Blueprint

By Rich Tucker

“Blueprint” is about how we’ve adapted through social evolution. Traits that make for a successful society tend to be passed along. Traits that do not tend to die out.

The first two months of the Covid-19 crisis may have increased your faith in human nature. Or they may have convinced you that humans have no future. But if you found yourself wondering what make us human in the first place, know that there is a “Blueprint.”

Nicholas Christakis is a Professor at Yale and the co-author of a 2009 book about how our social networks shape our lives. By that he didn’t mean simply Facebook and Instagram (which hadn’t even been invented when the book was published). He meant the way humans interact with each other in groups. We’re “stronger together” (as all the hashtags on Facebook insist), and Prof. Christakis is here to prove that.

Fair enough. And in a wide-ranging recent book, Christakis makes a number of excellent points.

“Animal species may face a wide variety of threats, but the biggest threat to humans, more than predators or any environmental exigencies, is other humans,” he writes, and that is worth remembering even as a virus stalks humanity. “If the most important feature of the human environment is other humans, then that feature is a constant across all physical and biological environments, from the poles to the equator. And our species has adapted to that.

His book “Blueprint” is about how we’ve adapted: through social evolution. Traits that make for a successful society tend to be passed along. Traits that do not tend to die out.

As an aside, the Christakis book shouldn’t be confused with Robert Plomin’s book “Blueprint,” because that is about how DNA makes us who we are. Think of it as nature over nurture for Plomin, nurture alongside nature for Christakis.

What makes for a successful society? Well, monogamy, for one thing. “Political entities, nations, and religions that adopted monogamy had a reduced rate of this sort of violence and could deploy their resources more productively, internally and externally,” he writes. “From this perspective, modern norms and institutions regarding monogamous marriage have been shaped by a kind of evolutionary process in response to the forces of intergroup competition and intragroup benefits.”

That is counterintuitive, since on a strictly genetic level, it would make sense for a many to have sex with as many women as possible. If he could convince another man to pay to raise his children, so much the better. Society flips that script, convincing (most) men to focus their attention on one woman, and invest in offspring with only her. That leads to two-parent households, which are the most effective places to raise children.

A common culture also means we don’t need to begin each generation anew. We can “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and not just Newton, but everyone who has ever lived. “No human has to learn everything on his or her own; we can all rely on others to teach us, a hugely efficient practice present in all cultures,” he writes.

Also, there are no “universal people.” But if there were, they would share certain traits, Christakis writes, quoting another scientist, Prof. Donald Brown. We all seem to “have gossip, music, taboos, belief in magic, rites of passage, attention to male aggressive impulses, fancy speeches for special occasions, as well as other features.”

So.

“If there is a blueprint for a basic, functional society that has been shaped by evolution and that is part of our genetic heritage, why do societies ever fail?” Christakis wonders. Specifically, he blames human violence (we tend to kill each other, although levels of violence are dropping in recent decades) and the threat from difficult physical environments (it’s tough to survive in the Sahara, or at the South Pole).

That’s a good start, but while Christakis goes into exhaustive detail about various societies, if you want to understand how people can cooperate to survive in difficult climes, a much better book is “The Secret of Our Success,” by Joseph Henrich. It’s a much easier and entertaining read.

Meanwhile, a good takeaway from either book is, as Christakis writes, that “when it comes to society, the whole comes to be greater than the sum of its parts, with distinctive features not present in the components.”

Reason enough to be confident about the future of society – and humanity – after Covid-19.

Winners take all

By Rich Tucker

In his book, “Winners Take All,” Anand Giridharadas tries — but fails — to explain what’s going wrong in the United States.

A Book Review

Welfare capitalism built towns across America. Including my home town, which grew up in large part around Endicott-Johnson shoe factories.

Could it work again? Perhaps. Perhaps not. However, if companies cared a bit more about their workers, perhaps the government wouldn’t need to. That’s a worthy goal, but unfortunately a goal that isn’t really explored in “Winners Take All,” by Anand Giridharadas.

