Outrageous

It’s a word that’s almost lost its meaning, given that everything from stand-up comedy to mattress sales are called “outrageous” these days. But consider the simple fact that a president of the United States downplayed the severity of a pandemic, while acknowledging it in private, to the point that millions of his followers think the disease is a hoax and wearing masks is a liberal plot. Then there’s the simple fact that Republican politicians, right-wing media types and most of his supporters have gone along with him every step of the way. 

Claiming he won the election except for all the fraudulent votes is outrageous enough. Using his position to make more of us die and suffer from COVID-19 is about as outrageous as anything a person or president could do.

It’s true that the death rate is down, but the virus causes suffering and can cause significant damage even when you survive it, and then there’s the effects it has on the rest of society. This chart shows new cases in New Jersey from March to November: 

Untitled

So Crazy, It Might Just Work

Two facts: Democrats need a more compelling message and New York Times editorials are boring. The subject of yesterday’s editorial, however, is interesting and would give the Democrats a more powerful message. It’s called “Let’s Talk About Higher Wages”:

One of the great successes of the Republican Party in recent decades is the relentless propagation of a simple formula for economic growth: tax cuts.

The formula doesn’t work, but that has not affected its popularity. In part, that’s because people like tax cuts. But it’s also because people like economic growth, and while the cult of tax cuts has attracted many critics, it lacks for obvious rivals.

Democratic politicians have tended to campaign on helping people left behind by economic growth, the difficulties caused by economic growth and the problems that cannot be addressed by economic growth. When Democrats do talk about encouraging economic growth, they often sound like Republicans with a few misgivings — the party of kinder, better tax cuts.

This is not just a political problem for Democrats; it is an economic problem for the United States. The nation needs a better story about the drivers of economic growth, to marshal support for better public policies. The painful lessons of recent decades, along with recent economic research, point to a promising candidate: higher wages.

Raising the wages of American workers ought to be the priority of economic policymakers and the measure of economic performance under the Biden administration. We’d all be better off paying less attention to . . . the nation’s gross domestic product and focusing instead on . . . workers’ paychecks.

Set aside, for the moment, the familiar arguments for higher wages: fairness, equality of opportunity, ensuring Americans can provide for their families. The argument here is that higher wages can stoke the sputtering engine of economic growth.

Perhaps the most famous illustration of the benefits is the story of Henry Ford’s decision in 1914 to pay $5 a day to workers on his Model T assembly lines. He did it to increase production — he was paying a premium to maintain a reliable work force. The unexpected benefit was that Ford’s factory workers became Ford customers, too.

The same logic still holds: Consumption drives the American economy, and workers who are paid more can spend more. The rich spend a smaller share of what they earn, and though they lend to the poor, the overall result is still less spending and consumption.

For decades, mainstream economists insisted that it was impossible to order up a sustainable increase in wages because compensation levels reflected the unerring judgment of market forces. “People will get paid on how valuable they are to the enterprise,” [according to] the Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush.

The conventional wisdom held that productivity growth was the only route to higher wages. Through that lens, efforts to negotiate or require higher wages were counterproductive. Minimum-wage laws would raise unemployment because there was only so much money in the wage pool, and if some people got more, others would get none. Collective bargaining similarly was derided as a scheme by some workers to take money from others.

It was in the context of this worldview that it became popular to argue that tax cuts would drive prosperity. Rich people would invest, productivity would increase, wages would rise.

In the real world, things are more complicated. Wages are influenced by a tug of war between employers and workers, and employers have been winning. One clear piece of evidence is the yawning divergence between productivity growth and wage growth since roughly 1970. Productivity has more than doubled; wages have lagged far behind. . . .

The importance of rewriting our stories about the way the economy works is that they frame our policy debates. Our beliefs about economics determine what seems viable and worthwhile — and whether new ideas can muster support.

Preaching the value of higher wages is a necessary first step toward concrete changes in public policy that can begin to shift economic power. It can help to build support for increasing the federal minimum wage — a policy that already has proved popular at the state level, including in conservative states like Arkansas, Florida and Missouri, where voters in recent years have approved higher minimum wages in referendums.

A focus on higher wages is not a sufficient goal for economic policy. . . .

But a focus on wage growth would provide a useful organizing principle for public policy — and an antidote to the attractive simplicity of the belief in the magical power of tax cuts. . . .

