Fake news, evolution, and political failure

Republicans who lead the House Science Committee this month tweeted phony climate science from an article on a fake news website. Claims in the post were imaginary. Made up. False. Their actions were barely noticed and no one on the committee has apologized. Adults responsible for overseeing our national science programs neither understand nor believe in science. This is no longer newsworthy.

What inspires people to embrace provable falsehoods even when they have access to facts? More than a political question, this is an evolutionary race. Can we incorporate empirical reality into policy-making before our addiction to fake news destroys our public institutions?

For a thousand generations or more, human beings have defined reality through stories. Tales like Aesop’s fables, or the two contradictory accounts of Jesus’ birth, can be factually inaccurate while rich with truth. Narratives, not facts, are how we evolved to interact with the world around us.

It is entirely unnatural for us to subject those stories to any test of factual accuracy. Throughout most of our evolutionary history we lacked any means by which to perform any “fact-checking” apart from simple observation. Stories were true or untrue based on how they felt.

About 12-15 generations ago a few human beings learned to test and measure reality through scientific techniques. Depending on where you live, empirical methods of defining what is real have been the commonly-held standard of reality for about two generations, maybe three. Here in the US, many places are only being exposed to an empirically-defined reality for the first time. A lot of people are not loving it.

Every evolutionary development creates a new landscape of winners and losers. To see educated, successful adults spreading patently false information may seem strange or even alarming. We shouldn’t be surprised. People who have prospered the most in one evolutionary epoch will fight hardest to block our transition to another.

For wealthy, educated Congressmen to wallow in obvious factual inaccuracies is disappointing, but the real danger comes from the great American middle who sent them to Washington. White Americans earning middle incomes, especially far from cities, have the most at stake right now in our relentless shift away from a folklore-driven reality.

A world they cherish, which has favored them for generations, is dying. In its place is a far more prosperous, healthy, free, and compassionate environment than anything human beings have known before. However, this new order promises to strip away advantages they enjoyed in an older system. However promising and exciting a new science-driven reality may be, for many of them it will be far less generous than the world that is passing away.

Facts are elite. Facts are not determined through great stories. Facts are not mediated through our social and cultural relationships. Facts are established through techniques which are often very complex, understood sometimes only by a handful of specially trained individuals. Facts emerge from elite processes. We evolved to judge reality through stories, not reason. Facts are highly suspect and socially destabilizing.

Humans do not natively, naturally deal in facts. We acquire this capability only through education and training that runs sharply against our instincts. Education, by itself, is not enough to equip us for a world of facts. Armed with an ability to evaluate our world through empirical methods, we still find reality elusive. That elusiveness breeds discomfort.

Science is better than folklore at establishing reality, but only in relative terms. Empiricism is not perfect at measuring facts. Worse, it does nothing to help us establish meaning. Science introduces a degree of uncertainty to our lives that was entirely unfamiliar in a story-driven world. The more you learn, the less you know. Life in a world of scientific reality demands more training and insight than in the past. In return it creates a world of relentless, sometimes painful ambiguity. That ambiguity is too heavy a burden for some to carry.

By contrast, folklore is emotionally compelling and soothing. It is easy to grasp and inherently egalitarian. Anyone can understand the truths in a good story, regardless how measurably false those apparent truths may be. Facts, as established through a scientific process, demonstrate that our activities are changing the climate of the planet. Folklore says that human-driven climate change is impossible, even foolish, a hoax perpetrated by “elites.” Folklore remains far more politically potent than facts, even as the tidal flooding of Miami begins.

We embrace fake news because it is easy, because it confirms what we want to believe about the world. Fake news is folklore; comfortable, mentally soothing stories about things that did not happen. Fake news may be pleasant, but it is an inferior evolutionary adaptation. Institutions built on fake news will underperform fact-driven institutions until they are eventually swept away in failure.

Congressmen do not win elections on their superior scientific mastery. They win by building relationships and telling good stories. Our system of government is, itself, premised on a folkloric understanding of reality. In democratic politics, everyone’s reality is equally valid and respected, regardless how catastrophically inaccurate it may be. You don’t win in politics by discovering a more accurate version of reality. You win by inventing a version of reality that the largest number of voters find appealing. We shouldn’t be surprised that a system built on this premise is failing to deliver solutions.

An alternative system is quietly emerging, free from the false equivalences of democracy. Corporations leverage markets rather than elections to pick winners. Markets give them relatively greater freedom than elections to judge reality independent of human evolutionary limitations.

While we mourn the growing failures of public institutions, companies are solving critical social problems, producing valuable innovations, and providing outstanding results for their constituents – shareholders, employees, and customers. Businesses are increasingly coming into competition with governments. Thanks to their superior capacity to leverage facts to solve problems and generate value, corporations have steadily grown more powerful and stable than our increasingly dysfunctional public institutions.

Our central government cannot fight climate change because it can’t persuade enough fake news-reading Texas religious fanatics to support their efforts. Google and Apple are doing it anyway. When Indiana passed a dumb law to legalize the persecution of gays, Salesforce, IBM and other companies pressured them to back off.

Growing corporate power does not help everyone. Mississippi passed an even more outrageous anti-gay law than Indiana’s and nothing happened. Mississippi is an economic and cultural deadzone that produces nothing anyone wants. Corporate America did not zoom in to save them from themselves because they have no value to offer in return.

As our attachment to folklore cripples democracy, the rising relative power of corporate America will not spread the wealth, freedom, or justice evenly. In this environment, California gets rich and Mississippi gets Jesus. It may be unfair, but not much less fair than life under our older institutions.

How does this evolutionary arms-race end? Difficult to say, but we are about to inaugurate a new governing administration so utterly committed to folklore as to be factually wrong on every issue of public importance. If you ever wondered, “How could we do worse than George W. Bush?” your answer is coming. Perhaps the damage will be sobering enough to spark a major public reform. A shock to the system could force us to adapt, developing a better capacity to process empirical reality at a public level. That seems unlikely.

