Grey Goo and You – Capitalism Wants to Eat Your Grandma

Disney's Big Bad Wolf: 1933
Big Bad Wolf. (2023, September 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bad_Wolf

The plan for October was to do a lot of reading, thinking, and writing. That’s didn’t quite work out. The net result was a bunch of fragments that I’m now trying to build out and publish. This is the second this week. My all-time publishing record:-)

Before we delve into the details of highly speculative doom scenarios, here’s a young adult sf novel about AI and cat videos that will help restore your faith in machine intelligence:-) Catfishing on the Catnet.

Blood Music

Joe Biden’s administration has just announced regulations for Generative Artificial Intelligence. There’s a concern that the widespread use of Large Language Models heralds a new era where general artificial intelligence becomes an “existential threat to humanity.”

Scary artificial intelligence

For this to be true, you would need 1) advanced ‘artificial intelligence,’ whatever that is exactly, but presumably machine intelligence smarter than we are. Also, there would need to be 2) a programmed motivation, i.e., a goal and, more specifically, a goal like achieving total global domination, and 3) agency…some equivalent of fingers and toes.

The fears typically center around number 2) above. Specifically, the fear is AI motivation gone off the rails in a particular process called instrumental convergence.

The classic example is this paper clip maximizer thought experiment (Nick Bostrom, 2003): a system charged with making paper clips ends up converting all matter on earth into paper clips…not because it had anything against the biosphere but because converting it was instrumental to the goal of paper clips.

Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985) provides a parallel example. Here, a rouge researcher injects a simple biocomputer into his bloodstream to smuggle it out of the lab rather than destroy it, and ultimately, he becomes an infectious hive mind. The short story version ended with the biosphere converted into a superorganism (see the jacket cover below.) The novel had a happier ending with all of us people re-instantiated as individuals but with a variety of defects fixed. Thanks AI!

The nanotechnology version of this is called ‘grey goo’…the term from K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 nanotech rah-rah book, Engines of Creation. Here, everything gets converted into nano substrate…grey goo…thanks to an insufficiently regulated process.

I like that term the best for instrumental convergence bad juju. (I’ve argued elsewhere that the goal of a lot of political dinformation is to turn all facts into noise–the informational equivalent of ‘grey goo.’

Side note: there’s a parallel speculative thread to all this I find scarier. I’ll add an addendum about that below.

But first, a more immediate type of runaway instrumentality: American hyper-capitalism.

Finance is Coming for Your Grandmother

Again, science fiction leads the way:-). In an essay in BuzzFeed, author Ted Chaing lays it out very concisely. I’m going to quote him at some length. Emphasis mine.

Ted Chaing in BuzzFeed – Dec 2018 – Silicon Valley Is Turning Into Its Own Worst Fear

Speaking to Maureen Dowd for a Vanity Fair article published in April, Musk gave an example of an artificial intelligence that’s given the task of picking strawberries. It seems harmless enough, but as the AI redesigns itself to be more effective, it might decide that the best way to maximize its output would be to destroy civilization and convert the entire surface of the Earth into strawberry fields…

This scenario sounds absurd to most people, yet there are a surprising number of technologists who think it illustrates a real danger. Why? Perhaps it’s because they’re already accustomed to entities that operate this way: Silicon Valley tech companies.

Consider: Who pursues their goals with monomaniacal focus, oblivious to the possibility of negative consequences? Who adopts a scorched-earth approach to increasing market share? This hypothetical strawberry-picking AI does what every tech startup wishes it could do — grows at an exponential rate and destroys its competitors until it’s achieved an absolute monopoly. The idea of superintelligence is such a poorly defined notion that one could envision it taking almost any form with equal justification: a benevolent genie that solves all the world’s problems, or a mathematician that spends all its time proving theorems so abstract that humans can’t even understand them. But when Silicon Valley tries to imagine superintelligence, what it comes up with is no-holds-barred capitalism.

Chiang’s insight is accurate, and the term grey goo comes in handy: capitalism, or more specifically finance, is well on its way towards reducing most enterprises to a devalorized economic grey goo. People and their little concerns become instrumental to the grand task of consolidating wealth.

image from Adbusters – now and their targeted future

Within capitalism, private equity and investment banking firms are the most voracious in chewing value into grey goo. They operate by purchasing an enterprise and then extracting value for themselves by reducing its value to employees, clients, customers, and often the environment.

A typical process is the one that I’ve seen from the inside.

First, secure debt to purchase a business (often in the form of creating a loan from yourself to yourself); second, transfer the debt to the business; third, pay yourself interest and hefty consulting fees for managing the process; and fourth, discard the desiccated husk. Sears is the poster child for this.

A 20,000-foot view: if you’ve made a billion from a declining business, that money must have been extracted at the cost of something else. As surprising as the thought may be in the current climate, money has to come from somewhere.

Here’s a deeper dive from last week’s Atlantic: The Secretive Industry Devouring the U.S. Economy. From 4% of the economy in 2000 to 20+% today, grey goo is spreading.

But rather than continuing in general terms, let’s focus on Grandma.

Health and Welfare

Well, what does Grandma need?

  1. Often a Doctor – Who Employs Your Doctor? Increasingly, a Private Equity Firm
  2. Frequently a Nursing Home – How Patients Fare When Private Equity Funds Acquire Nursing Homes
  3. And eventually, probably, a Funeral Parlor – Death Is Anything but a Dying Business as Private Equity Cashes In

(The last reference is from an investigative series, Patients for Profit: How Private Equity Hijacked Health Care. Also good and a good read is the inimitable Cory Doctorow’s Private Equity finally delivered Sarah Palin’s death panels.) 

Axis of Evil

Heartlessness as a service

What do I find scary? The merger of AI and hyper-capitalism!

In a recent episode of This Week In Google (my sole remaining tech podcast), Leo Laporte and crew report on what they term ‘heartlessness as a service.’

