Books of 2018, Part 1
The War on Normal People, Andrew Yang
White Working Class, Joan C. Williams
The Road to Character, by David Brooks
The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
I read a ton of great books this year - and wanted to come back to some of them, force myself to think about them more. Ideas brew and cross-pollinate, right? So I thought I’d write about a handful of books at a time, and see if I could figure out how they interact. Hope it could be fruitful.
Here are today’s four. And they are all about our great beacon on a hill, the United States of America. Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur+++, is very exercised by the just-around-the-next-recession-corner robot/computer savaging of our labour market. He wants a Universal Basic Income (UBI), for starters, and happens to be running for President in 2020. I think there’s a chance that UBI, for the first time, could be seriously discussed by all the Democratic candidates. Joan C. Williams is a law professor at some way-too-liberal west-coast university. But, she has white-working class family - and has written the best cultural guide to the differences between these two warring tribes I’ve read. It’s revelatory, especially the small things. Lukianoff and Haidt’s Coddling is about the anxiety crisis that’s hit our most privileged youth, thanks to well-meaning parenting and the iPhone. Its a very generous book. And David Brooks - well, he’s a New York Times columnist who has much form excusing craven Republican craziness. He got more bad rep with this book. But its a serious book, one you don’t much see these days, and its stayed with me.
The thread running through these books is our culture, wrought by economics and technology, and the type of character it builds. And, of course, what we need to do to improve it. Williams is fabulous explaining the differences between how kids are brought up in rich, educated urban families and working class communities. Parenting for the well-off is all about explicit cultivating skills - piano, math, art, spelling - which set the child apart as ‘gifted’. City kids of university-educated parents are taught how to converse with strangers and to perform at dinner parties - since ‘making contacts’ in these ways is how they’ll navigate the global cities they’ll roam among. (As Yang notes, successful kids in the US just do six different jobs in six different cities.) Professionals submerge themselves in their work - it gets all mixed up in their life.
Working class kids don’t ever move away from home - that would be a betrayal. They’re taught loyalty, hard work, and the importance of family and the small group of friends who’ll always be around. Moving away to university is for ‘the others’. Dinner party with strangers - what’s the point, where’s the fun in that? And these folk have jobs, not careers - work is to be endured, and to be finished on the hour.
As the barriers to entry to professional careers go up, and mobility between the tribes goes down, the cultural differences veer to extremes. Professional parents are desperate for their kids to grow up in their tribe (expulsion via a crap career is horrifying) and working class folk, whose incomes have stagnated for most of the last twenty years and fear worse, are - unsurprisingly - fed up. They’re not stupid - they know with little in the bank, they’re one pay-check or a factory closure away from destitution. I think the phrase the “precarious class” describes them well.
We are not just two tribes now. We are two tribes with different values, living close by each other. And we are now at war over resources. Appeals to reason will not bridge this divide.
For Yang, millions more middle and working class folk are going to be slipping into unemployment over the next decade. He can smell the cancer; he can’t believe you can’t. More than 3m American truckers are staring down the barrel of autonomous vehicles. Sure, some will be needed to steer the last mile and captain the fleets of self-driving trucks behind them, but eventually them, and all the diner and motel jobs that currently support them, will disappear. (Yang thinks truckers will not take their obsolescence peacefully.) Some 9m people currently work in retail sales. Amazon has already laid waste to thousands of malls - and is experimenting with ever cooler, more seductive ways for you to try on clothes on your tablet or fit a sofa into your virtual living room.
Middle-class work will be hollowed out too, as repetitive jobs like accounting, para-legal services and basic medical diagnostics will be replaced. Much of the training we humans go through to get qualified for such jobs is rather like a machine learning algorithm practicing a million times on data. Practice makes perfect - but we’ll never be as perfect as a well-trained neural net, as we’re sometimes lazy, distracted, late, bored, etc. (This is only a small selection of how rubbish human workers can be; Yang has two pages.)
James Bessen does an admirable job explaining how some of these new technologies will create new jobs. I reviewed him here. Yes, to some extent is my working hypothesis on that. But the image I usually come back to is a pair of horses discussing the impact Mr. Ford will have on the carriage industry. “Don’t worry Terry - we used to pull ploughs, and then they needed us for canal boats, and then came along all those carriages - I’m sure our skills will be needed somehow.” Once algorithms are smarter than us in these defined tasks, they will take the defined repetitive jobs. And here’s the kicker: the tasks the machines cannot do - intelligent puzzle-solving which relies on multi-domain knowledge with some EQ thrown in - only a small subset of humans have the ability to do.