The power of folklore means a large swath of the public is likely to praise Trump the Savior even while he wrecks their healthcare and destroys their economic prospects. It is far more likely that we will respond to the failures of the Trump Era by broadly deprioritizing public institutions, limiting their power so we can limit the damage they inflict. Those who have adapted relatively stronger methods of judging reality will create better institutions for themselves, many of which may be entirely private, while the rest of our institutions rot.

The reign of our Fake News President could be be a gateway to an era in which public institutions lose their hold on our attention and shrink from their former importance. What takes their place and delivers their critical functions? That is an unanswered question, but corporations and markets appear ready sweep in and establish a new, more prominent role, creating a whole new set of evolutionary winners and losers.

90 Comments

  1. I agree with much of what you post here, but two crucial elements appear to be missing. Sure, perhaps it’s time to let the Red states experiment a la Kansas with stripped down government. There’s little we can do now to stop it.

    But: what about the purple states? Here in Pennsylvania, we have a broad Democratic majority, shackled by what appears to be a likely permanently gerrymandered legislature. The vast rural reaches of the state are given far, far more weight in the state than can ever be justified, and while I hope to be wrong I have little hope in the anti-gerrymandering cases before the Supreme Court.

    So, the Democratic majority can elect to statewide offices, but the legislature is in charge, and growing in power. Do we abandon Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and Michigan?

    And even more crucial: what about the minorities trapped in the Red States? I might very well be able to switch careers and move to NY or the West Coast (and have actually given thought to it!), but those in the Delta lack that option. They already have little voice, and it will get far worse before we start rebuilding. Do we abandon them as well to the right’s evil social experiments?

    If we are to preserve anything from the possible wreckage of the next few years, ought we not fight for each individual, each step of the way, no matter in what state the violation occurs?

    1. Ask yourself this question: What would happen to voter behavior in Delaware, Chester and Montgomery County if Roe v. Wade was repealed? How many people who casually vote Republican for state offices (those Co’s already go blue in Pres elections) would withdraw their support overnight? How many Republican officeholders who pretend to be pro-life would soften their positions if, all of the sudden, those positions actually mattered?

      Much of the shape of both parties at the state and local level is influenced by our expectation that some invisible layer of adults out there is going to block these idiots from carrying out their plans. If the federal political safety net were pulled back a bit, I’m betting you’d see millions of Republican voters reconsidering their party affiliation, or thousands of GOP officeholders starting to take more responsible positions.

      1. Thanks for the response. I do see your point, and until recently as an optimist that would’ve been my default position. But seeing lifetime Republicans shifting their opinions on Russia, and the intervention in the election, and the willful “they’ll never touch Social Security or Medicare”, I’m starting to lose hope in the ability of any conservatives to divorce the party line from actual policy.

        I guess my only hope is the 10-11% of the final vote that weren’t diehard Trumpeters- if they can be jolted w. a dose of harsh reality, then yes I can see things shifting.

        But (and, a big but) I’ve resided in this state all my life and see little that can be done to counter the Red tide. A few of the local R politicians are reasonable, decent people, but the ones controlling the state capital are foaming-at-the-mouth radicals, acting as if they have a mandate from their false, rigged victory.

        BTW, as a resident of the far west of the state, much of your previous discussions of the rural white vote of the deep south apply here, too. We’re in what the census bureau considers the northernmost reaches of Appalachia, and the Trumpists were overwhelming here for many of the reasons you’ve outlined. As a Yinzer native (true fact: it’s the largest city in Appalachia, or once was) I do take a little pride in the small bubble of cosmopolitanism on the Three Rivers, but it’s a bright multicolored dot in a sea of red. It gets truly depressing at times, but I’ve been stuck in the hinterlands because of my job w. the Fed govt… But your ponderings do give me some hope, so thank you…

  2. Although I agree with much of Chris’s post above, it must be noted that corporations are actually the source of some of the most pernicious false news and information out there. Advertising is an obvious example. But in addition,fossil fuel companies have promoted and spread a lot of the current misinformation about climate change, even as they have secretly done their own research confirming its reality and humans’ part in it. Similarly, for years tobacco companies falsely reassured the public that smoking was not harmful to human health, even though they were well aware of the truth. I could go on. I don’t think corporations will be saving us with facts anytime soon, though they may make use of them for their own private–and limited– purposes.

    In addition, it should also be noted that there is a difference between folklore and propaganda. Folklore is creative. Among other things, it represents an attempt to make sense of a mysterious reality, as Chris notes. Propaganda, by contrast, is manufactured by a person or group and planted in order to manipulate others for personal gain of one sort or another. Admittedly, there is some overlap between the two categories. But the great danger right now is propaganda. People believe it for all sorts of reasons– some of those noted above (that is, our inherent proclivity toward folklore, combined with anxiety in a time of unprecedented change), but also the priming that has gone on for years through advertising, Hollywood, television, and talk radio, that now predisposes people to accept certain narratives, including that of the president-elect’s “business success”; the collapse, again for a variety of reasons, of standards for and trust in reliable media sources; and advances in technology that have changed our lives in a myriad ways and led to an explosion of communication unparalleled in human history. Through the media and internet, we are now flooded with a bewildering mass of information beyond anyone’s ability to process or absorb effectively. It’s no wonder that many people retreat into familiar narratives laced with perennial themes, or pluck out certain stories that they have been unconsciously primed all their lives to hear.

    1. Nita, one of the areas of propaganda that we don’t pay enough attention to is conservative talk radio and viewer dominance by FOX. On NPR this week, there was a discussion about how part of the right wing plan was to have a constant barrage of conservative commentary especially on radio. The theory was that it reached all classes – surburban/city commuters; working people who were in their vehicles throughout the day; and people who simply “tuned in” because they were bored or interested. The saturation of conservative messaging is enormous. The example they cited was Sean Hannity. His radio show overpowers his tv viewership by millions. His radio program has 15 million listeners and it’s nationwide…as it Rush Limbaugh and a host of others. And, that’s just radio. The continual drone of messages that fit their political agenda cannot be ignored. These things matter….in rural America and inner city. Try to think of one liberal or progressive channel that has the reach of a Hannity or a Limbaugh…I can’t.