If you’re like me, you probably saw this book as you walked through an airport. Then again, that assumes you’re among the minority of Americans who find themselves strolling through airports. The people Giridharadas needs to help don’t get off the ground, much. And that’s a problem for the author.

Giridharadas tries to explain what’s going on. He points the finger at the financialization of America. As anthropologist David Graeber defines that concept: “Increasingly, corporate profits are not derived from commerce or industry at all, but from finance—which means, ultimately, from other people’s debts.”

Giridharadas adds that, “The financial sector has extracted more and more value from the American economy, at the expense not only of consumers and workers but also of industry itself.” There are no E-Js today, because, “more and more of the nation’s financial resources were swilled around Wall Street without taking the form of new investment by companies or higher wages for workers.”

Blame globalization. As companies lost a sense of place, they lost connection to their (often former) workers in that place. But the solution Giridharadas offers is less than satisfying. He seems to think that if the wealthy just paid more in taxes, the government-run welfare state could take care of people.

But the federal government doesn’t have the answer to unemployment, either. It tends to push for retraining programs that don’t work. As Amy Goldstein wrote in her book “Janesville,” after the 2008 GM plant shutdown in Wisconsin, “Job retraining, it turned out, was not a path to more work or better pay in and around Janesville, at least not during this time when jobs were so scarce.” Instead, former GMers did better by simply striking off on their own.

But Giridharadas seems to trust the government.

In one completely unfair parenthetical, he asserts: “It goes without saying, for example, that if hedge funders hadn’t been enormously creative in dodging taxes, the income available for foreign aid would have been much greater.” Well, sure. But the U.S. spends about 0.7 percent of its budget on foreign aid. If there was more money available, that’s not where Congress would spend it.

Such big spending is a non-starter, anyway. “A key principle of rainbow liberalism is that the solution to working-class woes is hiking taxes on the rich to finance a generous suite of wage subsidies, social services, and, for the truly ambitious, basic-income grants,” Reihan Salam writes in The Atlantic. “But will white liberals be as enthusiastic about sharp increases in their taxes if those increases become something other than theoretical?” To ask the question is to answer it.

Giridharadas also floats, approvingly, the idea that Hillary Clinton’s proposals would have been better for the middle class than Donald Trump’s. But he then spends most of a chapter (rightly) blasting the Clinton Global Initiative, which embodied globalization. CGI also greatly enriched the Clinton family, to the point that Chelsea Clinton was free to say: “I was curious if I could care about [money] on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t.” Well, of course not; because she has it. As for those middle class Americans, it’s fair to say CGI was less profitable.

A key problem for Giridharadas is that he spent too much time marinating in the very system he now seems to hate. “He is an Aspen Institute fellow, an on-air political analyst for MSNBC and a former McKinsey analyst,” the book’s jacket proclaims. Those Americans grounded by job losses might say he’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Yet he spends most of the book blasting big globalist organizations such as the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic magazine, also an airport staple and a place where Giridharadas has been published.

Amid the self-loathing, he really offers only one potential solution: Make being good easy by creating B Corps, companies that do good while doing well (financially).

That would replace Milton Friedman’s idea that companies should only exist to serve their shareholders. To be fair, Friedman’s concept made sense in 1970, but it has, perhaps, been taken too far (a point to explore when we review “The Economists’ Hour,” by New York Times correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum.

B Corps may be part of the solution. However, commentators such as Giridharadas will need to come down out of the clouds if they want to offer effective solutions to today’s economic problems.

Lies that bind

By Rich Tucker

In “The Lies that Bind,” Kwame Anthony Appiah encourages us to “rethink identity.” The current American approach seems sensible.

A Book Review

American politics are again splintering over race. Donald Trump uses racist code. Lawmakers snipe at each other over identity groupings. Democratic presidential candidates support discredited 1970s-era busing policies.

Things seem to be flying apart.

But perhaps it’s the opposite. Maybe this is a final gasp of identity politics. Instead of being pushed to the poles, perhaps we’re moving to the center, where our differences can become less important.

