Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Are we losing our ability to focus? Is it harder now than in the past to pay attention to things? If so, do our work habits, lifestyle, diet, environment, and (especially) social media habits have anything to do with this? The author of this book, a writer and journalist who has consulted with experts in the field of behavioral science, believes the answer to all these questions is “Yes,” and although he brings up many valid points, I’m not convinced he’s entirely right. I think the real problem may be something else. It’s not that we can’t focus, it’s that our basic human instincts are being exploited to manipulate our behavior. A side effect of this is that our focus gets diverted.
In hopes of not coming off as a conspiracy nut, let me expand this short book review a bit to try to explain. I’ll try to keep it short without leaving out too much. You are more than welcome, encouraged, in fact, to stop reading here because I’m sure you have much more enjoyable ways to spend your time.
Ah, so you’ve volunteered to read my rant on social manipulation. Your indulgence is appreciated and my conscious is clear. You have been warned.
There is no doubt that sustaining mental focus on a task can be difficult. But that has always been true. I’m not convinced that people, on average, are less able to focus now than in the past. It’s an aspect of our nature. Humans are easily distracted. That’s not a bug in our genetic makeup. It’s a feature. There’s an evolutionary advantage to having the ability to quickly divert our attention from whatever we may be doing at the time to something more urgent, like from chipping flakes off a stone hand axe to a suspicious rustling in nearby bushes, which might be the sound of a stalking tiger.
I see no reason to suspect that human nature has changed much over the last 40,000 years. We still have the same instincts and basic needs as our Stone Age ancestors. However, we do live in a much different world than they did. People in most contemporary societies work longer, sleep less, and eat more processed foods with questionable additives than they did even a generation ago. There isn’t much doubt about that, but does any of this affect our ability to achieve “flow,” the highly productive state of mind in which our attention is so focused we can lose sense of time and of our immediate surroundings?
Maybe, but if diet and environmental factors can impact our ability to focus, I would expect that people would be more able to achieve flow now than in the past. After all, we are better fed, live longer, and are under less stress than most people throughout history. (This is true overall and in general. Your individual results may vary.) And, as far as I can tell, achieving a flow state is not uncommon. I’m sure most of us have done it. I have, most often when doing something creative, whether it’s writing, cooking, or creating a spreadsheet. I’ve experienced something similar when playing a video game or while binge watching a series on a streaming service without commercials. I’ve heard that some people have become so focused on a video game that they’ve forgotten to eat.
The author of this book brings up some good points about the pervasive distractions of modern society, and those observations cannot be dismissed. People often seem to have difficulty focusing. But if technology and modern living are not in and of themselves a detriment to achieving flow, what is the problem? We no longer spend a lot of time worrying about creeping tigers, bad harvests, plague, starvation, or barbarian invaders. Those are all distractions of the past. The distractions of the present are much different, and possibly more insidious, which finally brings me to what I think may be the real issue in all of this.
People have always lied to one another to gain food, sex, money, power, or influence. Unprincipled clerics, unscrupulous merchants, and unsavory politicians have been making a living at it for centuries, and it seems ironic that they are often respected for their success. But for our especially insane predecessors, The-End-Is-Near types and conspiracy nuts of assorted flavors, they could only spread their less than coherent rants through privately funded pamphlets and opinion pieces in newspapers.
Two important things have happened in the last couple generations that make the messages of lunatics, liars, and con-men far more effective. The behavioral sciences (including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics) have provided us with a growing understanding of basic human drives and motivations so that we can now better predict how people are likely to react in various situations. The second important achievement is that we have developed the technology to share information (and disinformation) widely and quickly. If used well, both these things can provide a real boon to humanity. But if abused, well, they could potentially help toss us back into the Dark Ages.
You can probably see where this argument is heading. Others have made it, and the author of Stolen Focus takes us there as well, but he treats it as only one aspect of a declining capacity for maintaining mental focus whereas I see it is a fundamental societal problem and a major impediment to any kind of human progress.
There is an old adage that goes, “If it bleeds, it leads,” because it has long been known that things like violent crimes, wars, and car wrecks on the front page will sell newspapers. Modern behavioral science confirms that human attention is instinctively drawn to things like conflict and potential danger. If you want to distract someone and get them to shift their focus to you, say something that makes them feel angry, threatened, or disgusted. (Sex is also an attention grabber, but it doesn’t seem as effective a motivator for anything other than more sex.)
With an understanding of what can attract and distract people’s attention, manipulators with dubious ethical principles design mind viruses to do just that. They create ads, infomercials, tweets, blog posts, fake news articles, short videos, and “memes” that exploit our instincts. They knowingly design these things to trigger a visceral reaction and a sense of urgency to get us to either buy things we don’t necessarily need or to believe things that are not actually true. Some of the content creators are driven by ideology, but others do it for the money or to boost their egos. They probably don’t see themselves as Evil or even as dishonest. They may sincerely believe in the delusions they are trying to spread, or that they are simply engaging in a legitimate business practice. It’s just a form of advertising, right? And everyone knows advertising is, at best, not entirely objective. Whatever their motivations, the perpetrators of these mental social diseases then release them into the wild to breed. The internet is proving to be an especially effective incubator.
Social media services, like Twitter and Facebook, get their money from advertising, and they attract advertisers by getting lots of users who spend lots of time on their sites. (This is also true of traditional sources of news, which explains a lot about cable news and talk radio, but let’s focus on social media, for now.) More users, more time, more advertisers, more money. So, how do they get more users to spend more time looking at Tweets and Facebook updates? By exploiting even more insights uncovered by behavioral science. In addition to having an instinctive wariness that causes us to be distractable, humans also have a basic need for social acceptance. Social media provides these with “likes” and retweets and other forms of online engagement. We get a certain rush when someone “likes” our Facebook status update or retweets one of our Tweets. It makes us feel accepted, appreciated, part of a community. Put it all together and you have some very powerful tools for social manipulation, and those tools are being used.