Their source is ProPublica:

On a summer day last year, a group of real estate tech executives gathered at a conference hall in Nashville to boast about one of their company’s signature products: software that uses a mysterious algorithm to help landlords push the highest possible rents on tenants.

“Never before have we seen these numbers,” said Jay Parsons, a vice president of RealPage, as conventiongoers wandered by. Apartment rents had recently shot up by as much as 14.5%, he said in a video touting the company’s services. Turning to his colleague, Parsons asked: What role had the software played?

“I think it’s driving it, quite honestly,” answered Andrew Bowen, another RealPage executive. “As a property manager, very few of us would be willing to actually raise rents double digits within a single month by doing it manually.”

Rent Going Up? One Company’s Algorithm Could Be Why (Oct 2022).

Back to Grandma

And back to Cory Doctorow: America’s largest hospital chain has an algorithmic death panel: HCA’s administrators berate doctors over “missed hospice opportunities.”

I consider hyper-capitalism to be a machine that tends, in an interative process, ejects humans that let ethics get in the way of profits in favor of humans with fewer scruples–ultimately leaving only the machine.

AI will sort through options to optimize whatever it’s told to optimize.

The combined result in a particularly vicious combination: a mindless instrumentality that will chew through the economy remorselessly, generating grey goo from actual human value. (Kinda like Elon Musk’s brain.)

Addendum: good and bad singularities

Okay, Elon’s not scary enough:-)?

Warning: I’m going to nerd out a bit. Why? Because I can’t help myself.

The grandmother of all this ‘generative ai’ talk is The Singularity, defined as the point machine intelligence uplifts to sentience–but with expanded networked intelligence that dwarfs our own ‘as humans are compared to flatworms’ as the expression goes.

There’s a fascinating LongNow lecture and discussion, What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen? featuring Vernor Vinge.

Vinge is the Sf author who coined the term Singularity. John von Neumann discussed the event in the ’50s, but Vinge’s 1983 short story ‘True Names’ put the term into use.

The discussion immediately jumped track since none of the panelists could imagine that The Singularity wouldn’t happen. So, they started talking about possible positive or negative singularities and the range between them.

Their benchmark for a bad singularity?

Two opposing hyper-paranoid military computers in China and the US ‘uplifting’ each other to sentience during a disastrous global war that lasts only a couple of hours.

Thanks for reading.

We Need a Smaller Them – pt 3

TLDR: This is Part 3 in the Emotional Truth / Political Lies series: a loss of meaning can be more deadly than the loss of income when jobs go away for White working-class males. Their immiseration ripples out to affect us all.

(But first, friends links to a couple of new things on Medium:
Christianity from the Heart – Reverend Al makes a rare appearance.
Kevin Phillips – RIP – a history of today’s out-of-control Them-ing.)

Mervin Jules - Dispossessed [c.1938] - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Mervin Jules – Dispossessed [c.1938] – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Our plot so far:

We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.

This is a further step in a series of a dozen or so works of political analysis I’ve written since 2016. I’m building this in small sections. Please kibitz!

This is also the counterweight to a theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us.

My thesis: the economic immiseration of a broad section of the American middle and working classes has unmoored them. Identity is up for grabs. The economic crisis creates a crisis of meaning and identity.

Political lies: significant resources are being spent to make sure widespread discontent doesn’t feed back into effective political action.

It’s expensive to make Americans this stupid, but the payoff has been rich.

Part 1 introduced the thesis and looked at who is to blame for our current laws and regulations.

Emotional truth: the feeling that government policy ignores everyday people is accurate.

Part 2 reviewed Those That Work and Those That Don’t – an early Petri dish example of identity destabilization through job loss.

The author’s finding: identity resets outside economic factors, substituting intangibles such as ‘moral superiority.’

  • Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.
    Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020

Part 3 – Deaths of Despair

The next analytic touchstone after ‘Those That Work’ is the research of Anne Case and Angus Deaton. This takes us from the Petri dish of ‘Golden Valley’ out to the wider impact of job loss. In this section, the pattern of good ‘working class’ jobs disappearing is viewed demographically rather than through a specific case history.

The research

In 2015, life expectancy in the wealthiest country in the world fell for the first time in decades. Then came the nearly unfathomable: Life expectancy in the US fell again in 2016 — and for a third time in a row in 2017. It is hard to communicate just how disquieting that trend is.
– Roge Karma, Vox, 4/15/2020

Half a million people are dead who should not be dead.
Case & Deaton 2015

Deaths: Bold Red = US White, Bold Blue = US Hispanic. Deaton & Case.

In 2015 (in a study that they initially had trouble even getting published!) Case & Deaton announced the discovery of what has come to be termed ‘deaths of despair’ among non-college-educated middle-aged Whites…men in particular and women to a lesser extent.

They noticed a spike in death rate first in comparison to other US ethnicities and then in contrast to similar populations in other countries. Digging into the statistics, these additional deaths were a result of suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdose coupled with poor access to healthcare. Deaths of despair.

Groups less dependent on their job for a sense of identity (primarily because of their historical exclusion from ‘good jobs’ and, hence, centering meaning elsewhere, e.g., Latinos and women) did not exhibit the same demographic trends.

Let’s put the numbers in perspective.

Chart by me. Deaths of despair extrapolated to 2019 from Case & Deaton’s 2015 numbers using their methodology. Stopped at 2020 when COVID made that too complex.

What’s going on?

Repeating:

Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.
Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020

If we apply Sherman’s discoveries across this entire demographic, identity was set adrift— decentered —for a broad demographic   with dire consequences both for those individuals and for society.

Individuals scrambled to find a new way to play a leading role in their own stories. As Sherman points out, being ‘moral’…being a ‘good guy’…became core.

Many of those who failed the challenge died. Between successful and dead lay degrees of emotional distress, typically a chronic low-grade sense of panic among those on the edge.

