In April of last year, I wrote a piece on the growing crisis in the misapplications of technology in my line of work: algorithms, machine learning, optimization, and data science. It seems appropriate to include the discussion here on my activist blog.
A special thank you to S. Kelly Gupta for invaluable suggestions, and to George Polisner and Noam Chomsky for taking the time to read an earlier draft and offer encouraging feedback.
A Casting Call for the Conscientious Data Practitioner
For some time now, I’ve planned on writing an article about the very serious risks posed by my trade of choice, data science. And with each passing day, new mishaps, events, and pratfalls delay publishing, as the story evolves even as I write this. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, sporting a smart suit and a booster seat ostensibly to improve morale. Though some interesting topics came up, the discussion was routine, with the requisite fear-mongering from Ted Cruz, the bumbling Orrin Hatch asking how money comes from free things (apparently he forgot to ask Trump about withholding pay from blue-collar contractors), and a few more serious people asking about Cambridge Analytica, such as Kamala Harris querying the lengthy delay in Facebook notifying users of Cambridge, and, surprisingly, John Kennedy panning Facebook’s user agreement as “CYA” nonsense.
The tired, public relations newspeak of the mythical well-meaning, self-regulating corporations accompanies happily the vague acknowledgements of responsibility around certain things we heard from Zuckerberg, along with references to proprietary and thus unknowable strategies almost in place. And though I doubt Congress in its current state can impose any reasonable regulations, nor would those in charge be capable of formulating anything short of a lobbyist’s Christmas list, my intention here is to argue for something more substantial : a dialog must begin among technologists, particularly data practitioners, about the proper role of the constructs we wield, as those constructs are powerful and dangerous. And it isn’t just because a Russian oligarch might want Donald Trump to be president, or because financial institutions happily risk economic collapse at the opportunity to make a few bucks; data has the power to confer near omnipotence to the state, generate rapid, vast capital for a narrow few at expense of the many, and provide a scientifically-sanctioned cudgel to pound the impoverished and the vulnerable. Malignant actors persist and abound, but complacency among the vast cadre of well-intentioned technologists reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s discussion of the “white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” So I must clarify that I’m writing not to the bad people who already understand quite well the stakes, but to my fellow conscientious practitioners, particularly those among us who fear consequences to career or suffer under the peculiar delusion that we have no power. Consequences are real, but we as technologists wield great power, and that power is more than additive when we work together. The United States is unusually free, perhaps in the whole of human history, in that we can freely express almost any idea with little or no legal ramification. Let’s use that freedom together.
A Lasting Legacy : Power and Responsibility
Fifty-one years ago last February, Noam Chomsky authored a prescient manifesto admonishing his fellow intellectuals to wield the might and freedom they enjoy to expose misdeeds and lies of the state. Much of his discussion dwells on the flagrant dishonesty of particular actors as their public pronouncements evolved throughout the heinous crime that is the Vietnam War, and in more recent discussions, such as those appearing in Boston Reviewin 2011, describe the significant divide between intellectuals stumping for statism versus the occasional Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg, and Bertrand Russell:
The question resonates through
the ages, in one or another
form, and today offers a
framework for determining the
“responsibility of intellectuals.”
The phrase is ambiguous: does it
refer to intellectuals’ moral
responsibility as decent human
beings in a position to use their
privilege and status to advance
the causes of freedom, justice,
mercy, peace, and other such
sentimental concerns? Or does it
refer to the role they are expected
to play, serving, not derogating,
leadership and established institutions?
We technologists, a flavor of intellectuals, have ascended within existing institutions rapidly, for fairly obvious reasons. More specifically, those of us in data science are enjoying a bonanza of opportunities, as institutions readily hire us in record numbers to sort out their data needs, uniformly across the public, private, good, bad, large, small dimensions. We’re inheriting remarkable power and authority, and we ought approach it with respect and conscience. Data, though profoundly beneficial and dangerous, is still just a tool whose moral value is something we as its priesthood, if you will, can and ought determine. Chomsky’s example succinctly captures how we should view it :
Technology is basically neutral.
It's kind of like a hammer.
The hammer doesn't care whether
you use it to build a house or
crush somebody's skull.
We can ascribe more nuance, with mixed results.
Data is Good? Evidence Abounds
I suspect I’m preaching to the choir if I remark on the impressive array of accomplishments made possible by data and corresponding analyses. I believe the successes are immense and plentiful, and little investigative rigor is necessary here in the world of high tech to note how our lives are bettered by information technology. Woven throughout the many successes, more subtly to the untrained eye than I or similar purists would prefer, is statistics, and the ensuing sexy taxonomy of machine learning, big data, analytics, and myriad other newfangled neologisms. The study of random phenomena has made much of this possible, and I’d invite eager readers to take a look at C.R. Rao’s survey of such studies in Statistics and Truth.
I’m in this trade because I love it, I love science, I love technology, I love what it can do for you and me, and I’m in a fantastic toyland which I never want to leave. So I must be very clear that I am no Luddite, nor would I advocate, except in narrow cases (see below), technological regression; the universal utility of much of what has emerged from human ingenuity has served to lengthen my life, afford me time to do the work I want, and make me comfortable. Though the utility is so far very unevenly shared, I do believe we’ve made tremendous progress, and the potential is limitless. So I’d entreat the reader potentially resistant to these ideas to brandish Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” then judge for oneself. My primary objective here is to begin a dialog. Now for some of the hard stuff.
Data is Bad? There is Evil, and There Are Malignant Actors
Evils of technology also are innumerable, as the very large, growing contingency of victims of drone attacks, guns, bombs, nuclear attacks and accidents, war in general, and so on, will attest. Surveying the risks of technology leaves the current scope long behind, but it’s worth paying attention to the malignant consequences of runaway technology. I’ll be reviewing Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine on my other blog soon; suffice it to say the book is good, the story is awful. The book is a sobering, meticulous analysis of the most dangerous technology ever created, and how reckless and stupid planners were in safeguarding said technology. Here, we’ll stick just to problems arising from bad data science, and the bad actors, be it ideologues, the avaricious, the careless, or the malevolent.
We ought consider momentarily the current state of affairs : Taylor Armerding of CSO compiled the greatest breaches of the current century, attempting to quantify the damage done in each case. Since the publication of his summary, the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal has emerged, sketching a broad “psychographic” campaign to manipulate users into surrendering priceless data and fomenting discord. Quite dramatically, a 2016 memo leaked from within Facebook shows executive Andrew Bosworth quipping,
[m]aybe someone dies in a
terrorist attack coordinated
on our tools [...]
[a]nd still we connect people.
In other words, “don’t bother washing the blood off your money as you give it to us.” Slate offers an interesting indictment on the business model that has rendered the exigencies of data theft, content pollution, and societal discord concrete, imminent contingencies. And most recently, Forbes reports that an LGBT dating app called Grindr apparently permits backdoor acquisition of highly sensitive user data, endangering users and betraying their physical location. And the first reported fatality due to driverless technology deployed by Uber occurred in Arizona this month, generating a frenzy of concerns around the safety and appropriateness of committing these vehicles into the public transportation grid. The reaction I noted on the one social media platform I use, LinkedIn, was tepid, ranging from despairing emoticons to flagrant, arrogant pronouncements that this is the cost of the technology. I also observed a peculiar response to those unhappy about the lack of security around user data : blame the victims. The responses vary from the above declaration of cost of convenience to disdain for the lowly users in need of rescue from boredom, discussed by one employee of Gartner, a research firm :
let's be honest about
one thing: we all agree that
we give up a significant part
of our privacy when we decide
to create an account on Facebook[;]
[w]e exchange a part of our private
life for a free application that
prevents us from being bored most
time of the day.
I’d refer this person to Bosworth’s memorandum, though he, like CNN in 2010, likely hadn’t seen it before venturing such drivel. I interpreted their argument as a public relations vanguard aimed at corporate indemnification. Certainly, an alarming number of terms and conditions agreements aim to curtail class action lawsuits and, where legal, eliminate all redress through the court system. On its face, this sounds ludicrous, as the court system is precisely the public apparatus for resolving civil disputes. Arbitration somehow is a thing, with Heritage and concentrations of private power reliably defending it as freer than the public infrastructure over which citizens exercise some control, however meager. Sheer genius is necessary to read
[n]o one is forced into arbitration[;]
[t]o begin with, arbitration is not
“forced” on consumers[...] [a]n obvious
point is that “no one forces an
individual to sign a contract[,]”
and interpret it any other way than that the freedom to live without technology is a desirable, or even plausible arrangement; Captain Fantastic, anyone?
Maybe it’s a question of volume, as catechismic, shrill chanting that we have no privacy eventually compels educated people write the utter nonsense above. If one were to advance the argument further, it’s akin to blaming the victims of the engineering flaws in Ford’s Pinto; after all, the car rescues the lower strata of society from having to walk or taxi everywhere they want to go, and death by known engineering flaws is the cost of doing business. The arrogance evokes Project SCUM, the internal designation for a marketing campaign tobacco giant Camel aimed at gays and the homeless in San Francisco in the 1990s.
Governments cause even greater harm, exhibited in Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on the NSA’s pet project to spy on you and me, code-named PRISM. Comparably disconcerting, Science Alert reported this week that the development of drone technology leaving target acquisition in the control of artificial intelligence is almost complete, meaning drones can murder people using inscrutable and ultimately unaccountable data models. State-of-the-art robotic vision mistakes dogs for blueberry muffins in anywhere from one to ten percent of static images analyzed, depending on the neural network model, meaning a drone aiming at a muffin would destroy one to ten percent of the dogs mistaken, and this is training on static imagery! Imagine the difficulties in a dynamic field-of-view with exceedingly narrow time windows necessary to overcome errors. Human-controlled drones already represent enormous controversy, operating largely in secret without legislative or judicial review under the direction of the executive branch of the American government. Who must answer for a runaway fleet of drones? What if they’re hijacked?
More locally, Guardian recently unmasked the racist facial recognition models deployed by law enforcement agencies, bemoaning the existence of “unregulated algorithms.” I’d wager the capability to reverse-engineer a machine learning model to steal private data receives great attention among adversarial actors and private corporations. I can remember in my first job many years ago being in a discussion over an accidental leak of a few lines of FORTRAN to a subcontractor, to which I naively queried, “Why are we in business with someone we think would steal from us?” A manager calmly replied that anyone and everyone would steal, and in any way they can. Maybe it’s true, but I’d like to believe there’s more to countervailing passive resistance than meets the eye. In any case, data science and artificial technology are tools co-opted for sinister and dangerous purposes, and we ought try to remember that.
Data is Ugly? Errors and Injustice, Manned and Unmanned
Data needs no bad actor or vicious intent to be misleading. Rao refers to numerous unintentional examples of data misuse within the scientific record, peppered throughout the works of luminaries such as Gregor Mendel, Isaac Newton, Galilei Galileo, John Dalton, and Robert Millikan, as documented by geneticist J.B.S. Haldane and Broad and Wade’s Betrayers of the Truth. For instance, the precision Newton provided for the gravitational constant is well beyond his capacity to measure, and Mendel’s genetic models could explain the recorded data only with astronomical probability, suggesting either transcription errors or blatant cherrypicking. Rao notes
[w]hen a scientist was
convinced of his theory,
there was a temptation to
look for "facts" or distort
facts to fit the theory[; t]he
concept of agreement with theory
within acceptable margins of
error did not exist until the
statistical methodology of
testing of hypotheses was
That is, statistical illiteracy can only compound the problem of “fixing intelligence and facts around the policy,” to paraphrase the infamous Downing Street Memo.
Statistical literacy doesn’t guarantee good outcomes, even with honest representation. Data can reinforce wretched social outcomes by identifying the results of similar failed policies of the past. For instance, everyone knows African Americans are more likely to be harassed by police. Thus, they’re more likely to be arrested, indicted, charged, and convicted of crimes. Machine learning algorithms identify outcomes and race as significantly interdependent, and new policy dictates that police should carefully monitor these same people. Asking why we ought trust an inscrutable model is unmentionable, reminding me that earlier propagandists invoked the “will of God” as justification for slavery, and later, the “free market” requires that some people be so poor that they starve. Maybe elites always require some ethereal reason for the suffering we permit to pass in silence. Anecdotally on racism, a myopic cohort once pronounced triumphantly to me that racists aren’t basing their prejudice on skin color, but on other features correlated with skin color. The Ouroboros, or some idiotic variant, comes to mind.
Weapons of Math Destruction : Destructive Models
Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs) ponders such undesirable social outcomes of big data crippling the poor and the disadvantaged. Within the trade, dumb money describes the proceeds mined and fleeced from vulnerable populations. The money poor people have ranges from real estate to be reverse-mortgaged, poverty and veteran status to leverage for education grants and loans, desperation of the poor in the form of title loans, payday loans, and other highly destructive financial arrangements. Myriad examples of startups and firms abound, from for-profit online education firms like Vatterott and Corinthian Colleges targeting veterans and the poor to cash in on student loans, and their enabling advertising firms such as Neutron Interactive post fake job ads to cull poor people’s phone numbers to blast them with exaggerated ads. Thinktank Learning, and similar firms model student success, helping universities and colleges game the U.S. News and World Report ranking system, a perfect example of a WMD. Comstat and Hunchlab help resource-starved police departments profile citizens based on geography, mixing nuisance crimes with the more violent variant and strengthening racial stereotypes. Courts rely now on opaque models to assess risk of convicts, determining sentences accordingly, according to a piece in Wired last year. Ought we understand the reasons why two criminals convicted of the same crime receive different sentences? The book is very much worth a read. Her own journey is revealing, having been an analyst at D.E. Shaw around the time of the market crash.
Data has accumulated over the years that ETS’s prized Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a test required for candidacy in most American graduate programs,
operates in darkness, inscrutably like many such “psycho-social” metrics.
My own personal experience with the examination is kind of interesting and comical : I’m apparently incapable of writing. Being a south paw, my penmanship is atrocious, but I seem to remember having typed the essay… Kidding aside, acquiring feedback from them was impossible, and they led me to believe that the essay receives grades via an electronic proofreader. I guess no one remained who could interpret the algorithm’s outputs.
A more serious question O’Neil raises is that machine learning models suffer many of the same biases and preferences born by their architects; I think of ETS reinforcing malignant stereotypes, a kind of “graduate ethnic cleansing.” Algorithms running for Title Max target the poor, making them poorer still. More seriously, what are these models trying to optimize, and is it desirable behavior?
The Problem of Proxies
O’Neil offers that part of the problem with building opaque data models to inform real world decisions is that the real world objective we’d like to improve is poorly proxied: unsuitable substitutes seem to be hogging the constraints. For instance, how can an algorithm quantify whether a person is happy? Happiness is something we all seem to understand (or think we do), and we can generally spot it or its shaded counterpart with little effort. Millions of years have chiseled, then kneaded the gentle ridges of the prefrontal cortex to lasting import. Algorithms might read any number of interesting features, and unlike consciousness itself, I suspect happiness, or at least its biological underpinnings, is something an algorithm could predict, but any definition suffers limitations. My earliest intuitions in mathematics led me to believe that any state can be reproduced with sufficient insight into the operating principles. Though the academy has largely reinforced what I used to call the “dice theory” (and I was all-too-proud to have dreamed it up myself), Galileo lamented centuries ago, as have others more recently, including Hume, Bertrand, and Chomsky, that the mechanical philosophy simply isn’t tenable. More narrowly, we may be incapable as we are now to effectively proxy very important soft science social metrics. I believe misunderstanding this may be fueling the insatiable appetite of start-up funding for applications lengthening prison sentences, undercutting college applicants, burdening teachers with arbitrary, easily falsified standards, bankrupting the poor, and harassing and profiling the most vulnerable. Is society better off with young black men fearing to walk the street at night with the justified concern of being murdered?
A striking example of poor proxying is invoking the stock market as the barometer of the economy. And this is something I see in social media time and time again. Missing from the euphoria is that for nearly fifty years, the Gini index is positively correlated with the S&P 500, the former measuring economic inequality and the latter indexing the “health” of the stock market. That is, as the stock market becomes healthier, the distribution of the money supply drifts away from the uniform. Not coincidentally, this behavior seems to begin right around Nixon shock, or the deregulation of finance and the dismantling of Bretton-Woods. In his 2004 book The Conservative Nanny State, economist Dean Baker discusses “perverse incentives” in maximizing incorrect proxies in patent trolling, wasteful copycat drug development, and the like. The U.S. Constitution guarantees copyright protection to promote development of science, contravened by wasting sixty percent of research and development money on marketing and replicated research.
Even in a more seemingly innocuous setting, say social media, do we see deep problems in proxies. Shares and likes become the currency of interaction, and social desirability need not interfere for most. I’ve noticed in my own experiences in writing comments online that a frenetic vigilance overcomes me if I feel I’ve been misunderstood or have given the wrong sort of offense, as I’m (perhaps pathologically) hardwired to care about the feelings of others. By interacting online rather than in-person, a host of nonverbal cues and information are absent, forcing us to rely on very weak proxies. Psychology Todaytouched on this in 2014, and I suspect the growing body of evidence that flitting, vapid interactions online are damaging social intelligence demonstrates that the atomization of American culture is in no way served by social media.
Admittedly, the story seems dire, but belying the deafening silence is a groundswell of conscientious practitioners, fragmented and diffuse, but pervasive and circumspect.
The Courage to Speak
When I discuss any of the above with cohorts privately, a very large fraction agree on the dangers of misusing this technology; reflexive is incorrect habituated resignation, especially in America where illusory impotence reigns supreme. And so I see very little in the way of commentary on these issues from tradespersons themselves, though a handful from my network are reliable in discussing controversy. Perhaps the psychology is simpler : is it fear of blowback and risks to career of the kind Eugene Gu is experiencing with Vanderbilt? Certainly even popular athletes face blacklisting, Colin Kaepernick being an exemplar. Speaking out is risky, but silence strengthens what Chomsky calls “institutional stupidity“, of which some of the above quotes embody.
The point I’m trying to drive home is that the responsibility of we the technologists demands an end to controversy aversion; we simply MUST begin talking about what we do. Make no mistake, the ensuing void of silence emboldens demagoguery in malignant actors, such as the aforementioned projections on unmanned, computer-controlled drone warfare, further deterioration of the criminal justice system, exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, and wrecking the global economic system. Further, refusing to speak out assures a platform for desperately irresponsible, dangerous responses of blaming or ridiculing the victims, a sort of grinding salt in the wounds. Consider the extreme variant of the latter : Rick Santorum, Republican brain trust, has sagely admonished school shooting survivors to learn CPR rather than protest and organize to demand safety, and Laura Ingraham, shrill, imbecilic Fox host, has gleefully tweeted juvenile insults at one of the outspoken survivors. Why would we relegate damage done by runaway data science as the cost of doing business, if we can clearly perceive the elitism and cynicism in the above? Silence may seem safe, but is it really? Ignoring sharpening income inequality, skyrocketing incarceration rates, and stratification and segregation has a cost : Trumps of the world become leaders, the downtrodden looking to demagogues.
The Coming Storm Following the Dream
With each public relations disaster and each discovery of flagrant disregard for users and their precious private data, we hurtle toward what I believe are an inevitable series of lawsuits and criminal investigations leading to public policy we ought to help direct. C.R. Rao wrote some years ago regarding a lawsuit against the government failing to act to save fishermen from a predictable typhoon, plaintiffs’ chief issue being that the coast guard failed to repair a broken buoy :
[s]uch instances will be rare,
but none-the-less may discourage
statistical consultants from
venturing into new or more
challenging areas and restrict
the expansion of statistics.
The General Data Protections Regulation, or (GDPR), organized by the European Union, is perhaps one of the broadest frameworks ratified by any national or supranational body. This coming May, the framework will supersede the Data Protective Directive of 1995. The US government has regulated privacy and data with respect to education since 1974 with FERPA and medicine since 1996 with HIPAA. Yet court precedent hasn’t yet determined the interpretation of these acts with respect to machine learning models built on sensitive data. What will an American variant of GDPR look like? Practitioners ought have a say, and the more included in the discussion, the better the outcome. But this sort of direction requires coordination, and because of the unique and difficult work we do, we are fractured from one another and more susceptible to dogmatism around the misnamed American brand of libertarianism. The American dream is available to technologists (and almost no one else), whence a rigidity of certain non-collectivist values, enumerated in a study conducted by Thomas Corley for Business Insider : the rub is that wealthy people believe very strongly in self-determination, and assume they are responsible for their good fortune. I think of it as the “I like the game when I’m winning” phenomenon, and like most deep beliefs, some kernel of truth is there. We could spend considerable time just debating these difficulties, and my being married to a psychiatrist offers uncomfortable insight. In any case, discussions surrounding this are ubiquitous, and my opinions, though somewhat unconventional, are straightforward. Historically, collective stands are easier to make and less risky than those alone. In semi-skilled and clerical trades, we called these collections “unions.” Professional societies such as the AMA, the ASA, the IEEE, and so on, are the periwinkle-to-white collar approximations, with the important similarity that collectively asserting will just simply works better. And yet, we in data science have little in the way of such a framework. It’s worth understanding why.
Cosmic Demand Sans Trade Union
The skyrocketing demand for new data science and machine learning technology, together with a labor dogmatism peculiar to the United States have left us, so it would seem, without a specific trade union that is independent of corporations and responsible for governing trade ethics and articulating public policy initiatives. Older technology trades have something approximating a union in the professional societies such as IEEE and the American Statistical Association; like the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, these agencies offer codes of ethical practices and publications detailing the latest comings and goings in government regulation, technology, and the like. Certainly, the discussion occurs here and there, though Steve Lohr’s 2013 piece in the New York Times summarizing a panel discussion at Columbia hinted a common refrain in our trade:
[t]he privacy and surveillance
perils of Big Data came up only
in passing[...] during a
question-and-answer portion of
one panel, Ben Fried,
Google’s chief information
officer, expressed a misgiving[:]
“[m]y concern is that the
technology is way ahead of society[.]
That is, we all know we have a problem, but little is happening in the way of addressing it. A smattering of public symposia have emerged on certain moral considerations around artificial intelligence, though much of what is easily unearthed is some older articulations by Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, and older still those by Isaac Asimov. These often take the form of dystopian prognostications of robot intelligence, though I agree with Chomsky that we’re perhaps light years away from understanding even the basic elements of human cognition, and that replicating anything resembling that is not on the horizon. Admittedly, my starry-eyed interest in Kurzweil’s projected singularity is what pulled me into computer science, but Emerson warns us that intellectual inflexibility belongs to small minds. Fear-mongering of the future brings me to a spirit we ought exorcise early and often.
Unemployment and Automation : A New(ish) Bogeyman
No discussion of the impact of our technology would be complete without paying a little attention to the fevered musings and catastrophization of mass unemployment due to automation. We as a society of technologists ought have a simple answer to this, namely that the post-industrial revolution mindset of compulsory employment as monetized by imagined market forces is illogical, inefficient, and unnecessarily dangerous to who we are and what we do. Even less charitably, slavish genuflection to the free market mania is an obstacle, rather than a catalyst, to progress, as the complexities of civilization necessitate a more nuanced economic framework. Though we’d need another article or so for better justification for the foregoing, I’ll skip to the conclusion to say that we must restore and strengthen public investment in technology democratically and transparently, casting off militarization and secrecy. A good starting place is the realization that virtually all high tech began in the public sector, and that’s a model that serves both society and technologists. It also organically nurtures trade consortia of the variety described above. In any case, the principal existential threats we face have nothing to do with mass employment, though thwarting those threats, nuclear proliferation and catastrophic climate change, might require it.