Labour will not benefit from the profits of technological capital. I was shocked to read that even in America, where the Dow is partly supposed to decide elections, only 52% of Americans hold stocks (including in 401Ks, IRAs etc.) and the bottom 80% of households own only 8% of stocks. And you may have noticed, public companies these days have been busy buying back stock, and, increasingly, new firms are not offering a chunk ownership to the masses. So the concentration of the ownership of the means of intelligent production is growing.
Now, America’s de facto unemployment safety-net is disability benefits - but you lose those when you work, so people (rationally, not lazily) do not work. So, why not provide a basic income - put a concrete floor under the incomes of the precarious class. A UBI would inject funds into faltering communities, spark demand for commerce there, disincentivise work less than welfare, and it might even free people up to do more volunteering. Folk would be healthier, and be able to spend more time being parents. Critics of UBI say we need to work since it gives meaning to our lives and anchors us in communities. Yes, exactly; if the jobs are going to disappear, you can still work with UBI. But you work for the meaning it provides and the community to which it can rebind you.
And UBI may have a shot at eliminating that critical Trump-vote motivation, which Williams notes is workers feeling that the state is unfair, and rewards the lazy. Working class folk voted Trump; poorer folk voted Clinton. Why? Because working class folk work really hard, can see the ever-growing precariousness of failing, and “see someone jumping ahead of me in the queue”. And that fear/resentment matrix is, of course, magnified by the Murdoch-owned Fox propaganda. But UBI for everyone would instantly eliminate ‘welfare-shame’; everyone would have UBI. That shaming culture been strong for exactly the right reason - it was a survival mechanism - it pushed folk to work hard, to be risk-averse and to look after each other. But when those cultural values meet the AI job terminator, they are no defense.
This is how I think UBI could achieve political jujitsu for the Democrats - not only should it be popular in the mid-west, but it undermines the Republicans’ resentment politics. I hope the other candidates take Yang seriously and promote more experiments around the country.
The biggest challenge for UBI is paying for it - and then persuading enough of the rich to vote for it. Yang proposes a VAT, and I say why not? Its almost certainly going to be less expensive than the alternative. Nixon and Milton Friedman supported UBI - the later partly because it got rid of the wasteful welfare bureaucracy. But the modern-day Koch/Fox GOP is likely to hang and tar the idea as communism. And their long-run and plain-cynical “blow-out-the-deficit-so-the-Democrats-can’t-spend” strategy limits the room for the argument.
And now we come to Mr. Brooks. Reading him takes you back a century or two, into a stern schoolroom, where children sit upright at their desks to read about the lives of Great Men for the purpose of Moral Emulation. Brooks has brought the genre up-to-date. And he’s hip; he includes women too - Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot) and Frances Perkins (who ended up running large chunks of Roosevelt’s New Deal) - and African Americans too, Bayard Rustin and Philip Randall, both hugely-influential civil rights activists. We get their potted life stories. Some good ole fashioned White Men make it too, like George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower.
Every one of these people is remarkable, but not flawless. Evans had to outgrow her precociousness, and cope with a famed ugliness (slightly uneasy reading here, I know). Rustin was famously promiscuous in an age when being gay and black was seen as doubly deviant, undermining his effectiveness early on. Eisenhower dumped his mistress at war end with a single letter. Perkins had to dress up like a dour grandmother to get New York politicians to take her seriously.
I can understand the attraction Brooks feels for these folk. It is refreshing to read these stories of wars, foreign and civil, won through patient, steady, unflashy work. All with such modesty, and quiet disdain for celebrity and the speaking gigs which “Big Achievers” these days take for granted. Marshall, a man who more than most won the Second World War as well as the peace that followed, demanded a private, family-only funeral, when he deserved the Washington Mall.
Brooks is certainly onto something when he says we think way too much of ourselves, that we now cultivate our social media image rather than character, and are worse off for it. The book was written before Trump became president - but the book could be read as a quiet meditation on how awful he is. But maybe Trump’s just an extreme version of something in today’s water (which makes Brookes’ holding of such water for the GOP for so long so strange and unattractive).