Into the breach came a huge billionaire-funded industry aimed at offering wedge ideologies as identity and toxic religion as a comfort.

A core strategic win was the political capture of the Southern Baptist Church during the ‘Conservative Resurgence‘, starting in the late 70s and consolidating gains through the subsequent 15 years and again now in a second cycle. The SBC’s ‘liberals’ were certainly not far left of center, but they and even center-right moderates were purged.

The impact of this can’t be underestimated. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination even after close to 2000 churches broke away to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (the Jimmy Carter Baptists.) Huge monetary and organizational resources were now available. The SBC has six sizeable seminaries training thousands yearly and an annual budget of nearly $200M–all contributed by people in local churches.

Worse, in my opinion, those local churches, critical envelopes of support in the face of death, illness, trials and tribulations, and pillars of identity to many, now became organizing cells in the culture wars.

Add to this Koch-brothers-type think tanks, right-wing talk radio, and Fox News as the Ministry of Truth, and you have the enormous resources devoted to keeping the pot boiling.

Observing people seeming to vote against their self-interest, I hear friends asking how people can be so stupid. If we could calculate a ‘cost per unit of stupid,’ I think we’d find it’s hugely expensive to make people this ‘stupid.’ Obviously, it’s worth the investment to those footing the bill.

Two points:

First, if you combine the decentering of working-class identity and the way that it has been exploited, the result is that ideology has become identity. This is key to understanding what’s going on and looking for strategies to fix it.

An ideology is a narrow and brittle basis for identity. Under these conditions, a challenge to particular ideas is an existential threat!

Much of what seems crazy has to be understood in that light. It’s not at all a matter of ideas and evidence. The challenge is to the person’s sense of self, not some contingent idea that can be easily revised or corrected.

Another way to look at it: if people are acting against their economic interests, there must be something they see as more important.

I believe that dividing the world up into Us and Them is baked in by our evolutionary history. (Evidence on request.) That makes it a leverage point easily exploited.

Starting politics with a common rallying point…say, a commitment to decent jobs, good schools, health care that wasn’t a huge source of misery and personal bankruptcy, and a clean environment…could cut across the most common Us vs Them divides.

It would also mean that the corporate engines of consolidation and profit at any cost and the 1%’s domination of American politics would be imperiled. So, something divisive has to be substituted.


Coming in future installments. Where do we go from here? Republicans and Democrats – heartless exploitation vs. gutless weasels. And more.

Side note: Wedge identities are only getting more unmoored. Even conservative pastors are starting to flip out. They’re being challenged over direct quotes from Jesus, e.g., love your neighbor as yourself or turn the other cheek. (But “Jesus said that” apparently carries insufficient weight.) A recent study found Trump supporters trust him significantly more than their friends and families, conservative media figures, or their pastors.

For a fascinating interview on the Christians vs. Jesus thing and how ideology becomes identity, listen to this podcast with Russell Moore, ex-head of the SBC’s policy arm and current editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, in this episode of Talkin’ Religion and Politics without Killin’ Each Other.

We Need a Smaller Them – pt 2

I’m working on a recap of a dozen or so works of political analysis I’ve written between 2016 and today. As I complete a section, I intend to post it here first. Please kibitz!

This is also the counterweight to a theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us. We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.

First, an overall outline.

  • Intro (published in part 1)
  • Decentered Identity (in part 1)
  • Grounding (in part 1)
  • Emotion Truth / Political Lies Touchstones
    • Setting the Stage (skipped for now)
    • Those that Work and Those That Don’t (found below.)
    • Deaths of Despair (this and below are assumed sections and will follow)
    • Betrayal
    • Exploitation
  • A Smaller Them
  • Wrap Up

My thesis is that the economic immiseration of a broad section of the American middle and working classes has unmoored them. Identity is up for grabs and significant resources are being spent to make sure their discontent doesn’t feed back into effective political change. It’s expensive to make Americans this stupid, but the payoff has been rich.

Here follows a look at research that I think provides a clear analysis of what happens when the good working class jobs that underpin a community disappear. This was logging but think factory closing, consolidation of farming into corporate hands, or any number of community-level economic disasters.



1) Those That Work and Those That Don’t

My first touchstone is Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t by Jennifer Sherman. Before the widespread loss of good jobs in much of the US, an abrupt economic collapse in an isolated logging town provides us with a sort of petri-dish case history of the pattern that will repeat widely over the next 30 years.


Golden Valley, a once-bustling logging and mill town, is a community on the decline, characterized by unemployment, job instability, and poverty. Its denizens are caught in a struggle to define themselves as successful despite their economic and labor market failures.

Morality is one of the few remaining axes upon which to base this hierarchy. When jobs, incomes, and other sources of identity are stripped away, it is still possible to find ways to define themselves and their entire community as morally upstanding.

Jennifer Sherman from Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t, 2009

In 1994, the Spotted Owl was listed as an endangered species. As a result, logging in some parts of Northern California was cut by 80%. Forest Service and logging jobs disappeared, and the mills closed one by one. 

In 2003, Jennifer Sherman, in dissertation research, moved into ‘Golden Valley’ CA, to study social hierarchy and self-definition in folks impacted. That work was expanded into a book published in 2009: Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America

Sherman’s core finding: when the economic underpinning of everyday life disappears, morality emerges as the critical component of self-definition and social standing. Being ‘moral’ provides dignity, purpose, and a place in the social hierarchy. Working … standing against the tide … is an indicator of moral worth.

Morality. A narrative emerges: We’re good people. We’ve done nothing wrong. Good people fight the good fight for a righteous way of life based on (sometimes imaginary) old-time values. Honesty. Godliness. Self-Sufficiency: being a breadwinner (or, at a minimum, staying off welfare) becomes a significant component of social standing and personal dignity. Self-reliance through hunting and fishing also grants status and meaning. Drug use is a crutch…a sign of moral failing.