I’m not saying this is some kind of grand conspiracy. Although some individuals and a few disreputable groups are knowingly spreading lies and disinformation, I believe most people believe what they’re posting or sharing. I have no doubt that there are people who actually think Earth is flat or that the Moon landing was faked. (I don’t understand how they can believe such things, but that’s beside the point.) But regardless of their sincerity, I’m certain that both the intentional liars and the unfathomably misinformed aren’t working together in a scheme of world domination (mainly because they don’t seem to play well together). It’s just that social media tends to amplify exaggerated and outrageous claims because crazy stuff is especially good at attracting attention.
Social media algorithms learn and adapt, and they’ve noticed what people will stop scrolling for and at what they’ll respond to and share. It doesn’t matter if these things are true or false of if people agree or disagree. What matters is that they engage. The algorithm makes note of these engagements, does a bit of math, and perfects its technique to gain viewers, which tends to amplify attention-grabbing messages. “Ah,” it says. “I see you like kittens. Here, let me show you this post people are sharing about a group of Bastet worshipers who are abducting pet cats and using them in cannibalistic rituals in the basement of a pizza shop. I estimate there is an 84% chance you’ll have an opinion about it.”
And that’s basically it. People come up with all sorts of crazy stuff, and social media amplifies crazy because crazy captures attention. So, the real problem, or at least the main problem, is not that we have difficulty focusing, it’s that we’re being deluged with things that are designed to distract us, and social media is amplifying those distractions because it supports their business model. (It’s also leaving a lot of truly misinformed, unnecessarily angry, and often well-armed people all over the world, which is also quite distressing.)
So, how do you fix it?
The author of Stolen Focus offers a few suggestions, including nationalizing social media to remove the profit motive, and using social media to put together a grass roots movement to recognize and fight the dangers of social media. (I found that last one a bit ironic.) I’m not dismissing either notion. Both might help, but since the bigger issue for me isn’t our loss of focus but rather that we’re being inundated with falsehoods, I had a different notion.
Maybe we could do something about making lying illegal. Right now, I’ve heard it’s not, at least for politicians (in the US). Someone running for office can legally lie in their political ads. From making unsubstantiated claims to statements that are demonstrably false, it’s all allowed under the concept of Free Speech, leaving it up to independent “fact checkers” to verify any dubious assertions. I personally think this is wrong, mainly because I wouldn’t want to unwittingly elect a dishonest manipulator to a position of public trust.
In the US, we justifiably hold the concept of Free Speech sacred. The right to speak out can provide a societal check on abuses of power. It’s not an absolute guarantee, of course, nor is it an unconstrained right. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater (unless there truly is a fire) does not fall under the protections of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. A false statement likely to cause panic and injury is not considered a legitimate exercise of a person’s freedom of speech. I imagine it should be possible to apply this same principle to spreading falsehoods in public and social media. It would be best if such a law applied to more than politicians, of course. Perhaps it could be worded so that a person could be prosecuted for using public outlets to spread malicious or misleading information with intent to misinform the public or subvert honest discourse. Something like that, anyway. Getting the wording right, making it enforceable, and gaining the political support for its passage would no doubt be difficult, but it might be doable.
Anyway, thanks for reading my rant on social media rants. Feel free to comment and share. 😊
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Recently, I saw a Facebook post by a lady who self-identifies as both a Republican and a Trump supporter. She said she resented being accused of being a racist because of her political affiliation. Not all Trump supporters are racists, she maintained.
Logically, I can agree with that. I am sure many Republicans don’t see themselves as racists, or as any of the other negative stereotypes that have increasingly become associated with the party, especially since Trump became its primary spokesperson. Republicans aren’t all racists, or sexists, or religious fundamentalists, or paranoid gun toting conspiracy theorists, and the many who aren’t understandably resent being grouped with those few who are.
Sadly, this kind of cognitive pigeonholing is common. There is an unfortunate human proclivity to generalize a universal truth from a few (perhaps anomalous) examples. I imagine such behavior has evolutionary survival value. Think about it. While only a few types of snakes are poisonous, avoiding all of them makes it far less likely you will be bitten by one that is. We probably have a gene for this kind of thing. That doesn’t mean all snakes deserve to be shunned, although many of us do have an irrational phobia about them. It’s called ophidiophobia.
There doesn’t have to be a psychologically accepted term for an irrational fear for it to exist. There are people who fear butterflies, or trees, or speaking in public. Some people feel anxious around police, or protestors, or clowns. This kind of generalized anxiety may not be deserved, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. There may sometimes even be a cause for it, some experience the fearful person had that traumatized them for life. Apparently, it doesn’t take much for people to build themselves a phobia, and it takes even less for most of us to make unwarranted assumptions and jump to unjustified conclusions. So, when we see video of a cop kneeling on a black man’s neck, or a picture of someone at a protest throwing a rock or breaking a store window, we sometimes must struggle to avoid thinking, “They’re all like that.”
Not so long ago, in an America that felt much different than the one we have today, I worked for the US Department of Defense. Ethics was a big deal back then. DoD employees were advised (formally and repeatedly) to avoid any possible semblance of impropriety. We were told to always be mindful about doing anything that might be misconstrued to imply corruption or favoritism. So, for example, when attending a meeting at a defense contractor’s facility, we could accept free cups of coffee (if such were available to their own employees), but a donut might be a bit too much. Being treated to a free lunch was right out. Someone (probably with an agenda) could claim we were accepting a bribe to award the company with a lucrative contract, or to overlook some deviation in the performance of one they already had. My point here is that, justified or not, impressions matter. The policy was meant to preclude any behavior that might, even inadvertently, undermine confidence in the integrity of the DoD. It was intended to minimize the chance of anyone having any reason to jump to the wrong conclusion. Because that’s what people do. They generalize from the specific to the whole. Whether we like it or not, we are often seen as representatives of some group. In my case, above, it was Defense Department employees. For a cop, it’s police in general. For a guy in a MAGA hat, it’s Trump supporters.