      The old saw that if you repeat something flimsy enough, it soon becomes fact simply through repetitious messaging. This is not accidental.

      1. Mary, I absolutely agree with you about FOX News and right-wing talk radio. I agree that it was/is a calculated strategy, and that it has unfortunately been horribly “successful.” In many parts of the country– even in my own “blue” state– TVs in every public place, for example doctors’ waiting rooms, restaurants, etc. are generally tuned to FOX. I believe it is largely responsible for the much-decried “partisan divide.” Liberals and Democrats have been demonized for years on right-wing talk shows. These shows have created a very receptive environment for the conspiracy theories and other fake news now circulating on the internet. Listeners are brainwashed– it is next to impossible to convince them that any of the information they have absorbed from these sources is false or seriously distorted. In addition, I think the extreme content on “shock jock” shows and cable TV has made behavior such as the Tangerine Twitler’s attacks on minorities and women more acceptable to the public. In an earlier era, mockery on camera of a handicapped reporter, not to mention comments like those on the Access Hollywood tape, would have been fatal to any political career, even T.T.’s. There is great danger in the public becoming immune to shock. Our alarm bells have been muted.

  3. Hi Chris
    You still appear to be drinking the kool aid that private concerns are always more efficient than state/government operations
    In actual fact and experience over dozens of countries they tend to be less efficient
    Which is not surprising as the shareholders abstract some of the money for “profits”

    There is also an idea that
    “Private enterprise is more efficient because it is their own money they are spending”
    At first glance that does make sense – but then if you think about it who does “spend the money” in a privately owned company?
    Only in a very small operation is it the owner – anything larger the guy/girl making the spending decisions will be an employee

    Why should an employee be more careful about the money that belongs to some 0.1% jerk than the civil servant would be about his own tax money?

    The net effect is that there is actually only a small difference between the two – and that a well run government operation will always beat a well run private operation

    1. Some things are better done by the private sector, some things are better done as a public function. What many people don’t appreciate is that governments are trying to do difficult things. Establishing justice, providing for common defense, ensuring domestic tranquillity, promoting the general welfare are difficult, and don’t necessarily lend themselves to a profit-motivated organization structure.

    2. As a former government worker I got a thrill that we beat the pants off of our private company competitors, giving excellent service at the best price and turning over significant revenue to our owners the tax payers of Orlando reducing their taxes. Government run can be and often is best run. I believe in a healthy mix of both public and private enterprise. Both have their place and support each other.

    3. I’ve been reading for a long time, but logged in to comment on this topic…

      Building on what Duncan says here: while it’s often taken for granted that private enterprise is more cost “efficient” (whatever that means), it ain’t necessarily so. The problems of government bureaucracy are NOT unique to government. From an organizational behavioral perspective, all organizations private or public as they grow face these issues. Detachment between the decisionmakers and the actual performers, red tape, competing agendas, and inefficiencies are just as common in big business as in government.

      Corporations are often hampered by that short-term focus on the bottom line; planning rarely extends beyond the next year or two, and cutting corners to maximize shareholder value is the ultimate good. This motivation is completely absent from government service- the profit motive paramount in the corporate world is missing. Many of the most efficient public bureaucracies do work that we cannot trust private enterprise to do- defense, justice, etc.

      And the touted “fear of competition” in commerce is overrated, esp. in the modern age as corporations grow and grow with little check. The lack of this fear in public service is replaced by accountability- most public servants I’ve met are very aware of who their ultimate bosses are, and (nowadays) how very precarious their jobs are if not done well.

      But lacking from this discussion is the critical role: private enterprise, true free market economies cannot last long without fair, unbiased, neutral regulation and enforcement. Left unchecked, things very quickly devolve into monopoly, and thence the few short steps to oligarchy. We’re already on that path.

  4. I read that link about Miami and Norfolk already flooding. It’s scary. Regarding the story that could be built around global warming, here’s a suggestion. I think to a red stater, when they hear liberals talk about environmental issues, what they hear is that some rich limousine liberal is putting the health of some dung beetle over the economic health of him and his family. Or the state of beaches in Thailand in 50 years over whether he has enough money to afford a house this year.

    It’s not like coal miners don’t know what coal dust does to their lungs, or can’t see their own children hacking up black sputum. But in their calculation, that’s better than starving because they can’t find any other job. We need a story that either says “No, rising sea levels aren’t about dung beetles and Thai beaches. It’s about your livelihood and health *today*” or figure out a way to convince them that they’ll be economically *better off* with an environmental policy. (E.g., showing that California has already created more jobs in their renewable energy industry than West Virginia ever had in coal mining).

    Barring that: understand that the more we talk about sea levels inundating the coasts, the more people living inland who get a great sense of schadenfreude that those uppity folks on the coasts are going to get flooded out and lose their homes. Yes, it’s despicable, but it’s there. I can’t tell you how many people in Riverside (inland empire, southern CA) joke about how they’ll all have oceanfront property when global warming hits and all those hollywood people’s homes drop into the ocean.

    And the answer to that is “All those rich folks in Malibu or Long Island, when they lose their homes, what do you think they’re going to do? Yep. They’re going to move inland and push you guys out.” Make them understand that millionaires in NYC will never be homeless; if the coast moves, it’s the inlanders who’ll be priced out of their homes.

    So one carrot, one stick for the environmental story 🙂

  5. I think there are two additional components of the story vs fact narrative:

    1) Neuroscientists will tell you that the brain decides what to remember based on the emotional importance it attaches to each memory. That’s why, for example, you can’t remember where you ate lunch a week ago, but still remember exactly where you were on 9/11. Reciting pure facts doesn’t endear them to most people’s brains. Enveloping them in a story that imbues emotional importance to those facts is what makes people remember. Note that this doesn’t mean the stories have to be false. It just means advocates need to figure out ways to make the facts resonate emotionally.

    2) When people start talking facts, your defenses go up. Even if you hear them out, your brain is already thinking of ways to refute those facts, or find weaknesses in their argument, or reasons to dismiss it. OTOH, when people tell stories, even fictional ones, your defenses come down: rather than fight the story, you look for ways to relate to it, or find common points of truth, or similar experiences in your life. As a result, it’s far easier to convince you of something through a story than through simply reciting facts.

