How We Adopted Regrettable Practices

I recently finished reading Patrick Wyman’s The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World: 1480-1520 (Grand Central, 2021).  He chronicles the transformation of business and political processes during these two decades that provided the foundations for Western European dominance over the successive generations.

Military aggression and conquest, financed by new approaches to debt and repayment, dominated the 15th and 16th centuries.  The business challenges of empty ships sailing back from Africa were addressed by the trade in slaves.  America’s embrace of the slave trade in the 17th century simply reflected business best practices of the times.  Finances dominated any sense of ethics or fairness.

Many of the unfortunate practices that we eschew today have deep-seated roots over centuries or longer.  Slavery predominates our consciousness today, but mistreatment and degradation of indigenous people and women has a long history as well.  Degradation of the environment has long been the stock and trade of colonizers and immigrants.  Exploitation of natural resources has been an economic prerogative for millennia.

Exploitation for the benefit of the prevailing castes has long dominated human activities.  As Warren Buffett has characterized it, the progeny of the “lucky sperm club” accumulate wealth and other benefits to the detriment of the not so lucky.  This is not at all a new phenomenon and has not been an accident.  It has been with us throughout human history.

Perhaps this is inevitable.  Humans hunt bears for meat and hides.  Bears eat meat and big fish.  Big fish eat smaller fish. Small fish eat plankton and algae.  Does this food chain model apply to relationships among humans?  Is it inevitable that the lucky sperm club gets to “eat” lessor humans?  Few people would agree with this. 

However, what can be done to overcome this seemingly natural tendency?  Reparations have been discussed.  How might we compensate blacks for having endured slavery for 500 years? How can we compensate  indigenous people and women for having endured mistreatment and degradation for several millennia?  We might write large checks – millions of dollars – to each of hundreds of millions of people.  We could devote the whole GDP and more to reparations.

Would this work?  Would diversity, equity, and inclusion now be balanced and fair?  I doubt it.  Large numbers of people would have large amounts of money – briefly.  Those steeped in the tendency to exploit others would quickly figure out how to secure these funds with bogus promises and propositions.  The privileged castes would soon have again secured all these resources for themselves.

Instead, these resources need to be invested in helping everyone to be prepared, participate, and prosper in the future economy.  Everyone needs to be able to differentiate opportunities from scams.  Everyone needs to be able to differentiate bluster from well-reasoned projections.  Everyone needs to learn how to identify and scorn baseless rhetoric and fear mongering.

We need a renaissance in American education.  People need to understand why things are the way they are, for better or worse.  People need to understand evidence-based assessments versus empty bloviations.  The media needs to be held accountable for their support of empty bloviations.   Advertisers need to quickly curtail investment in these empty bloviators.  The integrity of the media needs to be restored.

Above all, we need a well-educated and well-informed American electorate.  We need a population that has no patience with bull shit.  We need a voting population that holds politicians accountable.  Politicians who posture, lie, and try to compensate for poorly-held positions should face stunning defeats in elections.  This requires a well-educated and well-informed electorate.  This has to be a priority.

Education and communications are the keys.  Education obviously needs to include reading, math, and science, but also civics – how the government works.  The teaching of civics has declined in recent decades, apparently due in part to efforts to improve test scores in reading and math.  We need every citizen to be sufficiently educated to reach well-informed decisions.  Everyone.

We also need to fix communications.  This requires authoritative assessments of communicated assertions and conclusions.  This might involve every communication, whether from news media or social media, being labeled with a rating.  This might even include anyone’s Facebook posts or personal emails.  Of course, most people have no way of knowing whether their communications are based on sound evidence.

More importantly, every assertion by newscasters on CNN or Fox would be rated.  Over time, people would know which commentators are reliable and which ones are usually communicating unsupported assertions.  Rating services would emerge that provide assessments of commentators and pundits.  Educated citizens would understand these assessments and turn to those that can be trusted.

Dissemblers would be seen as entertainers and perhaps comedians, although their assertions and rants seldom prompt chuckles.  The media would cease to report such diatribes because savvy advertisers would not want their brands associated with such people.  These people would be left to social media, at least those outlets that did not ban their postings.  Facebook’s recent troubles suggests this might actually happen.

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