Triage and Final Thoughts
Answering these current events demands responsible, courageous public discourse, appropriately supporting victims and formulating strategies to avert the totally preventable disasters above. We should organize a professional society free of corporate, and initially governmental, interference, comprised of statisticians, analysts, machine learning scientists, data scientists, artificial intelligence scientists, and so on, so that we can internally by conference
collectively educate ourselves about the ramifications of our work, such as reading work by trade specialists such as O’Neil,
jointly draft position papers on requests for technical opinions by government and supranational organizations, such as a recent request from NIH,
dialog openly about corporate malfeasance,
draft articles scientifically explaining how best to regulate our work to safeguard and empower the public (eloquently stated in Satya’s mission statement),
exchange ideas and broaden our trade perspective,
collectively sketch safe, sensible guidelines around implementations of pie-in-the-sky technology (such as self-driving cars), and
strategize how to redress public harm when it happens.
A few technologists, such as George Polisner, have very publicly taken stands against executive docility with respect to the Trump administration; his building of the social media platform civ.works is a great step in evangelizing elite activism, and, of course, privacy guarantees no data company will offer. Admittedly, we all need not necessarily surrender positions in industry in order to address controversy, but we can and must talk to each other. Talk to human beings affected by our work. Talk to our neighbors. Talk to our opponents. The ugly legal and political fallout awaiting us is really just a hapless vanguard of the much more dangerous elite cynicism and complacency. How do we ready ourselves for tomorrow’s challenges? It begins with a dialog, today.
Dean Baker, progressive, activist, economist, was kind enough to share some time for an interview. Readers following my blog from its earliest days will recall the extensive series of reviews of his book, The Conservative Nanny State, so scoring some time with Dean is indeed a coup. For those who bear cynicism toward establishment economics, Dean’s star shines brightly, having predicted and warned of the 2008 housing crash as early as 2002. Deeply committed to progressive causes, this powerhouse economist counters decisively the bipartisan consensus psychosis in Washington, dispensing easily with wrongheaded policy considerations such as Chicken Little on Social Security, or the commitment to endless, savage wars abroad. He also is the type of dog lover who adopts the infirm and elderly, a true class act. So without further delay, let us jump right into the discussion.
As with my previous interview, my cognitive difficulties of late slow my interaction, so bear with me; I’ve edited the discussion for ease of listening.
NP Slagle: Welcome to Scire Populum et Potentiam, to know the people and power. I’m very happy to have Dr. Dean Baker, economist at the Economic Policy Institute and co-founder and economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, where he serves as a senior economist. He’s authored over 10 books in economics. One of which was my gateway drug into his works, The Conservative Nanny State. I wrote an extensive six-part review on this book as I found it in my own ignorance of economics a revelation. This is among a very short list of books I would recommend to every American. Dean regularly contributes op-eds to news journals such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Truthout. He’s an analyst that I believe should appear in every economic debate in the televised news media. Therefore, he’s not included in every economic debate. If I believe it should happen, it probably doesn’t. In any case, welcome Dean. I very much appreciate having you.
Dean Baker: Thanks for having me on.
NPS: Yeah. Absolutely. Just to give a little bit of background as I mentioned in the intro, your book, The Conservative Nanny State was my introduction to your works. I heard Noam Chomsky mention the “nanny state” a few times in different talks but it wasn’t until he mentioned your name that it occurred to me that the term might be more than just something that he had created. I looked it up and I found this book. The simplicity of the book, so therefore the reachability, the accessibility of it is incredible. Certainly, it jived with my own speculation about economics to begin with. Certainly makes it a lot clearer and coming from an expert like you, it’s pretty powerful stuff.
NPS: So before we get into your origins, what do you think an economist is? What is it that you do versus what is it do most economist do? Where are the conflicts?
DB: Yeah. I think economics inevitably involves some fairly complex issues, studying data, analyze data, and knowing how to make sense of statistics. From my view though, as an economist and obviously there’s division of labor here: I do do some primary analysis myself, but first and foremost I see my responsibility as making this information available and as understandable to people as possible. It’s common for economists to throw up their hands and go, “Oh, this is complicated. People can’t understand it.” I think that is really being a cop out. Our responsibility is to talk about this in terms people can understand. At the end of the day, I believe in democracy. People can’t make intelligent choices unless they understand what’s at stake. The big economic issues have huge impact on people’s lives. If they don’t understand how those choices are being determined, how those policies are being determined, you don’t have a real democracy. I think first and foremost, my job is about looking at important economic issues and trying to present them in ways that are understandable to people. I mean I don’t mind saying that. I’m not going to deny I have a progressive bent. I think we have too much inequality. I think people should be able to count on the necessities of life, all that. But I think we will get there best by making the issues clear to people. I think most people basically agree with those things. Any case, the point is people have to understand first and foremost what’s at issue. It can be done. I just think a lot of economist, I sometimes joke about it. I think the economy is too simple for economists to understand.
NPS: Right, right. I like that.
DB: I make things simple, not complicated.
NPS: Certainly, the abridged education that I’ve had in economics has been built around laissez-faire market ideology, that the free market will be able to deliver the very best products and services for the best value, [while d]iscounting considerable obstacles to that kind of optimization. I think that what I’ve seen at least in the limited social media that I look at on this topic and this is looking at what fellow technologists are thinking about these things. They’re pretty well hung up on this notion that profits proxy for everything that’s good. To me that seems more a dogma than something that’s actually underwritten by the facts.
DB: Yeah. Well, profits … what I always like to say we should think of the market as a tool. It could be a very, very powerful tool. The point is we structure, we decided how the tool will be used. We’re don’t want people to make profits selling heroin. We banned that now. Obviously, you have a black market but we do ban. We’re better off if people made profits on legally selling heroin. It’s an arguable point. I think probably not but that’s an arguable point. In any case, for now, at least we don’t allow that. We don’t allow it legally. The whole point of certainly Conservative Nanny State really much of my writings, we structure markets to decide how profits are made.
DB: My most obvious example here, patent and copyright monopolies. The idea somehow these are intrinsic; that Microsoft just has a copyright on Windows and they can make a huge amount of money on that. Well, you could argue that’s a good or bad thing. That’s not just the market. That was a government policy. We decide Microsoft can get a copyright and make a lot of money on it. We’re going to arrest people if they start mass producing copies of computers that contain Windows and they’re not paying Bill Gates’ money. Again, we could argue where there’s good or bad thing but that was something we designed. That was how we structured the market. What I do in Conservative Nanny State and other work is make a point: here’s how we’re structuring the market. Again, you could argue, someone could defend the copyright system and say the current system’s the best we could do and that’s an arguable proposition but we have to understand, that’s not simply a market that was given to us. That was how we chose to structure it.
NPS: Exactly. That there’s a legal framework underwriting all of that and that it’s not that somebody sat in a room and spent a long time working on some wonky optimization problem and said, “I know what will work best. We’ll just have a copyright system.” I always thought it was bananas that I would see popular songs that we might sing like Christmas carols and you’ll find that they have copyrights from one hundred and twenty years ago. At least whatever’s listed in the fake book. The fake book’s pretty old.
DB: Yeah. It gets pretty crazy and both copyrights and patents have bizarre applications. Some of the extreme ones I remember hearing that there’s… I’m forgetting the names of them [possibly General Patent and Web Defense Systems?]. Now, there’s two main services that are involved in enforcing copyrights. If a radio station plays copyright music, they have to pay a fee. If say you have a restaurant or a bar, and you’re playing copyrighted music, you’re supposed to pay. I’m sure most of them don’t but in principle, you’re supposed to pay. Anyhow, one of them was going after the campfire girls because they were singing copyrighted songs. You get some pretty wacky examples.
NPS: Right. That you have to have a powerful nanny state to enforce those kinds of things.
DB: Yeah, yeah. This is very far from a free market.
DB: They’re all sitting around the campfire and they’re singing whatever songs. Now, we’re going to have the government come in there and say, “Oh, you have to pay whatever amount to so and so has the copyright on these.”
NPS: Right. I doubt seriously that my coworkers and bosses over at Microsoft would want me to say this but I’ll say it anyway. I don’t believe that the patenting and the copyright system has done justice to the software industry at all. I feel like Microsoft, Gates and Allen were able to exploit the open architecture, hardware architecture and so on in order to be able to build an operating system on top of that that they made proprietary. Because of the fact that it is proprietary and they’ve spent all of this time trying to ensure that those copyrights stay in place, we end up with products that frankly are subpar. I even told them that in my interview there. I told them that in my interview.
DB: They hired you anyhow.
NPS: Yeah. They called me back that day.
DB: They really wanted you.
NPS: Yeah, yeah. Either it speaks to their desperation or their desperation I guess, either or.
DB: Yeah. Or maybe they had admirable respect for freedom of thought. We’d like to be optimistic about that. I don’t know that’s the case but we could be optimistic that way. I’m not an expert on software. You clearly know much, much more about it but I’ve heard that from many others, that much of what when the original DOS, the pre-runner of Windows was taken from various forms of open software-
DB: On the government tab. Of course, it becomes proprietary and I don’t know anyone as a regular user of Windows computers, which I am that’s very happy with if you gave me the option of the computer 20 years ago and the computer I had today, you know, there’re some things clearly better but a lot of things are not. It’s not as though we could look back over the last two decades and go, “Wow! There’ve been all this great innovations, the software I have today in my computer is so much better than what I had two decades ago.” I for one would be able to say that.
NPS: And actually internally at Microsoft, this is pretty well the opinion that we get every year when we do the internal surveys. Of the pillar issues that they ask opinions on, the most troublesome for the company are the tools that we have to use internally. And though they are slightly better than what you see on the outside, just because, we’re constantly being guinea pigged, and they’re constantly trying to make sure that our systems are reliable, it’s not a good thing. The other tech companies I’ve worked at where they’re basing their systems more on open source software, much more reliability. I mean the difference is night and day. But it also raises another interesting point that I’ve brought up with some of my coworkers when they ask questions about these kinds of things. It’s one thing to patent, or copyright a complex algorithm that you can use to achieve some particular goal. And let’s say that an individual wants to benefit from that and see that others are not able to steal his work, that’s different from a company doing it. And it’s also different when we’re talking about the scale and the scope of these algorithms. I like to ask them, “How would you like to have to pay a fee every time you used the addition operator in your code?” I mean, it gets to a point where it’s just obscene. That’s like having a plumber install a toilet in your house and then you have to pay for every time you flush it.
DB: Yeah. With our intellectual property system in general, I think there’s been very little thought in the design as to, “Is this really optimal?” And you could argue for patents, you could argue for copyrights, but I think you’d be very hard pressed to look at the system we have today and say, “This is the best we could do.” And you have a lot of things that are almost like, paying for every time you flush the toilet. I mean, particularly when you get to research tools, this comes up more with patents I think than copyrights, but a lot of times you have research tools, but because their patented, they hugely raise the cost of research.
NPS: Right, absolutely. And to say nothing of medical equipment and then the pharmaceutical industry. So my father-in-law worked for Dial and for Pfizer and he let me in on a lot of the tricks that they use for evergreening, that I wrote about actually in the book review that I did for your book because I wanted to augment it with some of the information that he was giving me about how they are able to, by virtue of the way that they do the research, you end up with a mirror copy of drug molecules and usually there’s some utility to those. And it’s not necessarily the utility you’d planned, but you get to double dip and get two patents for the price of one. But I think the number that bothers me the most is the copycat drug share of the market, to me it’s obscene. So tell me a little bit about that.
DB: Yeah. Well, again we get into a strange debate, at least I find often it gets very strange when we talk about parents and prescription drugs because of course, it costs a lot of money to do research and developing new drugs and someone has to pay for that. But the question, what is the best way to do that? And again, we’ve settled on the patent system where basically what we’re doing is we’re telling companies, “Go ahead, do research and then we’ll give you a patent,” and then you basically get a monopoly on it for 20 years. You were saying with evergreening, they often find ways to extend that for number of years. Another way it’s not quite evergreening, it’s kind of a variation, is that often times companies will have several patents on a drug, and the main one may expire, and then what they do is they have a very dubious patent that they claim to prevent competitors from marketing their drug, marketing as a generic. And even though it may not stand up in court, you have an incredible asymmetry: you’re looking to come in there as the generic entry, well, you’re looking to be able to sell it at a competitive market price, that might be a 10th, even a 20th, maybe even less of what the price Pfizer charges. So there’s an incredible asymmetry if you envision a lawsuit, Pfizer stands much more to lose than the generic does to gain, which means that they are prepared to spend a lot of money in the lawsuit. It doesn’t make sense for the generic spend anything remotely comparable, because they don’t stand to gain that much. So often, Pfizer could have a patent, but they know it’s very weak, but they’ll just tell a generic that’s trying to enter, “Well, we’re going to contest this and if we lose, we’re going to appeal it. We’ll appeal to the Supreme Court. You’re going to be buried in legal fees. It’s just not worth your while.” And that’s often a way to keep generics out of the market because for them it just doesn’t make sense. Getting back to the basic picture, this is one of the things I often say to people when I’m giving a talk. I often begin, “Drugs are cheap.” And they immediately think I’m nuts. And the point that I make with that is that almost invariably they’re cheap to produce. So if you just talked about manufacturing the drug profitably, in most cases that would be $10, $15, maybe $30 to outside per prescription, and we know this because there are generic drugs here and in other countries; India as a world class generic industry, they produce very high quality drugs and in almost all cases they’re very, very cheap, whereas if they’re patent protected, they could sell for thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, and again, it’s because they have a monopoly on a drug people need for the health and need for their life. It’s an absurd situation where people are struggling in trying to get their insurer to pay [for] hepatitis C [drugs]. There’s been several drugs recently, but originally Sovaldi was the first breakthrough drug that could cure hepatitis C, which is a debilitating, sometimes deadly disease, for $80,000 per three month course of treatment, incredibly expensive. So insurers didn’t want to pay people who were on Medicaid, other government programs, government didn’t want to pay. And you had articles about this as a big moral dilemma. Should they pay it for everyone? A lot of people with hepatitis C have lived, they’re drug addicts, they’ve done things in their life that you might say weren’t very good, should we pay $84,000 for them to be treated? And I’ll just say, okay, that’s good question. I mean, I’d probably be inclined to pay it, but whatever, some people saying no. They go, “Well actually it doesn’t cost $84,000 to manufacture this drug. It costs $200 or $300.” Again, we know this because that’s what the generics in India could sell it for. And again, they make money. They’re not charities. Like $200 or $300, that’s really a no brainer. I mean, you’re only going to spent $300 to save someone’s life, to cure them of a debilitating disease? I mean, even if they got it because they were drug addicts or whatever, that’d be nuts. So we create this huge problem for ourselves with how are we going to pay for these expensive drugs, when they wouldn’t be expensive if we didn’t have the patent monopolies. As they say, it’s a very, very perverse way of financing drug research and again, we have to pay for it. So I don’t argue that, I talk about other ways to pay for it, mostly through direct pay for the funding research upfront. Pay for it upfront and have it be in the public domain. But the current system I just think is incredibly backward, and it’s a big deal economically, but even more so this is people’s health, people’s lives.
NPS: Right, yeah. Chomsky’s read on the history of technology has been something that’s similar, that in essence, the computers that we’re using right now to talk in the vast international and actually trans-national communications network, originally it was just going to be a coast to coast network for communication. All of it was developed in the public sector, and the public sector bore the risk and lots of things didn’t pan out that we don’t hear about, but nonetheless, it was not a free market that delivered computers to us or the internet or a lot of the R&D as you point out in your books, a lot of the R&D that goes into the development of these drugs.
DB: Yeah. And even as it stands, with the National Institutes of Health, they get $40 billion a year from the federal government. Again, most of that is more basic research, so it’s not common that they’re actually developing drugs, but there are cases, important cases, AZT, the first major AIDS drugs, that was actually developed by NIH money. It was developed as a cancer drug that turned out not to be an effective cancer drug. And then in the 80s, several, probably Burroughs Wellcome was the big one, they then tested it an AIDS drug where it turned out to be an effective treatment, but a very large chunk of the expense, certainly developing the drug originally and as I understand, even some of the research done by Burroughs Wellcome was financed by the federal government. So again, you look at drug after drug, someone did an analysis recently looking at drugs that were in the last, I forget how far back they went, like last decade. Every single one of them, had a major role for federal funding. That’s not to say the industry didn’t do something. In most cases they made substantial contributions, but the point was they were building on work done by the federal government.
NPS: Right. And probably like the big banks underwritten by the federal government at the same time. So you have this extremely skewed, loss function of no way to lose and every way to gain.
DB: Yeah. It often looks that way.
Bank Bailouts: There’s No Such Thing as a (Totally) Free Market?
NPS: So somebody that I had discussed this with had made the comment that copycat drugs were good because therefore there was market competition, as though prescription drug development occurs in a free market or laissez-faire framework. There seems to be this pervasive belief amongst intelligentsia that not only is this the usual course, but that it ought to be that way, challenging earlier points in our discussion. How do we dispel the myth?
DB: I mean, I like patents and copyrights just because they are such blatant interferences in the market; I love to point out, we can get drugs in India for, in some cases, less than 1% of what it costs here and if people want to be strict, libertarians go, “Fine, let me go to India. Let me import the drug from India.” And just to say Pfizer would go nuts if we just said, “Oh, we could just import all these generics from India. “They would put them out of business in no time. So, that’s a very clear mechanism, but there are so many other ways. I mean, one of the things that was striking to me when we had the bailout of the banks in 2008, well the market outcome of course is Citi Group and Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, they were all out of business. They got themselves in trouble because it made a lot of bad loans, and they couldn’t cover their debts. And well, in a market economy they’re out of business. People couldn’t race fast enough to engineer the bailout, to keep them going and somehow-
NPS: Basically, in both parties.
DB: And in both parties. So it was totally bipartisan. I was on the hill talking to skeptics, they were Democrats, and also skeptics are Republicans, well I meeting skeptics on the democratic side. And there were a lot of people of course who did have questions, many who did vote against it, more Republicans voted against it than Democrats. But in any case, there were those who voted against it, but basically they scared all these people saying the economy will disappear. They were saying this and, just to be clear, I don’t mean to say there wouldn’t have been greater disruption had you not had the bailouts. There would have been, but the economy would just disappear? What do you mean? The physical banks aren’t going anywhere. So all the banks that, we have our deposits, there’s still going to be there the next day. Their records aren’t going to go anywhere, and we actually do have a mechanism, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to keep operating, keep normal bank services going through a crisis, which isn’t to say everything would have been perfect. But there was just this idea. We have to rescue them. And of course here we are now ten years, a little more than ten years later, and those banks, Citi Group, Bank of America, they’re bigger than ever. But you can’t call that a free market.
NPS: No, not at all. And I think you’re right in Rigged that the IMF showed that these big banks are able to borrow at a much better rate than they would be under normal circumstances because of the government insurance policy.
DB: Yeah. So there was research that the IMF had done, this was a few years ago now, and it may not still hold up because risks have fallen. That was still kind of in the wake of the crisis. But what their research had found, I’ve done some too showing this, that their borrowing costs were less than smaller banks because the presumption was if Citi Group got itself in trouble, the government would come to its rescue. Just as of course it did do in 2008, 2009. So obviously if you think from the standpoint of someone, you’re looking to lend Citi Group $20 million or another bank $20 million, well you’re going to be thinking, “I really don’t have much risk with Citi Group. It’s obviously a big bank and not likely to go under, simply because big banks don’t typically go under, but even if it were to go under, I could still count on the government bailing it out and making the whole.” So that means you’d be willing to lend to a lower rate of interest and that’s certainly what the IMF found, though again this was a few years ago. It was a careful research. I don’t think people disputed that at the time.
Economic Prognostication : Dean and the Housing Bubble
DB: Yeah. This is a source of incredible frustration because it started like you see a disaster coming, and you’re trying to warn about it and no one’s really listening. To my view, it was not hard to see for anyone looking at the data, because it was just very, very clear with this unprecedented run up in house prices. And I had data going back to the early 1950s, government Robert Shiller, economist at Yale, subsequently won the Nobel Prize. He constructed data using public data sets, but he had to construct himself, going back to the 1890s, and we had never seen a run up in house prices, anything like this. House prices generally nationwide, at least pretty much track the overall rate of inflation. But suddenly in the late 1990s, they began to diverge from the overall rate of inflation and in the next decade quite sharply. So 2002, ’03, ’04, ’05, they’re rising at double digit levels. There’s no corresponding increase in rents. Rents are pretty much tracking the rate of inflation. Vacancy rates are actually high and rising. That doesn’t make sense. It’s not consistent with the type of labor market. So I’m looking at this and go, “How could that not be a bubble?” And the reason bubbles were on my mind, and not some of those bubble bubble bubble, we just had a stock market bubble, which collapsed in 2000 or 2001 and gave us the recession that year. And that was a big deal. So the idea that we might get bubbles in asset markets shouldn’t have been crazy to people in 2002, ’03, ’04. We had just seen a really big one collapse and gave us a recession, so I saw this in the housing market, and the reason why I thought the impact was likely to be really big was housing had grown to be a very large share of the economy. Housing ordinarily is around 4% GDP. It hit a peak of, I think it was 6.8% in GDP in 2005, so it was way above its historic average. And on top of that, people were consuming based on their housing wealth. So people bought a home for $200,000, and suddenly worth $400,000. A lot of people were borrowing against their homes, none of this was secret, by the way. I mean, I didn’t need special insight about this, I had to have some special insight or debt. Alan Greenspan actually wrote papers on this.
DB: They actually go back, and he had equity … I’m forgetting the term he used, something like equity withdrawal or spending from equity withdrawal. He had some term for it. I mean, I don’t know if he invented it, but he’d used this several papers, so it wasn’t any sort of secret that (a) housing construction was soaring to record levels, and (b) that people were spending based on their housing wealth. It was widely reported, and the point being that when the wealth disappeared, so did the spending. That’s exactly what happened. Of course, the bubble peaks in ’06, begins to drop at the fall of ’06, drops more rapidly in ’07, because basically the story you had in the housing market was people buying homes where they look at the house and go, “Is this worth $400,000?” They might’ve said no, but because the price is rising 10 or 15 to 20% every year, it doesn’t matter. So, you might say to yourself, “Well, I wouldn’t pay $400,000 for this house, but on the other hand, since it’s going to be worth $500,000, two years, yeah, why not?” But suddenly when that reverses, when the price is falling rather than rising, well then you look at it and go, “Oh yeah, it’s probably not worth $400,000, maybe I shouldn’t pay $400,000 for it.” And of course the banks wouldn’t make the loans anymore. So you’ve got house prices falling in ’07 and then very rapidly by the latter part of the year because it feeds on itself. And that was the story of the crash. House prices plummeted. And then of course residential construction plummeted. So as I said, it ordinarily had been around 4% of GDP, it fell back to less than 2% of GDP. So we went from being close to seven, 6.8% to less than 2%. That’s four and a half percentage points of GDP, that’d be 900 billion a year in today’s economy. So how are you going to replace that? Then you had the big fall in consumption, because again, you had all these people, their house went from $200,000 to $400,000, they take out a home equity loan, buy a car, take a vacation, maybe they’re sending their kids to school. So it’s not that was a stupid thing to do. They thought the house would still be worth $400,000, but then it ends up being worth $200,000. Well, suddenly they can’t do that anymore.
NPS: Oh yeah. So, in my husband’s family’s neighborhood in Scottsdale, we saw housing prices rise to just astronomical numbers. It was remarkable. Houses that were previously like $400,000 up to one point $1.2 million. And then all of that just completely vanished. And we used to live in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, and I can remember construction happening out the Wazoo, all over the place in the areas around the metropolitan area where there were, basically just open fields and some farmland. And I couldn’t believe that, that many people would be moving into those houses, especially with so many houses on the market. But yeah, we ended up buying high and selling low.
DB: So sorry to hear that.
NPS: Fortunately we didn’t lose a lot of money, and it was nothing to complain about compared to what other people had to endure through all of that, the humiliation and the bankruptcies, foreclosures, just dreadful stuff. And the fact that this is done, and it’s understood, it has to be understood at top levels of power. Would you say that, that’s the case or do they genuinely not understand how this stuff works?