The corollary: economic failure is a personal moral failure. Even though the economy has been shot out from under the whole community, it is not merely unfortunate. To succumb by, say, going on welfare is weak and wrong. 80% of the jobs are gone, but you can be a failure because you don’t have a job.

I’d like to note that this narrative is highly useable to our hypothetical controlling economic elite.

  1. Supporting this definition of worth and identity doesn’t come with a cost in, say, higher taxes. 
  2. Keeping the focus on the uncoordinated individuals or families, the least effective political actors, as the sole agents of own their success or failure short circuits effective action.
  3. Related, channeling the emotion caused by the suffering into Us vs Them both within the community (Hillbilly Elegy) and toward the exogenous actors that shut down jobs keeps the situation manageable. Keeping the focus on the Them rather than strengthening and organizing the Us is very useful politically. (More on that in subsequent sections.)

(There’s not a lot of room for nuance in this quick summary I’m trying to provide. For a deeper look, I recommend Sherman’s book as a very worthwhile read.)

We Need a Smaller Them – pt 1

Blogging!

In case you missed the announcement, I’m shifting my base of operation from Medium back to this blog. Rather than working for weeks and kicking out biggish posts there, I’m going to publish small chunks here. Occasionally, the chunks will coalesce into longer articles that will go back out to Medium.

Emotional Truth and Political Lies

What’s below is not part of the new approach in that it’s part of a longer article that’s already in progress. I’ve got the early part written and am only fine-tuning. The last parts are still a word salad. As things get firmed up, I’ll post them here.

This excerpt is a recap of a dozen or so articles written between 2016 and today. It’s also the counterweight to a repeating theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us! We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.

Here is a draft of the first sections. Please kibitz. First, an overall outline.

  • Intro (draft included here)
  • Decentered Identity (draft included here)
  • Grounding (draft included here)
  • Emotion Truth / Political Lies Touchstones (this and subsequent sections to follow)
    • Setting the Stage
    • Those that Work and Those That Don’t
    • Deaths of Despair
    • Betrayal
    • Exploitation
  • A Smaller Them
  • Wrap Up

We Need a Smaller Them

Emotional Truth, Political Lies — Our Plot So Far

There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion.
Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021)

The neoliberal project was focused on designing institutions — not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy.
-Quinn Slobodian, Globalists (2018)

On November 6th, 2016, I was jolted out of my assumptions about our political landscape. My hijacked attention has been focused on the contradictions of our weird political culture ever since. I’ve been reading and thinking, hoping to internalize the contradictions and write my way out. I’m part way there. This is my interim report.

I have elsewhere presented the case that, to survive, we need a bigger Us. This presents the corollary: we need a smaller, more focused Them.

Decentered Identity 

Something odd is going on. Folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum have been consistently acting against their own interests — or so it seems to me. Clearly, they don’t see it that way.

In my six-year journey to try and understand the dynamics of US politics, I have come to believe that it’s, in fact, “identity politics” at the core — but not in the way the term is commonly used. 

The destruction of working-class jobs unmoored working-class* identities (particularly among older White males) and left a big chunk of the population adrift generating death and pain, some serious craziness, and a lot of cold-hearted political exploitation. 

(*The term working class is a bit misleading since the blast zone includes not just warehouse, factory, and service workers but farmers, shopkeepers, tradespeople of various types, and so on…mostly, but not exclusively, the folks working for hourly wages unbuffered by employer-supplied health insurance and retirement benefits. I’m not sure a working-class/middle-class distinction has meaning currently.)

We commonly believe that our identity is something deeply personal, idiosyncratic, and tucked away ‘inside,’ but that isn’t accurate. Identity is how we feel, true, and what we do and think. Critically, it’s also how people respond to us. It’s the stories we hear about who we are and the stories we can tell about who we are. And it’s a lot more generic than we like to believe.

Identity is often significantly based on jobs; catastrophic job losses over the last 60 year has resulted in the widespread destruction of working-class identity. A large segment of the population has been cut adrift, economically for sure, but also in terms of self-respect and a grounded identity — in short, exiled from key pillars of a meaningful life. These concerns have not been adequately addressed by either political party. Exploited, yes. Addressed, no.

The mix of engendered emotions — rage, outrage, despair, feelings of betrayal, ‘paranoia’ —  is inherently dangerous to the established power structure and needs to be redirected to prevent effective action…something that might reverse the ongoing shift of income and resources from the lower 80% to the upper 20% of our population. It doesn’t matter whether this shift has been deliberate (oh, no, conspiracy) or enacted through mindless machinations of capitalism’s push toward monopoly and regulatory capture. The results remain.

To restate, folks are miserable as a result of their systematic immiseration. They have done nothing wrong, yet they’re steadily losing ground. That’s genuinely a pisser, and they’re pissed — if not in a spiral of despair —  and looking for clues as to who might be responsible.

I’ve found some tools that I think are key to understanding how this is playing out and hopefully pointers to things that might help counter it. They follow in as compressed a form as I can manage. This summarizes a series I call Emotional Truth and Political Lies.

Before We Start, a Bit of Grounding

…analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
Testing Theories of` American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens , Gilens and Page (2014)

Gilens and Page’s study analyzed the policy preferences of different groups and compared them to actual policy outcomes in 1779 policy cases. 

They found that economic elites and business interest groups have a disproportionate amount of influence on policy decisions and argue that this influence can be attributed to a variety of factors: primarily the role of money in politics, the limited access that average citizens have to policymakers, and the influence of the media. 

The tax code, regulatory environment, and funded services have been shaped primarily by the economic elite. If that aligns with the needs of everyday people, it’s a happy accident.

What’s the takeaway? 

