Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: Twilight of the Elites.

This is a critically important book, and you should read it. You should buy it if you can, because to the extent it sells, it creates "platform" for Mr. Hayes. "Platform" is one of the types of power he discusses in the book. And, our country needs his influence.

(image from Balloon Juice, which is a terrific blog you should read)

The core premise of the book is this; gross inequality of outcome leads to elite behaviors which are ultimately destructive to the society. 

(this and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

Mr. Hayes begins with the thesis that the last 12 years have been a "fail decade". He cites Bush v. Gore, 9/11, the Enron Scandal, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, MLB's steroids scandal, the enabling of serial pedophiles by the Catholic Church, the Financial crisis and Jerry Sandusky's institutionally protected reign of child molestation as some of the evidence of this failure.

That's a pretty compelling string of fail. He attributes these disasters and others to incompetence and corruption in our elite institutions, and he blames the sharp increase in inequality we've seen in this country for elite failure.

The case he makes is hard to rebut. Mr. Hayes begins his discussion with "The Iron Law of Oligarchy" which is the idea that any group, regardless of its purpose or values, will inevitably split into elite members and mass members. Elite members, by virtue of their innate characteristics (drive, ambition, talent) will come to exercise greater influence on the group's decisions and actions than the mass membership. Subsequently, they become more concerned with the group's internal hierarchy, and their place within it, than with the group's putative goals.

Americans are comfortable with this type of inequality, provided that it is the outcome of "merit". The key element of American political mythology is that all of the participants enjoy "equality of opportunity". Subsequent inequality of outcome and circumstance is then (theoretically) attributable to the actions of the individual. If the playing field is level, the outcome of the game is legitimate. Equality of outcome is not desirable because it limits the best and most talented individuals. This is not only detrimental to the individual, but also to the larger society, which is deprived of their talents.

Mr. Hayes then proposes a corollary to the Iron Law of Oligarchy: the "Iron Law of Meritocracy". This posits that any group of elites will act to secure and extend their privileged position in society. They are able to do so because of the inequality of outcome their exceptional talents has created. Meritocracy is thus inherently unstable; it's beneficiaries will act to undermine it on behalf of themselves, their friends and their families.

The results of this "self-dealing" are seen in the string of catastrophes listed above. Inequality of outcome has reached a level in this country that our elites have successfully eliminated equality of opportunity. Consequently our elites are no longer competent. They are no longer incented to benefit the mass membership through their actions. Elite interests have become divorced from the interests of the larger society.

"three decades of accelerating inequality have produced  deformed social order and a set of elites who cannot help but be dysfunctional and corrupt."

The author offers a typology of power wielded by elites including Money, Platform (access to mass audience) and Network (access to other members of the elite). He then makes the important point that while these "types" of power are conceptually different, they tend to reinforce each other and go together.

Mr. Hayes goes on to chronicle the reasons why elites become dysfunctional. Beneficiaries of the system of elite selection and recruitment are of course convinced of the legitimacy of the system that put them at its apex. They work to preserve it. 

At the same time, they work to subvert the "principle of mobility" that lies at the heart of meritocracy, by providing their friends and family with perks and advantages not enjoyed by the mass populace. Mr. Hayes documents this tendency with some depressing statistics regarding social mobility and income stagnation in the United States since 1980.

Elites, convinced that they've earned their perks, enjoy those perks to their fullest. Among those perks is increasing isolation from the mass society they rule. They're less likely to ride the bus, less likely to encounter the poor and more able to avoid the daily headaches that plague most of us. Mr. Hayes refers to this as "social distance". This deprives them of critical feedback regarding the consequences of decisions they make which affect the broader society. 

One particularly poignant example cited by Mr. Hayes is the ruthlessly punitive nature of our criminal justice system. The consequences of that particular holocaust are avoided entirely by elites, but have devastated segments of the larger society.

"...the closer those in charge are to the consequences of their actions, the more responsive they'll be and the better decisions they will make."

Protected from the worst consequences of our justice system, elites are not deterred from self-serving actions which, while illegal, are unlikely to result in incarceration, or even meaningful fines. The internal values of elite subculture have become so hyper-competitive that a myopic focus on profitability, or electoral success, or winning baseball games excludes every other consideration. And this pathology is magnified by the enormous rewards our acceptance of inequality offers to the successful. Finally, once "cheating" has taken root in the system, not cheating becomes impossible. Mr. Hayes demonstrates this with a particularly cool and intellectually playful application of Gresham's Law.