DB: I think they genuinely did not understand. I mean, I knew some of these people. What happens is you get this groupthink story that people talk to each other. They only take the opinions into account of other people that they think are really important honchos. I mean obviously it helps I’m an economist as opposed to someone just off the street but still, I don’t have Nobel prize, they don’t have to listen to me. So they didn’t have to count what I’m saying. And I remember being on a panel once, and I was talking about the risk of a house price decline. And it was a fairly prominent economist, he was just totally dismissive. He just said, “Well, I’ve never seen anything like what you’re describing.” And my point was, “No, we’ve never seen a nationwide fall in house prices like this because we’ve never seen a nation run up in house prices like this.” That seemed fairly straightforward to me. He was just totally dismissive. Like I’m talking about something that’s just other worldly.
DB: For me that was very concrete.
Economic Schism : Pragmatic Piketty and Elitist Theorists
NPS: I liked the way that you described it earlier, that economics is much simpler than people think because I was going to say something similar at the beginning of this discussion about how on the one hand it seems like economics is much simpler than what people think. But on the other hand, theoretical economists start delving into NP hard optimization problems and Nash equilibria, and all of these interesting things that don’t pay that much attention to the pragmatic. And I guess that brings me to Piketty. I know that you’ve written about him and talked about his works quite a bit now, particularly Capital in the 21st Century, which I’ve started, but I can’t say that I’ve finished yet. There’s a lot in there. But I guess, what is your take on this that there’s a schism in the field of economics?
DB: Yeah. Well, I think that a lot of economics, I was joking about this, but this is actually very serious. I think it’s about making simple things complicated.
DB: I mean, of course my analysis of the housing bubble was pretty simple, and people asked me, as this was going on did I consider getting it published anywhere and I kind of shrugged because I go, “You know, it’s too simple. I don’t where it can get published.” I mean, it was basically a very simple story. And I actually had exactly that because there was a similar issue, back in ’05, President Bush wanted to privatized social security.
NPS: Oh yeah.
DB: His big argument was that, “Oh, we’re going to give people individual accounts and will make way more money in private accounts. And that was based on their assumption stock returns and what I was arguing was that you can’t have the high stock returns that they’re talking about given that they’re projecting slow economic growth and their price to earnings ratios in the stock market were already quite high. If you had low price to earnings ratios, you could do it, but we didn’t have low, we had high. So I was saying that you cannot get the returns that they’re predicting. So a friend of mine, Brad Delong called me up and said, “Do you want to do this as a Brookings paper?” And he goes, “I can get it published.” And I said, “Well, this is really a Brookings paper. I mean, because it’s simple. It’s basically algebra. What are dividends, what are capital gains, it’s adding two numbers.” And he said, “Oh yeah, no, it could be a Brookings paper, so I won’t have to do my work on this.” So I wrote it up, gave the basic algebra. So Brad goes out, “Thank you very much.” He did the bulk of the work, Krugman did some too, I don’t mean to downgrade his role, but Brad was the main actor here. But anyhow, he totally rewrites it and basically makes two points. One was an intertemporal consumption optimization model and then the other was the point I was making, which was again, basically simple algebra. Brad rewrote it, but basically presented the argument. What made it, the Brookings paper of course was the optimization model, though not too complex, but it was certainly more complex than simple algebra. When we actually presented the paper, no one said a word about the optimization model. No one could care less, all they cared about was the simple algebra, but without having something with some calculus in there that you could wave your hand and would go, “Oh, yeah, this is complicated. We wouldn’t have gotten there as a Brookings paper.” So it was just as clear as day that, “Okay, you have to make this complicated, get through the door, even though, that has nothing to do with the issue at hand.”
NPS: I wish I could say I was surprised by that, but I’ve spent enough time, been in and out of academia enough times that yes, that’s definitely true, that oftentimes you can present something that is even novel and advances the science. I had a classmate at Georgia Tech who submitted a paper to one of the theoretical computer science symposia and they thought the result was momentous, but the proof was too simple. So therefore they didn’t want to accept it.
DB: Oh God-
NPS: And they actually outright said that. They weren’t hiding it. They weren’t saying, “Uh, this really wasn’t good work.” They were just saying, “We like the result, but the proof is elementary, so therefore we can’t publish it.”
DB: It’s amazing. They wouldn’t be embarrassed that … Are we trying to advance the science or are we just trying to spin our wheels and …
NPS: Or make ourselves look so complicated that we can … I don’t know, to achieve some dominance in the field, maybe. The more David Attenborough programs that I see, the more I realize that we’re just animals. That’s a little bit cynical.
NPS: One thing that is in the news right now, and then I want to get back to your background because I want to make sure that we cover that as much as we can. I noticed that the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned in the news, the 70% tax rate on $10 million and above, and that Paul Krugman–actually I learned about her quote by reading one of Paul Krugman’s columns on this. And it looks like Piketty and I’ll never be able to say these names, [Stefanie] Stantcheva and [Emmanuel] Saez, I believe is the-
DB: Yeah, Saez, yeah.
NPS: Okay. That they say that it’s 83%, but through the last twenty years, since the Bush W. tax cuts were pushed through, I have told people repeatedly about the top marginal tax rates that we had at the end of World War II, when we had some of the greatest growth, if not the greatest amount of growth that we ever saw in American history, economic history. And so I wanted you to weigh in on that also, so how this 70% versus 83%, the numbers are sort of … they’re not immaterial, but the concept is important. How do we tax the wealthy in an optimal way?
DB: Yeah. Well, two issues. The more important one is this idea that if they effect the high tax rate that, “Oh we’d lose out, all these very highly talented people,”
NPS: Which is bullshit. They don’t, contribute that kind of work to the economy-
DB: Yeah, I guess I would divide those into groups. So when you get the people defending it, like Greg Mankiw was Bush’s, the head of his council of economic advisors, “Oh Taylor swift, don’t you like Taylor Swift’s music or whatever, and she wouldn’t perform if she’s going to be taxed at a really high rate.” (A) that’s not true. I mean the vast majority of people are not Taylor Swift, I mean, whether you like it or not, I am not a great Taylor Swift fan, but whatever. The vast majority of people who are in those income brackets are people on Wall Street who are shuffling money. Your corporate CEOs, the people who got a lot because they inherited their wealth-
NPS: The rentier culture.
DB: Yeah. So that’s who we’re generally talking about. But even the Taylor swifts, I mean, the example I like to use there’s Michael Jordan who maybe was the best basketball player ever. During the prime of his playing years, he took two years off to play baseball. Now suppose he had faced the 90% marginal tax rate. Would he have decided that he had so much money that he could spend two years playing baseball? Maybe he would have, I don’t know, but he may well not have, and certainly Jordan was a fantastic player and if you enjoy see Michael Jordan play, we actually might have gotten more of Michael Jordan with a higher tax rate than lower tax rate. But again, that’s not who we’re talking about for the most part. We’re talking about the corporate CEOs, the people shuffling paper, so I’m not worried about not giving them enough incentive to do what they do for the economy. In most cases they would probably do the same. And in the cases where he had the CEO said, “Well, if I have to pay a 70% or 80% tax rate, it’s not worth if it to me,” my view would be, “Well, fine, we’ll take the next person in line. It’s not as though,” I mean fair, there are some CEO who were extraordinary Steve Jobs, and though you can make complaints about what Apple’s done and everything, he was a visionary, so if Steve Jobs had said that, okay, we would have lost something, but the vast, vast majority of CEOs are not Steve Jobs. So if they said, “Hey, it’s not worth it for me,” it would not be a big loss to the economy. The part I do worry about, and you have to decide where this kicks in, is what they will do by way of evasion / avoidance because that is a loss to the economy. They both don’t get the revenue, but it also means it creates tax sheltering industry, and that’s what I worry about. So I would probably put a number, certainly below the 83%, probably some below the 70. Important point to remember here, we also have state and local taxes and in the case of say California, somebody who’s earning $10 million year is facing a 13% state income tax. So I’d probably be more comfortable with something close to the 50% because as you get to high tax rates, you’re giving people a lot of incentive to evade your tax, to avoid your tax and that’s just a loss to the economy. Again, I’m not worried that they’re going to say, “Oh, I don’t feel like working for that.” But it’s a loss lost the economy that they’re paying people to come up with various gimmicks so that, they don’t have to pay their taxes because that itself is a drain on the economy. I mean, if we have attached shelter industry where all these people are making their living by thinking of ways to gain the tax cut, well those people aren’t doing anything productive, so that’s what I worry about.
NPS: Well, it’s certainly be valuable to the economy to get rid of the tax lawyers.
DB: Exactly, exactly.
NPS: Most of them anyway.
DB: Well, no. I mean seriously, we want a system that involves as little as possible in terms of compliance and enforcement cost, so we have to ask not just about, “Oh, is that going to mean that this CEO or this Wall Street guy is going to work a little less if we have 70% tax rate?” That doesn’t concern me. It’s more, how many tax additional tax lawyers to the accounts are we going to have who instead of doing something productive in the world, they’re going to be coming up with games that. That’s what I worry about.
NPS: Right, right. I guess that I would be somewhat optimistic and hope that at least the good guy CEOs would be willing to reroute the money that they would be getting in salary back into the company for the profitability of the company. Good Lord, that’s something we haven’t even touched on, is simply the history of corporations and indefinite charters and all that.
Origins of Dean : Chicago, Protests, Economics, and A Run for Office
NPS: But I want to rewind a little bit before we get onto that. Well, so I want to go back to the beginning for you, where you are from and what is it that interested you in economics and what is it that interested you in progressivism/activism? I know that you participated in sit in protest against the contras in Nicaragua and you had a very interesting advisor who was, I guess by all accounts, a Marxist economist.
DB: Yeah. Well, I grew up in Chicago, under the Daley machine. I always had a sense, politics was corrupt and it needed to be cleaned up and this was back in the days of the Vietnam War. I had the sense the Vietnam war was at least a very serious mistake. It’s easy to see that a lot of things that our government was saying weren’t true. I remember I read a book [The Arrogance of Power] by [J. William] Fulbright, who was the head of the Foreign Service Committee and a big critic of the Vietnam War. And it gave the history, which I hadn’t heard. I was a casual reader, at this point I’m like twelve or eleven year old reader of the newspaper. But it was certainly an account I hadn’t heard and then realized, “Oh my God, this makes no sense our involvement in the war.” Anyhow, so I had a sense things were really not going as they should. And I actually came into economics just my last year in college because I felt economics was important, but I didn’t like the mainstream of the field. I had a professor in my last year there, David Weiman, and I got to talking with him, I was very interested in the economics he was doing and decided my senior year that I take economics with him. I decided to go to grad school in econ. You probably couldn’t do that today because I didn’t have big background, but I was lucky to do well on tests, so I was able to do well on my GREs and everything. I always had been good at math, so I was able to get in. In economics, I was always interested in like, “Okay, how can I learn this stuff to be a voice to criticize the mainstream of the profession.” That was what I was thinking about in grad school. You mentioned the sit ins at our congressman’s office. This was the 1980s, the US was actively involved, it was the Reagan years, so trying to undermine the Nicaraguan revolution, which I thought was just incredibly pernicious. I mean, people don’t know, the background I realize it’s ancient history now, it was forty years ago. There was a very corrupt dictatorship that had been installed by the United States. That’s not a euphemism. It had literally been installed by the United States back in the 1930s. We put in Anastasio Somoza’s father who passed it onto his kid. Anyhow he was very corrupt and needless to say they didn’t care at all about the needs of the people. There was no money going for healthcare and education; they were pocketing money left and right within a poor country in any case, but they weren’t sharing what they did have. And they were overthrown in a revolution in 1979 by the Sandinista’s armed revolution, they managed to overthrow them. And Carter was still president at that time. He didn’t want the Sandinistas to come to power. He was trying to keep them from coming to power. He wasn’t able to work out a deal. He was doing his best to try to work out something and basically kept them out of power while getting rid of Somoza. He wasn’t able to do that. They came to power, and they were very much committed towards providing healthcare, education, meeting basic needs of the people. Under Reagan, he very quickly got remnants of the National Guard, which is the army that does supports Somoza, and he began arming them, and they basically did a terror war–they would do attacks on villages. They’d come over the border from Honduras, there was also a group in Costa Rica. They’d come over the border, and they’d attack whatever they could, which often was hospitals or schools. As I said, terrorism is the right word. And that continued through the 1980s and our Congress person who had been a moderate Republican, they redistricted in 1980, for the 1982 election, made it a much more conservative district. He suddenly became a very conservative Republican following the district, and he supported Reagan on that. That was the basis I was in any number of protests. Actually I challenged him for the seat in 1986, it wasn’t my intention, but we couldn’t get anyone else to do it. We got the Democratic nomination and got 41%; it was not close, but it was way more than anyone expected. But anyhow, I felt that was the important thing to do. I mean, I don’t regret at all having tried to oppose the US actions there. I think we see it again today. The US, it’s involvement in Venezuela again; again I’m no fan [Nicolás] Maduro government. They are corrupt. They’ve done really horrible things in terms of what’s happened with their economy and its impact on the people. I mean these aren’t just numbers, people aren’t getting food, they’re not getting medicines, it’s a really bad story. But our concerned there, the concern of the US government is not that Venezuelan people are suffering, because that’s never been a concern of our government. It’s an anti-US government, and they want to see it overthrown.
NPS: Our presence in Latin America has been brutal and horrendous since the founding of the colonies.
DB: Yeah. And it doesn’t seem to change. I mean, you keep hoping, you know.
NPS: Every single president promises not to be an interventionist like the previous one.
NPS: Not that I want to talk about Trump necessarily because we hear enough about him, but we’ve been controlling their economies using trade agreements, which are anti-market forces. And I can’t believe that self-described free marketeers in the Republican Party believe promoting democracy or free market ideology.
DB: My guess is that’s ascribing a level of thought of planning that I think really is not true.
NPS: Institutional independence or free mindedness. Yeah, I agree with you.
DB: Yeah. So I think they’re going, “Okay, NAFTA, the transpacific partnership is coming up, how do I vote?” They’re getting the lobbyists calling them, they’re hearing the party leadership saying, and I think that’s 99% of the time, what determines how they vote. Well, what does this actually do? I think most of them have very little idea what it actually does.
DB: Yeah. Again, I think of my job as an economist is about making these things clear to people. My blog Beat the Press and what that’s about is criticizing reporting because, I think the biggest problem, of course, most people aren’t going to be reading government documents; a more informed person reads through the Washington Post, New York Times and major papers. Most people don’t, I’m saying, the more informed person and I focus on those papers, and they are not giving people information in a way that’s understandable. That’s a real big problem. I’ll just give you my pet one, [as] it just drives me nuts because there literally is no other side to it. When you see a budget number that’s expressed and in millions or billions or tens of billions, it’s giving no information.
NPS: Yes. I read that on one of your blog posts about the lack of context.
DB: Yeah. And no one, literally, no one disagrees on that. I mean, I’ve never found a reporter who tries to tell me that when they write down the transportation budget is $180 billion over the next six years, that any substantial segment of their readers, and I’m talking about New York Times readers, I don’t mean the New York Post and most of the people aren’t that educated. I mean, New York Times readers, all of them have college degrees, many have advanced degrees, law degrees, whatever. They don’t know what the budget is. So if you tell them $180 billion over six years, you could have added a zero, taken away a zero, it’s a lot of money and that’s all they know. Of course, what’s relevant is how large is that relative to the total budget? Is this big thing in terms of the total budget? A small thing? And most people have no idea. So haranguing them, it’s really not that hard to just put it in some context. The most obvious one to me is put it in percentage terms, but there are different ways you could do it. So if you said $180 million over six years, that’s $30 billion a year. It’s about seven tenths of 1% of the budget. So if you told people seven tenths of 1%, most people that gives them a reasonably good idea. It’s not a huge share of the budget. It’s not altogether trivial, but if you cut it by 20% it’s not like you have a lot of money in your pocket. If you raised it by 20%, that’s going to be a huge increase in the deficit or a big tax increase. Anyhow, if you put it as a percentage of the budget, it would hugely help in terms of informing people. Where I think this issue comes up most clearly is when you talk about a lot of social spending on the poor, that is almost very, very, very small in terms of the whole budget.
NPS: Yeah. It’s dirty pennies in the couch cushions. I mean, it’s nothing compared to the overall budget.
DB: It’s less than one half of 1% of the budget. The big argument, is this money well spent, is poorly spent? But it’s important, you go, “Okay, it’s a horrible program. I want it zeroed out.” Okay, we get your wish: you’re not going to have much more money in your pocket because we lowered your taxes. It’s half of 1%, less than one half of 1% of the federal budget. So it’s not all your money is going to these people you don’t like. You might not like the people. Maybe I don’t think they should get the money, but it’s really not going to affect your tax burden in any big way and people don’t understand that.
NPS: Yeah. I feel like institutionally, not just the government, the various agencies and branches of the government, but also the media don’t have much of an incentive to make things clear. An example is I’ve been staying down here in Tucson the last couple months, because of the short term that I’m on; I’ve been staying with my aunt and uncle and my uncle watches CNN almost incessantly, which means that all I ever hear about is Trump and screaming. And that literally is about it. There’s almost no content that is provided. I’ll switch on Democracy Now, and my aunt and uncle are amazed at how much stuff is out there that people aren’t hearing about. And having experts on that can spend fifteen minutes explaining something to you instead of 30 seconds screaming at other painted up people.
DB: It’s one of the things I will say I really don’t understand because I think, New York Times, which is clearly the country’s preeminent newspaper. I had this argument with reporters there for decades now. And I remember about five years ago, maybe a little longer, Margaret Sullivan who at that time was the public editor. She wrote a piece on this, my haranguing, I and others had, really pushed on this, the issue about putting budget numbers in context. She agreed completely. She said, “Yes, no one knows.” And she brought in David Leonhardt who at that time was their Washington editor, so important person there who controlled or had a lot of say I should say, I don’t know exactly who controls, but he has a lot of say about how things appear in print. And he goes, “Yeah, we might as well just write a really big number.” That was exactly the line I said, he’s welcome to take it, but whatever, we might as well just write a really big number because no one knows what these are. So here you have the public editor, the Washington editor both agreeing with me completely saying, “Look, it’s irresponsible to put these big numbers and there was no content because no one has any idea what they mean.” So I actually went out, I remember I celebrated, I go, “Holy Shit, if the New York Times does this. Well then probably Washington Post will follow, National Public Radio will follow, and if picked up, it’s a good standard.” I was going, “This is fantastic.” Nothing changed. You just go, “What is this?” I mean, I’m not asking them to do any big thing. It’s not like I’m asking them to go research some boring topic. The numbers are right there. I don’t believe their reporters are stupid. If you wrote down $20 billion, come on, you can put it on an Excel spreadsheet, a hand calculator. Probably most of them could do it in their head. This is really simple stuff.
NPS: Yeah, apparently the Brookings did a survey a few years ago. They probably done more surveys along this type since of the tea partiers and the surveys demonstrated a thorough ignorance on how much spending goes towards TANF and foreign aid. It’s interesting that they believe that more money should go to it than actually is going to it, and they also believe that more money is going to it than they think the numbers should be.
DB: Yeah, I’ve seen those stats. I don’t know if I saw that specific Brookings one. But you know, I often say if I thought as much money was going to these programs as those people thought, I’d be opposed to them too. I mean if I thought 30% of budget, people think that TANF is getting 30% of the budget they would be looking and going, “We’re spending 30% of the budget, $1.5 trillion a year, and we still have all these poor people? That doesn’t look like a really good program.” Again, and I understand some of it goes the other way. Some of them are racist, and they want to believe really bad things about these people. But you have people that aren’t racist, they actually think we want to help poor people. They just say, “Oh, we’re spending too much,” because they think we’re spending, ten or twenty times as much as we’re actually spending.
NPS: Right. And that was the case with a lot of them. They wanted there to be aid for single mothers with children, with minor children but they were opposed to welfare or food stamps. When they heard the terms that have been racially charged, then suddenly they’re opposed to it. So yeah, it makes for a very interesting lot of people in the United States. I guess there were a couple more questions I wanted to ask you-
DB: You go ahead.
NPS: Oh, thank you so much. This is awesome. I mean to actually be able to ask you questions. It’s fantastic.
So limited liability, recently I had a back and forth with somebody on LinkedIn and much to my surprise what I said actually won him over–I wasn’t expecting that to be the case, but he was signing on, piling onto this notion that corporations are these magical unicorns that have been given from on high that are able to come to these optimal strategies, which of course if you know anything about high dimensional, even convex optimization, but non-convex optimization is ridiculously hard, but they somehow get in their mind that these corporations are given from on high and are able to do this all on their own and that it’s just government regulation that’s impeding them.
NPS: So I raised the concept of limited liability and how that’s actually an anti-market, which I pulled this straight from your book, so this information came from you. So I’d like for you to discuss limited liability a little bit and how it does not follow any kind of free market ideology.
DB: Yeah. I’ve often had fun with libertarians, who want to say they won’t get the government of the economy. So I go, “You want to get rid of corporations.” And they look at me like, what are you talking about?
DB: You and I can form a partnership, but a corporation has legal status because of the government, and specifically legal liability, limited liability. And there’s other benefits as well, but first and foremost. And what that means of course is, you could have a corporation that they do bad things to people, and we sued them and guess what, they don’t have enough money, and we’re out of luck. And if you and I had ownership and we did that, well we’d lose everything we had. In the case of cooperation, I had $50,000 in stock or whatever or I could lose that, but I could still have millions of dollars, they can’t touch that. Okay, that’s arguably, that was a good thing for us to create corporations grant them limited liability. I think it was. Well, we have to understand that is a government action. That was a policy. We’re not, free marketeers if we believe that the government should be able to grant corporations limited liability. The point I make on this, and I think this is tremendously under appreciated. Go ahead.
NPS: Oh, I was just going to say that in reading your book and then reading some on the History of the Corporation, I can’t think of the author’s name. It’ll come back to me, but I think you site in your book, that these corporate charters issued were predicated on some temporary service. So they needed to raise capital to build a bridge or pave a road with the exception of shipping and railroads and interstate commerce kinds of things because that made sense to have more of a lasting requirement for raising capital. So how is it that we have these charters issued that last indefinitely now and what was the justification for it?
DB: Yeah, so if you go back to English common law, the corporation, as you said, it was designed for specific public service, building a canal or South China, South Sea Trading Company or the East India Trading Company. So there were very specific purposes that it was started to serve a public purpose to allow, the special status of a limited liability. In England that continued to be the case well into the 19th century. They didn’t have a general incorporation law until 1867 if I remember correctly. In the US, we had it earlier, it was actually in, I think it was 1817 when we adopted general incorporation. And the basic idea there was, we have a general interest in promoting the creation of wealth. So this was a way to create wealth so companies can incorporate and have limited liability. That was the rationale. And again, you could argue whether that was a good or bad thing, but it clearly was explicit policy at the time, everyone understood that this was a government policy to promote wealth. It wasn’t just something that was out there in the world. We were going to do this as a way to promote wealth. The other point I was going to make is that, we also set rules of corporate governance, and those are actually very extensive. Most of the rules are designed to protect basically protect minority rights. So, “I own shares in Microsoft, I own,” I’m going to say 1000 shares of Microsoft or something. Well we want to make it, or I should say we either want to or not, the rules make it so that you can’t have a situation where some group gets control of 50.1% of Microsoft and then tells me and everyone else that are in the minority, “I’m just taking all your shares.” That’s what most of the rules of corporate governance are around. But the point is that there’s nothing intrinsic to the corporation that sets those rules. We could set those rules in different ways. And one of the points that I’ve been trying to make in some of my work recently is that the rules are very much skewed now to give management an enormous say. So I’m actually, people think is weird. I actually argue for more shareholder rights because what I would say is where you have these CEOs that are getting $20, $30, $40 million salaries, they’re ripping off the shareholders. And it’s not necessarily that I have so much sympathy for the shareholders. I mean most of the shares are held by very rich people, but some of them aren’t rich middle class people 401ks, pensioners also have shares. So not all of them are rich. All the CEOs are rich that we know. In that sense, I’d rather see the money go to the shareholders. But what’s a more important point to me is that this affects pay structures throughout the economy. If the CEO’s getting $30 million, the CFO, the other top people, they’re probably getting $10 or $15 million and even the third echelon you get to people who are senior, but below these people in standing they’re probably getting one or $2 million, and just stands to reason that more money is going in those people less for everyone else. So I would actually like to see shareholders have more say because I want to see them be in a position to reign in CEO pay, because the CEOs are not doing them a favor when they basically charge the shareholders $30 million for their service. You can sure get plenty of people who’ll do the job just fine for two or $3 million and this gets to a point about progressive taxation. It’s very rare that you have a CEO like Steve Jobs, the real visionary. Those people are very few and far between. The vast majority, I’m sure they’re smart. I’m sure they’re hard working, but the next in line is just as hard working. So you aren’t going to lose anything if they go, “Oh, it’s not worth it to me for two or $3 million.”
