Monthly Archives: March 2017

David Brooks on the 21st Century

David Brooks spoke in the Silicon Valley recently.  The Pierces really like listening to him, by the way. Especially his talks on character building.

He spoke on the state of US society in 2017, the recent Presidential election, and his observations traveling the country over the course of the last year.  His picture was not pretty.  To summarize, US society will never again be like it was during the second half of the twentieth century.  Those days of prosperity and ease are over. Now we have hefty doses of psychological dysfunction, unemployment, suicide, drug abuse and poverty for many Americans.

According to Mr. Brooks, whereas the primary political tension in the twentieth century was big government vs. small government, the primary tension going forward is open vs. closed. For many in our society, the affluent and successful middle class (the dominant class), the urge is toward openness. Open trade, open morals, open society, open borders. For those who are not doing well, the tendency is for closedness. Closed trading channels, closed borders, closed moral systems, heterogeneity. While the affluent feel the winds generated by openness blowing at their/our backs, propelling us/them to greater wealth and security, or at least, sustainability,  those who suffer from the change fight the wind blowing in their faces.

Okay, Robert likes the metaphors.  He can go with this.

But, it is worse than this.  And Robert thinks that public intellectuals like David Brooks need to take the next step in the analysis. They need to stop allowing the affluent dominant class to get off so easy. It is not only that “the system” is allowing some to flourish and others to suffer.  More completely, it is the actions of individuals in society that cause the pain of the underclass. There is moral blame here. Individuals in the upper and middle classes, and that is many of us, even if we don’t feel blameworthy, can’t be allowed to avoid responsibility. Personal responsibility.

So much of the dominant classes’ success is generated from damage done to the secondary class.  Individuals in the dominant class create and market the violent filth of the cinema that results in violence borne largely by the underclass. Individuals in the dominant class drive a consumer marketing behemoth that preys on human weakness for screens and celebrity.  Individuals work for the end-purpose of commercializing childhood. Individuals participate in the marketing and distribution of guns.  Very few of us wake up every morning with the goal of hurting others. Most of us feel like we are just trying to get by the best we can. To build some security for ourselves and our families. But very few of us are without blame. Our actions, however slightly, help keep others in our society back. Our actions directly or indirectly rely upon treating others as consumers of things that are not good for them. It adds up to a very ugly whole. We sow the seeds of our destruction.

Individuals in the dominant class (and I mean most of us) don’t simply benefit from a system that is not of their own making. Individuals in the dominant class, however so indirectly, are “winning,” at the cost of their morals. Every day we wake up and go to work as a middle manager at an Internet advertising firm (Google or Facebook) or at a conglomerate distributor (Walmart) or at media conglomerate (Disney), or at one of the vendors and enablers of these industries, we are acting increasingly immorally. We violate the categorical imperative. Unfortunately, in the modern day, by participating, even very slightly, we end up treating others (and ourselves, by the way) as means to and end. Not as ends in themselves.

We don’t need to destroy capitalism, or even the underlying self-interest that fuels it. But we need to look at ourselves, individually, as the source of what creates the intolerable whole. Someone needs to take the descriptive stories told by very smart people like David Brooks, and to create a normative path. Someone needs to help us point fingers at ourselves. Tell us what is moral, and what is not. Maybe there can be competing views, but we need to move away from relativistic storytelling.  Especially on the left.

By the way, Robert is not as angry or weird (hopefully) as he may seem in this post.



Virtue Ethics

Aristotle discusses eleven virtues:

Temperance / moderation
Magnanimity / forgiving of insult / highmindedness
Right ambition
Good temper

Virtues are acquired through habituation.

The four requirements for virtue in an action are that the actor:

(a) know what he is doing

(b) intend the action for its own sake

(c) take pleasure in the action

(d) take the action with certainty and fairness

When we raise kids, we teach virtue ethics. Through repetition, and ultimately, we hope, habituation, we teach kids to act virtuously, with high character, and therefore morally.

What are the magic words, Rory?

“Thank you.”

We don’t teach children that saying “thank you” is a duty that all rational actors inescapably impose on themselves because a world in which everyone says “thank you” to everyone else is a world in which humans are more likely to flourish (Kant-Rawls). Similarly, we don’t teach children that it is important to say “thank you” because when doing so more happiness is created in the listener than cost incurred by the speaker (Bentham-Mill). Too many words. Instead, we tell children only that “You should say thank you because that is what splendid people do. And you want to be splendid.” Aristotilian virtue ethics are economical in this way. Well-suited for tired parents. We pull long-winded deontological and consequentialist explanations from our back pockets and use them only after children begin to retort “Well, what if I don’t want to be splendid?”

Purple America has all but Disappeared

President Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was among the narrowest in history, and the country is deeply split on his job performance so far. But if you feel like you hardly know anyone who disagrees with you about Trump, you’re not alone: Chances are the election was a landslide in your backyard.

More than 61 percent of voters cast ballots in counties that gave either Clinton or Trump at least 60 percent of the major-party vote last November. That’s up from 50 percent of voters who lived in such counties in 2012 and 39 percent in 1992 — an accelerating trend that confirms that America’s political fabric, geographically, is tearing apart.

Of the nation’s 3,113 counties (or county equivalents), just 303 were decided by single-digit margins — less than 10 percent. In contrast, 1,096 counties fit that description in 1992, even though that election featured a wider national spread.1 During the same period, the number of extreme landslide counties — those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — exploded from 93 to 1,196, or over a third of the nation’s counties.

. . . .

November’s election was an exclamation point — or perhaps a flashing danger sign. Legions of big counties were won in a landslide (by at least 20 points): The counties containing Ocala, Florida; St. Cloud, Minnesota; Utica, New York; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and Charleston, West Virginia, were Republican routs for the first time in a generation. Meanwhile, San Diego County, California; Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; and Henrico County, Virginia — all GOP landslide counties in 1988 — became Democratic landslide counties in 2016.

Those examples prove that communities can change allegiances over time. But most places just aren’t budging — in fact, they’re doubling down. In an increasing number of communities like Baldwin County, Alabama, which gave Trump 80 percent of its major-party votes, and San Mateo, California, which gave Clinton 80 percent, an entire generation of youth will grow up without much exposure to alternative political points of view. If you think our political climate is toxic now, think for a moment about how nasty politics could be 20 or 30 years from now.


Lots of wind and rain and hail, might as well paint!