The results of this corruption of our elites have been listed above. Having watched institution after institution betray its public trust, the mass membership has grown almost entirely skeptical about the motives and public pronouncements of the elites. This delegitimation of our decision makers has created "a crisis of authority" in which there is no consensus on what our problems are or how they can be solved. We cannot agree on what the facts of our circumstances are, because the determination of "fact" is a function of elites whom we no longer trust.

The book ends with some suggestions for reforming the system. Such reform is straight-forward, at least in its basic form; reduce inequality. This will have the effect of increasing the pool from which elites are recruited, reducing the incentives for elites to cheat and improving their awareness of the consequences of their decisions.

The authoritative case Mr. Hayes makes is enhanced by his prose; he writes with both elegance and directness. The book is extremely accessible. I can even call it a "page turner" with perfect accuracy, adding only the caveat that I get more excited by this type of material than is sane and normal. 

(No, that's not actually me.)

While Chris Hayes is something of a "darling of the Left" and makes no attempt to hide his ideological predispositions, the book itself is not ideological. Readers with a conservative viewpoint will find themselves in perfect agreement with most of what he has to say.

This is mandatory reading for those of you serious about citizenship, and concerned with the direction of our country.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Schematic Processing and the Limits of Human Cognition

In my view, all of social science, and big chunks of more experimental science (medicine, psychology, engineering) are actually subdivisions of Anthropology. Anthropology is, in its broadest meaning, "the study of humanity". Economics is the study of how humans procure things. Sociology is the study of how humans interact. Medicine is the applied science of optimal human biological functioning.

(This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

Used in this (idiosyncratic) fashion, Anthropology is an extraordinarily complex field, comprehensible only as part of a collective endeavor, over millennia, by millions of specialists attempting to find the correct place for a single piece of the almost infinitely large jigsaw puzzle.

Different people will start in different places, in accordance with their particular interests and the tools available to them in their era. But in this place, at this moment, it seems to me that an essential piece of our collective puzzle is the process of human cognition. The way in which we perceive the world around us, and the ways in which we organize and process those perceptions will be fundamental to understanding any aspect of human behavior. 

Human beings are "schematic information processors". We are extremely good at "storing" information. Memories from many years past can often be recalled with astonishing accuracy. Important phone numbers from our childhood, favorite toys, memorable family traumas can be remembered so vividly that we may reenter the emotional states we experienced at the time of the memory.

What humans are less good at is processing information. At every second, we are battered by an unceasing blast of sensory perceptions. We're cold, or we're warm. We're hungry, or we're slightly nauseous. Our shoulders twinge, our clothing is touching us, our nose is stuffed...

meanwhile, we're annoyed with a co-worker, and worried about our kid, we miss our wife, we're anxious about money...

and the radio is playing that Goddamned Adele song, AGAIN, and traffic is bad, and our coffee is sloshing around dangerously...

The vast majority of our sensory information is ignored, at least at the conscious level. We're unaware of it, because to be aware of all of it would make it impossible to function. We lack the bandwidth to process all the data to which we're constantly exposed.

Schematic information processing is a tactic humans have evolved that relies on our information storage strengths, and sidesteps our processing weaknesses. Human beings store information in cognitive "structures" known as a SCHEMA.

Schemata can be thought of as bundles of related concepts. If I say the word "terrorist" to someone, it immediately triggers a host of related concepts. The listener may "see" Osama bin Laden. The listener may remember 9/11, and experience some of the same emotions they did at the time. They will probably (at least, if they're an American) think "Arab", and "Afghanistan", and "Palestinian".

The reason for this is probably neurological, and involves complex synaptic pathways which form in the brain. The functions of this process are several.

A schema helps us interpret new information

Imagine that you step out of a building and see a half dozen people wearing late 18th century clothing, one with a drum, most carrying signs or placards. What is it you're witnessing? Most people reading this would assume that it's a Tea Party rally, because such behavior is linked to the concept "Tea Party", through news reports and pictures and opinion shows. We have a "Tea Party schema" that includes behaviors, and attitudes, and opinions and images, all tied to the concept "Tea Party".

A schema helps us recall stored information

What did Joe Wilson say in September of 2009? This is a tough question for most people... who is Joe Wilson? Who cares what he said? But, if I trigger the proper schema, by telling you that it was during a Presidential address to Congress...

many people will immediately recall that Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" during President Obama's Congressional speech. The incident is part of a schema people hold, involving Presidential addresses to Congress, and President Obama, and conservative members of the House.