NPS: Yeah. And even then is anyone worth having billions and billions of dollars, no matter how talented they are.
DB: Well, that I think is at least a debatable point, because, I mean, I never met Steve Jobs, and I don’t know, he might well have been very creative even for a tenth the money he got, maybe than a hundredth of the money, there’s certainly, were you have … Getting back to Greg Mankiw who was talking, I don’t know, Taylor Swift. I mean, many of the people we think of as great artists, great musicians, they’re committed to their work, they probably would do it for our tenth of pay. You go back in time, I won’t advocate this, but how much did Vincent van Gogh ever get for his paintings? I don’t think he sold one in his lifetime. I think he was poor.
NPS: He died poor, yeah.
DB: But he was maybe the best artist in all history. And you think of Charlie Parker, the fantastic jazz musician. He died in poverty. Again, I’m not advocating that these people should be poor, but the idea that they have to get enormous sums to be creative.
NPS: To be motivated and that greed, that money is the only thing that motivates them. That sounds more like something a rentier would say is that money is the only thing that motivates him. People will do creative work, especially if their basic needs are being met. So my husband is a psychiatrist and so he’s read a lot of these reports and is and is fascinated by these reports on what amount of money it would require to make people happy. And it turns out that it’s not a lot. It’s basic necessities, healthcare, shelter, being able to provide for your kids’ college, and those sorts of things that make people tremendously happy. And if you have those things you’re going to work on what’s interesting to you. I know it’s speculation, and I’m a humanist optimist in that sense. I believe that, that’s what people will do.
DB: Yeah. Well, I’m inclined to agree with that. Of course, the key thing is not just the money that they have, but they’re secure so they want to know that they have care insurance today but aren’t going lose it tomorrow, that’s a really important thing because obviously it’s a big fear that people have today. They might think, “Oh, I have a decent job, and I could afford my mortgage, my rent, pay for my healthcare insurance, but I can lose the job tomorrow.” That realistic fear.
NPS: Yeah. What I’ve been through in the last year and a half, pretty bad health crisis, and I have nothing but gratitude for the good healthcare that I have through Microsoft that most people this country don’t have healthcare that’s that good because we have sort of Cadillac insurance policy with Premera, but most people don’t have anything like that kind of security. And it’s astonishing to me that there hasn’t been more of an organized uprising in this regard. Hopefully there will be.
DB: Yeah. No, I’m hopeful that in the next election we’ll see some real movement towards establishing a genuine universal system. I mean, I thought the affordable care act was a big step forward, but obviously that’s not go nearly far enough, but I think it was a step in the right direction.
NPS: Yeah, definitely. So the formulation of the CEPR, what motivated you to co-found this organization and what do they do and what are you continuing to do with them these days?
DB: Well, you know, I had been at the Economic Policy Institute, and I appreciate the time I worked there and everything. But I felt that it was overly bureaucratic because they were very cautious in everything and a lot of layers of bureaucracy. I used to joke with someone, they’d say, how long does something take? I’d say, “Well, imagine it taking it as you could possibly envision, double that and add six months.” That was obviously being somewhat facetious, but what I felt was there’re a lot of issues that, we could have an impact on, but we often had to act quickly, and I didn’t think that the Economic Policy Institute gave me that room. So I formed Center for Economic and Policy Research with an old friend of mine from grad School, Mark Weisbrot and we felt that was basically what want to. There was a lot of policy issues that we could have an impact but we just have to move quickly. And one of the big ones at that time, we had a book come out literally as we were starting it, Social Security: The Phony Crisis and everything were taking issue with the view that was held really across the political spectrum in Washington, I should say. Social security faced a crisis because I had any number of Democrats, democratic pollsters, I remember once one of them just telling me, basically, “You have to acknowledge there’s a crisis or people just won’t take you seriously.” It was based on his polling, his focus groups. And we didn’t accept that, we felt (A) the data, it wasn’t true and (B) if you talk, people would listen.
NPS: It was absurd rallying point. I had college teachers that actually would say in class that social security was going to be bankrupt in a couple of decades and that none of us could rely on it. And it just seemed ridiculous to me that something like that could ever come to pass when we have more money in this country than we know what to do with.
DB: Yeah, I remember I spoke of course around the country many times on this, and I remember, at that time I knew the social security trustees projections pretty much inside out, and I’d just go, “Okay, let’s say they’re all exactly right. Here’s what it looks like. And it doesn’t go away, you face a short fall. But literally the idea there’d be no money, that’s literally … I mean, again, assuming you never did anything, and they’re exactly right in all their projection, but when I couldn’t convince, I’d say speaking to a college class, the line it’d always go, “Okay, so we have some point in the future, is it ten years as twenty,” I’d have them give me a year, at some point. “Okay. So we’re not paying social security benefits.” So then I’d go, “Okay, so in this year …” This was back in the 1990s. “So in this year, 2015, are we still going to have an army?” Looking at me like, “Of course. ‘Okay. Are we still going to have our court system?’ Yeah. ‘Are people in Congress still going to be …'”
NPS: Get paid, right.
DB: I go, “Okay. So we’re going to be paying for the army, paying for our courts, congress people. So we’re going to have 30 million people who are over 65, and we’re going to tell them that there’s no money for their benefits?” You just go, “Okay, that makes zero sense. That is not going to happen.” So anyhow, obviously we didn’t do it. You can’t do anything alone as a small think tank. But we helped I think change the tide on that, and by 2005. Yeah. When Bush tried to privatize, the Democrats are no longer saying there’s a crisis. And of course more recently many, if not most Democrats had been calling for increasing benefits, which I think would be a good thing.
NPS: It definitely would be. My aunt and uncle rely on it critically. Obviously it’s a necessary thing to have and I don’t like part of the narrative about social security, that it is money you paid into it so therefore you’re entitled to it later, because it was set up originally paying benefits to people who had not paid into it. And that has always been the way it’s worked, that the current working force is subsidizing the retirees, which makes sense. I mean, ideologically it’s progressive, and it’s comforting, but that’s not the way that it’s spun usually.
DB: Yeah. Well, I sure like the idea that people think they have a right to it, so in that sense, I think that part of it is good because it makes it much, much harder to-
NPS: Oh yeah, definitely a human, right.
NPS: Yeah. But healthcare also should be a human right, and it should be something that is available to everyone.
A Money Scare : How Can We Pay for Saving the Planet?
NPS: Just as a funny aside, I try not to get on LinkedIn or any other social media and get into debates very often because my husband yells at me about doing because, it’s such a time drain. I’m not even on Facebook anymore, and I wouldn’t be anyway after the revelations of how they’re using data. But there was this man on LinkedIn that was arguing that so many of us are complaining about how we’re running out of water, we’re running out of coral reefs, we’re running out of fish, temperature is changing and there’s scarcity of oil and all these things. And he said, “But what about the real problem that there’s scarcity of money?” And I just wrote back and said, “In a certain respect, money is a number in a spreadsheet.” I mean, it’s more complicated than that, but I thought that was astonishing that people have this mindset of a gold standard, that money intrinsically is of value when it really is just supposed to be a proxy for value. I don’t know if it was a funny interaction.
DB: A lot of people have strange views. I was once debating some libertarian guy, forget the exact topic, but it was something related to the Federal Reserve Board. And I remember this woman came up to me afterwards because we’re at a reception, and she said, “Do you …” I forget exactly how she put it, but basically, “Do you think gold has intrinsic value? ‘Well, if you wanted the jewelry or something, but no.'”
NPS: Yeah, that’s what I said to a coworker … actually, my tech lead at Microsoft, he made a comment about that, that if money were underwritten by gold, then I said, “Well, the problem is gold and precious jewels and precious stones, all this stuff, it doesn’t really have value if you think about it.”
DB: But, it’s amazing. It’s actually one of the most basic social conventions, but it is just a social convention.
NPS: Yeah, it’s other otherwise nonsense that we just take for granted. And I had never really thought about that seriously until this past year, because if somebody asks you about gold, you say, “Oh yeah, it’s valuable.” Should I buy some bricks of gold and bury them under my house? Yeah. Let’s see. Well, here’s an interesting question about an actual market system. At what scale do you think market economies can exist? Obviously it doesn’t seem to work, as an overarching theme, but are there macrocosms where it does work and work well?
DB: I mean, I think we’ve gotten a huge amount out of a market economy, so I won’t deride it. I mean it just that you have to set the rules, and it’s interesting, and I won’t claim expertise on the platform economy, but it’s totally noncontroversial among economists, where you have a natural monopoly say electric companies, just to be clear when I’m saying, electric companies, I mean people who actually laid the lines to your house. So I understand we could have competing generators but no one was going to lay duplicate electric lines to my house, that they have to be regulated because, here it is, it’s a central service, and there is no competitor, so it’s totally noncontroversial among economists. I mean, maybe you could find one libertarian somewhere who has some story why you don’t have to regulate it. It’s basically noncontroversial, and it seems that we have something similar with things like Facebook, things like Google that they have for practical purposes, monopolies people, and that’s a story just like, “Well, you then have to regulate them because then they could obviously exploit them endlessly and they seem to be doing that.” That seems to cry out for regulation, both in terms of what they could do with your information because I’m sure, Facebook in particular is probably doing all sorts of things with information about us that we wouldn’t want them doing, but–
NPS: Absolutely, yeah.
DB: –but also what they could charge because again, you can’t have it … No one’s going to lay the second electric wire, no one’s going to have the serious competitor to Google. So, those are clear cases where, we need to reign them in. I mean, other aspects … To me, it’s problematic, people talk about putting up … With greenhouse gas emissions that somehow we have to restrict the market, in my view again, it’s defining the market. I mean, we know greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. So, the analogy I make, it’s not an interference in the market if I tell my neighbor that he can’t dump his sewage on my lawn, that’s what we’re saying with greenhouse gas emissions, that we have to restrict them because it’s not just something you’re doing pride, you’re throwing this into the atmosphere. If you have a way to … You’re going to burn oil, and you have a way to suck in all the carbon emissions so that … That’s fine, it wouldn’t bother me and there’s still issues with the extraction, but in terms of the greenhouse gas emissions. All right, fine. If you can deal with that, you can’t, I mean just to be clear. But I mean if someone came up with some brilliant way to do that. All right, well then I guess we don’t have to worry about burning oil. I don’t know, I mean it’s just, you have to think clearly about what you want the market for, what it’s doing in specific circumstances.
NPS: You said as the tool rather than overarching philosophy, but more just one of the many tools that you have. It’s interesting you mentioned the greenhouse gas regulation because it brings to mind the notion of the externality, which I heard when I was at Georgia Tech, Ken Arrow came to give a talk, and he mentioned externalities extensively and how much complexity that adds into any kind of market economy and that a lot of these things are things that we have to consider and regulate, just like what you said.
DB: Yeah, he was a very good economist. Very thoughtful.
NPS: Yeah. I happen to work in data science. I’m a statistician working at Bing Ads, although I’m not working on the actual ad space, so unfortunately you can say that I’m in that bemoaned financial sector, and I can’t believe that I found my way into it and decrying it the whole time. But I continued to derogate it. I think also there is this problem of data and regulation of data. Facebook can keep tabs on what you’re doing and then exploit that using machine learning to figure out exactly how to target you with ads. And I wonder to what extent … I was thinking aloud about this, and ended up writing a pretty long blog post about it on my other blog [Algo-Stats], some of the complexities that come up in this and that I feel like a tighter regulation is coming. But what is your take on, data and the way that it’s appropriated for profits? I get a sense, even though I know this would be hard to regulate, I feel like people whose data is used to generate money should either be told very clearly that’s going to happen or be in on a cut of the profits.
DB: Yeah, I think we have to do one or both. Again, these get into issues that I’ve just looked at very, very cursorily. But the idea that, Facebook and Google can get all this data on people, compile it. First and foremost, I think very few people appreciate how much data they could actually get on you and then be sharing it with what they’re doing with it. I mean it’s … I don’t know, what I should say. I definitely would know that I don’t want every search I’ve ever done on Google to the public.
NPS: Oh yeah. No, absolutely not.
DB: Presumably they won’t do that. They’d have no reason to do it, at least that I know. But, in principle, they have access to it, they could, I don’t think there’s any … So, I think there have to be clear restrictions on how this data can be used, say if they’re profiting from it, it seems reasonable in different directions. One, you restrict how much they can profit. You could say that, “Okay. You have to share that with the people you got it from.” I’ve not stayed closely, so I really can’t speak with expertise, but I will say, I don’t think the current system is working, meaning I don’t think the people who are basically giving them the money or happy with it.
NPS: Right. I’ll send you the article that I wrote.
DB: Okay. Yeah, I’ll be interested in reading it.
NPS: Noam Chomsky was kind enough to read an earlier draft of it and thought that it raised some interesting points. So, I think you might find it interesting because it touches on some arenas where data is being used in shocking ways. Ways that I didn’t know going into writing the article, I would not have believed that data was used in this particular capacity, for instance, it’s used to sentence criminals, and it’s used to do dispatch, police patrols in various cities so that the data can reinforce racist stereotypes because they, originally would be patrolling, say black neighborhoods and harassing black people. And if the data confirms that, that’s where they’ve been and that’s where they found, either vagrancy or under age drinking or whatever. I mean, the things that you have everywhere, across obviously all races, all features. But they don’t send the police into white communities as much, so the data tells you to go to the black communities and then they can say the data is the justification for it, and not own up to the actual racism, the systemic racism that promotes that.
NPS: You said that you said that you’re semi retired now to work on a sanctuary for a puppy dogs. So tell me about that a little bit and what’s next for you?
DB: Well, you know, basically I have to say it was kind of wearing on me being in DC; I got up at 4:30 AM every morning and after a while, it does take a toll on you. My wife and I both decided we wanted a change, so we’d been coming out here, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. We’ve been volunteering here since probably about ten years ago, I’m not sure when exactly our first year out here was. And we love doing that, and it’s a beautiful area here. We’re halfway between Zion and Grand Canyon national parks, so it’s a beautiful area. I just felt that I wanted change of pace, work somewhat less, play with the dogs, love dogs. We have our own but also the dogs there, help them out and basically be able to work on a more measured schedule. What’s nice here is I work on things that I think are important. I don’t have to worry about funders, what they think is important. So I could work on the things I want to do, so my goal is to put in twenty, I’d probably put in thirty, forty hours a week but in any case, much less than I had been doing and yeah, so I think I could still make a contribution, still get involved in the debates I’ve been doing and just avoid a lot of what I considered often a waste the time getting pulled into things in DC. We’ve been here a little over six months now, and we’re both very happy with it.
NPS: I would imagine. So I feel like DC would be a hard city to live in irrespective of the fact that you have all these corrupt people.
DB: Yeah, well there’re nice aspects to DC, they have a very nice park right in the middle of the city Rock Creek Park that we actually lived close to, like the whole time [inaudible 01:33:30] in two different neighborhoods, but both were very close to Rock Creek Park. So there are aspects of it that are very nice, but we could walk literally to anywhere in the city here. It’s the tiny town, it’s 4,500 people so-
NPS: Wow. Yeah, just a final word on this. Your book, The Conservative Nanny State to me is … I mean, there may be better books that you’ve written as far as the points that you make, or the data you presented. I’m not sure, but I found it to be a revelation. I think that it … like Piketty’s work. I think that it’s … it could be as important to the lay person in understanding contemporary economics as Chomsky is in the history of technology or Zinn is in the history of the United States. So thank you so much.
DB: Thanks, that’s really quite a compliment.
NPS: So thank you very much, and you enjoy the rest of your Friday.
Today is the ninetieth birthday of Noam Chomsky! Though impossible to summarize such an incredible life with a few short articles, I hope that our conclusion of commemorations is icing on the cake for the Chomsky aficionado while a pique to the interest for newcomers. Today’s selection of videos glimpses his many discussions on geopolitics, activism, and history. And I conclude with a very special gift for Noam, so please read on.
Manufacturing Consent : C-SPAN
Noam appeared on C-SPAN some years ago to discuss Manufacturing Consent, a media critique, his seminal media critique co-authored with the late Edward Herman. Central to the book, the propaganda model identifies means through which corporate media must serve power in contravention to the stated purpose of a free press. The book itself is a good deal more technical than most of his later analytic books, so it might serve just to watch the documentary. Here, we present the book review.
Noam and Howard
Chomsky’s very close friend Howard Zinn was a titanic American historian who, to his professional peril, articulated the appropriately named A People’s History of the United States. Having met in the 1960s while working within the civil rights movements, Noam and Howard appeared in many interviews over the years, and here’s a great one from April of 2007 appearing on Democracy Now.
Chomsky chatted about Zinn not long after his passing. His reflections evoke heart-wrench, as Howard was a close personal friend. The world is lesser without him.
1995 : Contract with America, NAFTA, and Other Idiocies
Noam spoke on campus in 1995 to Doug Morris for an hour on contemporary American politics; NAFTA, Gingrich, and other topics of the day dominated the discussion.
Self-Destruction of the Species? Institutions versus People
Chomsky spoke in April of 2001 at MIT on the question of species self-destruction, arguing the crucial role of institutional stupidity. See the section below on Daniel Ellsberg for more.
What is Anarchism?
At a philosophy forum at the Czech Palacký University Olomouc, elder Chomsky discusses his take on anarcho-syndicalism and possible latter forms. One uppity whippersnapper argues that he’d prefer to be told what to do, with Noam’s response a rather clever one.
Chomsky on Dershowitz : “Just A Comic Figure”
Alan Dershowitz has recently indebted jingoists everywhere in his zany legal defenses of Donald Trump on Fox. Chomsky has debated Dershowitz several times through the years, describing him to me as “just a comic figure, desperate to defend his two clients, himself and the State of Israel, but smart enough to know that both are guilty as sin.” This was a reference to particular points of contention he and I were discussing regarding Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Dershowitz’ often ludicrous defense of it. “All this smoke that was blown…” is a great derogation Chomsky uses in the following debate in 2005 at Harvard’s John Kennedy School of Government.
Dan and Noam
Daniel Ellsberg was a government analyst working within the RAND corporation during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. He met Noam while working within the peace movement in the late 1960s. Here’s a picture of Noam, Dan, and Howard together in the 1970s.
In 1971, Noam defended his friend Daniel Ellsberg publicly after Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, the hidden, vicious history of the Vietnam War. This release significantly contributed to the growing public discontent with the negligent, criminal actions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Be prepared to be annoyed as hell at the Buckley-esque cross-examiner, clearly more interested in hearing his own voice. I don’t even care enough to look up his name.
Noam and Daniel met at the University of Arizona this past spring to discuss Dan’s latest book, The Doomsday Machine, a book I hope to review here soon. These icons don’t pull punches in their scathing condemnation of nuclear proliferation. Don’t be depressed. This is a call to action!
9/11 and the “Rebel Without a Pause”
In 2005, filmmaker Will Pascoe produced Rebel Without a Pause, a documentary detailing the sharp uptick in Chomsky’s speaking requests after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York (not to be confused with the September 11, 1973 terror attack in Allende’s Chile.) Chomsky discussed his book on the former attack at the fifteenth anniversary of the Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR). Almost overnight, institutions, agencies, citizens spanning America and beyond expressed desperation in understanding what would motivate a group of criminals to murder thousands of civilians, killing themselves in the process. Listen for the most plausible explanation available, a summary and analysis of intelligence data and the historical, documentary record.
Bernie and Noam
Bernie Sanders is the most favorable political figure today, according to the far right news media Fox. Though Bernie’s 2016 campaign for president didn’t reach out to Noam for analysis, commentary, and so on (Noam told me this himself), they’ve crossed paths throughout the years; in 1985, Chomsky delivered a talk called “Deciphering Foreign Policy Jargon” at Burlington City Hall. Millennials will cheer when Bernie introduces Noam.
Noam and Gore
Noam and gay hero and activist Gore Vidal only occasionally appeared together; on the passing of Gore, Noam told me,
We were on similar paths,
but they didn’t cross
much. Moved in different
circles. We did have a
discussion once, arranged
by Jay Parini, a novelist
who’s a common friend.
Don’t know what happened to it.
A fine person, in my view.
And outstanding novelist, and
honest and often discerning
Well, it just so happens I found that video for him. Yesterday, we included Gore later recounting how no American media organization would release the video, not even in “San Francisco on a Sunday morning at four a.m.” In other words, not even the most “liberal” district featured mainstream media brave enough to challenge the recently deceased George H.W. Bush’s criminal aggression in Iraq.
Requiem for the American Dream
A very recent work of Noam’s called Requiem for the American Dream considers principles of wealth concentration in the post-industrial, neoliberal era. Documented in the same-named compilation of interviews with him, the instant classic was quite hard to find in theaters, even in the tolerant urban sprawl of Seattle. My husband and I could find only one venue, somewhat distant, and a cash-only operation. So much for the bastion of liberalism. One can find the full-length documentary here.
Randall Wallace and Chomsky Speaks
Randall Wallace, grandson of former vice president Henry Wallace, believes Chomsky to be perhaps the most important intellectual of the past century. To that end, he founded Chomsky Speaks, a project aimed at capturing as much of this incredible man on film as we can in Noam’s time with us. I’d invite you to take a look for yourself.
My Friendship with Noam
While studying computer science and the Georgia Institute of Technology, I came across Noam’s work repeatedly in courses on the theory of computation. In a purely academic pursuit, I searched the internet for discussions of his professional work; I then stumbled on his activist work, finding for the first time an author and thinker who spoke my language. Encyclopedic, diligent, and driven by integrity, his powerhouse talks became a significant time drain on me. I began ordering his books by the satchel, eager to consume every detail-packed tidbit he had to offer on geopolitics, critical analysis of foreign policy, and prescriptions for a better future. We began corresponding in 2012, remaining pen pals for these years since. I believe there isn’t a man I respect more, past or present. And it isn’t hero worship, as I, like Noam, stringently object to gladiators and saviors. Noam’s role as activist has been, and continues to be, an analyst, a curator of history, and a staunch defender of victims everywhere. Though he’d never admit it, it actually gratifies him to hear how his works have inspired generation after generation of activists. It isn’t immodesty. Each of us need validation that what we’re doing is meaningful, however minor or however impactful.
Here was my eager first meeting with the man himself.
So as Noam enters his tenth decade, let me close these three days of celebration with a song I composed and performed just for him; here are the lyrics. And the recording is below.
Today, we continue honoring the ninetieth birthday of Noam Chomsky, turning to his extensive contributions to linguistics, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind.
In 1971, Noam debated renowned French philosopher Michel Foucault, persisting the innateness hypothesis, or that the language faculty and some accompanying structure, are innate in all non-pathological human beings. Foucault, by contrast, defended the lingual empty vessel belief, requiring that no knowledge of language, or any kind for that matter, exists at birth. Among Chomsky’s arguments, of interest to my computer science readership, is that children can’t possibly learn the complexity of language by the very scant information gained from parents. The debate transcript appears on Noam’s personal website, and here is the complete video. It’s impossible to do this debate justice in just a few words, so I’d entreat you to read or listen, and prepare to be dazzled.