    My point is stories shouldn’t be denigrated as always being less truthful than facts. You can make a very accurate story, factually correct, that is still compelling enough emotionally to make a lasting impression on someone. This is what e.g. documentaries do and the best documentaries are far, far more compelling than the best fiction.

    1. Another good point WX Wall. I don’t think people who enjoy learning are always defensive when presented with facts. They may apply critical analysis to what they are told in order to enlarge the concept in their own mind, but that’s not necessarily a defensive reaction so much as pure inquisitiveness – which I believe is positive.

      Otherwise, I’m all in with your theory. Hailing from LA and experiencing four terms of the colorful, smart, highly controversial Governor Edwin Edwards, there isn’t anyone I’ve ever watched in politics who could tell the truth (or a lie!) who could keep your attention and tell a rip-roaring story to boot! People loved to listen to him regale.

      The absolute best story I can recall was during his inaugural event for winning his 4th term which was scheduled in the LSU Pete Maravich Basketball Arena in Baton Rouge to avoid weather issues. Seating was limited (35K occupancy) and the event was “black tie”. In inimitable Edwards style, he invited everyone to attend who wanted to, and thousands did….In fact, so many came that they couldn’t get into the Maravich Arena. There were some pissed off cajuns in black tie milling around outside when Edwards was apprised of what was happening.

      Without missing a beat, Edwards got on public speakers and told everyone out there how proud he was they came and how surprised he was that there were that there were more than 35,000 coon asses with tuxedos! As they say in LA, laissez les bon temps roulez, and it did! Everyone was happy because Edwards knew how to reach his audience.

      Regardless what his detractors thought of him, and the Republicans hated him, he was an amazing, interesting politician who combined intelligence, humor and the ability to tell a story in unforgettable ways.

      Sorry for the digression but it just seemed to “fit”.

      https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/e/edwin_edwards.html

      1. Do not confuse low information/high dis-information voters with those in the highest levels of the GOP who know exactly what they are doing. Nothing the Republican Party does is by chance. It is calculated to do the greatest damage possible. I am trying to get past my anger and despair over the election while knowing that what we are facing in America come January 21, is a total inversion of our lives. Look at Trump’s nominees and appointments. Look at their backgrounds and records. If you do, there should be no doubt as to what they will do. Prepare your personal affairs to the best of your ability and when asked to take a stand or when you can take a stand, for god’s sake, do so. I see nothing positive coming out of this GOP or the Trump administration.

        As for Trump – he should keep his mouth shut. He is not POTUS yet and he has no right or standing to issue any statements or opinions that reflect upon the US. Like this: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/12/20/trump-cites-holy-war-in-berlin-attack-even-while-facts-remain-unknown/?

      1. I suppose where I’m coming from is this. Even if one believes that humans are fundamentally bad, and that they will do whatever they can to advance their own interests, how does inflicting the maximum amount of damage to the most vulnerable actually benefit the top ranks of the GOP? What do they gain from it?

      2. It also means that they are now no better then any of the ruling parties in the BRIC countries that they constantly hold themselves superior too. Worse, even, because at least those governments don’t try to deny the realities of climate change and the other things that are a clear and present danger to the public, like you say. I don’t know, but I can’t shake the feeling that this particular batch are so ominously incompetent that a crash is coming that will be worse then that of 2008, and it will be cities, regions and forward looking companies that lead the way out.

      3. Our big city mayors are doing some really good work. This is governing at its core difficulty because of the proximity to voters and the multiplicity of federal, state and local forces tugging at them. Those who navigate big city government should do very well as governors and federal positions. Fortunately, most of our large cities are governed by Democrats. We need more of them and we need them to move up when they complete their terms.

  6. I’m genuinely interested in your opinion on this. There’s been a recent article in Bloomberg about by someone called Dalio who said that the new administration was hell bent on making big changes that will result in high “animal spirits” that will significantly impact investment. That the businessmen at the top will take “big risks”. He talks about this as though it’s a helluva good thing. I am failing to see how that will be the case other then in the short run, because the last time large amounts of money was pushed into risky financial assets the end result was the Great Recession. Why is Dalio saying stuff like this? Is he one of the billionaires, who, like Mnuchin, just doesn’t give a stuff about anything other then short term profit?

    1. Generally, Hoonteo, financial analysts and those from business who offer opinions on CNBC and Bloomberg (the two I watch) – are of two minds: one, excited about the market impact that tax cuts will have from high end investors, and two, concerned that this “Trump Bump” may be too much momentum too fast – not based upon fundamentals. The discussions have centered upon how the tax cuts would affect the economy and most agreed that high net worth individuals would simply invest the tax savings rather than put the money into circulation via spending.

      There was zero discussion about how wage earners fare under the tax cuts or under the Trump administration. The focus was always on investors. They seemed to all agree that any possibility of hourly wage increases is gone which makes them happy, but with no commentary or apparent recognition that the income divide will become larger. If you factor in impending plans to cut the entitlement programs including the repeal, repeal/delay – whatever, of the ACA, this means people will have stagnant income, higher personal expenses and less government assistance.

      Don’t know if that is what you were looking for, but that’s what I am hearing…not surprising but very cold commentary and a sad reflection of the disconnect between the classes.

      1. That’s what annoys me. The reason we got into this whole mess in the first place is the constant harping on about financial markets. Financial products ( stocks and shares ) and property do not contribute to GDP directly, not a cent. All that pumping into these types of assets has only one effect, the widening of inequality. It concentrates wealth in the hands of a very few. It’s just really sad that, up until now, we haven’t been able to educate Joe Bloggs ( or Sixpack ) about how desperate that renders his prospects, and how it is killing his community

      2. You are correct. I don’t know if we can educate people who, don’t know what they don’t know and aren’t interested in hearing about it either.