In most cases, these generalizations make no sense. People who are likely to be swayed by a free lunch are not predisposed to work for the government, and most people prone to excessive violence are not disproportionately inclined to flock to the ranks of the police force. But when it comes to Trump supporters, it’s a bit different. I think it’s safe to assume that anyone waving a Confederate battle flag and flashing a White Power hand gesture also supports Donald Trump. So, whereas all Trump supporters aren’t racists, it seems pretty clear that most racists are Trump supporters.
Yeah, but so what? That’s hardly Trump’s fault. He can’t control who likes him. And if a long-disfavored ideological group such as white supremacists suddenly finds favor with a major political party, there’s hardly any harm in it. It’s certainly good for the party, which can count on the racists’ votes, and it’s good for the racists because they get to feel that their movement has regained some measure of lost legitimacy. It’s just politics, after all, and, as the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows. You shouldn’t take political rhetoric too seriously. I have heard Trump supporters (well, one Trump supporter) make this very claim. Republicans in general are not racists, sexists, religious fundamentalists, or even gun owners. They only play some minimal lip service to these groups to gain their votes. And it’s not like it really matters. Legal segregation is never going to return, women aren’t going to lose the vote, and the Constitution isn’t going to be changed to impose a state religion.
Perhaps, but let’s go back to appearances again. How does it look when someone you don’t want to be associated advertises their association with you, like when the racist puts on his MAGA hat? Even accepting as true that racists, sexists, religious extremists, and armed survivalists combined do not make up the majority of the Republican Party, in the eyes of the public at large, they do represent it. When the guy flying the Confederate battle flag also has a Trump sign in his front yard, does that not give the impression of a link exiting between racists with Trump supporters? (This isn’t a hypothetical. There is a house on my street with both a large Confederate flag and a much smaller Trump 2020 sign in the front yard. It’s the only house in the neighborhood with either, and it has both. Granted, it’s a very small and nonrepresentative sampling, but it provides a 100% correlation. If you drew a Venn diagram to represent the two groups (racists and Trump supporters), it would be a single circle.)
I’m not claiming that there is a legitimate reason for suspecting someone is a closet racist simply because they identify as a Republican or even as a Trump supporter. I am simply attempting to explain why people might jump to this conclusion. It’s all about appearances. Right now, the Republican party appears to support racism, not only because of things Trump has said (e.g. his now infamous rant about Mexican immigrants), but also because some of the party’s more vocal members are overt racists. I believe the perceived association between Republicans and racist and other fringe groups will persist until such time as Trump and other party leaders strongly repudiate and take substantive actions against them. Until that happens, traditional Republicans may wish to ask themselves with whom they choose to be associated.
From the title, I expected this book to be much like those by Steven Pinker, showing how human life has steadily improved from generation to generation, about how we’ve reduced things like hunger, disease, poverty, crime, and war by implementing the ideas of the Enlightenment. There is some of that in these pages, but Easterbrook isn’t really looking at the broad scope of history here. He is more focused on today, or at least on the last century. His main point is that things today (in general) are far better than politicians, social media, and most news reports might suggest.
Humans, he states, are predisposed by their evolution to suspect threats and be wary of the unknown. Even though most shadows are harmless, treating all as if they are bears hiding in the bushes has survival value because, every once in a while, there really is a bear. Politicians and the media exploit our inherent fears (sometimes intentionally) for their own benefit. His take on how current politicians have done so abound.
This isn’t an objective or scholarly work. There is little statistical data, no graphs, no detailed analysis, and the author freely shares his personal opinions and value judgments (such that Western ideals are moral and that a well regulated market economy is the economic ideal). Despite these differences, he comes to much the same conclusions as Pinker does in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Things aren’t only not bad; they are better than they ever have been. That doesn’t mean we don’t have serious problems. Disease, crime, poverty, and hunger have been reduced, but they haven’t been eliminated. Challenges such as climate change and wealth disparity certainly need to addressed, but history shows that humans are quite good at overcoming challenges. There is every reason to expect that we’ll meet those of today as least as well as we have met those of the past.
This book firmly stands in the tradition of cautionary tales of the future that have been told in such classics as Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. The title, New York 2140, tells you when and where the story is set, and the cover art suggests one of the two great threats to human civilization it is warning us about. That’s right. It’s climate change. Our imaginary descendants in this this book are muddling through that, as humans tend to do. We’re innovative and adaptive creatures, after all. We may not have a lot of foresight when it comes to avoiding self-inflicted injuries, but when we do harm ourselves, we’re quick to apply a bandage and get on with life.
The other existential threat featured in this story is—
No, not terrorism.
Not another large asteroid.
Not religious extremism.
Not alien invaders.
Not renegade robots or homicidal artificial intelligence.
No, Not even Donald Trump.
As scary as those are, the threat Kim Stanley Robinson warns us about here is far more insidious, and it’s real.
The author obviously did some background reading in economics as he was drafting this fictional book because the kinds of financial manipulation he describes are far from fictional. They have gone on and are going on still today. (I’ll list a few recent and popular books on the subject that he may have consulted below. You may want to read them. But I’ll warn you; they’re scary.) But New York 2140 book isn’t just a warning, or an apocalyptic thriller, or a tale of likeable characters overcoming adversity. It’s not even just a painless lesson on macroeconomics. It is all of those, but it also proposes a course of action that could, conceivably, change things. To say what that is would be a spoiler, so I won’t. I will, however, recommend this book.
Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business
The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century
Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff
The difference between conservatives and progressives? It’s all about morality, specifically family morality or how people subjectively define a ‘good’ family. That’s what George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist from University of California at Berkeley, claims in this book. Conservatives are operating within a framework constructed around a ‘strict father morality’ that stresses authority and obedience. Progressives, on the other hand, operate within a ‘nurturant parent’ framework that is founded on cooperation and understanding. These two different moral frameworks lead to fundamental disagreements between people about what is good, what is right, and what should be done in a wide variety of situations.
He may have a point. Let me share a personal anecdote. A few years ago, a nephew and his wife and kids were visiting. They are lovely people, but both parents are politically conservative (which I am not). Their kids were in the backyard and happened to start walking on a narrow, tile covered strip that runs between my concrete patio and some landscaping. It’s a drainage system, a buried plastic pipe surrounded by rocks and covered by thin tiles. It is designed to shed water away from the patio and works quite well, but it’s not substantial enough to use for a walkway. I began to say something like, “You shouldn’t walk on that because—” I had intended to explain what it was and why the kids should use the concrete path instead, when their dad shouted at them, ordering them off. They complied instantly. “That’s how you do it,” he told me. I said nothing. They were his kids, after all, but I felt that what he had done was fundamentally wrong. His kids obeyed but they didn’t understand. I didn’t want blind obedience. I felt it important, essential really, for the kids to know why they shouldn’t walk there. In my mind, blind obedience to authority is wrong. To my nephew, a child’s blind obedience to his father is good.
But, back to the book…. Lakoff claims that these two different understandings of family values, ‘strict father’ versus ‘nurturant parents,’ helps explain the deep political divide between conservatives and progressives. It’s not quite as simple as my short review makes it sound. If it was, all conservatives would agree on just about everything, as would all progressives. They obviously don’t. To explain this, Lakoff identifies several variants within each of these two broad groups, but each, at their core, shares the applicable view of family.
He devotes much of this short book to ‘framing,’ which is about how people frame their beliefs and arguments about specific topics. Since this book is primarily about political issues, he uses those as examples. His advice is that it is important when discussing your views to present them within the context of your own framework. A conservative, for example, may see the great divide between rich and poor as perfectly legitimate because the rich deserve to be rich. Progressives might see the same issue as an unjust denial of equal rights and equal opportunity, and should speak to it in those terms.
The best way to anticipate what a person will do in the future is to review what he or she has done in the past. Prior behavior can reveal much about a person’s goals, beliefs, and priorities, and it can tell us how they tend to approach challenging situations. Mr. Trump remains something of an enigma, though, at least when it comes to public policy. His real estate dealings and other business attempts don’t tell us much about his visions for domestic or foreign affairs. When he does talk about his plans for the nation, his pronouncements are most often vague. Sometimes, as in the case of a border wall and expanding our nuclear arsenal, they are so outrageous or nonsensical that one can only assume he can’t be serious but is instead attempting to shock, confuse, or draw attention. Some people have speculated that his impulsive statements and erratic behavior are intentional to keep his adversaries off guard. I don’t think so. I’m unconvinced that a well-conceived manipulative strategy underlies such things. His statements are too unscripted and contradictory for that. However, they can tell us much about his psychology.
Despite his lack of political experience, Trump has quite a past, and it might help us predict his behavior as president. I recently came across a fascinating (and very long) article, The Mind of Donald Trump, published in the June 2016 issue of The Atlantic. It was written by Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology and the director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University. His insights about the personality and psychology of the man who will soon occupy the Oval Office are both enlightening and disturbing.
According to McAdams, the self-promoting bluster Trump exhibited during his campaign wasn’t just showmanship for the sake of gaining political support. Self-promotion is not only what Trump does; it’s what Trump is. Professor McAdams concludes his article with this paragraph:
Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.
Donald Trump’s boisterous bragging may have been a show, but the show is all there is. His statements about having ‘a good brain,’ of being ‘like, smart,’ and his claims about the accuracy of his instincts aren’t just bluster. He believes them, or at least he believes they are useful things to say. Ultimately, Trump believes in the greatness of Donald Trump. If he has any values beyond that, they are not clear. Everything he does, everything he says, is to enhance his self-image and to get others to agree with it.
Trump is quick to take credit for successes, but he is very poor at accepting responsibility for his mistakes. When challenged about his questionable actions, Trump’s first reaction is often to deny they happened. When this fails, he frequently disparages the character of his accuser. We have seen this kind of behavior several times during the presidential debates, but it is also how he responded to multiple accusations of sexual abuse and fraud. When confronted with a failure, he denies accountability. When this is not possible, he reinterprets the situation, rationalizing such things as not delivering promised results, bankruptcies, and defaulting on loans as part of a legitimate business strategy. This is not just an attempt at public deception. It is self-deception as well. He is extremely reluctant to consider, let alone accept, that he may have made a mistake. As president, I expect this personality flaw will remain unchanged.
Presidents must be thick-skinned. They need the maturity and strength of character necessary to tolerate criticism without taking personal offense and without threatening reprisal. Trump does not have it. He is quick to seek retribution for real and imagined challenges. Publically, this has taken the form of threatened lawsuits. He threated Ted Cruz with a lawsuit because Cruz ran a campaign ad against him. He threatened to bring suit against the Washington Post for an article it published on the bankruptcy of the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. He actually brought suit against the comedian Bill Maher for a joke about Trump’s ancestry (i.e. about being part orangutan. Apparently, Trump did not know enough biology to recognize a joke about his orange hair). Trump seldom follows through with these threats, but that is not the point. His behavior is like that of a spoiled child threatening to tell his mommy about a sibling calling him a name.