Day at Night
Chomsky appeared in 1974 on the short-lived public television program Day at Night, hosted by the late James Day, offering an interesting look at Noam’s interest in linguistics, activist roots, and the cognitive capacities of the beast called man.
“Grammar, Mind and Body – A Personal View”
Noam visited the University of Maryland in January 2012 to deliver an address to the Arts and Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series. This could be one of the most intriguing discussions I’ve found on his philosophy of mind; among the jewels revealed is Galileo’s lament that science had, and perhaps cannot, replicate even the most elementary of phenomena found in nature, and that his spiritual successor Newton demonstrated the impossibility in even proving the existence of the machine, to say nothing of exorcising its ghost.
Stony Brook Continuations : On the Philosophy of Mind
In what is chronologically the second of his Stony Brook discussions, Noam waxes the “philosophy of mind” with fellow linguist Peter Ludlow. Be prepared for a technical, and thus moderately inscrutable discussion. It nonetheless entertains.
Stony Brook : Evolution
In another Stony Brook discussion, Chomsky chats with Richard Larson about linguistics and evolution.
University of Washington’s Reflection
Upon Reflection was an interview program hosted by Al Page during his days at the University of Washington. Chomsky appeared in 1989 to discuss “The Concept of Language.” Among topics is the continuity by region, the variety of outcroppings, and the endangerment of rare forms, especially among near exterminated indigenous peoples.
Mind and Language in Boston, Narrowly Missing the Weather
Noam appeared at Boston College in the spring of 2011 to deliver yet another talk on mind and language, this time narrowly escaping the dramatic snowstorm in the winter of 2010 to 2011.
Jonnie Doebele and Linguistics for the Layperson
In 2011, German filmmaker Jonnie Doebele asks Chomsky to explain linguistics for the layperson. The ensuing discussion offers an amusing jumping-off point for the less technical curiosos.
Why Only Us
In 2017, Chomsky discussed joint work with collaborator Robert C. Berwick, professor of computer science and computational linguistics at MIT, on the origins of language; specifically, and I think correctly, they argue both from a computational and an archeological perspective that the language faculty appeared in humans as a mutation, and that its most apt characterization begins with the internal capacity to think about collections of objects, and ultimately the development of highly sophisticated internal models of the external world. More specifically, and counterintuitively, language didn’t develop as a means of communication.
Final Thoughts Today
Indeed, it is impossible to summarize the vast intellectual achievements of Noam Chomsky, despite the hours upon hours of the talks, interviews, and debates available online. We present only a paltry sample, and this excludes more than a tiny fraction of callouts to the myriad and many books, articles, and monographs featured in his and many other scientific disciplines moved by this great man.
Return tomorrow for one more day of honoring Noam, and for a special birthday present I prepared for his enjoyment.
My friend Noam Chomsky, a man of unparalleled scholarship and without peer in his lending the power of the ivory tower to the powerless, celebrates his ninetieth birthday this Friday. Now, anyone reading this blog would easily understand the profound admiration I hold in my heart for the man who, more than any other, demonstrated to me that not only is making a difference possible, it is essential. Encyclopedic, direct, and unwavering, he powerfully critiques state power and structures of domination and control, arguing that legitimacy of such structures must meet a high burden of self-justification. He emphasizes also the twin existential crises of the day, catastrophic climate change and nuclear proliferation, pointing to alarming environmental indicators and historical near-misses of nuclear attacks and accidents. It’s my genuine belief that we’re truly blessed to have ninety years with a man whose origins and giftings coalesced into such principle, magnanimity, and accomplishment. And there are, indeed, many Chomskys. Computer scientists know Chomsky of the eponymous Hierarchy and other key contributions to formal languages. Cognitive scientists know Chomsky as a progenitor of their discipline. Linguists know Chomsky the father of theirs. Indigenous peoples around the world see him as tireless advocate. Power elites know Chomsky the perennial thorn-in-the-side. Media specialists know Chomsky the scathing critic. Activists know Chomsky the immensely keen, unswerving analyst. I know Chomsky the warm, gentle man, eager to inspire a new generation of scientists and activists. He represents, to me, perhaps a paragon of mastery, autonomy, and purpose, achieving honor in his creative work while mindfully and willingly sharing the power his privilege confers with others. He represents, in short, an example of what I’d like to help create with this blog: a technologist activist duality of near perfect harmony. So join me for these three days in celebrating the beginning of nonagenarian life for Avram Noam Chomsky. For these three days, I’d originally planned to write a good deal more; unfortunately, cognitive difficulties have slowed me significantly, so we’ll celebrate rather with selections of his talks.
Chomsky on Television? Who? When?
Today, we’ll begin with the extremely rare television interviews with him in the United States, offering an interesting look at his early life and work.
We begin with Chomsky and William F. Buckley, once a prominent intellectual in the far right tradition. I’d not suggest one listen too far, as Buckley’s incessant interruptions, embarrassingly glaring narcissism, and accusatory finger-pointing can drive one to madness. But watching Buckley nearly break the wagging pencil while Noam demolishes his rubbish is kinda fun.
Next, we’ll jump forward a few years to a couple Stony Brook discussions where Noam gives a fairly good description of his early life and insight into Asian geopolitics. The tone and demeanor of the discussions is considerably easier to bear, so this one is worth the listen.
Here’s the second.
Next, Chomsky meets with renowned and respected journalist Bill Moyers, a discussion split over two videos. Here’s part one.
And here’s part two.
Imagine Chomsky on modern television! Maher invited him on because of viewer pressure, but only for three minutes. What a laugh!
Noam has appeared on C-SPAN here and there, often for book reviews. They’ve also aired selected talks. Here’s his first appearance.
For rather obvious reasons, I anguished whether to include this 2003 interview, but I believe it nonetheless remains an important part of the history of Chomsky’s television appearances.
Noam returned in 2006.
A Few Final Words
After absorbing the videos above, you among my American readers may wonder why the hell a mainstream media system with the trappings of “free press” would so sparingly feature a man of such clarity, depth, and near impeccable primary source underwriting. Here’s his answer, a clip from the documentary Manufacturing Consent, based on his seminal media critique co-authored with the late Edward S. Herman.
And one further answer from the late great Gore Vidal.
Thanks for joining me in the first of three celebratory days, and here’s hoping that the next ninety years features a lot more mainstream media attention on Chomsky.
awareness of the relationship between
personal experience and the wider society[.]
Though it’s difficult to convey the full range of topics Derber and Magrass tackle, of initial interest to me was Sociopathic Society, a discussion of American empire and the intrinsic sociopathy of capitalist and coercive organizations; I later learned of Bully Nation, an incredible reframing of bullying in American society as a necessary feature of capitalism and militarism. Since I couldn’t complete the book before this interview, we only briefly touch on the subject. Though the interested reader will find links for several of Charlie and Yale’s books below, a more complete list appears here.
I very much enjoyed my time with Charlie, (despite his stacking more books into my already hopelessly long reading list!), and like the interdisciplinarity of sociology, our discussion meandered among many important topics. Certainly it’s worth starting at the beginning, though the reader ought feel free to jump in anywhere, as the water is fine. Unfortunately, I’m suffering frustrating cognitive impairment as of this writing, and though my participation is slow throughout the discussion, I’ve tried editing to ensure the audio is easier hear.
NP Slagle: Welcome to Scire Populum et Potentiam, to know the people and power. It’s my great pleasure to welcome Charles Derber, professor of sociology at Boston College, where he’s taught for over 30 years. Professor Derber’s the author of over twenty books covering people’s movements, identity politics, history, political science, and, notably, economics. Professor Derber and his frequent co-author, Professor Yale Magrass, more recently broke ground by explaining the bullying epidemic as an expected outcropping of a society where winners and losers, heroes and villains, militarize capitalism and, thus, the glorification of competitive violence have become the norm. Professor Derber, welcome.
Charles Derber: Thanks, Neil. That’s a nice introduction.
NPS: I thought you might approve, or at least I was hoping. The real question is whether I pronounced Professor Magrass’ last name correctly.
CD: You did. Perfectly.
NPS: Oh. Oh my goodness. Oh, wow.
CD: Yeah. As in most of my writing, much is driven by the idea that we live in a society in which people learn to identify all the problems or issues as purely psychologically and individually motivated rather than having anything to do with systemic institutional causes, which most people, that’s how it’s tracked. So, really, people don’t understand it very much. As a sociologist, or a sort of a person who looks at institutional and systemic forces like capitalism itself, it’s important for me to try to offer is how to take seriously the kinds of personal and psychological issues that people struggle with, but to root them in social, structural realities that tend to be ignored. Elites, the economic and political elites, have a big stake in making sure that people think that way and that they blame individuals for problems or blame themselves rather than thinking about the way in which larger social institutions and the culture and so forth play a big role. I grew up learning the material that I work with these days in the 60s and 70s and there was a sociologist you probably have heard of the name C. Wright Mills, who wrote The Sociological Imagination and The Power Elite. He said that sociology was all about contextualizing personal problems as social problems. In other words, what we experience as personal crises, or emotional problems or so forth, reflect very strongly structural institutional realities that tend to be read out of the national conversation, sort of excised and censored out. While in some societies, people are more naturally thinking in this way, such as in colonized societies, within western capitalist societies, there’s a kind of propagandistic ideological apparatus that really works very hard to get people into therapy or into purely psychological forms of conversation and thinking, which prevent them from making these connections between personal issues and societal issues.
NPS: Right, right. Yes. From the standpoint of algorithm design, it is the inability to see the global framework and how that actually sways local phenomena instead of just saying that it’s a localized phenomena. It’s interesting to me, because that is a substantive miss across the board when you look at the way that capitalism is designed, or at least the way that it’s propagandized. That each of us should pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and if we, in the school of Ayn Rand, seek only the maximization of our own profit that somehow that makes the entire system better.
CD: Right. Beyond even that, sort of, and that’s a good formulation, Ayn Rand is a perfect example of it. Beyond even that, I think, if you take neoclassical economics, which is the dominant school of economics in the United States, there’s really not even a conception of anything but the individual, not anything of the idea of society or of a public good or the commons or however you want to think about these sort of, what you’re calling the macro-level realities, really kind of disappear because the market is constructed as the action of millions of atomized individuals who have no real interdependence on each other. They’re involves in purely transactional interactions on the market.
CD: Right. Right. I think capitalism as, think particularly the model developed in the United States, is very, very sort of punitive in that approach. There’s such a intense focus on individual that everything that goes wrong with a person is attributed to that person’s laziness or lack of intelligence and so forth. You see that really, really strongly in Trump’s discourse now and so forth. Figure out whet it’s racialized, or genderized, or so forth.
CD: Yeah, it’s a big issue and a lot of my writing has been, [though] I’m in a sociology department, I do write for a general public and you mentioned my field accurately, but it really does come out of this sort of fundamental recognition that societies are constituted by interdependent individuals. I’m all for individual expression and freedom, it’s really, really fundamental, but that can’t be established without creating a strong sense of sort of the integrity of society-
CD: Of social connections. Yeah.
NPS: Oh, right. Yeah. We are animals that could not survive on our own in the wild. It’s preposterous.
NPS: Noam Chomsky likes to say, he can’t grow his own food. I certainly can’t grow my own food. At least he’s done some gardening. I haven’t. We depend very heavily on the super structure of society and, really, the state in the way that it provides for our needs and subsidizes agribusiness to make sure that there is cheap food available, even though there are children going hungry in this country. That’s another serious problem. There are so many different serious problems that I want to discuss with you. I’m so, so pleased to have you on the phone. This is great.
CD: Thanks, Neil. I appreciate your interest in my thinking. Yeah.
NPS: Well, the way that I came across your works, I was listening to Chomsky give a talk and he mentioned your name. Oftentimes, he’s referred to the atomization of American society and the deeply seated and rooted fear in our culture. Which I grew up in sort of an outcropping of the evangelical movement in Texas, so those are the things that I heard. Literally, I was taught to be terrified of black people in my hometown, and, of course, it couldn’t be further from the truth that they presented any danger at all. The opposite was actually true. There was police violence in my hometown that was never talked about in the daily newspaper that took place in the sort of black quarter of the city. So, yeah, as I started to discover these things, by taking college history for one, that actually has the power to open one’s eyes, I saw a completely different world that I’ve not been able to turn my back to. But we’re not here to talk about me, as much as conversational narcissism may try to take hold.
CD: No, no. I’m very interested. Your background sounds very, very interesting. Your work is very interesting, so let’s make this a shared conversation.
NPS: Yeah, yeah. Well, we’ll … When we get to Bully Nation and discussing that, I can talk about some of the horror stories that I’ve experienced, particularly in these Fortune 500 companies, where … I’ve been asked questions many times about The New York Times article that was published a year or so ago where it was something of an expose of the internal culture. I was asked whether this was actually true, and I said, “Yes, it is.” The group that I was in, I was very much immune to that. Our group and pretty much our org, which was Amazon Logistics, so we did last mile planning to replace UPS and the postal services. We were fairly well immunized from the culture, because it was recognized how difficult the problem is that we were solving. Which, that gets back to solving a problem globally versus locally or greedily. In algorithmic circles, they’ve got this stuff down, but you still see people on LinkedIn, high technologists that I’m connected with, preaching the Ayn Randian way of optimization, despite the fact that they know in their own scientific work it doesn’t work.
Activist Origins: From New Deal to Leftist for Real
NPS: Anyway, back to you, I want to ask you some questions about your beginnings. These are conversations with activists, in an effort to understand really this vast network of activists that have been in Americana all of this time but we don’t see you guys in. Well, I say, “you guys.” You gals and guys. We don’t see that network in mainstream media. We occasionally will see it in popular media like Hollywood, but we don’t see it in mainstream media for the most part. You were born in Washington, D.C. Can you tell me some about your early beginnings and how that sort of informed your activism?
CD: Well, I think my family history plays a big role, because I grew up in a Jewish liberal family that my father was a New Deal economist[, Milton Derber, during] what I call the New Deal Regime, which was a period of American history stretching from 1932 to 1980, I would say-
CD: I grew up in a family where, at dinner, we talked every night about politics and society and the economy, and you just grow up in that world of thought. I grew up in … After I moved away from where I was born in D.C., my father was working at the Labor Department and he got a job in the Economics and Labor Institutes at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. We had this culture of conversation. I wonder now that the family dinner, now that I think about it, has sort of disappeared, how many people have lost that as a cultural breeding ground, because, sort of, that’s the way the New Deal kind of sensibility got transmitted to me. I remember my parents both being very, very engaged with issues of the New Deal and the Depression and, of course, the Holocaust was going on. The family was ripe for bringing up kids who had a focus on this. Then, when I became adolescent and then went off to high school and college, I was primed for the good match between my family background and the political era that was emerging in the sixties so that I sort of naturally emerged as really, really well primed for the kind of social activism and social critique that was coming out of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. I spent my formative, young adult years in that environment, in college and graduate school. I was kind of, during that period, a full-time activist. I was literally in jail or in school reading Neo-Marxist or Herbert Marcusian-type political philosophy. It was just one of those … I think everyone in my generation was affected, impacted by that period of activists. I think that was the last real period of mass left engagement in the United States, and I just happened to be fortunate to sort of be at an age where I was being … I think there’s an age where people tend to get imprinted with their political dispositions for the rest of their life, and that was sort of what happened to me. I moved sort of from the New Deal liberalism of my father to the really left activism of my own generation in the sixties. Really, it was just sort of, I think of people as being very shaped by their history and the global histories, so to speak, as well as your microhistory. They just converged to make me a very political person and a person very concerned with social justice for working people and for the downtrodden in general. The civil rights movement, of course, made me very sensitive to racial discrimination and the war made me-
CD: Yeah, and I went down to Mississippi in ’65 for the summer and was involved with all kinds of voter registration and other efforts down there. Spent the whole summer down there and worked with a lot of both black and white activists. Then came back. I went to graduate school in ’65 at the University of Chicago in sociology and spent almost all my time in jails and Washington, going there every weekend. Literally, almost every weekend during four years, protesting the war and becoming really, really immersed in activist culture and in sort of a kind of a protest intellectual struggle with the academic departments. For example, in the sociology department at the University of Chicago, much like the economics department, which was a Milton Friedman, neoclassical economics department, there was a sociology department where it had people like Morris Janowitz, who, probably are not household names, but he was a well-known sociologist who has been very much in support of the Vietnam War. I had to grow up shaping my intellectual life in opposition or contestation with the powers that be intellectually. I was experiencing on a personal intellectual level the same thing that groups [were experiencing.] I was relatively privileged economically, because my father was a white, upper-middle class professional person, but I had to contest a lot of the dominant intellectual forces in universities at the time. There were just, I think, a whole set of factors, which, I think, helps to explain why it endured when much of the left fell apart in the seventies and we got into a regime change, as I call it.
I don’t know if you ever looked at this Neil, but I wrote a couple of books, one is called Regime Change Begins at Home, and Hidden Power is a second book that’s sort of a paperback version of that but quite revised, which looks at American history as a series of internal regime changes and I argue there are five. The first regime (these are since the Civil War) was the first corporate regime of the Gilded Age and the robber baron. Then the progressive regime of Teddy Roosevelt and then on to the New Deal Regime of my parents, which really extended up to the Reagan. I called the 1920s the second corporate regime and the Reagan revolution, the third corporate regime. I just think it was natural of me to sort of get involved in regime change sort of politics at home, as well as afflicting people they involved, because of my Vietnam experience with global imperialism and [hegemony], the kind of stuff that Noam writes about so much …
NPS: Right. At a time when it was really hard to get even students to protest the war. At least before 1965, right?
CD: Yeah, at least initially. That’s right. That’s right. Noam writes about this. I’m actually working with Noam. I don’t know if you read that. I’ve had a long friendship with him. He’s been at MIT and in Boston until they moved to Arizona just a year or two ago. As you know, he responds to almost everybody who responds.
NPS: Oh my goodness. He responded to me five years ago, and we’ve been pen pals ever since. I actually flew up to meet him, and I’m hoping to get to interview him at the end of January. I actually composed and wrote him a birthday song since his next birthday coming up in December is really the big one.
CD: That’s right. The biggest. The big one, yeah.
NPS: It’s because we’ve got 10 fingers, so that’s why. Multiples of ten are great. How did you meet him? You also knew Howard Zinn, right?
CD: Yes, I did.I was lucky because when I came [to Boston] and I was doing this kind of work, [though] after Reagan, the universities and intellectuals became, like, the whole culture became more conservative. I went into sociology not because of sociology, per se, but just because it’s very heterodox. In psychology or political science, the discipline is more restricted, and I knew with sociology you could almost do anything and required a lot of history and a lot of economics and politics. It was a good choice because I could do political economy and get away with it and get tenure in the sociology department. With regard to Howard and Noam. I had sent Noam some early stuff. He read everything, of course, and would blurb my early books right away. It was amazing because I couldn’t. He was so, even at that point, becoming very, very celebrated and incredibly busy, but he always maintained time. He’s a very generous person that way.
NPS: He is, indeed.
CD: As you know. Yeah, my connection with him was just very fortuitous, and I’ve maintained this long relation with him. I’m working with him closely now. I’m just mentioning this as part of a biography that might be relevant to you a bit.
NPS: Sure. Yeah, I read this, but I want it to be on here, as well. Yeah.
CD: Right. I had met a guy named Randall Wallace, who’s the grandson of Henry Wallace, who is the vice-president for Roosevelt in 1940 and would’ve probably ended the We would’ve not had a Cold War if he had been kept on the ticket in ’44.
NPS: It was incredible, the story of Henry Wallace and how the Democratic party forced Harry Truman, which, Harry Truman was inept by comparison, and they-
CD: Absolutely. Wallace would’ve been the most progressive president in American history, probably, and he-
NPS: We were ripe for it. We were perfectly ripe–
CD: Yeah. We absolutely were, but the corporate elites were still strong enough to knock him out. Even though Eleanor really wanted him and so forth. Anyway, he had some children and grandchildren and got quite a lot of money because he had been Secretary of Agriculture, and he had developed a breed of hybrid tomatoes and other genetically developed products. He became quite well-to-do and left a lot of money to his children. His grandkids, now, one is actually running the Global Wallace Fund. His name is Scott Wallace. He runs the Global Wallace Fund, which gives out a lot of money to good Keynesian activists, I would say. Liberal activists, progressive activists, but not far left. He’s running in a seat in Pennsylvania right now. He’s likely to win. He’s ahead right now, so he’ll be one of the new class of congresspeople. There’s this fellow, his name is Scott Wallace. If the Democrats take over the House. His other brother is named Randall Wallace. Randall contacted me. Randall runs a fund called the Wallace Action Fund and he contacted me about five or six years ago, told me he’d be reading my books for years, and invited me to come out to California for a conference on the environment and politics and capitalism that he was running. We developed a friendship, and he began funding a relationship for several books on resistance and political activism and capitalism and so forth. The connection with Chomsky is that Randall Wallace, who is much more radical than his brother and very much sees Chomsky as sort of the single most important thinker today, and he and I worked together to sort of develop a kind of legacy project with Chomsky and his new wife. After Chomsky’s wife died, his first wife, Carol, he was on his own for a few years and then met and eventually married a lovely woman named Valeria. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to talk to her, but she’s from Brazil. They just were in Brazil during this fascist takeover that’s going on down there.
NPS: He was telling me about it in our latest correspondence. Yeah.
CD: Yeah. Yeah. It was … He was with Lula in prison and so forth. Yeah. I’ve been in very close contact with him and I’m actually doing a lot of my work right now; I did a film, which actually I’d like to send to you.
CD: Film called Noam Chomsky: Internationalism or Extinction. It deals with the sort of double barrel threat to survival of life of our planet from both climate change and nuclear war. Actually, if you just got to ChomskySpeaks.org, you can get it, or http://ChomskySpeaks.org, and you’ll get that.
CD: You can get both a two minute trailer, and then the whole film, which is about an hour long. It’s based on a talk Noam gave in Boston a couple years ago.
CD: It’s full of really brilliant visuals that the film director that we got, we’re pulling in. It’s a powerful film, and we’re distributing it very widely. We’re trying to get Noam to get the transcript of his talk turned into a book with some introductory material and some response by activists to it, so people don’t get too bummed out and depressed by the whole thing. It doesn’t focus a lot, and so you know, it’s a hard message to hear.
NPS: It is, yeah.
CD: I’m actually, I’m going to try to get him to do a book where we, he’ll just give us the transcript and we’ll have some activist groups responding and other intellectuals responding to how, to the kind of argument he’s making there and so we hope to get a book out called Chomsky on Internationalism or Extinction and I’m writing sort of a companion piece called Resistance or Extinction. So, that’s one line of the work we’re doing and then–
CD: We’re also, out of that film we did some separate interviews with Noam and we’re putting out a book called Chomsky For Activists, which looks, do a series of both biographical and intellectual interviews with Noam, which we film. Which is, people won’t know about because it goes back to his childhood in Philadelphia and then looks at his whole history of activism. Because I think a lot of people find Noam depressing because he has this very critical, analytical view which is, has inspired millions of people, but a lot of people don’t understand that he’s also a genuine, a genuinely committed activist and has done a lot of, you know, social change work both personally and–
NPS: Absolutely. Yeah.
CD: His organization and so yeah. So anyway I’m all embedded in that work right now. So anyway, yeah. So I, I just, yeah, that’s my, the only thing I would add about my activism, and I just, I’m dwelling on it because I think activism is so critically important now–
NPS: It’s incredibly, yeah.
CD: Not only just because of the election although I think the election is very important where we’re talking three days before the election but, the November mid-term election but, the only other thing I would add is that, on my mother’s side, a number of her family was killed in the, with fascism, you know, the holocaust and on my father’s side out of Russia. And so this resurgence of fascism and particularly globally in Europe, and of course Trump’s sort of authoritarian and kind of version of neo-fascism, I think all of that stuff has played a role in sustaining my political involvement and so forth. So anyway, that’s enough about that.
