’t question.

Chris Hayes went down that path in Twilight of the Elites and pointed his finger at meritocracy. The certainly satisfies the ACH: Literally nobody had been saying “Our problem is that talented, hard-working people get ahead.”

As I laid out in more detail last week, Hayes argues that meritocracy justifies a level of inequality that has created a new ruling class, i.e., the elite have enough power to game the system that there is no longer anything like the level playing field meritocratic theory assumes. As a result, our institutions are run by an entrenched, hyper-competitive, self-serving elite that feels entitled to whatever it can grab. We have re-created the noblesse without the oblige.

In The Leaderless Revolution, former British diplomat Carne Ross adds another unexpected culprit to the suspect list: representative democracy.

Sheep and Shepherds. The basic idea of representative democracy is that a world of sheep and shepherds is fine, as long as sheep get to elect their shepherds. Presumably, the sheep will choose good shepherds, who will stay good because the sheep could replace them.

Ross criticizes this model from both sides: First, the options offered to the people are too limited and too easily manipulated by those with money and power. My favorite expression of this situation comes from the Cake song “Comfort Eagle

Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke.
The wacky morning DJ says democracy’s a joke. 

More prosaically, Benjamin Barber wrote:

We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, [but] the powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.

In November, for example, the American people will elect either Romney or Obama. How many important issues does that choice take off the table?

Second, the job of “good shepherd” is impossible in such a complex, diverse, inter-connected world. Even with the best intentions, no one can “represent” a nation like the United States or the United Kingdom. The very attempt (as Ross knows from personal experience) leads you to adopt grossly oversimplified worldviews that create more problems than they solve.

Representing the UK at the UN. The stories from Ross’ diplomatic career are worthwhile whether you end up agreeing with his conclusions or not.

The British Foreign Office is an elite Chris Hayes would recognize. A hyper-competitive process selects Ross and a few others out of thousands of applicants.

We were a chosen elite, given to expect that in due course we would become ambassadors and undersecretaries, the most senior exponents of our country’s wishes. I was elated to join this exclusive club and happy to undergo the many compromises membership in this group entailed.

Then the recruits are indoctrinated into the groupthink of the Foreign Office, which affirms the diplomats’ superiority: Only they know the classified information. Only they have unfettered access to the real experts — each other.

Eventually, Ross becomes head of the Middle East section of the British mission to the UN, where he and his American allies design and maintain the trade sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — sanctions that were not only based on false assumptions about Iraq’s WMDs, but whose burden fell mainly on the Iraqi poor. Ross now accepts demographers’ calculations that the sanctions caused an “excess mortality rate” of half a million Iraqi children.

In other words, half a million children died. Though Saddam Hussein doubtless had a hand too, I cannot avoid my own responsibility. This was my work; this was what I did.

In what way, Ross now wonders, did he “represent” the people of the United Kingdom? Given the information and responsibility he had, how many of Ross’ sheep would have let hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children die in exchange for a small theoretical increase in their own safety? Might they instead have shown some compassion and courage? And if ordinary citizens of both countries had met in the same room, might they have come up with completely different options?

Rather than a series of gates through which information and power flow, representative democracy has become a series of walls: The people are cut off from their diplomats, and the diplomats in turn are cut off from the foreign peoples their actions affect.

Similar stories could be told in every country, about every aspect of government policy.

Renouncing the pact. So Ross is attacking government from a different side than conservative libertarians do. Libertarian rhetoric focuses on the tyranny of governments interfering with sovereign individuals, and minimizes any collective or social responsibility. “Society” is just a myth that justifies the few ruling the many.

Ross is saying almost the exact opposite: Not only do we have collective responsibilities to do things like take care of the planet, help each other, establish justice, and live together in peace, but those responsibilities are too important to hand off to leaders. He wants us to renounce what he calls “the pact”:

We vote, they act; we get on with our lives, they protect. … For most of us, politics is a spectator sport.

He cites the 2008 Obama campaign. Obama called for and got unprecedented participation from individual citizens. But

The political end of his campaign was not change itself, but for him to be elected to deliver change — a subtle but crucial distinction, and the disjunction at the heart of representative democracy.

Grey anarchy. Ross uses the word anarchy in a positive sense, but he means something subtle by it. Usually we talk about anarchy in a black-or-white way. We have a government or we don’t; anarchy is achieved by overthrowing government and not replacing it.

Ross’ anarchy has more grey in it. Government isn’t evil, just hopelessly inadequate. We need to figure out how to work around government — rather than through it — in order to fulfill our social responsibilities.

If government cannot provide for the stability, safety and just arbitration of our common affairs, who can? The answer is both radical and discomforting. For there is only one alternative if government cannot successfully provide: We must do so ourselves. Self-organized government is one term; another, rather more loaded term, is anarchism.

His model is more the everybody-pitch-in model of Wikipedia than the every-man-for-himself model of conservative libertarianism. Rather than electing the next savior, activists should focus on creating new arenas of interaction and trust where creative self-organization becomes possible.

The goal is to make the leaders become the followers: Rather than change society through politics, directly create social change that the politicians will have to react to.

Methods, not programs. Predictably, Ross’ prescriptions are on the vague side, and are more about methods than programs. (If he said, “Pass my program” he’d be back in the representative democracy model, offering himself as a leader.) He ends with nine principles for action, but unfortunately they take more space to unpack than I have. So I’ll have to do my own summary.

The ideal anarchic action, from Ross’ point of view, is something that will start a wave: It tackles the problem in some small but direct way, other people will see it, and they will be inspired to imitate. It is nonviolent and builds new trustworthy relationships. It will achieve something even if it doesn’t totally catch on. It focuses on those who are suffering most, and asks what they want rather than imposing a solution on them.

Gandhi’s salt march, Rosa Parks not giving up her seat — these are both cited as good examples.

Or maybe we could look at Ross’ current project, which he describes in this interview on the Colbert Report: He’s working an Occupy Wall Street bank.

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