As a private citizen, this kind of behavior reflects poorly only on himself. As president, it makes the entire nation appear out of control. In the past, his often-idle threats carried few consequences beyond those immediately involved. This is no longer true. Other nations will take notice and adjust their diplomatic, military, and economic ties accordingly. Within his first year in office, I expect he’ll say something inappropriate that will increase international tensions and possibly lead to a rise in global defense spending. He has already unwisely annoyed China due his ignorance of how deeply they regard the ‘One China’ policy. If I were a bit more cynical, or if I had a higher regard for his strategic talents, I’d wonder if this too was intentional in order to increase defense industry stock values for either himself, his family, or his supporters.
Trump shuns input from objective experts. They make him uncomfortable, defensive. Their knowledge reveals his ignorance. They know something he does not, which undermines his grandiose self-perception. His rejection of the need for daily intelligence briefings is an early sign of this. When he seeks advice as president, it will be so that he can claim to be open-minded. He understands that most people consider this a virtue, although he may consider it a desirable trait only in lesser men. I would not expect him to follow much advice, especially any that contradicts his ‘instincts.’ To do so would suggest he was mistaken about something, which great men like himself (if there were any) seldom are. This may partly be behind his seemingly irrational refusal to accept the clear link between human activity and climate change. To do so would almost require that he, as president, not only know something about it but also to do something about it. Given his starting point, this would be difficult. He has gone so far as to claim that the changing climate is a Chinese perpetrated hoax. Could this be because he doesn’t know much about science but is intimately familiar with hoaxes?
His decisions about major issues will rely less on facts than they will on his limited experience as a real estate investor. He will undervalue input from subject matter experts and overvalue the opinions of those who he believes support him. Given the backgrounds of the people chosen for his cabinet, I expect his administration will make little or no progress on climate change, progressive taxation, health care, income and wealth disparity, international trade issues, employment, wages, the federal debt, or world peace. These are all externalities to his core interests. I expect that within his first two years in office, his disregard of expert advice will result in dire consequences. The most likely possibility I can see will be ignoring input from the intelligence community about a terrorist threat, one from a source that isn’t on his personal radar. Another possibility is that he will ignore expert advice and react inappropriately to a false threat.
Perhaps the best way to get him to act responsibly is to approach him in in the guise of a sycophant. If you are an expert in a particular field, and are in the unfortunate position of meeting with him to provide input, I suggest behaving as if you think he is not only sane but also wise. Begin with flattery and then gently attempt to get him to see that his personal status will benefit from supporting policies that effectively address the facts of the matter at hand. I wish you good luck.
It is a mistake to attempt to anticipate the actions of Mr. Trump on any objective reality. His past implies that he is not overly susceptible to facts. He seems to regard them as flexible and not qualitatively different from opinions. And whereas Trump is capable of plotting a course of action to achieve a particular goal, he isn’t a deep thinker or a strategic planner. He reacts impulsively, emotionally. I expect he will base his future actions on gut feelings of how they will enhance his popularity and his personal status. This would not be as disturbing in a president capable of other considerations first, such as the wellbeing of the nation and its citizens. Neither of these will be primary concerns for Mr. Trump. As long as we bear in mind that his ultimate goal is the expansion of his own ego, and that he sees everything and everyone else in the world as tools and resources that he can use to that end, we can gain insight into how he will react to situations in the future.
We can’t predict what those future situations will be, but if nothing totally outside the norm happens (such as a large meteor impact, super-volcano eruption, or alien visitation), I expect that Donald Trump will continue acting as Donald Trump, a man convinced of his own superiority but continually craving the adulation of others to confirm it. He will continue to speak without thinking, insult those who criticize him, and deny responsibility for the consequences. Trump may not the kind of leader we would willingly follow, but he is one we would be wise to watch closely.
The Mind of Donald Trump (Atlantic Magazine) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771
Is Donald Trump Actually a Narcissist? (Vanity Fair) http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/11/donald-trump-narcissism-therapists
I must admit that the election of Donald Trump surprised me. One could say I’ve been obsessing about it. I’m probably overreacting, but the thought of having a president like Trump, who reminds me of Mussolini but without the Fascist dictator’s level of rationality or capacity for self-restraint, scares the shit out of me. I can only hope that the systems we have in place to counter totalitarianism are robust enough to preserve our free society. I would like to believe they are.
It is difficult to believe that voters saw Trump, with his history clouded by plausible accounts of financial failure, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and fraud as a good choice for Commander in Chief of the United States. I don’t think they did. What they saw was someone who doesn’t care about rules, or at least doesn’t let them get in his way when he wants something. They saw a man who ruthlessly uses any means necessary to achieve his ends. Somehow, in their eyes, this privileged and ethically challenged millionaire was reinvented as a common man of the people. They saw a kind of Wild West hero who bucks ‘they system’ and succeeds. This, I think, may have been his appeal.
This leads to another question. Why were people looking for someone, anyone, to buck ‘the system’ on their behalf? The answer to that seems obvious enough. ‘The system’ isn’t working for them.
This, at least, is understandable. In a nation fabled for the success of its middle class and for a system that provides ever-increasing standards of living, rising wages, and upward mobility, people are floundering, struggling to keep afloat. The ladder of success is broken. Their rents are rising, their debts are increasing, and their wages are not keeping up. Hard work is supposed to yield an increased standard of living. That’s part of America’s promise, but it clearly doesn’t work that way any more. People may not understand why the American dream has become more of an endless nightmare, but they feel something is wrong, and they want it righted. Enter the hero who appeals to their frustrations and promises to buck the system.
The real cause of their frustration, I think, goes back to the income and wealth disparity that Bernie Sanders has highlighted during his long political career. It became a rallying cry during his run for the last Democratic presidential nomination, and it earned him considerable support. America is a rich nation. Corporate profits are up. The stock market is soaring. Businesses are making a lot of money, but the wealth pools at the top and too little trickles down. Sanders promised to change that, although I suspect he may have been underestimating the pushback he’d get. I suppose we’ll never know.