CD: Just, I do believe that, you know sort of capitalism is all about keeping people quiet and I’m always telling my students, you know, they ended the draft so you guys don’t get, you can stay detached from American militarism and you just don’t get bothered about politics. And I just feel like the main priority I have now is to wake people up to the small extent I can and recognize the power and importance that young people have, and ordinary people have, in making a difference right now, so.
NPS: You know, I was talking to my best friend, Robin Fitts is his name. And he is a, he’s a junior college professor of English and Literature in West Texas. I’ve been trying to get him, him and his wife and their little girl to leave Texas for a long time, to somewhere better. But he has been very much so involved in Beto O’Rourke’s campaign.
CD: Oh, cool.
NPS: And it’s, of course it’s easy to get discouraged because the media and sort of the superstructure of, of how we’re supposed to think in this country, the culture is, you by yourself can’t do anything.
CD: Right, right.
NPS: You’re powerless. Americans are, have this overwhelming sense of impotence, that, that, is, it’s, and–
CD: You’re absolutely right, Neil. And particularly young people, I mean because I ask my students who are pretty privileged all the time, and they say, “Well I’m just one person, I don’t have any power, as a group we don’t have any power.” And that sense of impotence and, and powerlessness is, is you know very carefully nourished I think. And it’s, I mean I understand it, I feel it myself sometimes. So I, I understand them, but it’s just so important. And I think people like Beto O’Rourke, and even though he’s much further to the right than I am, he, he–
NPS: Absolutely, yeah.
CD: I think the Democrats are, I mean the one sense of positive energy I have, you know, in terms of electoral politics today, is that there is a little bit of a wave of, you know the left, sort of energizing you know people like Alexandria Cortez. And Bernie Sanders talking about socialism, and people like Beto O’Rourke even in the south, or Stacey Abrams, or any of these people. Sort of creating, you know maybe it starts in this very modest way of people feeling that just voting can make a difference. Of course, trying to vote, for a lot of people, is very hard these days but you’re right.
NPS: But what I, what I do tell my best friend, and I agree with you, I think Bernie Sanders actually way to the right of me and you also.
CD: Yeah. Oh sure.
NPS: But none the less, he upended 120 years of electoral conventional thinking around how money–
NPS: Money runs the show. And this is what I told my friend Robin, that if Beto actually loses in Texas, it may be to his advantage. Because the fact remains that he’s not taking any money from PACs or corporations, and it’s still neck-and-neck in ruby red Texas with, I mean Ted Cruz is not particularly well liked, but none the less it shows that the young people are having a very powerful influence. It’s not just the change in demographics, well I guess that is a change in demographics, it’s not just that you’ve got more Hispanic people in Texas, it literally is that young people aren’t afraid of words like socialism. That’s why they were prepared to vote early.
CD: Right. Well that, that was really, I completely agree with you Neil, and I, I think that Bernie, just by calling himself a democratic socialist, and then getting a following, I often tell my students that, you know, the word most Googled the day he first mentioned that. Oh I see you just sent me a song for Noam, thank you, I’ll enjoy looking at that. That itself was transformative because, for the first time, and I’ve been teaching for you know almost fifty years, I, I’m seeing that people, the students are very, very, I mean they’ve always been receptive to the idea but the word socialism was sort of taboo. Even in university. And now, it’s a little bit different. In fact, there are a lot of interesting polls that you’ve probably seen and that I write about in some of my books where, you know, the Pew Institute and Gallup and others have been asking for about ten years people’s association with the word socialism and capitalism and so forth.
CD: And as you probably know, now, young people have about as strong, or more, a positive association with the word socialism than they do with the word capitalism and Bernie really helped push that along although it was emerging well before him. And in fact that’s true across a lot of the Democratic party and a lot of the Democratic party base. And in fact a lot of the whole American public is, in terms of issues per se, you know like money in politics and do they like labor unions, do they like big money in politics, do they like Medicare for all, you know, Medicaid for all and so forth, the public is pretty progressive. I’ve always felt like the left’s movement has got to meld more fully into conversation with the left wing of the Democratic party. And you’re seeing some of that begin, you know, with sort of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, you know, sort of bleeding over into the movements to some degree.
CD: People like Nina Turner, people who are in congress and now running Sanders, or some grassroots organizations, I think that’s a very promising synergy. I mean I think the movements need to have a role, and you know the united front. If you look at Germany, you know I mean, there wasn’t this, Hitler got into power, all these right wing guys running around in the ’20s in Weimar Germany, were, they weren’t connecting enough to, between the cultural movements there, the political movements on the ground, and the parties. And I think that’s, that’s real something, a historical lesson to recognize today here. That political change is going to take a melding, you know sort of a united front of some form, which, whether it’s going to be a pretty big spectrum of views, but where you get less people on the ground, community activists on the ground of all kinds, melding in with electoral left wing Democratic party. And you know they’re never going to be the same kinds of people or groups exactly, but the synergy and interaction between them are really important, so.
NPS: It’s the one, it’s the one public institute, well it’s a public institution, and therefore it’s the only institution that they really have any sway over.
NPS: And trying to work within that framework, although I do believe, and I’m curious to get your thoughts on some of the different things that we could do to change at least the structure of those institutions, like either increasing the court size or you know, substantially increasing the size of congress and gutting the power from the executive branch. And of course those are, those are hard, we have to be in power before we can even do those things.
CD: Right, yeah.
NPS: Or at least people on the streets, you know, having peaceful protests everywhere that might enough to really start moving us in that direction. I mean, for–
CD: Well I think it’s the only thing, I think it’s the only thing, Neil, really. I mean, beyond you know massive economic collapse and that kind of thing, is it’s popular movements on the street that will move. Because, because the legal system, the constitutional order is, and you were starting to, you know, enumerate some of those, are so structured to guarantee elite influence. I mean just the way the electoral college is constituted, the way the you know the way the senate is structured, I mean almost all the dominant political institutions are, are oriented to keep popular representation from being expressed. And so that’s why I believe that you need popular movements on the ground. But that those will burn out if they don’t find ways of getting their voice heard. At all levels of electoral politics as well. And you know, that’s not an easy argument to make, either to the Democratic party or to left activist groups. You know I mean, the left activist groups see the Democratic party as sell-outs and not worth cultivating very often and they elect, the Democratic party people are often so bought into the, the mainstream just because they need so much money for their campaigns and so forth. And I think you’re beginning to see some, some productive you know shift in that where you’re getting a more progressive Democratic party person tied in, recognizing that their support is going to come partly from more left progressive movements on the ground. That’s a hopeful thing to me.
NPS: It’s interesting you mention that, I, I was at the café I frequent up the road yesterday and one of the bus girls who works there, her name is Karen, she wanted to know what I did for a living and she was wanting to go back to school and she had interest in mathematics but also an interest in activism. Of course I had your book, Sociopathic Society there with me, I take it there to make notes, and that’s what I was doing sort of in preparation for this interview. But I explained to her exactly what you said about people’s movements and that every single freedom that we can point to today comes from a people’s movement. And, and most often, it’s, it’s intertwined inextricably with labor movements.
NPS: And that the 40 hour work week and paid vacation and, you know, holidays, literally in observance of holy days, none of that would have been possible without the brutal struggles that the labor movements had to endure in earlier parts of–
CD: Oh okay yeah because I developed that idea in the book and in that interview. And I mentioned it just because you were talking about how central the labor movement has been to that and I think what’s created such weakness on the left is the, and this is the center of the argument in the Welcome to the Revolution book, and my idea of universalization. Is that after the late ’60s, the left really kind of decomposed as it abandoned sort of issues about labor and capitalism and moved into a more narrow, sort of abstracted away from class concept of identity politics around race and gender and so forth. And my, well yeah as you probably know from listening to that conversation with Hedges, I, I feel that that’s been a truly catastrophic you know problem on the left and it’s almost eliminated what I think of as a real left. Not that I don’t think race and gender aren’t very, very important issues, they’re obviously critical, but if you try to, you know, do a kind of civil rights, anti-racist politics or feminist kind of politics with that abstracted away from issues of economics and political economy and capitalism, you come out with some dangerous things. And some things that have been, that really–
NPS: That aren’t useful.
CD: You know in my judgment, undermine the whole idea of what the left is trying to do in some ways, so.
NPS: I can give you a really good example of that. So the only social media presence that I have, other than being on George Polisner’s civ.works is on LinkedIn because of my professional trade but I also want to promote articles, interviews from the activist side.
NPS: But often times you will see perfectly well-meaning high technologists writing long winded arguments as to why diversity in the corporate structure is good for profits.
NPS: And of course, the underlying theme there is that profits really are the proxy for welfare. For general welfare.
CD: Right, exactly.
NPS: And that nothing else is important. And so therefore, we just hope, we hold our breath, and cross our fingers, and close our eyes, believing that race and gender being more equally distributed into the corporate hierarchy, will in fact improve profits. Because if it doesn’t, or heaven forbid it actually detracts from profits, then it will not be something that was good. So that there’s this, this broken duality. Cathy O’Neill in her book Weapons of Math Destruction talks about this, this idea of boxing one particular metric for all of the others. I work in that kind of stuff every day at work, I work as a statistician on Bing ads. I hate to say that I’m in the financial sector but fortunately I’m not doing the vicious parts of the job.
CD: Right, right.
NPS: But it gets back to that problem of saying, “This is the one thing that matters. Everything else is secondary, so we only can hope that our, you know, heartfelt, you know, I’m really rooting for the underdog because I want the underdog to actually be the one that makes more money.” You know.
CD: Right, yeah. Well you know, it’s even, I think it’s even more serious than the way you framed it in a way because it’s, it’s, when you were talking about how diverse high-tech people think about corporate diversity as a solution, that is a good model but I think of things like Sheryl Sandburg, you know the, as sort of representing a third wave feminism which, you know you remember her famous book Lean In, which tells women the real nature of feminism is to get ahead in the corporation and get that corner office by getting women right into the top. And that is such a, you know, sociopathic version of feminism you know because it, it really says women just need to join the rat race to the top of the capitalist corporate circle. As if, somehow, if we have women running a ruthless capitalist global system, we’re going to have a much better society. And I’m a strong feminist but I think her version of feminism is really dangerous, you know. And I think it’s pervaded a lot of what used to be called the left, you know, where you, you sort identify with progress of a specific identity community. Often which is very, very important, I mean like I said, I cut my teeth on black, you know, civil right activism and so forth. And I, I view, I view these communities as very important. But when the movements to empower them become separated from these larger systemic issues of capitalism, which they have been completely in the United States. I mean, Martin Luther King, as I mentioned in the Hedges interview, you know while he did toward the end of his life really did focus on economics as a–
NPS: And anti-war. Yeah.
CD: And anti-war as sort of intersectional you know realities that were essential for any kind of civil rights or anti-racist kind of politics, it kind of got erased from the history of the movement. And pulling back a little bit, I noticed on his 50th anniversary there was, there was some discussion, there was, the media had some people who talked about his writing on Vietnam and on the economy and so forth but in general it’s been–
NPS: It’s whitewashed.
CD: It’s been erased. Yeah, whitewashed. And it’s been, it’s a catastrophe for the left. I think it’s one of the reasons the left is so weak in the United States.
NPS: Absolutely. Yeah. I didn’t hear any of those stories when I was in secondary school.
NPS: In fact my, my US history teacher in high school refused to take us past the end of World War II because she thought the rest of it was too controversial to talk about.
NPS: So I mean, that, that’s–
CD: Well that was down in Texas, right?
NPS: Yep, yep. That’s a very extreme example of that kind of whitewashing is just, “Okay well we’re not going, we’re not going to touch it at all.” But I didn’t know those things about Martin Luther King until, well I guess my, my high school English teacher, favorite high school English teacher, Candace Zangoei is her name and she’ll probably read and listen to this interview, she, she did teach us some interesting items from American history because she was teaching us American literature. It’s funny that you have to go to the literature side, you have to go to the arts to hear history.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: Depending on the system. But yeah, that, so what you were saying earlier about having more women leadership or people of color leadership so that this idea that a woman dictator’s better than a man dictator, so.
CD: Right. Exactly.
NPS: So that dictatorship is okay. That’s exactly what happened with Obama’s election.
NPS: The left withered, whatever you can call the left, I mean.
NPS: You and I, you and I know what that means.
NPS: The mainstream depiction of that is wrong. But we have the first black president so it doesn’t matter that he kills–
CD: Right. Exactly.
NPS: Civilians with drones. All of that’s okay.
CD: And you know, that had a really tangible and concrete political consequence because the peace movement for example, which had emerged against Bush during the Iraq war and so forth, really vanished under Obama. Even though Obama intensified a lot–
NPS: He was more hawkish.
CD: Of American militarism. So, so that’s a perfect example, right, of where you say, “Okay I don’t want to challenge a black president.” And so you allow the more toxic and lethal elements of the system, and by more I mean some of the most vicious aspects of the system, to go unchallenged. And the peace movement, you know, goes away.
NPS: Is they, they don’t care. They just want power and money. They don’t care what color it is or what party.
CD: Absolutely. In fact they legitimate themselves by virtue of their saying that, “Look, we’re technically, you know, we are open to women and blacks and everybody.” And that’s a hugely important legitimating force for, you know, for capitalism itself.
CD: So yeah, it’s an issue that’s really hard to deal with and it’s very important. And I’m glad we’re talking about it because it just can’t be talked about enough, you know.
CD: And it’s such a sensitive issue because, you know, people in these identity communities really do face tremendous struggles and they, they often thing this is some repetition of the white students of the late ’60s who sort of became dominant and sort of marginalized black and women and so forth. I mean I understand that, that concern, fully. And that’s why the, the new waves of feminist and global movements develop but, and the left itself created it but. I just think that today, Trump would not have been elected if the Democratic party, I mean sort of Hillary ran, and this is a problem that infects the left movements themselves, I mean the real left. And then it also, or let’s say what passes as closest to the real left in America today.
CD: And also the Democratic party, you know Hillary ran a campaign where she would trot out all these black faces and women and say just being a woman was. And, and you know, in regard to the movement, I really want to be careful because it can sound very patronizing for a white male to say, “Hey all you black and female people and brown people and gay people and so forth, don’t be so obsessed with your own particular thing.” I don’t mean it in that way.
CD: What I mean is that for, for the, for liberation let’s say, of black people or brown people or women or gays or whatever, Native Americans, disabled people, I mean, it’s really important that people build organizations among those communities but I think it’s crucially important to recognize that to get any kind of, first of all, to get the masses of people behind you, you need-
CD: … a broad systemic vision and momentum and two, you’re going to end up like Sheryl Sandberg, you know, competing for the pieces of the pie that the system is willing to allocate to you rather than questioning the system itself and that’s going to lead to perpetual hopelessness, so, yeah, it’s-
CD: … just a really, really-
NPS: To temporarily pacify or supplicate these people so that then you can say-
CD: Right, right.
NPS: “Well, look, we do have a black President, so what are you complaining about?”
CD: Right, right.
NPS: And that’s-
CD: Or we passed this law. Yeah. It’s sort of a gramscian thing, right, you know, that capitalism legitimates itself by being able to say, well, hey, what do you got against us? Look at how much, you know, we can turn on the TV now and see black anchors and women in high positions and, you know, one wants to celebrate some of that, but when you recognize that oh, the wealth gap by blacks and whites has gone ten times up, you know, in the period after Obama, and-
NPS: Right, right, during the housing crisis.
CD: Same with women and, I mean, you recognize there’s something really, really wrong there and that it’s delicate to talk about, particularly if you’re a white male, and I’m sensitive to that, but it’s something that is just essential for people to think about and to organize around, and that’s really this book, Welcome to the Revolution, it’s really why I brought in a lot of different voices of people who were from these different communities but recognized that labor and economic, systemic, and political economy sorts of questions were central to all the, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or socialist, feminist, and so forth, these are issues that the hopeful thing is that I think more people in these identity movements are recognizing the importance of intersectionality and the intertwining of race, class, and gender and so forth and the need for organizing on the ground to have this kind of wider angle of vision.
NPS: Seeing and understanding, being able to perceive the common ground that they have and that the game is already rigged, the power elites from the very beginning, pre-capitalists and post-capitalists, whatever capitalists really means, it’s really state-driven capitalism, but it’s-
CD: Right, right.
NPS: But nonetheless, the corporate masters have tried to divide people, have said, “Oh, well, you’re Italian, you don’t want to hang out with the Irish, and oh, we don’t want black and white farmers to join forces.” It’s kind of astonishing when you think about the Farmers’ Alliance being formed in Texas.
CD: That’s right.
NPS: The first farmer’s union.
CD: Kansas, yeah. Right, right.
NPS: My grandparents on my father’s side were farmers in North Dakota and they settled there, and it was interesting to talk to my grandfather before he died. Of course he had some really crazy, far out there evangelical views. He was so extreme that no church was good enough for him, that he knew better than all of them.
CD: Wow, wow.
NPS: But it was funny that we could talk about far right policies. He didn’t know I was gay, by the way, that would not have gone over well. But when it came to the state swooping in and supporting farmers if their harvest didn’t go well, or in his little community, the community actually keeping the café open even though it couldn’t make enough profits to justify itself under the economic system, all of that made perfect sense. It was very interesting.
CD: Right, right, right.
NPS: I like my slice of what the government does for me, but you shouldn’t get a slice. And that’s definitely what the top one permill, I want that word to catch on, because it’s the correct term, the top one tenth of one percent of Americans you talk about in Sociopathic Society that they rely more on the infrastructure of the government than any of us. They-
CD: Absolutely. Corporate welfare is the only real welfare in America. You know?
NPS: Yeah, the rest is like dirty pennies in the couch.
CD: Absolutely, it’s chump change, yeah.
NPS: That no one cares, no one should care about, but it keeps being trotted out as this huge issue. Oh my goodness, there’s a black woman who gets her nails done and she’s on welfare.
CD: Exactly, exactly.
NPS: How dare she be entitled to any decent survival?
NPS: Goodness gracious, we could go on forever. This is really good. I’m really enjoying this. I hope you are.
CD: Good, I absolutely am. Well, it’s really, really important. I mean, the issues we’re talking about are so central. I mean, one thing I wanted to add was, returning to the sort of fascist tide around the world with Trump and so forth. These kind of siloed kinds of left politics are not only dangerous to the left because they divide the left and keep people from focusing on some of the systemic things that are so central to all these kinds of hierarchies of oppression, but they’re also the things that open the floodgates to the Trumpists of the world and the sort of fascists of the world, because the white working classes, I just wrote a new book, it’s coming out in December, actually.
CD: So, just in a couple months, called-
NPS: You know you’re adding, you’re making my reading list heavier and heavier. Thank you very much, it’s already got lots of books on it.
CD: Yeah, I should apologize for that.
NPS: No, not at all.
CD: Anyway, just to add to the weight, this new book, which is called Moving Beyond Fear, and it’s subtitled Upending the Security Stories of Capitalism, Fascism, and Democracy, and what I try to show in there is that when capitalism moves into periods of extreme crisis, this is a gramscian analysis, but that the traditional legitimation stories of capitalism, which is the American dream that everybody works hard to get ahead, and so if you think of capitalism as a sort of upstairs, downstairs house, people on the downstairs accept because they think the stairways going from the downstairs to the upstairs are wide enough that anybody who tries can try hard can make it up there and live very well. But when those stairways are clearly declining, the people upstairs, the elites have got to figure out a way to keep people in line and keep them believing in the house and the architecture of the house. So actually as I reach back into pre-capitalist kinds of stories around security and fear where if you looked at the nobility and the aristocracy and the serfs in, say, the feudal era, there was never any chance of mobility so they built this idea of, you know, sort of chain of being based on God and security where the people on top simply were destined to be there for the well-being and protection against terrible threats and fears. In the Middle Ages there were these devils lurking everywhere, whether it’s disease or Satan or whatever, and the lords of the manor were there to prevent them, so I kind of look at the evolution of modern national security ideas from even these pre-capitalist things as sort of a basic form of capitalist legitimation and then, when things went really bad, this sort of fear-based enemy manufacturing, I know Noam has written a huge amount about this, but it’s really central to fascism, because capitalism can easily devolve into fascism when the economic situation is bad enough and when the elites are desperate enough that they’re willing to do what the Republican party has done, which is basically throw its lot in with these ultra nationalist sort of alt-right groups, which are based on sort of very authoritarian and-
CD: … divisions, the divisions of people. You have to divide people down within the downstairs, and you divide them as enemies of the people and people who are totally catastrophically dangerous to allow, so I said people with fear about that’s being generated from their lack of economic and social well-being are being told and come to believe that, well, it’s these people who are really enemies of the people, whether it’s black people or gay people or immigrants or whoever it is, and you know, they say it was that thing, it was that kind of model, in this book, I go into a lot of Hitler’s talk about immigrants and Jews and gay people and so forth, who used exactly this kind of legitimation politics to draw people from the Weimar Republic into serious fascism. So it’s a really, this is not just abstract kind of theorizing about the left in America right now. It’s something-
NPS: It’s real.
CD: … that’s really embedded in the history of some of the most scary things that we can contemplate and so that’s why I think the things we’ve been talking about, about the way the left is structured, or the group that likes to think about itself as left. And again, I don’t mean to be that in a sanctimonious or punitive way, because I really appreciate any kind of activism on the progressive side that people are willing to do, people who have hard lives and it’s hard to-
NPS: Well, some forms of it are going to be more effective and some people are going to be-
NPS: … more heavily burdened because of the system.
NPS: There was something else along … oh, yes. The other thing I wanted to add in the vein of thought of what you were talking about with respect to security, and I’m very interested to see your book, is this interesting transitioning from divine intervention justifying the existence of the elites, the monarchs, the aristocracy-
CD: Right, right, right.
NPS: … to it becoming the holy market.
CD: Yeah, that’s an interesting transition, that’s right. Because, you know, in the middle ages, this sort of division between the aristocracy, the nobility, really we’re seeing is that a literally different blood. Blue blood you know, sort of godly and inspired nobility. It then becomes capitalism, you know, the feudal lords had a lot of contempt for the early merchants who would become the capitalists, but eventually, history evolved in ways that these merchants developed enough capital and enough power, but they always envied the kind of divine legitimacy, you know, the godly legitimacy of their older brothers who were, you know, the people who remained on the land and so forth, even as they were declining economically. And they always, I’m doing another book with my co-author called Glorious Causes, something about why people vote against their own interests, or act against their own interest, and it’s that same argument that, you know, what we’re seeing here is that an ancient historical force that you can see through centuries and centuries of human history where you know, it’s like you said, elites constantly need to re-legitimate their system with these very ancient views that god or nature have somehow constructed them as natural and godly and the way in which morality is maintained.
NPS: There was this fabulous quote that you have in Sociopathic Society about John D. Rockefeller. I don’t have the exact quote.
CD: Yeah, “God gave me-“
NPS: Yeah, exactly, that’s God and Darwinism combined in one statement about why he has his wealth. I thought that was a fantastic quote.
CD: Yeah, and that Godly thing, you know, you go back … have you been to Newport where they, you know, the nineteenth century robber barons, the first real American capitalists of any great consequence, they built their summer homes and they literally brought over the castles from European nobility. Capitalism itself can never really inspire the kind of moral and spiritual meaning that the aristocracy in pre-capitalist societies was able to provide, because it’s hard to get people completely morally inspired by the idea of just making a lot, being money grubbers and being successful about it. And so I think there’s always been a need in capitalism to sort of move into these areas of pre-capitalist religious and spiritual kinds of legitimation and then you see that in, you know, Hitler was very much of a moralist and a spiritualist in talking about godly, I mean, to read Hitler is to think that you’re listening to a preacher, you know, because he’s talking about moral degeneration and his whole argument was, you know, he was happy to rely on capitalists, corporations from America to rebuild his military and military Keynesianism and so forth, but his core argument was really moral and spiritual, and I think it reflects the fact that capitalism is inherently challenged to create ideas that can, particularly given the tendencies of capitalism to-
NPS: It’s amoral.