A schema helps us make predictions about the future

As I write this, A Congressional Conference Committee is deadlocked on a new transportation bill. If you know that the House is controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats, you may well have predictions about the issues creating the deadlock.  Even if you're unfamiliar with the details of the impasse, this is because you have formed a "schema" about Republicans and a second schema about Democrats.  The schemata include what issues are of concern to each of them and what positions they typically take in public policy debates.

But it's important to remember that schematic information processing is an evolutionary kludge, a work-around of our weak information processing capacities. There are drawbacks to doing things this way.

(Image from

Schema are relatively inflexible

Information inconsistent with our preconceptions is much more difficult for us to process. Consider some typical conservative views of President Obama...

he's a "socialist". He's Kenyan. He's the most radical president we've ever had. He hates America. He "goes around apologizing for America". He's raised our taxes. He's spent more than any President in history. Except...

each of these assertions is demonstrably false. Furthermore, each of these assertions has repeatedly been publicly debunked. The President chose NOT to socialize the banks, despite being urged to do so by mainstream economists. The President has produced both long and short form birth certificates, the hospital where he was born has attested that he was born there and the birth announcement was in the local papers. The President's policies draw heavily from Republican ideas. The President speaks of America in glowing terms. The President's statements overseas are a matter of public record; they contain nothing that can be characterized as an apology. The President has CUT taxes, rather than raised them. The President has spent LESS than his Republican predecessors by any objective calculation.

And yet, conservative mischaracterizations of the President persist by people who sincerely believe them, even when confronted with contrary evidence. This is because schemata are change resistant. Information inconsistent with existing preconceptions is likely to be forgotten, or distorted in such a way as to become consistent with those preconceptions.

Furthermore, as a schema becomes more well-developed and contains more (possibly incorrect) data, it becomes less flexible and harder to change. Consider one particularly destructive form of schema: the racial stereotype.

For the hard-core racist every single piece of new data serves to strengthen their racism, regardless of the objective conclusion to be drawn from the data. The economically unsuccessful African-American is lazy and shiftless. The economically successful African-American is the beneficiary of affirmative action and probably a hustler. Blacks who are successful professional athletes are loud-mouthed and arrogant. Blacks who aren't athletic are Urkel. Even when a counter-example of a hard working, likable, smart African American is shoved down their throats, perhaps as a co-worker or neighbor...

they're cited as an exception to the general stereotype.

On the other hand, schemata that are not well-developed are easier to change. If you tell a metal-head that Lindsay Buckingham is a phenomenal guitarist, you're likely to get some pushback. The metal-heads I know are familiar with Fleetwood Mac chiefly through their hits. These songs fit conveniently into the pop/soft-rock schema held by the metal-head in question. But they haven't heard much of that stuff, and they've heard none of the more obscure stuff. Confronted with this:

they alter their schema. At least a little.

And this points us to a tactic which can be employed in order to overcome people's preconceptions, at least in some cases.

The tactic is knows as Expectational Disconfirmation, and it requires at least a modicum of intellectual honesty on the part of its subject. If one forces the subject to make predictions about the future based upon a particular schema they hold, and then that prediction turns out to be incorrect...

the subject will initially rationalize. "Oh well, I was wrong because...". But if they can then be forced to generate additional predictions, each one of which turns out to be false, then their schema will begin to incorporate new data.

A good example of this phenomenon is the evolution of Ronald Reagan's views on the Soviet Union. Reagan came into office with the classic "Enemy" stereotype of the Soviet Union. The decisional structure of the Soviets was seen as monolithic, conspiratorial and highly rational. Soviet leadership was seen as capable of executing the most elaborate plots over multiple generations. It's motivation was completely malign; a desire to "take over the world". The only rational policy to confront such a nemesis was seen as unyielding will and determination, which would have the effect of forcing the rational enemy to back down.

(image from

But, as neocons complained at the time, the Soviets "kept saying yes". On a variety of issues, from Arms Control to diplomacy in the third world to scientific cooperation to cultural exchanges, the Soviets failed to act in the nefarious ways the neoconservative world view predicted.

By the time he left office, Reagan was capable of differentiating between moderates and hard-liners in the Soviet government. He realized that a lot of Soviet policy was simple blundering rather than an elaborate plot. He also realized that the Soviets were desperately anxious to retain their standing in the International System, rather than attempting to dominate it.

This has interesting implications for the current impasse in American public life. 

IF political conservatives can be forced to make hard and fast predictions about the outcomes of public policy adopted by the nation...

IF those predictions are presented to the public and their inaccuracy is reported by an impartial press...