        Either Democrats aren’t making a good enough economic argument that working people “get”, or, there is no reaching them. I’m coming to the conclusion that the Democratic Party needs to focus scarce resources on those who do share our values and do understand how their interests fit better under the blue umbrella than they ever will under the GOP which has no interest in meeting their needs. Witness the complete backing off any discussion about raising minimum wages, or any discussion about the income divide. Those problems haven’t gone away, they are just not on the Republican agenda…they don’t give a flip about these things….in fact, see them as reducing profitability. It’s circular and it’s maddening and it’s wrong. So, what can we do about it? We are about to get hit over the head with a sledge hammer and we still don’t have a leader for the DNC? If change is going to happen, it is going to have to start at the local level which will be painfully slow even though it’s the correct course to pursue.

      3. Yeah, but no one in the Republican Party is interested in giving this man $15/hour for working at a WaffleHouse. That was my earlier point – working people still believe the Republican Party cares about their needs…they haven’t, they don’t, and they won’t ever. This young man is trying to be an agent for change and that’s commendable, but it’s going to take millions of people like him to get what they are asking for. He might be better off going back to school or seeking training for a trade, because his quest for higher hourly wages is going to fall on deaf ears. I hope Bernie Sanders does stay active. God knows we need somebody with some fire in them to lead our nation out of the wilderness.

      4. hoonteo, financial revenues and profits are included in measures of GDP, but obviously shouldn’t be for the reasons you mention. One of the slickest tricks that Wall Street has pulled is to convince people that finance is part of the productive economy. And while Wall Street is contributing big bucks to politicians, there’s very little reason to believe their minds will change on this.

      1. Well I have this. GDP = C ( consumption ) + I ( Investment ) + G ( government spending ) + N ( net exports ). I’d always thought that I was investment in the economy that actually produces real goods and services. Do you mean that I also includes investment in financial markets?

      2. The GOP has been stuck in a continuous loop since at least the mid 1990s. Tmerritt pointed out correctly that since the Gingrich assault, the GOP has doubled down on whatever worked. It didn’t matter how mean, how fallacious, if it worked, they did it and they transported the idea across their US network of state legislatures and governorships. And, it’s worked for them to entrench their political dominance. Their wins at all levels (especially since the launching of their RedState project) have been impressive. How they did so (disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, money) less so. But their organizational structure has gotten results and they’ve never looked back. They don’t care about being seen as nice people, they care about winning – which they’ve done.

      3. H, according to wikipedia, I does not include exchange of existing assets. But in the national accounts, rents and interest are categories of income. I’m not sure exactly how to think about this, but rents and interest are a growing share of the economy. I believe this is significant.

    2. I found the article about the Dalio comments and analysis from the Financial Times. Unlike the economic recession into which Obama began his first term, he leaves Trump with an economy that is in much better shape. Given Trump’s personality and track record, Dalio offered this observation:

      “The question is whether this administration will be a) aggressive and thoughtful or b) aggressive and reckless,” said Mr Dalio. “We are pretty sure that it won’t take long to find out.”

      He will have guidance (and hopefully “grounding”) from some astute Goldman Sachs executives. What is unknown is if Trump will listen to his advisers and what and where the unavoidable fall out will be that Dalio predicts but doesn’t specify. I am as concerned about the randomness of his decision-making and how re-shaping the parts will affect the whole.

      https://www.ft.com/content/44930cb8-c6cd-11e6-9043-7e34c07b46ef

  7. I am not at all comfortable with the idea of giving corporations like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft more and more power, corporations already too enmeshed in our personal lives, violating our privacy, collecting our personal data, controlling our searches, news feeds, and consumer habits, recording our voices and faces, etc.

      1. I was talking to an Uber driver who used to drive for Yellow Cab, and he says he misses talking to a flesh and blood dispatcher with whom he could chat and joke, and now he says he receives instructions from “the big machine in the sky.”

      2. I always ask for a customer representative. Always. Even if I have to wait. If the representative is not able to address my problem efficiently or timely, I ask for the supervisor, who is usually better trained and generally can hone in on the problem asap. Try it on your next call for service – you’ll be better served.

        Our time is valuable, too, and I refuse to deal with robots to solve customer service calls.

      3. Well, I rarely use FB, and like most people, google is a search engine I do use to access internet sites. You are correct about the difficulty of finding a phone number for an entity like Amazon (it’s there but oh so hard to find), but for orders I place at online businesses, there are phone numbers for customer service and they are staffed with real people….And they are most always polite, helpful and knowledgeable.

        Have I misunderstood what you are referring to?

  8. Well here’s the story I gleaned from this election, which is what I observed in Bush era and had thought the Republicans had broken the fulfillment of, but they show themselves to be back on target after eight years. Today’s Electoral College vote follows accordingly:

    Liberals will undermine their own achievements in order to score moral victories, whereas conservatives will fall in line regardless of whether it’s moral.

    In other news I’ve been spending a couple few days visiting white nationalist communities on various forums. I’ll write a longer explanation as to my discoveries but the tl;dr is that there’s no method of satisfying or serving their expectations. They’re a lost cause and ‘liberals’ aren’t at fault for not ’empathizing’ with fundamentally fucked up people.

    1. >] “I’ll write a longer explanation as to my discoveries but the tl;dr is that there’s no method of satisfying or serving their expectations. They’re a lost cause and ‘liberals’ aren’t at fault for not ’empathizing’ with fundamentally fucked up people.

      I wouldn’t go quite that far. However difficult or arduous the route, there’s always ways to satisfy people. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether that’s a world that we would want to live or even be born into. Assuredly not, in this case.

    2. White nationalists will never be satisfied. Nor happy. That’s because their focus is always inward. Everything revolves around their needs and beliefs. Growth occurs when people are able to see the needs of other people. They won’t, and therefore they will always be flawed, self-serving people. I agree – to the extent that it is possible, marginalize them as they have no desire to be part of a larger whole.

    1. Rationally, one would expect that the many positives springing from the progressive changes coming from CA would inspire other state leaders…but then those other state leaders would have to be willing to let the people have more voice than simply voting in gerrymandered districts. And the other states would have to be accepting of the value of diversity….IOW, leaders in the other states would have to give up control. Do you see any red state leadership showing any interest in divesting control? I don’t. It’s not a matter of regulations, it’s attitude and shared lives.