I’m not going to get into macroeconomics in this article, but I will say that policy choices made over the last forty or so years, which overturned sound Keynesian principles in favor of ‘trickle-down’ theories that favored owners and moneylenders over workers, exacerbated the disparity we see today. They have allowed the return of speculative bubbles and have encouraged risky financial manipulation. They helped create a system in which about thirty percent of all personal income comes not from work but from rents, dividends, and capital gains. The wealth Americans create is distributed disproportionately to owners and investors rather than to the people who actually do productive work.
Workers have noticed at least some of this, but vested interests have been quite successful in throwing up distractions about the cause. The problem, they say, is ‘government’ or foreign imports or illegal immigrants. It can’t be big corporations and the banks. Those fine institutions are ‘job creators.’ Yeah, right. And I suppose that all the lobbyists they’re paying to influence Congress are a kind of charitable endeavor to protect workers from the grasp of ‘big government.’ That makes about as much sense as a fox telling a chicken all he wants to do is protect her eggs.
I’m not decrying capitalism. It can work well, as it did between about 1935 and 1975. But unconstrained by workers’ unions or by governmental policies, it can be an insatiable devourer of wealth with little or no interest beyond the next quarterly statement. This, I think, is the cause of stagnating wages and the loss in faith in the American Dream. People desperately want that dream back, and Trump promised to ‘make America great again.’ They may not have believed him, but they wanted things to change.
Sadly, I think Trump may be able to change things substantially, although not for the better. His past suggests that he is a man who views people as disposable resources, an impulsive, vindictive con man who has little regard for the humanity of others, and someone who is concerned only for his own financial benefit. He is clearly not a man of the people. His primary concern as president will undoubtedly be the same as it is has always been—the greater glory and ego gratification of Donald J. Trump.
Dear Mr. Trump,
Your campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Honestly, I hadn’t realized that we had stopped being great. We’ve pretty much been the leader of the free world for quite some time, and we’ve been an inspiration to others even longer. People still look to America, even look UP to America as being the benchmark in several areas for measuring how every other country in the world is doing. We may no longer corner the market on things like democracy, freedom, equality, and opportunity, but I see that as a good thing. It means that the ideals that America has long been advocating and attempting to put into practice are spreading. To put it in terms you may be more familiar with, we’ve gained market share in the global free market of ideas.
You’re coming into office at a good time. You’ll be facing some serious challenges, for sure, but things could be worse. The preceding administration has helped pull us through some rough spots. We’ve avoided another Great Depression due to irresponsible bank practices and careless financial speculation. The economy is growing again. Unemployment is down. The federal deficit has decreased. And although wages remain low, corporate profits are high. I’m sure you’re well aware of that.
So, with all due respect, I think your implication that America somehow stopped being great is mistaken. We have been, and still are, pretty great. Greatness, however, isn’t something we can achieve once and expect to hold onto forever. Greatness is a process. It’s like peddling a bike up an endless hill. If you don’t keep pumping, you not only don’t get any higher, you lose ground. That hasn’t happened yet. We may have slowed, but we’re still going. But just because we’re still great, it doesn’t mean we can’t become greater. With responsible and wise governance, I think we can. I’m assuming that’s your goal as well, so I’ve listed a few areas in which I think we could use some improvement. I hope you can find ways to address these over the next four years.
America has long been known as the land of opportunity. That’s part of the American dream. Anyone can ‘make it’ here. With hard work and determination, the children of a poor carpenter can grow up to be millionaires. A black kid with a single mom can become president. Sadly, we’re no longer the leaders in making this dream a reality. In the U.S., the chance of a kid from a poorly educated and impoverished family remaining poorly educated and impoverished in adulthood is greater than in fifteen other countries (per the 2016 Stanford study below). This includes some nations that are much like us in terms of history and culture, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. There are several reasons for this, but key areas you may want to look at improving should, I think, include day care, public education, college tuition, wages, the balance of time between work and family, and even things like public transportation (to allow people greater access to employment outside their neighborhoods). Anything you can do to improve the opportunities kids have to become productive members of society regardless of their circumstances would be beneficial. The more successful people we have, the more successful our country can be.
The people of a nation are its greatest asset. They investigate, discover, invent, innovate, and improve our lives through personal achievements gained by their study and hard work. In our modern, high-tech and rapidly changing world, education is more important than ever to succeed, both as individuals and as a nation. A country filled with well-educated people can accomplish great things. A country without them cannot.
The U.S. pioneered public education and benefitted greatly from it. Unfortunately, the latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores show that American students currently rank 30th in math, 16th in reading, and 24th in science. Obviously, we have work to do here. Things to consider include lowering class sizes, paying teachers well enough to attract especially talented and well-trained people to the profession, providing continual teacher training, and looking at educational systems that work elsewhere and adapting their best ideas to ours. When multinational high-tech companies are looking for great places to set up operations, the availability of a well-educated workforce is near the top of their requirements lists. Our children are our future. Please do what you can to help make America’s educational system the greatest in the world.
Another thing that can help the U.S. be competitive in the global marketplace is a modern and well-maintained infrastructure. This means more than just roads, railways, and bridges. It also includes seaports and airports, water and sewage systems, communications, electrical generation and distribution…things we often take for granted until they stop working. The American Society of Civil Engineers currently gives the U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+ due to overdue repairs and lack of modernization.
Broadband communication (internet) is often overlooked when talking about infrastructure, but it is critical today. The internet is increasingly replacing mail, telephones, newspapers, and television. It has become a tool that facilitates education and commerce. It is how people communicate with, and learn about, the world. But our internet speeds are slower than in some other parts of the world, and our costs for it are higher. The reason for this, it seems, is that private, for-profit internet service providers have a virtual monopoly in many parts of the US.