CD: … push people down in the system. It’s amoral and it doesn’t deliver on the money-grubbing materialist sides of it, so it has to go towards these more spiritual, more elevated form.
Piketty, Rentiers, Gladiator Technocrats, and State-Sponsored High Tech
CD: And you know, the economy ends up, this is the virtue I think of the work of Thomas Piketty, which I’m sure you’ve come across.
NPS: Oh sure.
CD: The French economist who really writes that-
NPS: That’s in my notes to talk to you about that, so, yeah.
CD: Yeah, I did a little book which I talked to him about, which is really a sort of exposition, a sort of “Reader’s Digest” view [Disinherited Majority], you know, sort of a simple view that people don’t want to read 800 pages of economic history. But, you know, his analysis–
NPS: It’s a hard book.
CD: Because really the capitalist … it’s a hard book to read, but it’s really interesting and it’s, one, because he writes a lot about history and he writes about the kind of culture of capitalist elite and he writes that-
NPS: It’s very well written, the translation.
CD: Yeah, very well written.
NPS: I love it.
CD: And he writes about how the capitalist elites always, back in England and much of Europe in the last three centuries, have always had this kind of aristocratic tendency, not only in their need to ape, to sort of emulate and claim blue blood, you know, glory of the kind that the feudal warrior class and nobility had, but they were basically ended up being rentiers, you know, where they basically made their money off of inherited wealth, and wealth was increasingly inherited as we see today, and Trump being a perfect example of a guy who was sort of buying into the, you know, trying to publicly promote the myth of walking and working your way up the stairs, but the guy we now know inherited, what, half a billion dollars, $423 million from his dad.
NPS: Yeah, he’s a phony. A phony.
CD: Yeah. And he didn’t work hard for his money.
CD: In fact, we now know that he had taken what he inherited and simply had put it in a savings account, he would have more money than he has today, although we don’t know exactly how much he has, we know that he would have had a lot more money if he had just put it in the bank. So the guy is, in a way, a feudal lord who just inherited his money. We haven’t inherited an aristocratic class, which claims itself as a innovative, technologically advanced, and there’s just enough technological innovation where you know this from the world you work in that again, capitalism is fluid enough and you know, complex enough that you can make these arguments with some level of credibility. I don’t mean the Trump argument so much, but these broader arguments we’re talking about, about working hard and creative innovation and so forth, particularly in a high tech economy in ways.
NPS: In my social … I was just going to mention, insert into that, what I see on LinkedIn is this gladiator worship, the technocrats, my fellow technologists, technocrats, they worship these sort of proto-sociopathic magnates like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg. Like, they can do no wrong because they’re so brilliant that they created all of this wealth. I can speak to Jeff Bezos more directly because I worked at that company. I would say that there certainly are very sociopathic tendencies at work across that entire company, but these people are-
CD: Oh, absolutely.
NPS: These are people are put up on a pillar as something to be worshiped and emulated.
CD: You know, this is an idea, as I listen to you talk about this, this is, you have a particular perch, so to speak, in which to really talk about this. It’s really important, and you know, just intuitively, I don’t know the world internally the way you do, but, I mean, this world of high-tech business and culture, but it just sounds really right to me, and it really is, it’s really important, because you know, capitalism is evolving in this direction, so Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, these corporations are the dominant corporations increasingly, and they’re very much embodying this new model of kind of, well, of everything we’re talking about, right, of creating a really sociopathic kind of capitalism in the name of technological progress and general social well-being and so forth. And there’s just enough virtue and fun that comes from computers and all the electronic technology that we have that it becomes one of the guiding legitimating forces of a very sociopathic system, you know. So I think-
NPS: Without the historical context of the state actually creating, at least germinating all of this technology.
CD: That’s right, that’s right.
NPS: Then it later is taken on by private enterprise, like the internet was pretty much given over to private enterprise in the mid 90s after 50 years, really 60 years of at least thinking about it in the state circles.
CD: Well, you know, this is one of Noam’s big, I’m sure you probably got to know Noam that way, because working at MIT and seeing the way in which the state was funding so much of the technology in the Defense Department and that eventually would lead into the high tech revolution. That really became, you know, Noam has always called the Pentagon the sort of backdoor socialism of American capitalism.
NPS: It absolutely is, yeah. I ask people, fellow technologists, and people who are skeptical of the kinds of things you and I’ve been discussing for the last hour. I ask them the question, what would happen in the 1930s if somebody came into a corporate board room and said, “Give me $250 billion and in 70 years, I’ll give you $10 trillion.” The numbers may be off somewhat, but it sort of captures the spirit of it. They would have kicked his ass out. They would have said, “Hell no, we don’t want that kind of long term risk,” even if you can almost guarantee that there’s going to be this huge turnaround. Technology wouldn’t happen within a true capitalist system if we’d ever had one, this sort of laissez-faire imaginings of people who are trying toretrofit the history to say this is why we are great, and therefore invest all of our energy into emulating people like Musk and Bezos and Zuckerberg, which, I’m sure they’re actually aware of this, because they have to deal with the government at the highest levels just because of the way that their corporations are so intricately intertwined now with AWS at Amazon and Azure at Microsoft competing for government contracts to manage the cloud. But the people are taken aback by that.
CD: Yeah, and you know, this high tech stuff, I just wanted to say again to validate the importance of your ability to speak to the high tech, the Bezos, you know, high tech-
CD: … model of worship, I mean, it’s really infected the university.
CD: So I see students every day who, you know, who they’re, you know, if you looked like at a place like where I teach at Boston College, there’s just a massive, you know, migration of students from the liberal arts into the business schools, and they go into finance and technology, and they really do worship these people that you’re talking about, and they see this as a model of what their life will look, and these are people who are very oriented toward identity politics. You know, they’re a generation that is very open to-
NPS: Socially liberal, yeah.
CD: Socially liberal on all the socially liberal, you know, I can check off whether it’s racial diversity or you know, gender-
NPS: Marriage equality.
CD: … transgender acceptance and all that stuff and they really mean it, but on the other hand, they become completely … this is the danger of the kind of, quote, left politics that we talked about, or liberal politics, both where the socially liberal mentions of it get divorced from the systemic, you know, power and control.
NPS: Which I saw firsthand working for corporate Uber and working for corporate Amazon, so it … at corporate Amazon, I traveled to the UK and I traveled to California to tour delivery stations and go on last mile rides to just sort of get a feel for what the drivers on the ground are having to deal with, and as you might imagine, they are considered contractors. They’re not employees.
CD: Right, right, yes, I know.
NPS: Although there’s no National Labor Relations Board in the UK, but they have their equivalents over there. They are pretty much serving at the pleasure of the delivery stations that hire them. They don’t have any opportunity to unionize, the pay is terrible. They are held to standards that literally will cause them to have auto accidents because they have to go so fast to get everything delivered. You see similar happenings at Uber. When I was flying back and forth from Seattle to San Francisco working at corporate Uber, I was doing that every week. I can’t believe that I did it. My husband told me that it was terrible idea but I did it anyway. I had nothing else to do when I was down there except work, and if you stayed in the office past 10:00 PM, they would give you a free Uber ride home. So I could order Uber Black, which is the limousine, you know, it’s really just a black SUV. I got to know over 70, seven zero, Uber drivers in the course of that whole enterprise, and this is real conversational narcissism, what I’m about to say, because I’m really proud of this. With almost every one of them, I would keep them an extended period of time talking to them about American history, particularly the labor movements, and why the only thing that will work that will lift their standard of living, because I saw people whose wages dropped 30% over a period of 18 months, and this is their full time job, they have no labor protection because they’re contractors. I explained to them exactly what has worked in American history and they were enraptured. They were mesmerized because they’d never heard any of these things. They’ve not heard these aspects of American history. I also told them, you know, the truth is, I could be fired for telling you these things, because corporate Uber is not going to be happy for me to tell those things to drivers, basically.
CD: So, so true, you know, and I shop at a local Whole Foods, which as you know has been taken over by Amazon, and I’ve been asking the people there what the new management is like and what it’s like for them as workers there. It’s a pretty sad story. You know, and you read about the warehouses, Amazon ware- It’s a pretty sad story. Now, when you read about the warehouses, and then the warehouses, regrettably, how unsafe they are.
NPS: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen them, and it is terrible.
CD: I’ve never been in them but it seems just awful. And then what I did, I talk to these people on the know when I go shopping and looking for whole foods. They say that both the way the food is sourced, the way their work schedules, and so forth have taken on notable slide since Bezos took over whole foods. And I wasn’t that enchanted with his predecessor, although he kept talking about conscious capitalism and so forth.
NPS: Right. Right.
Globalist Worker Exploitation and “Immoral Morality”
CD: So, yeah. So, I think, this discussion of way in which high-tech capitalism is shaping the toxic sociopathic forces with this. Another idea that you might … not to lay on you all these books–
NPS: That’s all right.
CD: I also wrote a book called Morality Wars which talks about the ideas of immoral moralities. It’s sort of the core concept. The idea is sort of this, that the more toxic the actual behavior that any particular institution takes on, the more likely it is that they will turn to morally, or spiritually, or religiously oriented high levels of moral discourse. Well, pretty much, a linear correlation between the sociopathy of the behavior and the elevated morality, how elevated it is of this person that justifies it.
NPS: Sure. Yeah.
CD: And I sort of look at everything. Look at empires from the Roman Empire to fascism, all examples of incredibly, if you look at fascism, incredibly barbaric systems which were studiously legitimated under the most moral and spiritual. And, of course, slavery was often done in that way and, I mean, if you look-
NPS: Oh, yeah. They said they had to have slavery. They told northern industrialists, “Well, you don’t support your black workers.”
CD: Right. Yeah. They said, “You have wage slavery. We have a kind of welfare state for these people.”
NPS: And that’s a similar argument that remains in place to justify this state-driven, high-tech capitalism. That if you don’t do this then poor people won’t have jobs.
CD: Right. Well, on high tech, I’m focusing on this because it’s where you’re located. And I think it’s incredibly important because I noticed in the university, like I said before, that I think, even among the more socially liberal parts of the younger generation, the high-tech miracle, so to speak, is really what is a vast part of the new legitimating element of capitalism. People believe in the technology. Their lives have been changed by computers, and iPhones, and so forth. And that’s had a huge impact on the way they think about the world. And it makes them believe that capitalism can really, because I teach courses on capitalism, that they go back to these high-tech world as a way of believing that capitalism can produce miracles and-
CD: … moral giants like Jeff Bezos. Yeah. And it also does produce new contradictions because the high tech world, it produces a lot of creative stuff. And there is this tension within capitalism itself between sort of more cosmopolitan features of capitalism, which required a certain amount of critical thinking and scientific, innovative kind of discourse or way of understanding the world, and the more traditional forms of capitalism in their sort of core structures of capitalism, which are rooted in these primal, brutal forms of power. So I think the high-tech world really gives this kind of special, post-modern, 21st century kind of legitimacy to these ruling forms of oppression and hierarchy and stuff.
NPS: And it was covered on Democracy Now, and my uncle told me it was covered on CNN. I don’t watch anything other that what I … I read things online, and I listen to Democracy Now, and that’s about it for news. You get more out of Democracy Now in ten minutes than you do CNN in 24 hours.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: But just to add another story to that, I remember – actually, it’s two different stories, but it’s basically the same idea – talking to some of the younger people that worked on my team and my sister team when I was in Amazon with last mile logistics. They were unaware that there are schools in this country that don’t have power, or places where you can’t drink the water, or the kids don’t have enough textbooks to go around and the textbooks are from the 1970s. They couldn’t believe that because that’s not what they’ve been taught. If they’re from a different country, it’s not really necessarily what they’ve been taught about America, at least the high-tech vision of what America looks like. They also were completely unaware of a story that I saw on Democracy Now in which during one of the heatwaves that we had in the last couple of years, it must have been maybe five or six years ago now, in Pennsylvania, one of their fulfillment centers, they didn’t have air conditioning because you don’t need air conditioning up there a lot of the time from what I understand. I know we don’t need it in Seattle. But, in any case, they were experiencing this heatwave so the fulfillment center was just overbearing and terribly hot. And they didn’t want to open up the big doors that are used for freight transportation of goods because they were afraid the employees would steal from them.
NPS: One of the experiences that I had in visiting the fulfillment center, it is like a damn prison. Getting in and out of there, if there were a fire, you’d die because just getting out is almost impossible.
CD: That’s very interesting and very, very believable. Yeah.
NPS: So what they decided to do was ask the city to send ambulances that just circled the fulfillment center for people as employees would have heatstroke’s.
NPS: I mean, you can’t make this shit up it’s so bad. And I was explaining it to my coworkers and they, of course, didn’t disbelieve me because they liked listening to me talk about history and various things that I would try to mix into the work that we were doing. But they couldn’t believe that Jeff Bezos, or his surrogates, or representatives would ever agree to such a thing because it’s so egregiously evil. And I explained, no. This is across the board. These wonderful, liberal, high-tech companies are engaged in horrific labor practices overseas, not to mention the ones that they’re doing in the United States. But it’s nothing compared to what’s going on in Africa and China and India.
CD: Right. Right. No, you’re so right. And it’s certainly my understanding of these places, although, I’ve had less direct experience with them. But it is, though, the contrast between the sort of glamorous and moralistic imagery of Amazon. It’s really kind of third-world, capitalist enterprise in a way. I mean, kind of like a sweatshop because I have been in a lot of, in Asia and Africa, I’ve been in…
NPS: True sweatshops.
CD: Sweatshops, fulfillment centers of which just exactly, when you were talking, remind of what I saw in, say, Thailand or those kinds of places.
CD: This was about seven or eight years ago, but I went on a variety of tours of various kinds of western sweatshop, sneaker shops, but these were not high-tech places, per se. But they had the sort of sense of prison, and yet of being morally save because they were taking young women who were going to be, otherwise, brutalized on a farm. And, I mean, they were working in better conditions than they were before these companies came in and on the wall, in English, they would have in some of the Nike centers or whatever, Reebok centers, they would have corporate codes of conduct written in English that nobody could understand. And at the same time, I was able to talk to the workers and these young women were working in locked areas, which where there were fires meant many of them could die. Where you’ve heard on Bangladesh–
NPS: Oh, yeah.
CD: And where they would work 20 hours. Depending on the season, they would work 20 hours and sleep under their sowing machines and that sort of thing.
NPS: Oh, my God.
CD: So, yeah. I don’t know if you know Charlie Kernaghan, and the work he did, [though] he’s not doing this work anymore because of health reasons. But for many years he was the primary sort of presenter to the western audience. And he would bring these workers over. I remember, because I was friends with Kernaghan and his partner, they would bring in from, say, Bangladesh these young women who were 17, 18 working in these American Disney cap or tee shirt sort of back sweatshops or whatever. And these girls, who were the same age as my students who are 18, 19. And they were talking about what their life was like, and how they were going to die at 30. And they were working 20 hours a day, and they wouldn’t have enough money to pay for a coffin because of the health conditions in the shop. And it just brought tears to these female students who were looking at them, the same age, and sort of wondering why am I who I am.
Luck Can Demand Responsibility : Hope in High Tech?
CD: Yeah. And how awful it was because the sweatshop workers were so … They weren’t exaggerating or in anyway asking for anything but people to listen or understand what their lives were like. It was very compelling.
NPS: Yeah. I’ve often thought … And in recent years, this has definitely been true. I mean, except in the last year because I’ve had some really bad health crises that have come up. But certainly, before this, I read about these things. It’s hard to watch video of these things. But I read about them. And part of the reason I read about them is not only to inform my actions and help me be a better citizen and try to work on these issues, but also, the gratitude that one can get from realizing that despite the fact … and I’ve told you in some of our email correspondence before this about the bullying that I experienced earlier in life, and there were a lot of things that I wish had been different. But my God, the life that I’ve had, it is literally like winning the lottery multiple times over to have been born in late 20th century America, and be white, and I’m tall.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: And I’m also … I was good student and I was compliant. And those two things together are the reason that I’m sitting here talking to you now.
CD: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
NPS: And I didn’t do anything to deserve those things. I’ve done nothing. There’s no … I don’t even believe that there’s some divine reason that I’ve been given these things. It is, literally, the roll of the cosmic dice. And I feel like that should be a call to action.
CD: Right. Well, you know, Noam’s view of social activism is really a form of education. And as you act, you educate yourself and you educate others. And, yeah. I think your story is very … I think you can attract and impact a large community by the particular nature of your experiences. And you’re an articulate guy as I’m listening to you.
NPS: I appreciate that.
CD: And I think you shouldn’t underestimate the way that your voice can make a difference.
NPS: I certainly believe that those of us who work in high tech have a degree of priv… We’re actually the last vestiges of the middle class in the neoliberal era. So, therefore, these people actually do have power. The people who work at Google and can walk out, they have power.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: They can force corporate leadership at this gigantic, perhaps one of the most significant corporations that’s existed. They can sway leadership just by joining hands together and saying, “We’re not gonna work today.”
CD: Have you seen much of that? I mean, have you seen any emerging high tech sorts of activism that strike you as promising?
NPS: Well, certainly. I mentioned earlier George Polisner and his building of the social network product.
CD: Yeah, no. I know George. I was in touch with him 10 or 15 years ago. Yeah. I haven’t talked to him for a while but, yeah.
NPS: His work is really interesting. I actually did my first of these interviews was with him, and you’re number two. Yeah. He and I been chatting for quite a while because I discovered him on LinkedIn and saw his very public resignation from Oracle. So I saw that online, so I reached out to him. He resigned because Safra Catz, the CEO of Oracle, agreed to be part of Trump’s either transition team or-
CD: Oh, that’s right. Yes. Yes. I remember.
NPS: And so we started chatting and he was explaining to me some of the people that he’s known through the years through the work that he does. Not the activism but the actual high-tech work. So that is certainly something that gives me hope.
CD: Yeah. Yeah.
NPS: As far as the kind of organization that I would really like to see, and this doesn’t exist as far as I know, is a real union for technologist or a union for data science.
CD: Exactly. That’s funny that you’d say that because I was just thinking that there’s-
NPS: That’s precisely-
CD: … a terrible importance of getting because there would be a real potential. I mean, the laborism is strongest among professionals and among … What’s left of the labor movement is in the public sector and in professions. So as much as those groups are problematic in some ways, they are doing a lot of the organizing and, whether it’s nurses or teachers or scientists or whatever. I mean, that’s where a lot of the labor … So, I mean, I think they … it must be a right period now, given the conditions that we were talking about, for labor to get a foothold in. And I’ll say that, in a sense, that would be the new, new deal would be trying to find the way to get, given the conditions of work on these huge, glamorous, high-tech companies, a labor movement addressing the issues you’ve been talking about would be really powerful, I think. The time is right, you know what I mean?
NPS: This has been awesome, and I can’t thank you enough.
CD: I’m glad you feel that way. Its been really nice talking to you and-
NPS: Your works are very powerful. And the way that you bring together, it’s the homogenization, the universalizing and all the this spirit that there’s more or less leaves on the tree and bringing it back together towards the trunk of the tree. It’s very powerful. So I want to-
CD: Thank you, Neil. I really appreciate you saying that. I’m really happy to hear it. And that’s very affirming because I spend so much time doing this stuff.
CD: And whenever I get affirmation, it kind of really feels good. So let’s stay in touch. I’m really happy to meet you and talk to you. I think we’re very much in the same spirit and so forth.
NPS: Sure. Yeah.
CD: I’ve been really thinking about projects I can imagine you’re doing in the high tech domain that we talked about that our work of organizing on the ground. And maybe in terms of book-writing and so forth.
NPS: Yes. Absolutely. A dream come true. So thank you Professor Derber for all the work you’ve done.
CD: Terrific. Well, thanks for your work. And call me Charlie. And we’ll stay in touch Neil.
NPS: All right, Charlie.
NPS: Awesome. All right.
NPS: You take care.
CD: Thanks for talking. Take care of yourself. I hope your health conditions go well. And I look forward to talking to you next time.
After a lengthy health sabbatical, I’m returning to blogging all things activism. Though I’ve mostly recovered, the world remains imperiled by runaway climate change, nuclear proliferation, imperialism, racism, violence against women and people of color, and the rest of the regulars in the twenty-first century. Though my progress is slow, great activists continue a great tradition of placing the human condition ahead of personal wealth, and often safety.
This is the first in what I hope will be a long tradition of discussions with activists. Below is a transcript and audio of my conversation with George Polisner. A special thank you is in order for George himself, as he kindly edited our transcript for clarity and ease.
NP Slagle: Thank you for listening to Scire Populum et Potentiam, To Know the People and Power. It’s my great pleasure to have George Polisner for the hour. George, the technologist has over a quarter of a century of experience managing and designing distributed systems, cloud services, QA and data products for various big names in high tech such as Dell and perhaps more infamously a director at Oracle. His impressive list of technical credits also include state and local initiatives as well as technology startup consulting as founder of Alonovo which we’ll talk about shortly. George, the activist is engaged in community organizing and media for a few years now and his impressive credits include the Lincoln County Democratic Central Committee in Oregon and hosting a regular program on community radio at KYAQ. Most recently, George founded civ.works, a social engagement platform designed to offer a privacy protective alternative to the for-profit social media and this is hot on the heels of a public resignation from Oracle, topics I’m very eager to explore. Welcome, George.
George Polisner: It’s a pleasure to be here, Neil.
NPS: I’d like to start with what it is that lead you to resign from Oracle, so maybe explain to listeners the genesis of that, what lead you to make that decision and what you plan to do going forward?
GP: That’s a good question. I remember after the election on November 8th, really being in shock I think with many of my progressive friends and …
NPS: We all were, yes.
GP: Yeah. It was a very dark period, but then when Oracle’s co-CEO, Safra Catz announced that she was going to work for the Trump transition team, I felt that while she was remaining active co-CEO at Oracle, and issued a statement that, “We are here to help the Trump administration,” I did not want to be included in that “we”. I did not want to normalize the kind of hateful rhetoric that was coming out of the campaign. The attacks on women, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ community, I could not take part in what Safra stated or I could not tolerate her position in remaining at Oracle while joining, what I saw as something that was just a hate-filled criminal enterprise.
NPS: Right. It certainly evokes the more recent wave of resignations we saw at Google over the drone programs that they’re engaging with respect to the federal government. Was there much internal discussion along these lines with some of your fellow coworkers and leaders in the company?
GP: There was really none. As a matter of fact, I read about Safra’s position in a paper. There was no internal communication about … Or formal issuing of a statement internally and so no, there just wasn’t really much talk. There had been some early concern. As a matter of fact with Trump’s stated desire to start a Muslim database, there was a Not in Our Name campaign and I was very proud to sign on to that and lend my name as an Oracle employee that we would not support any attempt to create what we saw as a database that could be used to eviscerate someone’s human and civil rights.
NPS: Yeah, absolutely. In my own experience at Microsoft, when they Muslim ban was first announced, this was a Muslim ban 1.0 which was a spectacular failure fortunately, it did cause a great deal of churn and upset in my organization because of course Microsoft is an international corporation and we have people from all over the world working there. It’s easy to see how that could be a very visceral concern for people who work in technology and have the interplay with all of these people from other countries. Seems like it is more than what Trump was trying to promote.
GP: It really should be. If we can’t learn from history and basically pointing out a class of people really othering them as they would say at the Haas Institute, that is something that I could not stand for and I think a lot of peers … It was interesting after I did issue my public resignation letter, I had many various supportive messages from all over the world including many Oracle people.