  1. If you want to blame someone for how things are, it might make sense to target the folks actually controlling it! If the ‘Deep State’ is a group of actors controlling the system from the shadows, then big donors are the actual Deep State.
Gilens and Page — a tiny sliver of the US population makes the rules

2. It is important not to conflate the targeted semi-mythical ‘urban elites’ with actual economic elites. 

Gilens and Page define the economic elite as the top 1%. The top 1% represents about 1.3 million households who roughly make more than $500,000 a year out of a total of 128 million households in the US. Of the 128M, there are 108M urban households (versus 20M rural) — which gives us 106.7M urban non-elites. (See chart above.) And that assumes that all economic elites should be subtracted from the urban column — clearly not the case.

3. A PS, it’s unlikely that many of the people making things worse for almost everyone else are conscious of that. They might make good neighbors. (There are, of course, a few evil geniuses.) As a result, an ‘are they good people?’ analysis is not up to the task.

…to be continued…

Spring 2023 Newsletter

Hi all,

It’s been a while.

Short version: wife Wendy took an abrupt fall (the result of an unrecognized Lisfranc injury), and, between acting as a home health aide and dodging storms then making repairs, I spent 3 months with no time to write. Even with much healing and the end to a series of atmospheric rivers, time was tight. Now Wendy is highly mobile again, and it’s a glorious spring. Time to get active.

Uprooted trees in Point Reyes National Seashore after numerous storms during winter 2022/23
Pt Reyes Natl Seashore: after months of rain, even deeply rooted trees started blowing over

But hold on a minute.

The interruption gave me yet another opportunity to try and decide what I want to be when I grow up. I’m nearing the end of a series I call Emotional Truth / Political Lies written in order to think things through. (More of that below.) I used Medium as a platform because it makes writing look good and held out the promise of helping find readers/kibitzers.

Blooming wild irises at Pt Reyes National Seashore
Spring!

Here’s the problem.

First, it has become clear to me that folks that get read a lot on Medium, write a lot on Medium. Like every week. Some daily! I’m not capable of that. I’m using writing to think; that’s a slow process. I can get something out every month or two if I’m pushing it. So no big rush of new readers.

Second, the wtf demon that’s had me since 2016 is releasing its grip.

I’m finishing up the analysis phase of the Truth/Lies series. There will be a summary of thoughts so far, and I do need to write something about the political capture of the Southern Baptist Church. But I’m nearing a natural transition point.

So here’s what I’m going to do.

A piece on Medium by Cory Doctorow pointed to a way to solve my ‘slow but unsteady’ approach to writing:
“…interesting stuff that crosses my path gets turned into a blog post
where it rubs up against other interesting stuff and crystallizes into
longer, more considered pieces”
I’m going to try that. Pieces here will be short, tentative, and likely awkward. Things will appear on Medium as they mature or in the unlikely event that I end up writing something quick and fun (could happen, right?).

If you want to see the long stuff, you could Subscribe on Medium.

The latest piece and the first in 6 months is Drake’s Equation and You. If you think you’ve Subscribed but didn’t see it, then either it went to spam, or you Followed me rather than Subscribed.

(If you want to see all work by a writer on Medium remember: Follow bad; Subscribe good. Their system is confusing.)

Photo of Fermi
Fermi’s question = If there are so many stars where are the aliens? Drake took it from there.

I’ll add a teaser to the current work in progress below. See it here as sections get roughed out.

Thanks for reading,
Al

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We Need a Smaller Them

Emotional Truth, Political Lies — Our Plot So Far

There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion.
Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021)

The neoliberal project was focused on designing institutions — not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy.
-Quinn Slobodian, Globalists (2018)

I have elsewhere presented the case that, to survive, we need a bigger Us. This presents the corollary: we need a smaller, more focused Them.

Intro

On November 6th, 2016, I was jolted out of my assumptions about our political landscape. Now hijacked, my attention has been focused on the contradictions of our weird political culture ever since. I’ve been reading and thinking, hoping to internalize the contradictions and write my way out. I’m part way there. This is my interim report.

Decentered Identity 

Something odd is going on. Folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum have been consistently acting against their own interests — or so it seems to me. Clearly, they don’t see it that way.

In my six-year journey to try and understand the dynamics of US politics, I have come to believe that it’s, in fact, “identity politics” at the core — but not in the way the term is commonly used. 

…to be continued…

Fall 2022 Newsletter

Hello all,

Here are free links to things I’ve written over the last quarter. I always appreciate your thoughts and getting a critique of mine…best if you leave them on Medium but whatever works.

I’ve sorted them by topic. They are, alas, weighted towards political coverage. That was not my plan when I started writing on Medium but the topics won’t let me go. Things are just two effing weird. Someday we’ll get back to quantum theory, evolutionary biology, Carl Jung, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Lighter stuff, you know.

Thanks for reading,
Al

PS, Medium is weird. You can Follow me and it does pretty much nothing. Subscribe to get a note when I publish. That’ll be about once a month averaged out. Also, the Medium Clap button is not like Like. If you Clap, please hold it down and turn it up to 11!

PSS, I add a few folks from my address book whenever I’m about to send a Newsletter out. You might be one of those folks. If you don’t want to receive these, note the Unsubscribe at the bottom or just reply and I’ll remove you.

Main Current

Coming Together

Cultivating Joy and Connection (In Search of the Lost Word)

With a shout out to my Scandahoovian brothers and sisters.

(Should you want a fuller explanation of why I think the above is necessary, here’s  an older piece: We Need a Bigger Boat (Add a Bigger Us to the Long Now and a Wider Here.))

Falling Apart

image from Naven 2nd Edition

Schismogenesis (MAGA for a day — or here’s how you can really own the Libs)

Gregory Bateson’s defining ethnography looks at a fractured society and how they managed the schism.

Just for fun / short features

Taxes Are Hate (Unless they’re taxes on you)
3 min read

Two words: Elon Musk.

Wordle-Ku (Group fun with Wordle)
3 min read

A haiku modification based on the daily Wordle always adds sparkle to my day.