During your campaign, you promised you’d improve our national infrastructure, so I am looking forward to seeing you accomplish some overdue repairs and upgrades. Perhaps you could also do something to increase broadband competition, ensure that internet access remains open to all without undue impediments, and maybe even do something to encourage the development of public municipal systems.
Freedom of the Press:
Our founding fathers knew well the importance of a free press for ensuring democracy. Currently, Reporters Without Borders ranks the U.S. 41st in press freedom due to a lack of protection for whistle blowers. We can do better. Help make America honor this fundamental principle by ensuring as much unfettered press access as possible during your administration and by protecting journalists who report what they observe.
Wealth and Income:
There has been a lot of talk about economic disparity during the campaign, and I think we all know by now how lopsided wealth and income are. When the richest 10% of the population controls 76% of the wealth, when the bottom half controls just 1%, and when managers and owners of a business are being paid tens or hundreds times more than its workers, people could understandably see the situation as inherently unfair. This is especially true since average wages have remained stagnant. But paying workers less so that managers and investors can make more is not just a hardship on the workers; it is also detrimental to the national economy. Consumer spending remains its primary driver. A more just and equitable division of income could help families pull up the economy. Unlike the trickle-down economic theories of the past, trickle-up economics can actually work just as it did for the thirty years after WWII. As president, you could pursue several initiatives to help make this happen. If you are unsure what those are, I have listed some books below that may help you. Please look at them. This is your job, now, and it’s an important one.
Healthcare has also received a lot of attention recently. According to a Time article from 2014, the U.S. health system ranked last among eleven developed nations. We also pay more for it. A 2015 report from The Commonwealth Fund says that “despite its heavy investment in health care, the U.S. sees poorer results on several key health outcome measures such as life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic conditions. Mortality rates from cancer are low and have fallen more quickly in the U.S. than in other countries, but the reverse is true for mortality from ischemic heart disease.” It seems clear that we have some catching up to do in order to ensure healthcare is effective, affordable, and available to all Americans. I look forward to hearing your proposals to make America greater in this regard.
In addition to these national issues, you will also be faced with the same challenges confronting other nations. This includes countering religious and ideological extremism. The world is rapidly changing, and people can feel threatened by this and react violently. Some are angry because they feel they are being left behind. Others want to be left behind and feel they’re being dragged forward. Islamists and other fundamentalist religious groups probably fall into this latter category. Sadly, there may be little you or anyone else can do to warm the hearts and open the minds of people prone to reactionary acts of violence, but if we stay true to our founding principles and not react in kind, perhaps we can lead by example.
You will also want to address climate change. Regardless of what vested economic and political interests may be telling you, the scientific data is clear. The CO2 we release by burning fossil fuels is changing the composition of the atmosphere, which in turn is affecting the global climate. As president, you will be in a position to pursue international agreements leading to reductions in CO2 emissions. I anticipate that such efforts will be eagerly supported by the scientific community and largely accepted internationally. Your biggest detractors will be industry lobbyists and members of your own party. I wish you luck.
The last couple of things I want to mention probably won’t reach crisis points during your term, but your responsibilities as president require that you look beyond your stay in the White House. The first issue is the depletion of farming soil, fresh water, oil, and other natural resources. We are using these faster than they can be replaced through natural processes. In the short term, our best option is probably to use less and reuse more. In the long run, technological advances may allow us mitigate some of these problems. I encourage you to do whatever you can to promote, through policy and funding for R&D, efforts to improve recycling and speed the development of sustainable farming and renewable energy.
The last issue I want to bring up pertains to the increasing use of automation in all sectors of the economy. From farming to finance, artificial intelligence and robotic machinery are doing jobs that once required human labor. Due to cost and efficiency advantages, the use of automation will expand. I see this as a good thing, but it can be disruptive and require some fundamental changes in how people obtain income. Remember that the economy is fueled by consumer spending, so as automation makes many kinds of jobs obsolete, either new, good-paying jobs will need to be created or we will need to decouple income from labor to ensure that consumer spending, and hence the overall economy, do not grind to a halt.
I must admit that I did not vote for you, and your narrow victory in the last election surprised me. It has prompted me to rethink some of my former opinions about Americans and about humanity in general. Only a fool will hold to his beliefs in light of conflicting data, and I try not to be too much of a fool. I trust you feel the same, which is why I am writing to you today in this open letter. I hope you will consider what I’ve said here, and I wish you success in making America greater in the upcoming years.
sent to: email@example.com
The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century by Mark Mykleby, Patrick Doherty, Joel Makower
Things were different half a century ago. Many people saw the world much like a game with two teams. The US and its allies were on one side; the USSR and its allies were on the other. In this situation, the goal of the US was clear and easily understood—stop the other side from taking over more of the board.
The end of the Cold War has changed the game, though, and the US has yet to adapt. It lacks a long-term strategic goal that reflects this new reality. Without a clear purpose to unite political parties, national policies have been directionless. Lacking a common enemy, the parties have turned on one another. Their goal is no longer to make America stronger in order to defeat ‘communism’, it is to stop the other party from gaining influence. They’re playing the same game from the Cold War but with a different opponent. With this kind of divisiveness, little can be accomplished in Washington. Even when individual politicians from the two major parties largely agree on a specific policy, it will meet strong opposition from the party not currently in power for fear that the one occupying the White House will get credit for it. (We saw a lot of this during the Obama administration.) Washington has become dysfunctional.
During the same time, ill-conceived trickle-down economic theories and the deregulation of the financial sector have led to several issues including crippling debt, wage stagnation, a shrinking middle class, and the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of very few. These conditions and their ancillary effects, along with uncertainty about national politics, have made businesses reluctant to commit to long-term strategic capital investment. Quarterly profits, stock valuation, and dividends have become the sole measures of business success and therefore the only responsibilities of savvy business leaders. They act as if the effects of their business practices on the environment, the nation, and humanity in general can be ignored. They may fear a backlash from investors if they don’t ignore them.
