Unfortunate Themes

Here is my recent reading/watching list:

  • Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America by Kurt Anderson (Random House, 2020)
  • The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr (Avery, 2020)
  • Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell (Little Brown, 2019)
  • The Social Dilemma directed by Jeff Orlowski (Netflix, 2020)

There are five themes woven though these publications:

  • Greed is good — Geniuses
  • Workers are abused — Groceries
  • Strangers are wrong — Talking
  • Connectivity is pervasive – Dilemma
  • Conspiracies are persistent – Dilemma

Add in the pandemic, hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes and it looks like we are going to Hell in a hand basket. Are there any positive signs?

Government workers, below the levels of political appointees, are dedicated and doing the right things — often rather quietly. Health workers and educators are doing their best to keep providing essential services. A large percentage of citizens are wearing masks, social distancing, and washing their hands, trying to avoid infecting others.

Nevertheless, the themes outlined earlier embody very powerful forces. The results, among many outcomes, have undermined the middle class. Working class wages have stagnated for decades, while jobs have been contracted out, steadily depressing wages. Pensions are disappearing and healthcare is rare for contract jobs. The income of the ruling class and its net worth has soared.

Is there a ruling class in the US?  We have a ruling class in the sense of the economic golden rule. He who has the gold makes the rules. There are 12,000 registered lobbyists working to influence Congress.  That is over 22 per Member of Congress.  Their goal is to influence the rules.

These lobbyists and associated organizations contribute billions of dollars to political campaigns, which is needed for each election.  Expenditures are dominated by media buys – see communications below.  Those who contribute all these monies get to highly influence the rules of the game.

The nature of communications in society has changed.  Gladwell’s case studies of miscommunications involve war, fraud, murder, suicide, and all sorts of unfortunate outcomes.  We assume honesty and see people as transparent, unaware of differences and circumstances we cannot know.  When we find that we are wrong, we blame them.

The social dilemma of communicating 24×7 results in disappearing attention spans. “Breaking News” pervades every moment of our lives.  We collect and tally “likes” similar to breaths.  We see all these services as free, but that is only because we and our data are the “product.”  Over time, these services know us better than we know ourselves.  This enables Amazon to send us products before we have ordered them.  We are amazed to get the product the same day.

Geniuses and Groceries show us that most people are subject to the prerogatives of the folks in charge – those with the gold.  Talking shows us how often we are simply outright wrong.  Dilemma portrays us as addicted to instant gratification and willing to be manipulated to get our next fix.  These findings do not lead me to try to rekindle my natural optimism.

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