THEN there is at least the potential to reality test the assumptions of the conservative world view.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dylan Ratigan's Replacement.

Dylan Ratigan is leaving MSNBC. I don't have strong feelings about that; I wasn't a fan of his show. There's only so much Howard Beale you can channel before it begins to obscure your message. 

I am interested in who MSNBC might get to replace him, however. I have said elsewhere that we're living in a golden age of journalistic talent, even if we're in the Dark Ages of journalism's execution of its civic responsibilities. I can think of a dozen superlatively talented journalists off the top of my head, any one of whom might be an excellent choice to replace Ratigan's shrieking outrage with more effective, measured analysis. 

(This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) is probably my favorite choice. He currently hosts Up with Chris Hayes at 8 AM on weekends on MSNBC, which is hands down the smartest show on television. That may not be replicable in a 5 day per week format; Mr. Hayes' piercing analysis probably requires some lengthy thought. His excellent panels would probably be watered down with more hack guests, and the show's current 2 hour format would suffer if truncated to a single hour. It should be noted that doing away with the Hardball rerun would solve that problem. 

Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) would be another great choice. Klein writes the extraordinarily informative Wonkblog for the Washington Post. He's also a contributor to Bloomberg. Klein is smart, funny, telegenic and astonishingly well-informed on a huge variety of subjects. He has extensive television experience as a guest on a number of shows, and has polished his telepresence as a guest host, most recently on The Rachel Maddow Show. This guy is going to win a Pulitzer someday, and MSNBC would be smart to sign him to a long-term contract before his market value spikes. 

I have no idea if Eugene Robinson (@Eugene_Robinson, not that he ever tweets. Get with the program, Mr. Robinson.) has any interest in hosting a show, but he'd be another terrific choice. Mr. Robinson already has a Pulitzer, and it's not likely to be his last. He writes a syndicated column for the Post, and is extremely well versed in both politics and policy. His experience as a managing editor for the Post would serve him well running a news show. He's smart, entertaining and has an absolute gift for cutting through the bullshit. For the most part he's humorous and easy going, but he can be provoked. At that point he simply becomes authoritative. Anything hosted by him would be "must see" television.

Michelle Goldberg (@michelleinbklyn) would be an outstanding choice for the job. She's as smart as Klein and Robinson. She's almost as broad as Klein in her fields of expertise, having written on both feminist topics and religious fundamentalism. Her book Kingdom Coming is one of the great books on American Politics. (Still not available as an e-book, dammit). Her television presence is smooth and confident, and she brings a sharp edge to her commentary that resonates with those of us tired of bland conventional wisdom and Beltway false equivalence. 

(Image from

Dave Weigel (@DaveWeigel) is perhaps the best political (as opposed to policy) analyst writing today. His knowledge of recent political history is encyclopedic. His work ethic, in a journalistic community almost catatonically lazy, is relentless. Unlike the majority of other MSNBC hosts, Mr. Weigel is not a political liberal. He is instead a Libertarian, which would score some points for the network in the "journalistic balance" game. Most impressive, he is the single most intellectually honest writer of whom I know, willing to call BS on the most sacred cliches of the Beltway, and back up those calls with meticulously gathered evidence. His television appearances have been less frequent than they should be, and he may lack the polish of some of the other candidates. That was true of both Rachel Maddow and Al Sharpton when they started their shows of course, and they quickly mastered the craft. 

Joy-Ann Reid (@thereidreport) writes for the Miami Herald and blogs at The Reid Report. She would bring unrivaled electronic media experience to the job, having worked in both television and radio, and owning her own video production company. She's smart, assertive and knowledgable about both politics and policy. She's also a fine investigative journalist, having covered the killing of Trayvon Martin on site, and doing numerous interviews with the principals. 

(image from the Reid Report)

This list is by no means comprehensive. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone is a terrific reporter who would appeal to fans of Rattigan's subversiveness. Robert Reich would be an excellent choice to host a show. Some other possibilities: Ana Marie Cox, Michael Hastings, or Catherine Rampell, all of whom are first rate journalists.

(Cox. Image from Facebook.)

(Hastings. Image from Media Bistro)

(Rampell. Image from the NYT)

I could go on. As I said before, this is a Golden Age of journalistic talent. Any one of the names I mentioned, and dozens more would be very able replacements for Dylan Rattigan. In many cases, they would be upgrades.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Government is not the Enemy

It is a source of considerable amusement to me that people spend so much time worrying about government tyranny. Some of these people are Libertarians of course, who want government to limit itself to enforcing the contracts they impose on those they exploit. But others of them are leftists who can theoretically be expected to know better.