  9. Capitalism is not the problem; it is those who subvert capitalism who are at fault.

    In listening to CNBC (financial news commentary) today, there was a discussion about the benefits the market and investors generally see ahead. It was not just the win by a man who disrespects institutions – including financial ones – but more significantly, the fact that one party controls all government. Regulations and taxes will accrue to the benefit of those with money; however, it was interesting to hear comments like “lower personal taxes via tax cuts for the wealthy won’t put money into circulation and thus won’t really have a major impact on the economy – generally”. Those in higher income positions simply will invest, not buy, and those dollars won’t circulate.

    The outcome means more widening of the income gap, because the wealthy also have no intention of sharing the tax savings through increased wages or benefits.

    Pretty sobering but hardly surprising. What is going to be devastating are the cuts to the safety net via health care, social security, food stamps, etc. Capitalism per se is not the villain; greedy people are the villains.

  10. Capitalism left unregulated generally destroys free markets and tilts bargain power to a few. This was the view of John Adams. But in a world as interdependent as ours has become maybe corporations will keep the host healthy so they stay healthy. The pursuit of profit may become more than keeping track of zeros and ones in some server somewhere. It maybe also keeping society healthy so economic activity can actually happen.

    1. Capitalism would work better, and spread it’s benefits more broadly, under a fully competent representative democracy. At least, that’s the theory. It seems that we are testing the definition of “fully competent.”

      If representative government crumbles, or more likely – weakens to the point of irrelevance, we may be grateful for the institutions that continue to function even if they are unrepresentative. It smells like we may be flirting with the emergence of a new form of public order. Some form of “corprocracy.”

    2. You’re assuming corporations view our country as their host. That’s no longer true. Maybe in the 50s/60s companies cared about being good neighbors and understood that healthy communities were vital to their success. And small businesses these days still believe that. But large companies set their factories in whichever country is cheapest to manufacture, sell their wares in whichever country has the most customers, and even locate their headquarters in whichever country offers them the best tax deal. They no longer view themselves as ‘American’ (at least, until they need a bailout, then they wave the stars-n-stripes more vigorously than any self-proclaimed patriot).

      Already, there are plenty of U.S. companies who do most of their manufacturing in other countries, and sell most of their goods outside the U.S. too. They don’t need our country to prosper. The only thing they need out of the U.S. is dollar-clearing services with the NY Federal Reserve, and the Delaware Court of Chancery to adjudicate business disputes. Your welfare or the health of your community (aside from how much profit can be strip-mined from it) is the last thing they need to worry about.

    1. Is there any force in public life accomplishing more to improve the quality of our existence than businesses? I’m not saying this because I think that’s a fantastic state of affairs, I’m just positing it as a fact. Who would you rather deal with: customer service at your least favorite vendor, or the customer service professionals at the Social Security Administration or the IRS?

      This is making me just a little nauseous, but I think we might be reaching an inflection point in our relationship to politics. Change can be scary, but it may not be all bad.

      1. Wait – who would you rather deal with, Chris? I have always had great experiences with social security and the IRS – courteous, knowledgeable people who can usually help me. My least favorite vendors, however, not so much. Those handling the issue are usually young – foreign – and definitely don’t have a stake in helping me solve the problem…or it takes multiple tries.

        Have you had different experiences? Did I miss your point? Have I just been “lucky” in who I speak to?

      2. Sorry to hear that. My husband had what turned out to be a humorous IRS event. He was audited (many, many times) and this one particular time turned out to be well, tedious. He met several times with an agent, provided all the info they required, and she still wouldn’t give him an all-clear. He finally asked to speak with the agent’s superior, showed her the history of all the meetings, laid out all the docs, asked if there was anything more he could present and she told him no. He had done all the correct things and the employee was basically giving him a bad time. In fact, she told him she would put a letter in his file stating that he was one of the most honest taxpayers she had ever met and to leave him alone!

        Must of worked as we have never been audited again (-;

      3. I had my identity stolen a few years ago. Apparently, while working full time in Houston, Texas I was simultaneously working full time in Norcross, Georgia.

        Anyway the IRS informed me that I need to declare those taxes on my 1040. After a quick call they realized my mistake issued a secure pin that changes yearly to protect my identity on future tax filings.

        The IRS was prompt and very helpful. Compared to my service calls with Time-Warner and Comcast, I will take the IRS any day of the week.

      4. Talking about stories let me tell a true one. About 20 years ago the Utility company I worked for got a new CEO. He had a bright idea. Let’s sale part of the Utility the Water part to a private corporation letting it float bonds to pay for it with the City that owned us getting a huge chunk of cash. The commission I worked for is a quasi government corporation hybrid. When the citizens of Orlando got wind of it they staged a non-stop opposition to it the city phones never stop ringing. Not no but hell no. Our rates were lowest in the area, the water was safe , tasty, turn a profit over to the city every year and we had a reputation of being reliable and responsive to our customers. They saw no upside for them. The City Politicians informed the manager that was a no go. And the ruling commission decided not to go with the idea. Government is not foreordained to sucky service. In my career I worked both the Water Side and the Power Side. Both provide excellent service at competitive rates. So my experience tells me governments can provide good service and public opposition can change government direction. As I first heard from a black co-worker we have different experiences. Combine that knowledge we can do much more than as individuals.

      5. Chris – Your comment comparing government customer service to Industry customer service, relates to your previous post about your preacher and his “False News” hidden in a story. As you say, we sometimes don’t realize that we are still seeing the world based on falsehoods baked into our thinking. I think I see that in your worldview. You may be still making judgments based on the American Conservative tilt that infected the Republican party. Allowing that I may be wrong, who knows anymore?

        I personally have had good and bad experiences with both public and private customer service.

        In the early days, the post office was the whipping boy for conservative types. In the story that conservatives told, the post office could not do anything right and the only cure was privatization. What I saw was different. I worked as a tech for several years and mailed my billing every night at the local post office. If I mailed it before 6pm it arrived around 10am the next morning 95% of the time. Across the city, 20 miles away. And the local fast food restaurant could not get my order right 5% of the time. The bun patty bun patty bun thing got them every time.