Tables of Contents

For everything.
For only the  slow-rolling political research (2016 to present).

Summer 2022 Newletter

  • What follows are free links to recent writing and an excerpt from the most recent. I’m very happy with how it evolved, btw. 

But first, a note about Medium:

  • Subscribe good; Follow bad.
  • If you Subscribe then you’ll get a few paragraphs and a link when I hit publish. If that hasn’t happened blame Follow

Links

After a few years of wallowing in the problems, I’m starting to see the vague outline of solutions. That starts with this one:

We Need a Bigger Boat:
Add a Bigger Us to the Long Now and a Wider Here

Jaws — PR Photo & “Great white shark” by Gussy (Luke) is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Longer Now, Wider Here, Bigger Us

The Concept

In 2003, Brian Eno explained the insight behind the name of the Long Now Foundation.

After noting that he liked to move around, see the shops, and meet people in any neighborhood he lived in, he described going to a house-warming party in New York in the late ’70s.

The taxi delivered him to an address in a bad neighborhood. He suspected he was at the wrong address until, arriving at the top floor, he found himself in a “multi-million dollar palace.” He asked the host if she liked the neighborhood? The reply: “Oh, the neighborhood? Well, that’s outside.”

Read More

Hope it’s okay if I’ve added a few of you to my quarterly newsletter. I’ve very much appreciate the feedback you all have been providing.
Thanks for reading!

Al



Shootout at the OK Corral — An American Ecstasy

Emotional Truth, Political Lies #02

You can read a prettier version of this on Medium.
Please Clap or Comment if you do.


Fascism sees its salvation in giving people not their rights, but instead a chance to express themselves.
— Walter Benjamin

Richard Boone is one bad hombre

As a kid, I loved Westerns.

When I stayed with my grandparents, the big treat was being allowed to stay up and watch them. They featured exciting heroes doing manly deeds in a bland world of Laurence Welk variety shows and Father Knows Best sitcoms. In addition, as adult fare, they were shown past my official bedtime, and (bonus!) my mom didn’t like them. (Not sure why…probably her instinct against semi-toxic nonsense.)

Each show was a slow build to a quick resolution.

The Bad Guys telegraphed their Evil nature early, generally by bullying townspeople and disrespecting women, and then the show proceeded to reveal deeper menace and a counterforce of reaction and resistance with each character claiming their spot on the Good-To-Evil Continuum.The climax was always a Shootout in which Good triumphed, Evil received its due (death!), and the morally compromised were wounded or died heroically throwing in with Good in The End.

I’m certainly not in favor of bullying townspeople or disrespecting women but there are some problems with The Shootout as a template for conflict resolution or political action. Nonetheless, it seems to be one — as American as apple pie.

Smart and Stupid

This is part 2 in a series on American Politics that starts with Emotional Truths, Political Lies #01 in Politically Speaking. The thread through this series of articles will be an exploration of just how we got so stupid and who spent what to get us here.

The objective of this piece is to work towards an operational definition of ‘smart’ and ‘stupid’. We’ll get philosophical about that in a bit.

We are in a crisis where great need seems to lead to stupid rather than smart action — as if we’re striving to break some surface but can’t tell up from down.

In this article, I will be analyzing one way things go astray — how emotional truth can become ensnared in political nonsense.

Ecstasy

Before it became a drug name, the term ecstasy referred to an emotional state with religious overtones. An online definition, ‘powered by Oxford’, is “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”

Religious authors frequently reframe the word into ‘ex-stasis’ highlighting the break of stepping out of one’s static self and returning changed.This resolution of conflict through cinematic violence is a peculiarly American ecstasy. It embodies an archetype of change or conversion through a story of ‘action adventure’ in which a stand-out ‘liminal’ moment of violence resolves the conflict and gives all their due.

We see the same story pattern repeated in comics, movies, TV, idle fantasy, and, alas, political action. The pattern of slow build with a climactic resolution is what Jane McGonigal views as the grail of video gaming: the epic win.

It’s an apocalypse that delivers utopia in a blaze of glory.

Revolution Is No Tea Party

Albrecht Dürer — The Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seals, from The Apocalypse c. 1497

Norman Cohen, in his classic The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, traces the appearance and development of ‘revolutionary millenarianism’ in the 14th century when the common people were set adrift by the crumbling authority of the Church in a world ravaged by the plague and famine.Millenarianism can be defined as a movement powered by the vision of a new order — specifically an egalitarian utopia — and the belief that there can be a glorious and immediate transformation to that state. (Cohen draws out some important distinctions between the different types of revolts and insurrections. We’ll return to that below.)I remember being puzzled when I first read Cohen some decades ago by the frequent jumps from imagined utopia to inter-communal violence. The egalitarian utopia wasn’t going to be equally distributed. Apparently, the route to a better future leads through the murder of Jews, or of a different variant of Christians, or the nobles, or some other flavor of not-us.

Time has clarified this for me. It’s central to the whole impulse:

  • Things are bad.
  • Someone must be responsible.
  • We are good people; we’re acting right; our intentions are pure.
  • Therefore (part 1), since the someone responsible isn’t Us. It must therefore be Them acting as a poison to the body politic.
  • Therefore (part 2), if we purge the poison, there will be a dramatic, sudden transformation to the good.

The psychodynamics and biochemistry of this are interesting and we’ll dig into that more in a future article. For now, we’ve pretty much described the underlying mental architecture of QAnon and the Capitol Insurrection: utopia delivered in an ecstasy of violence.

Tyler Merbler from USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Back to Amerika

But before we go further, I’ll have to admit to having more than just a theoretical knowledge of this type of thinking.

From 1974’s PRAIRIE FIRE: The politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism; Political Statement of the Weather Underground.