That won’t be easy. The affluent live in growing isolation from other Americans, which makes it harder for them to imagine themselves as members of a broader community. Their companies derive a growing share of profits from other countries, which makes it easier to ignore the welfare of American consumers. The nation’s laws, social norms and patterns of daily life all have been revised in recent decades to facilitate the suppression of wage growth.

But we can begin by telling better stories about the way the economy works.

Unquote.

If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation it would be around $12 today, instead of $7.25  If it had kept up with productivity, it would be more than $24. So it makes sense that Democratic politicians want to raise the minimum wage. Although doing so would indirectly raise the wages of better-paid workers, Democrats rarely, if ever, emphasize that fact. 

There are other ways for national and local government to help wages rise, such as paying government workers more, requiring higher wages in government contracts, making government subsidies contingent on higher wages, reducing Social Security and Medicare taxes for lower-paid workers (while raising them for the very well-paid) and making it easier to form and sustain unions. The Times editorial is saying that Democrats should make higher wages — higher take-home pay — an overarching message. That would convince more of the working class to stop electing Republicans and vote in their economic interest.

How Society Comes To Know Stuff

I read another of those “how could they vote for him?” articles today. As usual, the author offered an explanation that fit his own political and cultural leanings. But he cited an article that includes a nice summary of how an enlightened society should work. This is from “The Constitution of Knowledge” by Jonathan Rauch:

Some Americans believe Elvis Presley is alive. Should we send him a Social Security check? Many people believe that vaccines cause autism, or that Barack Obama was born in Africa, or that the murder rate has risen. Who should decide who is right? And who should decide who gets to decide?

This is the problem of social epistemology, which concerns itself with how societies come to some kind of public understanding about truth. It is a fundamental problem for every culture and country, and the attempts to resolve it go back at least to Plato, who concluded that a philosopher king (presumably someone like Plato himself) should rule over reality. Traditional tribal communities frequently use oracles to settle questions about reality. Religious communities use holy texts as interpreted by priests. Totalitarian states put the government in charge of objectivity.

There are many other ways to settle questions about reality. Most of them are terrible because they rely on authoritarianism, violence, or, usually, both. As the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said in 1877, “When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.”

As Peirce implied, one way to avoid a massacre would be to attain unanimity, at least on certain core issues. No wonder we hanker for consensus. . . .

But that is not quite the right answer, either. Disagreement about core issues and even core facts is inherent in human nature and essential in a free society. If unanimity on core propositions is not possible or even desirable, what is necessary to have a functional social reality? The answer is that we need an elite consensus, and hopefully also something approaching a public consensus, on the method of validating propositions. We needn’t and can’t all agree that the same things are true, but a critical mass needs to agree on what it is we do that distinguishes truth from falsehood, and more important, on who does it.

Who can be trusted to resolve questions about objective truth? The best answer turns out to be no one in particular. The greatest of human social networks was born centuries ago, in the wake of the chaos and creedal wars that raged across Europe after the invention of the printing press (the original disruptive information technology). In reaction, experimenters and philosophers began entertaining a radical idea. They removed reality-making from the authoritarian control of priests and princes and placed it in the hands of a decentralized, globe-spanning community of critical testers who hunt for each other’s errors. In other words, they outsourced objectivity to a social network. Gradually, in the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, the network’s norms and institutions assembled themselves into a system of rules for identifying truth: a constitution of knowledge.

Though nowhere encoded in law, the constitution of knowledge has its own equivalents of checks and balances (peer review and replication), separation of powers (specialization), governing institutions (scientific societies and professional bodies), voting (citations and confirmations), and civic virtues (submit your beliefs for checking if you want to be taken seriously). The members of the community that supports and upholds the constitution of knowledge do not have to agree on facts; the whole point, indeed, is to manage their disagreements. But they do need to agree on some rules.

One rule is that any hypothesis can be floated. [Note: not any hypothesis] That’s free speech. But another rule is that a hypothesis can join reality only insofar as it persuades people after withstanding vigorous questioning and criticism. That’s social testing. Only those propositions that are broadly agreed to have withstood testing over time qualify as knowledge, and even they stand only unless and until debunked.