        And you probably are not old enough to deal with the old phone monopoly, but howdy, that was frustration. I know this was a government allowed monopoly but it was the government the broke it up also.

        That said, I welcome any help corporations can provide, keeping civilization going a while longer. I still have faith that a creeping realization that education is the way out will continue to change political realities. And the demographic changes that you have written about will still happen. even though they didn’t save us this cycle.

      6. EJ

        I completely agree about customer service. The part of Germany that my family are from was behind the Iron Curtain; we went from communist bureaucracy to capitalist plenty very quickly. I am completely on board with the concept that capitalism produces a better quality of service.

        I also try to be a good citizen, however; and part of that is wanting to have my other fellow citizens receive as good a service as I do. A country which leaves some of its people behind is a country which should be ashamed. As you point out so vividly, capitalism inherently leaves people behind: Mississippi is going to get thrown to the wolves even as California prospers.

        I would feel ashamed to receive a good service while knowing that my less-well-off fellow citizens receive a bad service or no service at all.

        This is my worry. Sorry, it’s early in the morning and my English may not be very good right now. Does this make sense?

      7. Absolutely it makes sense – to me. It’s called caring for others and it’s an important, special quality. Empathy should be inherent in our personal interactions and reflected in public priorities, but, it’s not. If it were, America wouldn’t be embroiled in constant debate over health care for its people, mired in equality issues, or polarized by our differences. Through capitalism and the rise of individualism, status has become a paramount goal of one’s life rather than how we treat one another. The result is reflected in the discord we see in our world.

      8. Hang on a minute. This is important. A lot of our future comes down to this idea:

        *Mississippi is going to get thrown to the wolves*

        Stop and think for a moment about this one, vital question – Who are the “wolves” in this scenario? Those wolves are Mississippi’s citizens. Her voters. Mississippi will be left at the mercy of people who live and vote in Mississippi. The same would happen to the poor bastards living in West Virginia and Arkansas and Arizona.

        Now, that’s a terrible fate, one I would never be willing to endure. But it’s also called democracy. If there were only one message I could get across to the American Left in the wake of the Trumpocalypse it would be this – stop trying to “help” people who don’t want your help.

        Build your vision of the future in places that want to welcome it. If it works out it is likely to spread.

      9. What is the responsibility of those in power who subjugate the rights of others to their own? Haven’t we spent a few years on this blog discussing how wrong this is? How it imperils the very essence of democracy? 2.8 million more people voted for HRC, yet she lost. And, yes, there are many reasons for that, but still, more people voted for the democratic candidate than the fool that won. Does that make those of us who voted against him wolves by virtue of having lost?

      10. About your point on reaching out to those who are receptive…. In a prior comment, someone (Fred? DS?) posed this question – “why don’t Democrats focus on those living in surburban areas who share common concerns with Democrats and stop trying to reach those who refuse to be reached?”

        I am pretty much there. 90% of Republicans voted for Trump despite his incredible flaws as did far too many working class Democrats. The Democratic Party must focus on those who share Democratic values – equality, health care access, protection of the environment, the value of the safety net, diversity. Broadening the Democratic base is imperative but time is short. The danger for Democrats is not as much Trump as it is the Republican Party with majority control of all divisions of government and a plan for radical change.

        That’s urgent and real. There’s no point in crying over spilled milk. Move on and be smart about it!

      11. “Now, that’s a terrible fate, one I would never be willing to endure. But it’s also called democracy. If there were only one message I could get across to the American Left in the wake of the Trumpocalypse it would be this – stop trying to “help” people who don’t want your help.”

        One of my favorite old adages – some learn through reading, some learn through watching others, and some just have to pee on the electric fence. I agree with Chris here. You can’t help someone who isn’t ready to help themselves. This is the time for a tough love approach. If and when the people who get burned by this incoming travesty of a government are willing to admit that they made a poor choice and ask for help, then I would be willing to reach out to them. But until then they can lie in the beds they made.

      12. DS

        I get this line of thinking, but what of the millions of people who can’t vote (by virtue of age, disenfranchisement, etc.), and the millions who vote in opposition to the crazies? I’m all for letting people lie in the bed they make, but the equation changes somewhat when they don’t lie alone…

      13. I’m going to put the problem out front. In the 2016 Presidential election:

        Voters Eligible Population Ballots – Voting 135,657,507 (58.6 percent)

        Voters Eligible Population – Non-Voting 95,899,115 (41.4 percent)

        Voters Eligible Population Total 231,556,622

        Hillary Clinton lost this election by less than 80,000 votes in 3 states despite winning the popular vote by over 2.8 million. Voter suppression is horrible and it is likely here for a very long time unless the S.C. rules against gerrymandering and continues to overturn voter suppression laws/practices. With a 5/4 conservative majority guaranteed, Democrats better not count on the SC to correct this horrible problem. Instead, Democrats have to find a way to interest more of those in the 41.4% category who were eligible to vote, but didn’t. You do that by building from the bottom, appealing to needs of those who would likely align with your party, and involve them. People who feel they can make a difference, usually are more engaged. Ignore them at your peril.

      14. EJ

        “Stop trying to help people who don’t want your help.”

        This is very good advice, and thank you for putting it so well.

        I would respond, however, that Mississippi does want help. Certainly they receive vast sums of it in the form of Federal tax money. There’s a good visual analysis of it here:

        https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-government/2700/

        To my knowledge there is no great clamour among the people of Mississippi for this help to cease. Rather, they are reliant on the money but don’t want the lecture that goes with it.

        Wealth does not always equate to good governance; ask anyone who’s ever been to Saudi Arabia. However, I think we both agree that within Europe and America there’s a strong correlation, because good infrastructure and strong institutions are the offspring of one and the wellspring of the other.

        Should the American Left – that is, the cities and the Blue states – try to help the rest of the country, even when they’re actively, abusively resisting? Yes, in my view. Your comment about the film Idiocracy strikes me as the alternative, and I’m willing to put up with almost anything rather than go through that.