In “The Lies that Bind,” Kwame Anthony Appiah encourages us to “rethink identity.” For example, he says it’s impossible for an individual to speak for an entire group. “Our identities are multiple and can interact in complicated ways,” he notes.

Modern genetics backs that up. Go back just a few thousand years, and we’re all related to each other. We share more than we’re divided by.

Of course, it’s human nature to want to belong to larger groups. An experiment showed boys at camp dividing themselves into competing groups. “The boys didn’t develop opposing identities because they had different norms; they developed different norms because they had opposing identities,” Appiah writes.

So the current American approach seems sensible: We accept the unchangeable and allow people to group themselves (First Amendment), yet we legally ban discrimination. This seems to be working.

Appiah concludes that identity can be defined as an activity (verb), not as a thing (noun). And activities can change. Not quickly enough for some. But things are moving in a positive direction.

Let’s meet in the middle.

Janesville

By Rich Tucker

This should be one of the first books anyone who wants to understand the 2008 financial meltdown reads. It’s not about finance, it’s about people. And people are what’s really important.

A Book Review

People in the nation’s capital don’t read books the way they claim to. Many political tomes are simply statements (long statements) penned to give ghostwriters something to do.

Decades ago, Washington journalist Michael Kinsley noted that many of these sort of “books don’t exist to be read,” Instead, Kinsley wrote, “They exist to be gazed at, browsed through, talked about.”

Such works also exist to allow publishers to hand a bunch of money to politicians who might matter again someday. For example, former and future candidates named Obama and Clinton (Bill and Hillary, in their turn) massively benefitted from putting their names on books few, if any, actually read.

However, if we’re going to draw political conclusions from a book, it’s probably best to begin by reading it. And so, a year after it became the book that everyone in Washington had supposedly read, I finally picked up a copy of Amy Goldstein’s book “Janesville.”

It wasn’t clear to me exactly why the author, a reporter for the Washington Post, happened to be in Janesville, Wisconsin in 2008 when General Motors announced it would close its plant there. But she was.

In fact, on the day GM made its announcement, Goldstein spoke with Rep. Paul Ryan. Before he ran for vice president or became speaker of the House of Representatives, Ryan (always, annoyingly, called “Paul” throghout Goldstein’s book) was a congressman from Janesville and a rising star in the Republican party.

Goldstein does great reporting. She follows several people from the time of the announcement through the fruitless attempts to keep the plant open, and even for years after the plant shut down. But in some ways, she seems to miss the main message of her work, which can be summed up in one sentence: “Job retraining, it turned out, was not a path to more work or better pay in and around Janesville, at least not during this time when jobs were so scarce.”

Yet “job retraining” is what the federal government pushed for. Federal policies encouraged laid off workers to go to Blackhawk Community College, even though many of the plant’s workers hadn’t taken any classes since finishing high school years (or decades) earlier.

Many were not ready for the classroom. Further, the profession many trained for, stringing electric wire, never panned out. The federal government was inept at predicting the sort of jobs workers should move into. Too many of these students washed out with no degree and more debt.

In fact, the workers who did best are those who simply struck out on their own or followed their passions. They tended to find work more quickly and make more in hourly wages.

One thing that jumps out from the book is that there are things the federal government could do to give more help to blue collar workers in places like Janesville. Instead of schooling, the government could offer to guarantee people can keep their healthcare benefits for a period of time, maybe two years. Benefits were a big part of GM’s compensation package. If people could have kept those benefits, they might have been able to take another job right away, even if it didn’t offer benefits immediately.

Likewise, the government could guarantee that that laid-off workers could keep their homes for a similar two-year time period, no questions asked. This would, of course, be difficult to work out in practice. But remember that during this time, the federal government poured billions into bailing out big banks, and all we got were bigger banks. That money could, in theory at least, have gone to actual people and allowed them to keep their homes.