Now, the misgiving I have with Mr. Brooks’ vision is that there are real heroes battling injustice today, who seem to be rather good at Facebook, Instagram and all the other stuff. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly arrived in DC, just knocks it out of the park, for instance. She’s clearly at home with her celebrity but (so far) is entirely undistracted by it, and lights up Twitter giving way-better than she gets from vacuous, condescending Republican men. Or Bill Gates, who is delighted to share a short book list or two occasionally, but is not flashing his fame, and is not just spending his sacks of gold on good, but sweating to ensure that its well spent. Or General Jim Mattis in the White House - maybe a more controversial choice for a quiet hero. But I’m sticking with the view he’s serving his country by making sure his idiot, compromised boss does not wreak more havoc than is necessary. There is something deeply moral in what these folk are doing. And they’re doing it in the wired world. I’m sure Mr. Brooks admires some folk alive today too; I fear though his politics prevents him seeing the big moral fights of today clearly.
And here we come to Lukianoff and Haidt who think they’ve figured out one cause of the youth problem; bad parenting and Instagram. They start with the question of what has caused US liberal campus violence in the last few years; the Milo riot at UC Berkeley, and other assorted demonstrations against faculty and outside speakers carrying messages students find offensive. Their’s is a generous and sophisticated diagnosis; they go out of their way not to blame anyone explicitly.
The kids born since 1995, iGen, were the first to grow up with social media on their phones, so everywhere all the time. And they grew up in a culture of ‘safetyism’, with parents who cared so deeply for them that they never let their kids out of sight, play in the street, or experience pain that wasn’t instantly soothed. Kids today reach key way-posts (first job, first sexual encounter, etc.) later than their parents. And they experience rising rates of depression and anxiety, especially among girls. The later are hit especially badly by social media, since girls bully emotionally and with social knives. (Think Sean Parker’s famous quote about Facebook algorithms being optimized for the mini-drug rush of social validation.) Boys are cruel physically.
It was when this generation hit college that the problem started. Words cause pain and pain is unacceptable, so a hyper-sensitive generation leaps on any hint of offense, even when offense is clearly not intended. Add some Lord of the Flies crowd dynamics, and we have bands of little college Maoists beating the crap out of their elders. And while racism and sexism, of course, have to be battled, these kids ignore real injustice. Protesting Milo is exactly what he wants.
Its not just the parent-child relationship and mobile phones which are to blame. Some colleges have become more liberal; to the extent that some have experienced a ‘phase change’ into consensus communes, rather than places to be hit with new ideas and different views. And the political climate has also pushed people to extremes; Republicans and Democrats view the other tribe as the enemy more today. We have a president and populist movements in other western countries which have unleashed racism for their political purposes.
Lukianoff and Haidt then do something interesting; they diagnose the problem as a social disease. These kids display all the signs of depression; fear of a world more dangerous than it really is, reliance on feelings over rational thought, over-generalizing, labelling, blaming. They advise cognitive behavioral therapy - to recognize thoughts driven by a desire to blame, to begin to think more rationally, to become less reliant on emotion, to be more generous in understanding motives. And to parents; let your kids roam a bit, walk to school, and learn to suffer some distress.
Sadly, I think its more likely than not that these trends just get worse, not better. With more algorithms on the horizon, the middle-class is going to be feeling more precarious than not. And that’s going to naturally drive parents to be more cultivating and more anxious to protect their kids. And iPhones and Instagram are not going away. I’m now looking very much forward to the first book to track iGen when they hit the workplace. I fear some of the restrictions on campus speech will likely come to work too - and if corporate bosses are as weak-kneed as university presidents, they’ll be cowered into submission.
To sum up then. Williams explains the cultural gulf that’s opened up between the precarious-working and still-doing-OK middle-class tribes. Understanding is the first step to real communication. Lukianoff and Haidt show that bad parenting and the iPhone has infected privileged kids with a lot of anxiety (ironically making them less suited to adult life than the working class kids). They offer some wise counseling. Yang argues that work is changing so radically that many millions will fall from middle into precarious class soon, and precarious millions will fall through the trap door. And that a UBI is the only way a revolution will be avoided. And Brooks regurgitates homilies about Victorian character to save us all (I’m pulling his leg).
The great struggle of our lifetime, in the United States and Europe, is to reunite the precarious and middle-class tribes. Brooks calls for heroes - and someone like Andrew Yang springs to mind. We need the rich kids with all the privilege to fight for this real cause too. Populists add to the hate and burn the bridges which link people to people, and to a government that could help. We need to re-form our bonds. Lukianoff and Haidt tell a story of a black man trying to explain to a hostile white crowd why “Black Lives Matter”. They shout back “All lives matter!”. He agrees: Yes, all lives matter, but black men get killed way too often by police, that’s an injustice we need to solve. Together we can make America Great Again. He mades it about all of us - and the crowd cheered.