(This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

Some skepticism regarding government is of course warranted. Throughout human history, the State has been perhaps the greatest perpetrator of tyranny among our species. But this has been so largely in the service of class; Marx touched upon this when he labeled the State as part of a "superstructure" resting upon the more important economic structure of society. With some notable exceptions, State tyranny has been a tool of economic elites, employed against the mass populace.

The development of democratic political institutions has been a mitigating factor in this process. To the extent that the mass populace can control the apparatus of the State, they can prevent those mechanisms from being employed to their detriment. The system, very obviously, is imperfect. Throughout history democratic forms of the State have been more of an arena for struggle between the clases than a reliable defender of the 99%. The history of the American Labor movement, and its repression by the State acting at the behest of elites is ample proof of this.

Democratic political institutions are only effective to the extent that the mass populace avails itself of them.

This is paticularly problematic in early 21st century America. The defining characterisitic of the American mass populace is that it's inattentive and apathetic. The average American cannot tell you who their congressman is. They cannot tell you the name of even a single Justice on the Supreme Court, or who the Speaker of the House is, or how a bill becomes a law.

Many on the Left attempt to excuse this ignorance by blaming the media. Public affairs coverage in the media is notoriously poor; its superficiality is exceeded only by its scarcity. But apologists for the mass populace are confusing cause and effect in this case. Media providers are profit maximizing businesses; they respond to consumer demand. Public affairs programs get rotten ratings because the modal American viewer would rather watch anything than the news.

(image from MTV. Karma is going to be a bitch for this one.)

Nevertheless, the basic mechanisms of democratic governance remain in place, despite the American people's reluctance to use them effectively. The defining characterisitic of politicians is that they are "single-minded seekers of reelection", determined above all else to stay in office. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, that determination makes them almost frantically responsive to demand. Your elected representatives do NOT ignore you. To the contrary, they are desperate to hear what you want and to provide it. The problem is that politicians function in a sensory deprivation tank of popular demand. They hear little or nothing in the way of coherent demand from their constituents.

And so, like an individual trapped in an ACTUAL sensory deprivation tank, they respond desperately to the input they do receive... from lobbyists.

Lobbyists represent corporations, a far more sinister and unccountable concentration of power than government. The defining characteristic of business is that they are profit maximizers. They will undertake breathtakingly anti-social acts in pursuit of that maximization. 

Executives of the Ford Company were warned by engineers of the design flaw that turned the Pinto into a mobile crematorium when struck in the rear. The business decision was made to not recall the Pinto, because it was anticipated that the costs of the recall would exceed the costs of paying liability claims from the families of the customers they consigned to die by fire.

(image from

Executives of Proctor and Gamble were warned by their medical testers that their Rely Tampon was making some of its users sick.  The Centers for Disease Control later warned P&G that 70% of the cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome it had recorded involved women using the Rely Tampon. P&G's response was to deny the connection, delay action and continue to market a product that made its customers deathly ill, or killed them outright.

Executives of the A. H. Robbins Co. were warned that their recently acquired product the Dalkon Shield had been inadequately tested. Even after a rash of deaths and illnesses forced the product's withdrawal in the United States, it continued to market the product overseas. Executives at Lehman Brothers intentionally falsified its financial records in order to defraud its shareholders. And don't get me started on the cigarette companies...

It is not my intention to villify the private sector here. Business executives are not sociopathic monsters, they're just people. But people aren't all that bright; they will compulsively make the same kinds of mistakes, in the same situations, over, and over, and over again. People are not good long-term thinkers, they don't usually see the bigger picture all that clearly. Evolution has designed them to act in the moment, in response to immediate stimuli.

But that gap in our perceptual apparatus means that we cannot expect the good intentions or human kindness of business executives to protect us. Business executives are trying to make a buck. They must face short-term, immediate, in-their-face consequences to force them to consider society's larger interests. Those consequences must be provided by the power of the State. No other social organization has the power to compel corporations to consider the common good.

The State CAN tyrannize, but only to the extent the citizens of the State permit it to do so. The State CAN protect us from the otherwise unacountable power of corporations. But only to the extent it is compelled to do so by its citizens, using the political mechanisms available to them in an informed and consistent manner.

30 years of conservative propaganda notwithstanding, GOVERNMENT IS NOT THE ENEMY! It's OUR government, it will do what WE tell it to.

And, it's the only weapon we have to protect us from the 1%.

(image from The Simpsons wiki)