Set the Wayback Machine to 1970: we’re in a world where our amazing planet is being destroyed by a system built on the systematic exploitation of everyday people and rooted in the genocide of First Peoples and the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. We are being fed into the grinder in a war to satisfy some sort of tit-for-tat fantasy of Henry Kissenger’s. The deep state has infiltrated and disrupted resistance movements…even lowly food coops. Our leaders are being assassinated by lone gunmen or police raids. Our compatriots have been killed at Jackson State and Kent State. Old men posture with nuclear weapons when their use would clearly be insane in a “we found it necessary to destroy this village in order to save it” sort of way.

By Oliver Atkins (Jiang -original uploader on en wiki) — http://www.gmu.edu/library/specialcollections/acsrmn2_9_1f.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=516178

From this perspective, a small but intensely committed subset of the 60s/70s American left argued for acts of violence — not primarily because they would themselves have an impact but because they would crystalize awareness, show that resistance is possible, and lead to a mass uprising. This manifesto from the Weather Underground is worth a quick scan if only to note what has changed and what hasn’t: Prairie Fire (sds-1960s.org.)

Not everyone agreed that violence made sense, but the intensity of emotion created a pounding demand for some sort of action…not endless talk or compromise with the effing Hubert Humphrey liberals! Our lives were on the line. Things had to change. Now!

Creative Commons Mark 1.0

Hence, the idea of slow and steady progress seemed a slow and steady path to nowhere. Revolution seemed the only answer. Okay, Stalin was a bit iffy but Che or Lenin provided a beacon. And then along came Mao talking of ‘permanent revolution’. What could be cooler than that!Like John Lennon, you could count me out (and in) but the intent here is not to argue strategy. Certainly, uprisings and rebellions have led to progressive change and, certainly, they have backfired horribly.What I want to highlight, though, is the strong fantasy undercurrent of Revolution as the zipless fuck of progress. Transformations are quick; impact is unambiguous; consequences are as intended; evil is dispatched and good ascends. This constellation of ideas is a strange attractor in American politics.

That brings us to the modern American right.

What Were They Thinking

Followers of QAnon…believe that there is an imminent event known as the “Storm” when thousands of members of the cabal will be arrested and possibly sent to Guantanamo Bay prison or to face military tribunals, and the U.S. military will brutally take over the country. The result will be salvation and utopia on earth
– WikipediaI’m now officially the dumbest guy in my whole family
-QAnon follower on 1/21/21

There’s been enough ink on QAnon. QAnon’s theory in short: an evil deep-state cabal controls the country; Trump will lead a massive reset; time was running out so it had to happen on Inauguration Day, 2021.

If you’ve been out of the loop for the last 6 years, Wikipedia has it detailed for your reading enjoyment.

Since it involves less than a dozen specific well-chronicled individuals, the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitman provides better grist for analysis. In short: the Wolverine Watchmen Militia consisting of less than a dozen members, meeting in secret at Adam Fox’s temporary living quarters in the cellar of the Vac Shack vacuum shop, planned to kidnap the Governor (because?), blow up a bridge to delay police pursuit (until?), and hole up somewhere (and?).

From there it gets a little vague:-) Missing were specific demands or a manifesto or a political program or tactics to connect the kidnapping to any sort of change. Various members railed against everything from gun laws (gun laws?— some of Wolverines had already shown up at the State Capitol with legal assault weapons), to COVID precautions, to deep state control, to motor vehicle laws. (Reform the DMV or the Governor gets it!)

Wikipedia is again a good source of details.

Booking Photos — Wisconsin Wolverine Militia Members

As the reports of the plot continued to come in, I could only shake my head and keep asking, ”What were they thinking?”

Let’s see what one of the leaders of the Wolverine Watchman, Adam Fox, had to say (source Wikipedia):

In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude…. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back

Snatch and grab, man. Grab the fuckin’ Governor. Just grab the bitch. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.

Smart vs Stupid: Party Like It’s 1299

Norman Cohen pointed out a critical distinction between ineffective and effective social movements:

It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless. A social struggle is seen not as a struggle for specific, limited objectives, but as an event of unique importance, different in kind from all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed.

… in contrast…

How did the movements we have been considering stand in relation to other social movements? They occurred in a world where peasant revolts and urban insurrections were very common and moreover were often successful. It frequently happened that the tough, shrewd rebelliousness of the common people stood them in excellent stead, compelling concessions, bringing solid gains in prosperity and privilege.

Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One key indicator of the difference is the ‘atemporality’ of misguided solutions. The aims are ‘boundless’ and the solution is a ‘cataclysm’ from which the world emerges ‘totally transformed and redeemed.’

A second indicator: there is no ambiguity. The vision is pure and complete; unintended consequences will be non-existent.

Thus, making change is not a process that unfolds like growing crops, or building a house, or baking a pie. It doesn’t require domain knowledge, or trial and error, or sustained focused work over months or years. We ‘ex-stasis’ out of a complicated world of brick-by-brick construction and fix it all in ‘cataclysm’ of ‘redemption.’As a story, this resonates. As a strategy, it fails spectacularly.

It’s worth noting that, since we’re working with myth, that we’re in some weird variant of the hero‘s story. The Wisconsin Wolverines clearly felt themselves to be defenders and protectors. But where Hercules had his dozen labors or, as Joeseph Campbell describes, a hero goes through stages of progressive struggle through time, here the whole story is collapsed. Everything gets fixed in a ‘blaze of glory.’

And that, in a sense, is what this series is all about: the disconnect between a deeply felt emotional impulse and an effective political program.

Emotional truth; political lies.

The Economic Truth

Life flows along the commonplace.
– Carl Jung

Our current economy seems defined by the loss of a ‘meaningful commonplace’ for a huge swath of the population.