      15. Great link, EJ. It is worth pointing out that the list is led by red states…..Why are Dems not making that point? Not only are Republicans getting credit for being better at managing the economy, they are doing so while garnering the majority of federal aid!!! Guess if you are bringing home the bacon, you get credit, even as you criticize “big government” for causing deficits! The irony is overwhelming.

        I’ll be curious to see when the “Better Way” plan is launched if any of these federal dollars to the red states will disappear….Especially given that the hard right Freedom Caucus nominee for Director of the OMB , Mulvaney, is a balanced budget hawk. Think he’ll recommend cuts to red states? Ha!

      16. “I get this line of thinking, but what of the millions of people who can’t vote (by virtue of age, disenfranchisement, etc.), and the millions who vote in opposition to the crazies? ”

        There are definitely useful battles that can be fought when it comes to things like voter suppression. The spotlight needs to be blindingly bright on every dirty trick, and people with standing should be encouraged to go the court and aided any way possible.

      17. What is discouraging is that this has become a GOP strategy that is replicated in state after state. I have been encouraged this year (since Scalia’s death) about the courage of more district courts in rejecting these laws but the process is lengthy, expensive and generally is designed to run right up against deadlines. It is unfathomable to me that the Republican Party feels it must do things like this. Obviously, in the recent election, it worked in swing states. More important, it is such a breach of the democratic process and fundamental voting rights that is so clearly egregious. And, of course, these actions are always undertaken under the guise of “voter fraud” – which is absurd, undocumented, and a flat out lie.

      18. DS – I have been watching that unfold and it stinks. Cooper has indicated he will challenge these changes in court (he was the NC AG after all) but since they were passed by the state legislature (majority GOP), I don’t know what he can do but hope there are some judges left in that court district that can smell a rotten deal and have the courage to act on it. We are likely to see these actions copied in other red states whenever a Democrat has the temerity to win over an incumbent Republican. It’s not enough that Republicans won big in the last election, they must take it all – democratic process be damned!

        There is so much that I abhor about Republican Party tactics.

        If you think this is bad, and it is, read this latest story about how the Trump team is brazenly promoting its business interests. Be certain to watch the video interview of Paul Ryan to complete your understanding of how the game is being played in Republican politics. I don’t know how the family can get away with this. Certainly the hotels who lost business will pursue this but why is this not being challenged?

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2016/12/20/in-donald-trumps-washington-corruption-will-be-utterly-shameless/?utm_term=.4bcdf792b3e4

      19. Yes: public health programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. They provide healthcare far cheaper than private insurance, and surveys show that Medicare recipients are more satisfied with their plans than people with private insurance.

        Heck, for all the vitriol directed at the VA, actual health economists studying the program have concluded that the VA provides better care, has better outcomes, at lower costs, than private programs.

        Medicare in particular was created as a response to a *market failure*: no insurance company in their right mind would insure a 65 year old. Even a healthy one. Actuarially speaking, they are ticking time bombs for million dollar losses. So we created a public program that happens to provide better care, more security / peace-of-mind, and cheaper cost, than private insurance.

      20. Of course, good for you, WX Wall. I would say that our national parks program and space programs are also winners, and I’m sure there are others. It’s hard for conservatives to get past their block on “government doing any good.”

      21. @Chris Ladd:

        >] “Stop and think for a moment about this one, vital question – Who are the “wolves” in this scenario? Those wolves are Mississippi’s citizens. Her voters. Mississippi will be left at the mercy of people who live and vote in Mississippi. The same would happen to the poor bastards living in West Virginia and Arkansas and Arizona.

        Now, that’s a terrible fate, one I would never be willing to endure. But it’s also called democracy. If there were only one message I could get across to the American Left in the wake of the Trumpocalypse it would be this – stop trying to “help” people who don’t want your help.

        Though a firm believer in the idea of not helping those who don’t want to be helped I am, a thriving political party, or an aspiring one at the very least, still needs to keep trying. Abandon them en masse and all you’ve done is leave the other side to take full advantage.

        Much as I detest their idiocy, the idea of such dragging the rest of us down angers me far more than simply crafting proposals and a message to let the country as a whole know that we’re not leaving anyone behind.

        @mary guercio:

        >] “I am pretty much there. 90% of Republicans voted for Trump despite his incredible flaws as did far too many working class Democrats. The Democratic Party must focus on those who share Democratic values – equality, health care access, protection of the environment, the value of the safety net, diversity. Broadening the Democratic base is imperative but time is short. The danger for Democrats is not as much Trump as it is the Republican Party with majority control of all divisions of government and a plan for radical change.

        Time is even shorter than some might think. If Republicans have a blowout mid-term election in ’18, they could have a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate. Assuming all the red-state Dems that’re likely to flip (Indiana, Missouri, Montana, N. Dakota, W. Virginia), Republicans would only need to flip three competitive seats. Of those, Wisconsin and Ohio were both seats won in ’12 by Democrats with only 51% of the vote. If those two go, that only leaves one, and there are two states, Pennsylvania and Florida, that Republicans will almost assuredly go all in on to win in such a scenario.

        If they know what’s good for them, Democrats will fight tooth and nail on every competitive front. If they think a new Republican president’s first mid-term election will go badly for him the way it did for President Obama purely by virtue of it being a mid-term, they’ll deserve every loss they have coming to them.

      22. They could start by electing a leader of the DNC – now and stop pussyfooting around. Party leaders are wasting what little time we have left before inauguration day. People like us who are doing what we can, however small, need leadership and focus. I admire and agree with Aaron’s list of activist steps, but we need lots of people, all doing their part.

        I still don’t think many Democrats realize what is coming. I wish I didn’t.

      23. It’s worth noting that in the 2008 election, Dems won 57 seats with 2 Independents who normally caucused with them. They also won 257 House seats giving them a majority there.

        Yet, in just two years, the election of 2010, Republicans turned things around, picking up 63 House seats to win a majority of 242 to Dems 193 and Repubs picked up 6 Senate seats. The reason attributed by most pundits for this swing? Enthusiasm gap…..

        What will it take to motivate and mobilize Democrats? We have lost the majority of state legislatures, governorships, control of both houses of Congress and soon control of SCOTUS. I don’t know what else to say.

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