Today, the US, along with the rest of the world, is facing serious challenges. We are depleting unrenewable resources; we are changing the global climate; we use too much and waste too much; we rely on intensive farming that requires large amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation for our food; and then there are the economic issues of wealth and income disparity along with the dissatisfaction and the resulting societal unrest it brings. This situation is not sustainable. We need to be more efficient, more responsible, and more cognizant of the long-term effects of what we are doing.
The New Grand Strategy tends to be repetitive about these problems, but you’ll get no argument from me about their existence. However, I do question the viability of the solutions the authors offer. They say, “America must lead the global transition to sustainability,” which “describes a broad range of economic, security, social, and environmental concerns expressed throughout society.” (pg. 39) At first, this sounds like generic pie-in-the-sky stuff, or high-word-count and low-content mumbo-jumbo. As they unpack it, though, there are some good ideas here. They claim that unfilled demand exists for walkable communities (no car required to get from home to shops and such); regenerative agriculture (basically, this sounds like more small, regional growers, greater crop diversity, and the use of natural/organic farming methods); and resource productivity (more efficient manufacturing processes and better high-tech materials). They say these three things represent business opportunities that could be profitably pursued.
They may be right in that there is a need for such things. Their recommendations, if realized, could improve the lives of people, the environment, and even the economy. But a need is not a demand. Starving people need food. Homeless people need shelter. But these needs don’t represent economic demands unless the people with needs have the means to satisfy them. In our society, that essentially means the money to buy them.
That’s where I think the Catch-22 of the authors’ recommendations comes into play. Since this review is already far too long, let’s take just one example. Whereas people may wish to move into more walkable communities, they may not have the means to do so. Housing is expensive, wages for working class people are stagnant, and consumer debt is high. There may be a need, but is there a demand? I’m not sure, but I rather doubt it’s high enough to encourage a great deal of new investment in walkable communities. Investors and for-profit businesses are looking for quick, sure profits, not speculative endeavors aimed and improving people’s lives. Ah, but if all the recommendations the authors propose are pursued, then employment and wages will increase. After all, someone needs to design and build these new communities. That means jobs, and jobs mean income. This will create the demand we need.
But what comes first? Investors won’t risk the money needed to build walkable communities unless there is a demand for them, and there will be no demand unless real estate and construction companies provide the jobs to build them. This, I think, is one of the fundamental reasons why trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Lowering taxes to increase business profits doesn’t lead to new jobs. Businesses employ only enough people to produce things they can profitably sell, things for which they feel there is an existing demand. They don’t put people to work hoping a market will emerge as a result of increasing their employment.
During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration pumped up the economy through government spending. They employed people, from conservation workers to soldiers, paid them, and thus created demand where before there was only need. This trickled up to improve the overall economy. But we can’t rely on the federal government this time. As previously stated, Washington, mired in a Cold War mentality, is politically constipated and dysfunctional. Large corporations are unlikely to step up to the challenge. They’ve made big money ignoring externalities like the environment, the overall economy, and human wellbeing. I doubt they’ll be motivated. Those CEOs who might take the risk will have to consider the possibility that they will be outcompeted and consumed by their more ruthless and less responsible peers. So who is going to get the ball rolling this time?
The authors suggest that much can be accomplished locally, or at least things can start there. They are correct when they say, “innovative things are happening across America.” (pg. 213) Individual cities, towns, and smaller communities, private organizations and local businesses willing to take a risk, can and do make real differences in their communities. But can their individual and uncoordinated efforts have a significant impact on the nation?
Possibly, but there are obstacles. Many local governments are also in debt or strapped for cash. Citizens struggling to make ends meet are unlikely to approve tax increases needed to fund very many civic improvements, even if these promise eventual payouts in terms of jobs and quality of life. Taking on additional local government debt may be an option, but this is also problematic. Local businesses in competition with large corporations probably won’t be funding many of these improvements either. They have neither the incentive nor the resources. Those businesses that are doing well might help, but when innovative start-ups show promise, they are often hunted and procured by large corporations or financial predators.
But let us assume these obstacles are overcome. Imagine a nation in which several local communities somehow managed to find the resources for civic improvements, where small businesses and entrepreneurs somehow risked their time and their capital. Let’s even speculate that these are local success stories. There have been some already, after all. How does this turn into a national movement? Where will the plans needed to integrate and extend these efforts originate? With Washington dysfunctional, will there be national policies that support these local achievements and protect them from being stalled by vested interests?
I don’t know. Washington may be dysfunctional, but national policies matter. We can’t simply ignore them and get on with things, as the authors seem to suggest. Corporations and ‘special interest’ groups know this, which is why they spend so much on lobbying. Local efforts are important, but so is Washington. We need it to function properly. With political parties dependent on funding from large donors, and inflexibly partisan politicians proposing policies tailored to their needs, it’s not.
I expect that many of the things the authors suggest may happen, though. As they say, these will probably start with local efforts, or perhaps with visionary entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, I don’t see them happening soon enough or extending broadly enough to prevent the national and global problems that they’ve mentioned from getting worse. When it comes to the economy and the environment (and other issues dividing the nation), we’re still collectively hitting the snooze button. When the alarm becomes too loud to ignore, we’ll wake up and do something. Most of what we attempt, I suspect, will be inappropriate and ineffective, but perhaps some local achievements will provide good examples for solutions that can be extended to the rest of the nation. Even then, I fear we may not have the will, the leadership, or the funding to make it happen. We may have won the Cold War, but our inability to leave it behind us may prevent us from successfully addressing today’s challenges.