After Trump’s election, I did a deep dive into popular and academic literature trying to understand what had driven a result I did not understand…particularly the voting patterns in the upper Midwest and particularly where Obama voters that had become Trump voters.There are lots of ‘sufficient’ explanations for why Trump won. Many of them are correct. The result was ‘overdetermined’ — any of a variety of factors could explain the few votes that swung the election. Even non-voting by regular voters…the relative proportion of those too turned off to vote in this election but not in the previous…was enough to explain the result.

This doesn’t ignore the impact of evangelicals or the baleful influence of misogyny or White supremacy, but a few vote switches in just a very few states would have taken the election in a different direction. There were sufficient non-evangelical, non-misogynist, non-supremacist Trump voters to make the difference.

What was driving people? What caused them to cast what looked to me like a ‘Jesse Ventura vote’ — basically a vote to monkey-wrench a system that they viewed as hopelessly rigged against them.Donald Trump and the White Working Class1. Painalantabor.medium.com

My finding: it wasn’t all that complicated. By and large, we’re fairly simple creatures. What folks wanted could be summarized pretty easily: a decent life — agency, respect, and a fair shake. Fifty years ago much of the White working-class could obtain that in the combination of occupation and their social capital rooted in their relationships in the church, club, union, etc.This good-enough commonplace has been steadily disrupted by the loss of jobs that might support a family and increasing economic polarization and disdain for those excluded from an economy that steadily distributes wealth upward. This has been exacerbated by disruptive technologies, globalization, and ever-accelerating ‘future shock’.

As in the times described by Norman Cohen, times of economic uncertainty, plague, and the collapse of normal meaning generation are steadily tightening the screws on everyday people. People suffer with increasingly lethal consequences. As a result, people can get a little crazy.

The Political Lies

But that craziness is being shaped and shaped in a way that directly mitigates against changing the conditions causing it. Instead of a meaningful program for change, we get ‘cosplay revolution with real bullets’. Neither the Capitol Insurrection nor kidnapping Gov Whitmer had a plan that would have created good jobs or a more inclusive economy. Our distress has been short-circuited into theater.

The call to action from the political podium, the pulpit, and Fox News ups emotional intensity but blurs focus on the material processes that underly our distress so that folks are tipped into a strange attractor of self-referential cathartic but ineffective action.

The number one factor breaking families is money…economics…but try telling that to Focus on the Family.

True and False; Smart and Stupid

Post-truth is pre-fascism…. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place.
– Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History, Yale

In part 1 of this series, we started to tally up what’s being spent to make us stupid. Here we define stupid operationally and quite simply.

Smart works toward an effective solution. Stupid action produces a non-solution or even mitigates against effective action.Telling them apart is occasionally difficult but sometimes simple. If you have a flat tire and you’re looking under the hood or you’re on a jihad to discover the evildoer who cursed your car, you’re going nowhere.

I’ll argue stupid action is clearly stupid if it has all 3 elements:

1) There’s a disconnect from facts on the ground.

One clue: an accurate analysis of any biological system, human behavior included, is always complicated. A story that refuses ambiguity or counter-evidence is at the very least incomplete.

You can’t easily jack yourself up to crazy action if there’s a chance your story might be wrong. A storyteller that gets more and more insistent without introducing additional analysis or evidence is likely heading down some rabbit hole (or running a con).

2) There’s a disconnect from effective action.

This can be caused by a misunderstanding or refusal of facts or simple political naivety. Without an informed political program, you’re simply flailing. Atemporal blaze-of-glory solutions with ‘boundless’ objectives are an invariant red flag.

3) There’s a call to action that highlights self-referential emotion release. In the cases we’re looking at here, that consists of a call to violence as transformative catharsis.

Gimee Some Truth

After decades of thinking about evolution, cognitive psychology, a few strains of philosophy, and the history of science, I increasingly believe that the closest we can get to Truth is the ability to take an action and have it achieve the predicted result.

Our politics is collapsing through the lack of it.

Effective action grounds itself in connection to what is actually there.

Make It Glow

Like a moth to the flame, Adam Fox had an image in his head. 100% intense; 100% ineffective. Emotional truth; political nonsense.

He didn’t arrive there by accident.

I don’t know that the path that led him astray was mapped in advance. Trump, for example, would fish for emotional responses and then build his narrative through iteration at repeated rallies.

A story just had to be ‘good enough’ to achieve the desired result: to tip us from effective action that might alter the current structures of power and oppression into an ineffective self-referential fugue.

Our stories of shootouts — violent cathartic transformations — provide archetypal draw… a strange-attractor into which an unmoored Adam Fox can be tipped to his and all our detriment.

Photo credits above

Thanks for reading.

My mailing list and various projects can be found at altabor.org.

good tribe / bad tribe – reverend al mix

You can read a prettier version of this on Medium.  Please ‘Clap’ if you do.

Image for post

Love and Hate

We are hard-wired for deep empathy with our ‘brothers and sisters’…even brothers and sisters well outside narrow family connections.

We are hard-wired to hate and even kill anyone we feel threatens us and our people. Empathy freezes. Antipathy switches on.

The same neurotransmitter, oxytocin, is likely central to both reactions.

Continue reading good tribe / bad tribe – reverend al mix

Privacy and Data Protection Lobbying

Premise – We Need to See What They Think They Have On Us

The intersection of innovations in data collection, tracking, and online advertising has created a novel situation in which the public is vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous advertisers and hostile foreign actors. In order for we as citizens to understand and take appropriate action, we need to start with an understanding of what information is being collected about us and how it is being used. From there it will be possible to tell what, if any, further regulation might be necessary. I, personally, think that this step should be all that’s needed.

We need a regulation paralleling the Fair Credit Reporting Act that allows us to discover 1) what data has been compiled on us and 2) who is using it and when.

This is particularly true for political advertising.

The companies that sell access to us including Facebook and Twitter, but, also, the Agencies that track our browsing history via cookies or feeds from our (now unregulated) Internet Providers need to make available information on what they are tracking about us and how it is being used. Continue reading Privacy and Data Protection Lobbying

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