“Janesville” is a good read, well-researched and informative. It should be one of the first books anyone who wants to understand the 2008 financial meltdown reads. It’s not about finance, it’s about people. And people are what’s really important.

Us Versus Them

By Rich Tucker

Apparently somebody told Ian Bremmer he ought to write a book. But “Us vs. Them” is more of a preface to a book than a primer on today’s geopolitical situation.

A Book Review

If you can’t solve a problem you can at least make money writing a book about it.

Ian Bremmer is, his Web site explains, “president and founder of Eurasia Group, the leading global political risk research and consulting firm.” That means he does what the rest of us do: He looks at the world and tries to figure out what the Hell is happening. He’s just better paid for his efforts.

One such effort is his book, “Us vs. Them.” As the title implies, the book attempts to explain how international geopolitics is changing in the 21st Century. Apparently, it’s not changing all that much.

Consider: Over the years, American political observers wrestled with the divide between the “First world” and “Third world.” The “Second world” was the former Soviet bloc, and many of its countries would now be demoted to the Third world, if we still used that terminology.

But we don’t. Since we keep finding ourselves unable to solve “Third world” problems, we renamed the system. It became the “Developed world” against the “Developing world.” That had a nice tinge of inevitability.

When finished “developing,” the rest of the planet would be “developed” and we’d all be happy. Except that didn’t seem to be happening, either. So we went forward by going back. Now it’s “North vs. South,” with the former First world north of the equator and the former Third world south of it. Much as in the United States before 1861, the North is industrial and successful, the South less so and less so.

In any event, somebody told Ian Bremmer he ought to write a book explaining his insights into the divide, which he breaks down in his title, “Us vs. Them.” He’s got a handful of interesting observations, particularly about American politics.

“American democracy itself is eroding,” he writes. “Donald Trump was elected president with votes from 26.3 percent of eligible voters.” That means that in 2016, “Nearly 45 percent of eligible American voters didn’t vote at all.” It’s a good warning; if people weren’t engaged in that year, with all the hype surrounding the vote, they’ll probably never be engaged.

But maybe that’s good. As columnist Jonah Goldberg writes, “millions of Americans just don’t care about politics, much the same way that I don’t care about cricket: They think it’s boring.”

Perhaps it’s better if people who don’t care to be informed don’t vote. We could force them to cast a ballot (as Australia does), but that’s just forcing them to make choices about things they’re not interested in. And it dilutes the votes of people who actually pay attention to what’s going on in the world.

Still, Bremmer has a good point — democracy may be in danger here. “Fewer than one in three young Americans say that it’s important to live in a democracy,” he writes. “In 1995, just one in sixteen Americans agreed that it would be ‘good’ or ‘very good’ to have military rule in the United States. In 2016, it was one in six.” It’s fair enough to consider that a dangerous trend, one worth keeping an eye on.

But the U.S. isn’t alone in facing challenges. Bremmer also points to problems elsewhere. “Failure to protect rising middle classes from crime, corruption, and contaminated food, air, and water, along with failure to care for the unemployed, sick, and elderly, creates a profoundly dangerous situation for China,” he writes.

That said, “[China’s] the one government that, at least for now, can afford to spend huge amounts of money to create unnecessary jobs to avoid political unrest.” Doesn’t sound like much of a long-term solution. But things better not change right away because, “the entire global economy is becoming more dependent on China’s continued stability and growth.” So China’s policy boils down to “fake it and hope to make it”? That doesn’t sound promising.

That’s a problem with Us vs. Them. It reads like an Atlantic article that got pumped up on steroids. It’s shaped like a book, but doesn’t have the heft of a book. It identifies soft spots in the global economy, but not solutions. In short, it’s a good start, but more of a preface to a book than a primer on today’s geopolitical situation.

Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?

By Rich Tucker

The answer to “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” is yes. But only if we understand what capitalism is, and then use it to increase freedom and grow the economy.

A Book Review

Prolific author Robert Kuttner sets out to blast “capitalism.” The problem is that if you define terms in particular ways, you can prove just about anything you want to.