The community that follows these rules is defined by its values and practices, not by its borders, and it is by no means limited to scholars and scientists. It also includes journalism, the courts, law enforcement, and the intelligence community — all evidence-based professions that require competing hypotheses to be tested and justified. Its members hold themselves and each other accountable for their errors. When CNN, in 2017, fired three senior journalists for getting a story wrong, President Txxxx gloated that the “Fake News” media’s dishonesty had been exposed. (His tweet: “So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC?”) In fact, the opposite was true: By demanding evidentiary accountability, CNN showed that, unlike Txxxx, it adheres to standards of verification.

On any given day, of course, we won’t all agree on what has or has not checked out. The speed of light is widely agreed upon, but many propositions are disputed . . .  The community that lives by the standards of verification constantly argues about itself, yet by doing so provides its members with time and space to work through their disagreements without authoritarian oversight.

The results have been spectacular, in three ways above all. First, by organizing millions of minds to tackle billions of problems, the epistemic constitution disseminates knowledge at a staggering rate. Every day, probably before breakfast, it adds more to the canon of knowledge than was accumulated in the 200,000 years of human history prior to Galileo’s time. Second, by insisting on validating truths through a decentralized, non-coercive process that forces us to convince each other with evidence and argument, it ends the practice of killing ideas by killing their proponents. What is often called the marketplace of ideas would be more accurately described as a marketplace of persuasion, because the only way to establish knowledge is to convince others you are right. Third, by placing reality under the control of no one in particular, it dethrones intellectual authoritarianism and commits liberal society foundationally to intellectual pluralism and freedom of thought.

Together, these innovations have done nothing less than transform our way of living, learning, and relating to one another.

Unquote.

Yet, according to this month’s exit polls, 92% of White Txxxx voters think climate change is not a serious problem, while 87% think the US is handling the pandemic well and wearing a mask is a personal choice, not a matter of public health.

Is there a way to share more knowledge with them? I don’t think anybody knows.

Sometimes the Internet Works For Us

Yesterday, I visited YouTube to see what the algorithms had for me and saw this video:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

It’s 2 1/2 minutes of Brian and I guess some of the other Beach Boys performing background vocals for a beautiful song on the Pet Sounds album, my all-time favorite (and #2 in the recent Rolling Stone Top 500 — “Who’s gonna hear this shit?” Beach Boys singer Mike Love asked. . . ).

This morning, the video popped up again. While I was listening, I noticed a link to a song by Fleet Foxes, one of my favorite groups:

Fleet Foxes – Shore (Full Album) 2020 

Fleet Foxes has a new album out? I didn’t know. So I played the first track:

“Wading In Waist-High Water”

It’s beautiful. Fleet Foxes often remind me of the Beach Boys. I wondered how the new album, released in September, was being received. A search for “Fleet Foxes Shore” turned up a review from Pitchfork magazine.

On his fourth album, singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold refines and hones Fleet Foxes’ crisp folk-rock sound, crafting another musically adventurous album that is warm and newly full of grace. 

They gave the album an 8.3, which sounds high.  

As I was looking at the review, I saw this:

Elsewhere, there are explicit nods to contemporary classical music, as on “Jara,” which features hocketing by Meara O’Reilly, and “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman,” which pairs O’Reilly with a snippet of Brian Wilson counting to resemble Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, and, in its sampling, also recalls the early work of Steve Reich. 

A snippet of Brian Wilson counting? Well, I had to click on that.

Surprise, surprise! It turned out to be:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

Yes, YouTube had twice recommended one of the thousands of Beach Boys/Brian Wilson videos they offer, of which I’ve watched many, and that took me to somebody else’s album, which uses part of that particular Pet Sounds session, which is in a YouTube video that’s probably getting attention because Robin Pecknold borrowed Brian Wilson counting “one-two-three-four” for his new Fleet Foxes album, Shore.

In the old days, only ten years ago, I might have quickly ordered the new Fleet Foxes CD. The internet would have succeeded in selling me something. But since CD technology is fast disappearing and I almost never play one except in our 16-year old car, there’s no rush. I can play the whole thing on Spotify and see if I want a copy for the car. 

Was I manipulated? Sure. Were a few more bytes of my data stored away in Google’s innards, only to be mined for heaven knows what purposes? Yeah. But sometimes it’s nice to be a tiny cog in a vast machine, even something to be a little bit thankful for.