Kuttner does this masterfully, most importantly by mischaracterizing the very idea of capitalism. “Some have argued that capitalism promotes democracy, because of common norms of transparency, rule of law, and free competition—for markets, for ideas, for votes.” Well, yes, that’s exactly what we think of. Thank you!

Except Kuttner is only using that definition to explain that’s not what he means.

When he writes “capitalism,” he means “corporatism,” the process by which big companies coopt the power of government. Then he damns the capitalism he’s defined.

“Western capitalists have enriched and propped up third-world despots who crush local democracy,” he notes. “Hitler had a nice understanding with German corporations and bankers,” Kuttner writes, while “Communist China works hand in glove with its capitalist business partners to destroy free trade unions and to preserve the political monopoly of the Party.”

So, Nazi Germany and Communist China are united because both were/are “capitalist”? Well, in that case, I guess I oppose capitalism, too, whatever it is.

In the real world, dictators hate capitalism.

It tends to empower regular people at the expense of the government. If a country has a growing economy, driven by capitalism, it is far more likely to move toward democracy. Meanwhile, non-democratic governments are more likely to be autocratic than democratic. There may be examples to the contrary. But if China and Hitler are your examples of capitalism, then you oppose a capitalism that doesn’t really exist.

To bring the argument into the current moment, Kuttner notes that while some corporations are “standing up for immigrants and saluting the happy rainbow of identity politics,” they are also “lining up to back Trump’s program of gutting taxes and regulation.” Later he notes that all companies “have been happy with the dismantling of regulation.” And that may be true. But how is “regulation” an example of “democracy”?

At least in the U.S., regulators tend to be bureaucrats, hired by other bureaucrats to issue rulings the rest of us must obey. An important story of the 21st Century is that Congress (democratically elected) is giving its power away to bureaucratic regulators. That’s what happened in Dodd-Frank and under Obamacare. They aren’t laws in the democratic sense. They are frameworks that lawmakers use to set guidelines. The bureaucrats at HHS, Treasury and other departments fill in the important details. This sort of lawmaking is many things; it is not democratic.

Kuttner also expresses a very narrow view of where the country may go. “Anger against market excess can go right, toward fascism, or can energize a progressive left that anchors a decent economy,” he writes. Oh. Those are the sole choices? “Good” progressivism, or “bad” fascism. It would seem the real world presents a much greater continuum.

Also, let’s push back on the idea that conservatism is “fascist.” This is a common trope used by lazy people who assume “fascism” must be the opposite of “communism.” And since “communism” is on the left, “fascism” must be on the right.

More often, communism and fascism sit right next to each other. On a clock, they’d be 11:59 and 12:01, not 9:00 and 3:00. Communists and fascists both offer government control of the means of production. The fact that they’re so close is why they’re such bitter enemies. Capitalism, by giving regular people control, is a threat to both communism and fascism.

What Kuttner gets right is the collapse of the Democratic left. Democrats have plenty of money, because influential individuals including Eric Schmidt and Tom Steyer are willing to bankroll the party.

But the rich donors have nothing in common with the common man, and no common touch. “Any party that wants to vocally champion the rights of transgender people to choose their own bathrooms had better also redouble its efforts on behalf of wage-earning people generally,” Kuttner writes, “or it will be entrusted by the voters to do neither.” Trump’s victory, predicted.

Kuttner notes a big problem: “Just twenty counties, with only 2 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for half of all the new business growth in the economy” after 2010, he writes. But his proposals for spreading the wealth are less than inspiring: He wants more welfare.

Even here, he cheats by taking Bill Clinton to task for signing welfare reform. “When unemployment subsequently rose sharply in the great recession, the new, block-granted welfare substitute helped only about 10 percent of needy people.” Its predecessor had helped more than half. Well, okay. But welfare reform put more people to work. Aren’t those people who had jobs between 1996 and 2008 better off than if they’d been on welfare all that time?

In the end, the answer to “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” is yes. But only if we understand what capitalism is, and then use it to increase freedom and grow the economy.