NPS: Right. This gets to the broader conversation that I want us to have about how to engage technologists. I find that it really is true and most of the companies where I’ve worked, I have found a pretty strong contingency of people who are sympathetic to a more liberal perspective of the world. A more liberal and global perspective but there is this concern about forfeiting one’s career and certainly I’ve been part of that also and it’s hard to know where that dividing line should be. When do you take the stand and when do you not because sometimes if you do take that stand, it can mean you won’t work in industry again. I suppose that’s part of the uphill battle that we’re dealing with.
GP: In some of the messages I received, people were supportive and that they admired my courage but they weren’t in a position where they could do what I did. I recognized that. I mean, I was fortunate, Neil to have been in this industry a long time and be in a point in my career where I was able to take this personal risk but I recognize it’s an individual and very personal decision. I mean, I was at a point in time in which my kids were through college. They were independent. I’d put them on the ‘quantitative easing’ dad economic program for sometime so they were standing on their own. I was just at a very different point in my life. I also recognized that the circumstances that we’re dealing with today … At the time when I left Oracle, they were theoretical. I mean, really we didn’t know what would happen or how bad things would be. I expected an assault across the entire spectrum of progressive issues. At the time, people were saying, “Shouldn’t you really be patient and see what’s going to happen?”
NPS: Yeah. That’s what I was going to mention. One of the very frustrating things that came out of that especially in what limited social media access I have that there’s a course to rabid collection of people who are very much so going to try to force their views on us and there’s a lot of savage activity that happens online but there is this contingency of people that I like to think of the way Martin Luther King described them, the white moderates. People who want us to test the waters incrementally and say, “Well, we really should be patient,” and like you were saying, “Wait and see what this man does because it may not be all that bad. Maybe he just lied in the campaign and that was just to get people spun up but he’s going to actually gravitate more towards the center.” We know that wasn’t true.
GP: Well, we certainly felt it wasn’t.
NPS: I’m married to a psychiatrist and so that gives me special dispensation that is not necessarily good dispensation inside in the personalities and what we’re dealing with is something that is very, very pathological.
GP: There’s no question. Dr. King also talked about ‘The Fierce Urgency Of Now’ over 50 years ago. In my mind, the now has never been more fierce.
NPS: Right. The now is always with us and I think that’s part of the realization that technologist in particular I’d like to reach. It reminds me of what Noam Chomsky says about dipping a toe in and really the currents are strong enough that if you dip a toe in, it’s probably gonna sweep your way. My first exposure to you was seeing your resignation letter that was posted on LinkedIn and I have to say I was so impressed and gratified at the same time to see somebody in this industry where we have immense power and influence much more so than trade folks in other industries. Seeing you take this stand very publicly was gratifying and incredible and I realized this is a man I need to get to know.
GP: It’s funny Neil because there’s a back story there. After I’d found out that Safra had joined the Trump transition team, my children had been visiting as they often did during their … They would try to visit in winter break when they were in college and then later on they would try to plan some time around the holidays to come out and we would play Catan, Risk, and Monopoly and all of these games. We were in the midst of this.
NPS: And rather metaphoric playing Risk and Monopoly.
GP: Yes, exactly. Probably fueling my fire but when I found that this had happened, I said, “This can’t stand with me. This aggression will not stand,” to quote The Big Lebowski. I wrote this letter over the weekend and so we were watching what was happening. It was really unexpected. We would see, “Gee, this is now been seen by 3,000 people.” We were looking at that going, “Well, gee, what if it reaches 10,000? This will really be amazing.” It went over 350,000 views and then got coverage from The Guardian. Olivia Solon who is a wonderful senior reporter over at The Guardian wrote a story about it. The New York Times followed with a story. It was completely unexpected. I was very happy that it could serve while many of us were really still in a state of shock that it was able to serve as an example of tangible things that we could do to not normalize the behavior of this administration.
NPS: Right. I can remember I was a little bit more fearful that he would be elected partially because I believed social desirability keeps people from stating what they really think. It’s like you encounter a person on the street and you ask him, “Are you a racist?” Well, what is he going to say? If he tells you he’s a racist, then you’ll know you’re dealing with an interesting person.
GP: We know what they’ll say now and they’ll say, “Make America great again.”
NPS: Yes, MAGA all the way. I can remember it certainly … Well, it was what motivated me to form this blog and start trying to basically establish a record, a written record of views and positions and source material that hopefully will be useful for people. I know certainly your works have been very useful for me, so far. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. I was listening to a couple of your talks in preparation for this interview and one of these talks was geared towards discussing Alonovo. I’d like to hear more about that and this notion of ethical advertising and ethical affinity. I found this to be a really interesting discussion so if you could share a few words about that.
GP: Oh, of course. During the Bush-Cheney years, in which so many people felt disenfranchised by government, I recognized along with many others that shaped my point of view really starting with John Kenneth Galbraith that there’s incredible power that’s untapped that we all share from an economic perspective and the socially responsible investing community had been started and had gained certain amount of momentum. People like Peter Kinder who founded KLD Research and Analytics which would guide institutional investors on social screens. In other words, which companies to invest in that aren’t doing as much harm instead of tobacco companies or defense manufacturers, weapons manufacturers.
GP: Exactly, coal. This work had been going on for a while. People like Peter, Amy Domini and others were really leading the charge. Other friends along the way like John Tepper Marlin and Alice Tepper Marlin really shaped a lot of my perspective but what I saw was there was a lot of guidance with respect to how we would invest capital but the majority of Americans are consumers as opposed to investors. I felt that there was a very large component that was missing from the socially responsible economic equation and so what I envisioned through Alonovo was providing a service to consumers that guided them towards which companies are doing less harm, which companies are evolving to mitigate their environmental impact that are managing their resources well, that are really truly adding value to society, that are treating their workforce well. In the classic case that I would talk about with respect to socially responsible consumption if that’s not oxymoron.It is like the Costco versus Walmart story. Costco has embraced organized labor. They treat their employees well. They’re well paid, they have great benefits and that’s one side of the case study. The other side of course is Walmart which is really an economic giant but they’re notorious in terms of trying to essentially erode any kind of organized labor and the treatment of their supply chain is horrific. When they’ve opened stores …
GP: Exactly. I mean, when they open a store, it usually means the death of the main street economy in a particular town. I look at that Costco versus Walmart example and then thought about Brave New Films and The High Cost of Low Prices and thought, you know something. If we use similar information that guides institutional investment but make it accessible to consumers, we can create demand affinity with companies that are doing the right thing. If we do this, then … I used to say hey, if we can make Dick Cheney a socially responsible investor without him having to know that he is, then we will have succeeded because if we create greater equity growth in companies who are doing the right thing, it’s going to create natural affinity for investment to follow those companies. I saw consumer demand was being a missing piece to … And why I felt that socially responsible investing have been really marginalized in terms of its impact. I got together with a group of people and put some of my money into Alonovo which was created as a service that sat as part of the Amazon shopping experience that would provide guidance, a simple grade as to whether this company was treating people well and treating the environment well and operating ethically.
GP: Then the ideas was to educate people so if they clicked on that grade, they could find out the attributes that make up what would be a more evolved socially responsible company. The ideas was to not only create this demand affinity but also educate people and make this decision ubiquitous as people would basically look at products or services in terms of not only brand reputation but also what kind of behaviors am I perpetuating when I spend my money on this particular company.
NPS: Yes. This is very important work and it very so much dovetails with this broader discussion of motivating technologists in particular. I’m guilty of this as much as anybody else of not being completely aware of the impact of all of my choices as a consumer. When I was doing research for one of my blog pieces on climate changes, I came across the works … Her name escapes me [Kari Marie Noorgard] but she’s a social scientist from Norway who wrote a book about the capacity for denial that we have around climate change. You can take me for instance. I feel like I want to be socially responsible but I also fly on planes all the time which means all my carbon footprint is much … It’s larger than a dinosaur’s footprint unfortunately because of this, and the point that she was making in these series of studies that she conducted is that it’s one thing to care about the issue and it’s another thing to know how to implement that and having this kind of service available would make it much easier and also believable for technologist. I worked with people at Amazon, some of them very good people. One guy in particular, very socially responsible and just all around a great guy, and I can remember chatting with him about the conditions of schools in the United States. He was floored when I told him that there are public schools in this country that don’t have power and don’t have water that the students can drink and don’t have enough textbooks. These are the kinds of things that are hiding in plain sight.
GP: That’s right.
NPS: Our consumer choices are related to this, and that by receiving these enormous tax breaks when we’re in the upper parts of the income spectrum, we don’t realize the huge price that’s being exacted on people in the lower couple of quintiles.
NPS: Even the name of it is condescending, “trickle.”
GP: Right. Exactly
NPS: Trickle, if we give anything to the lower income earners, it should be a trickle because that’s all they really deserve. There are lots of values that are tried into just the language. Which hearkens to George Lakoff’s work around metaphors in the way that we frame these issues in the first place.
GP: It may as well be trickled on as opposed trickle down.
NPS: Yes. That is great. I have not heard that. That is excellent. Definitely great stuff and I’d like to learn more in the days ahead about your work with Alonovo.
Salvage the Franchise While Evolving Beyond the Booth
GP: Oh, sure. As a matter of fact, Alonovo at the time, we were looking for money and looking for investment to really take it to the next level and there was another entity that attracted a couple of serious rounds of venture capital. GoodGuide which was founded and operated by a Berkeley professor – Dara O’Rourke and Dara and I got to know each other fairly well. GoodGuide was eventually purchased by Underwriter Laboratories. I still think that there’s an incredible opportunity to not only … When I think about civic engagement and we’ll talk about civ.works, I’m sure next. When I think about civic engagement a large part of that is economics. A large part of that isn’t just about attending a town hall meeting or registering a vote which are incredibly important or the act of voting itself but how we live our lives is an expression of civic engagement.
NPS: Good citizenship.
GP: We go shop at Walmart and Walmart then takes some of their money and lobbies, tries to elect candidates that are for school voucher programs and want to eviscerate public education. When people shop at WalMart their money is supporting the erosion of public schools. We need to understand as a society that our power goes beyond just our vote. It’s how we choose to live and the choices that we make have influence in our society.
NPS: Just wait to vote for somebody else which certainly was not what we heard when we had the Clinton scandals in 1998-99.
GP: Right. I suspect it’s even worse than that, Neil because I think that people are told either directly or indirectly why bother to vote? Both parties are inherently corrupt. Who cares? I think it’s not only really trying to marginalize people’s impact in the political and civic world but it’s also about disenfranchising people so that we end up with a very toxic government as we have today.
GP: It’s a science. If you know that your couple of points are going to make a difference between electing somebody like a known pedophile versus someone else, well, then you could play with voting machines, the placement of less voting machines in an area in which people are only given a very brief time to be away from work in order to vote. We’ll have lines for hours going out the door.
NPS: And always on a work day, never on a Saturday or a Sunday.
GP: That’s right, or vote by mail which is implemented in Oregon and has really been a phenomenal program. If we care about democracy, we should be demanding that people are automatically registered to vote. We should be demanding that it is easy as possible to vote not this garbage that people are taught by right-wing groups about the voter ID programs and doing these things to really try to disenfranchise people of color and impoverished that maybe don’t have the time to spend six hours at a DMV trying to get an ID to then spend four hours in line waiting to vote. To them such might make difference between paying the rent this month or being able to afford bus fare to get to their work. If we care about democracy, we should be making as easy as possible for people to vote.
NPS: Right, exactly. It certainly conjures this notion of what you see in dictatorships and in much more totalitarian regimes where the population generally because of sanctions are forced to starve and do without all basic necessities except for what they can get from the dictator. You see that on a … It’s certainly a different magnitude here but if it is the difference between you being able to pay your bills to go vote when you’re told your vote doesn’t matter anyway and chances are the candidate … The one of the two choices that you’re given probably won’t win anyway. It has a devastating effect in aggregate and I think that it is pretty clear to anybody who actually reads about these programs of voter suppression that the architects of these policies know very well the truth.
GP: That’s right, and it dates back to ALEC and a lot of the right wing think tanks like Heritage. I think we’re talking before about Paul Weyrich who said, “We don’t want people to vote.” When you think just about a couple of points of difference, it’s voter suppression voter caging. Other initiatives, it’s gerrymandering. It’s a electoral college that promotes a candidate getting more than three million more popular votes but losing the election. There are all kinds of ways in which the system is abused for the sake of the perpetuation of power by what we see right now.
NPS: Right. A very narrow ideological framework that we’re forced to endure. I suppose that there is no time like the present to talk about civ.works. I’m very interested in understanding what is the genesis of it? First of all, what is it, what does it do? What do you want it to do and why did you create it?
GP: Well, I had a stroke. You’ll have to ask one question at a time.
NPS: I’m very, very grateful that you’re still with us. Please don’t go anywhere, George. We really need you.
GP: I am taking care of myself under my daughters and son, and granddaughter’s orders, so I appreciate that, Neil. The genesis is before the election, Adam Lake, Golda Velez and I were having great discussions in the background and we were all working full-time at other entities but we’re having great background discussions about the corrupting influence of money in the American political system and we’re having discussions about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council which has brought these horrible voter suppression laws, open season on people of color laws, called Stand Your Ground, the right to work laws which are anything but …
GP: This is a horrible sinister organization that maybe people haven’t heard of. We started to think … I had spent a few years at the California State Legislative Counsel and Golda, Adam and I started thinking, “We need as we need a people’s ALEC,” or what we were calling a Smart ALEC at the time. We were thinking about databasing law and policy that people could use in their local jurisdiction, their state legislature or even on a federal level to promote policy and law that benefits the majority of people as opposed to just the Koch Brothers. As we have these discussions, we were continuing to design and develop and conceptualize the thought of an environment where this could all be readily available to people and then the election happened.
GP: When it did, we knew that … A couple of different things. We knew or felt that society was going to be assailed on just about every front. Every progressive front, any gain that was since the new deal would be under assault by this administration and this congress. We also felt that legislation if you look at a spectrum of civic action or civic engagement that people that can be involved in, working with legislation policy or running for office are probably the heaviest lifts there are. Asking somebody that’s already working hard, maybe working two jobs to make ends meet to get more involved in something like legislation, policy …
NPS: Take a five-year break off your career, right?
GP: And sell data. That was something that we absolutely didn’t want to do. We felt the privacy protection part was incredibly important to what we have been building. We conceptualized civ.works. I left Oracle, I think around … I think it December 20th or 21st, or something like that.
NPS: The shortest day of the year, pretty much.
GP: It was the shortest day and the longest day, I guess. In any event, we went from concept to launch in two -and-a-half months. We launched on February 14th in what we call … We launched for the love of democracy, so launching on Valentine’s Day was important. Then we continued to add features and functions that were critical to the model and so we added the ability to aggregate civic actions from organizations like NARAL, Moms Demand Action, and Color of Change, Fight for $15. All of these great organizations, the ACLU, that we’re doing phenomenal work in trying to protect society’s most vulnerable to this very toxic administration. We would aggregate these actions coming from all over the United States and then when people signed up on the platform we would understand their geolocation. They would provide their zip code, and so when we had an action that matched their issue affinity and their geography, we would then basically provide them with, “Hey, here’s something that you can do. Then when people would actually say, “Yes, I did this,” they get civic action points because we felt that it’s important to overtime reward behavior even though there isn’t any inherent value or cryptocurrency behind civic action points or ego points.
NPS: Then again people will play Farmville for 100 hours a week because they get new crops. If people really believe that what they’re doing is making a difference.
GP: Well, we want a new crop of candidates.
NPS: Exactly, yes.
GP: Policy and legislation. It’s like Farmville for democracy.
NPS: Right, exactly. It certainly is a very big step in the direction of overcoming the problem of stratification that happens in activist circles where you may be interested in one particular kind of cause and I may be interested in another but what we want is a lot more similar than the differences would tell.
GP: That is exactly right. I felt that … Beyond just the peer technology solution, we really looked at a lot of behavioral and organizing theory and I have long felt the progressive space tends to marginalize its impact by siloing itself or segmenting itself and the reality is from a systems perspective whether you’re trying to address climate change or you’re trying to address systemic poverty in our urban areas, if we’re not working together, that’s a problem. I understand. If you’re doing climate work, that’s incredibly important because without a livable climate, there’s nothing else to talk about but there’s no reason that we can’t have mechanisms that allow us to work together as a societal flash mob. That’s how we viewed the way we would like to build and continue to evolve the thought of civ.works or the civ.works concept is respecting local autonomy, your ability to work in your passion area but when we all need to come together and act together as a society, let’s act together.
GP: I’ve written a lot and I’ve probably angered some people and so sorry about that.
NPS: That’s what we do.
GP: I early on felt that civ.works must be about meaningful civic action and not all petitions are bad. I mean, I recognized that there is some value because they provide education and exposure. The things that were happening at Standing Rock for example were probably not gonna make the news but when 100,000 people were signing petitions and viewing this, that’s important. It’s important to raise visibility and awareness. What I talk about is when I get a study flood of petitions that say things like, “Paul Ryan just sneezed, sign my petition and chip in $5 now before he sneezes again.”
NPS: We need Kleenex available everywhere.
GP: That’s right. It’s a problem and it works … It’s a problem in multiple ways. One is somebody that wants to essentially have a political or civic impact things that they have, and so they do this collectivism thing, incredibly easy to click on this petition.
GP: That’s right. As opposed to actually doing something that’s effective and advancing or resisting or helping to protect vulnerable people. You’re just getting added to a mailing list and potentially being divested of a little bit of your cash. I just saw that as a huge problem. I met with entities that are actually a fairly large players in the petition space because I said, “Hey, here’s an opportunity.” I have no desire to build civ.works on my own. I always look at how can I collaborate? How can we get the resources that we need and act together and therefore accelerate our ability to be impactful? I met with people kind of what I would think of as the usual suspects that have been doing great work but most of it has been around petitions and I met with them and said … This was well before we actually launched civ.works. I would say, “You know something? There is a lot of anecdotal evidence. I haven’t funded real research or anything that’s peer reviewed but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are becoming sick of petitions. Now, I said we have an administration in which we know we’re going to be attacked on all fronts, so there’s going be an explosion of petition.
NPS: It’s a flood of petitions in my inbox.
GP: I was really met with the same reaction that you would get from the band, from Spinal Tap. It’s like our amplifier goes through 11. There was really … It’s like, “Oh, no. More people are signing more petitions now. It’s really going great.” No, it isn’t. It was an unfortunate experience in some ways but it also basically solidified my thought about just really going all in on civ.works and making the investment on my own and thinking that if you’re … When you understand what the right path is there is no toe in the water. If you’re not all in then you’re just part of the problem. I didn’t wanna be a white moderate … I wanted to embrace my more activist radical thinking about getting this done.
NPS: Right. It’s very much so is an honorable and needed cause. It’s interesting that while you were talking about this problem of petitions that it does remind me of the research I mentioned earlier where once we believe that we’ve made a difference in a certain regard like I can recycle the myriad aluminum cans waste that I produce because I drink so many diet sodas, there is this thought that I’m doing something for the environment that’s good but the problem and what she was finding is that we’re large either unaware of the rest of the impact that we have or somehow we’ve managed to push ourselves into denial.
GP: We didn’t push ourselves. Advertising, it plays a lot of that. We already don’t like to change our behaviors if we don’t have to and then when we … Advertising works. How many kids understand that a happy meal involves really a horrible situation for sentient beings being packaged up in fun little wrappers with a clown.
NPS: Yes. It’s really interesting because I do think that there is good scholarship around the psychology of petitions, the psychology of taking an action that you believe is good. What brought that to mind when I was listening to your discussions is this gamification. This mechanism by which you can tap into that in a benign way, more than benign, a good and productive way.
GP: Right. When I think about civ.works, there are activists that are gonna be engaged regardless. They don’t need civ.works. They may already belong to Indivisible or the National Organizations for Women or Color of Change or other great organizations that are doing amazing work. They’re gonna be active regardless but I have always viewed the issue with the center and even the center left and center right, the more you go towards this center, the more likely I think people need to have some reinforcement for the civic activities that they do. For the good that they do. We know that gamification works. We know that competition works. I’ve often thought wouldn’t be great to be able to take communities and say for example, “Gee, Rancho Cordova near Sacramento is all over this great activity. What’s wrong with you guys over in Elk Grove? You should be all over this to and so you can create natural competitions to cause and really incentivize behaviors that are ultimate gonna be great things for society.” That’s how I see this potentially being used in the future.
NPS: It is essentially anecdotal but I used to watch … What is it called? It’s Seth MacFarlane show. Family Guy. I would watch Family Guy which of course is just a perverse and hilarious comedy but it and The Simpsons and Futurama and these cartoons have a very negative message about activism. They are very, very, very critical of people organizing and protesting which you see that anywhere all over the news, particularly on Fox if you could even call that a news channel.
NPS: We can’t without laughing. It’s a joke. I found it was interesting in the years that I watched this show and my own awakening coming to recognition about what activism can actually do and what civic engagement really should really look like. Not that I embody it by any stretch of the imagination now but I understand what it needs to look like. Seeing that in this show, they go out of their way to criticize anybody who would do something like that. Anybody who steps out of their cast, essentially. We were talking about this before we turned the microphone on this notion that the cast system in this country very much follows the same pattern of thought, pattern of propaganda as what we had with the institution of slavery that we were told by the powers that be that this was the way God wanted the order of man to be that women are subjugated to their husbands and their fathers and that slaves are going to be slaves because of the mark of Cain or whatever nonsense that they came up with at the time. Now, we’re told that we shouldn’t act out of our economic stratum because the market wants us to be there. We shouldn’t want poor workers at McDonald’s to be paid minimum wage or to raise minimum wage because it’s not what the market demands. The market is now become this thing that we appeal to as a deity.
GP: That’s right. The market has become America’s religion and when I think about American culture, and I think that American culture right now is very diseased. Now, you look at all over the violence. We look at kids with guns. We look at everything that’s happening in society and it’s a price that we’re paying for essentially making the free market our religion where profits and the concentration of wealth and material things are valued more than nature and more than people, your neighbors, your communities.
NPS: Elderly widow across town who can’t afford medication has to choose between medication and food.
GP: Look at how retirees, retired teachers were vilified in Wisconsin by Scott Walker as being, “You horrible people are the ones that are ruining America.” It’s ridiculous. We are intentionally divided and conquered and so this idea of trying to break out of silos and segmentation and work together because that’s what really is required, Neil. I mean, when I look at the games that were made in the 1960s and 1970s, it was even before the word intersectionality was coined. It was the movements of civil rights, labor, the women’s movements and the peace movements coming together to basically challenge what is the American dream? It certainly wasn’t prosecuting more on popular wars in countries where we shouldn’t have been. It was not in the denigration of women. It was not in paying women 78 cents on the dollar or worse if you’re a woman of color. It’s not disenfranchising people of color from the vote. This is not our vision of America. Maybe some people’s vision of America where only wealthy white landowners have a vote and have a say in our direction, but we are divided and conquered and it was these groups of people coming together and saying, “You know something? We’re different but we’re fighting for the same dream.” That’s what’s required now and so that’s why in a virtualized way, we created this mechanism for people to actually work together whether they know that they are or not. We don’t care. We just want them working together because that’s what’s required.
NPS: One of the questions that I get a lot when I’m discussing these kinds of things with … I don’t know. For a lack of a better term, I would say lay people as far as people that don’t take a lot of time to try to understand history. This happens usually if I’m a Lyft or an Uber and I end up talking to the driver.
GP: Great discussions.
NPS: Even when I was working at Uber, I would tell them I needed to unionize. That probably wouldn’t made me very popular at work but they would ask the question what is it that we can do? The period of time that you’re describing in the 1960s and 1970s was monumental. A monumental shift in society and we saw something very similar in the 1890s and the early 1900s with the labor movements that were coming out of the industrial revolution and they actually managed to get some pretty powerful victories like having a forty-hour workweek as opposed to an eighty-hour workweek.
GP: We forget that a lot of those movements were paid for in blood and violence. Now …
NPS: Unusual amounts of violence for similar kinds of events if you look at other western democracies. Then we also saw something very similar in the early 1930s. In fact what we saw there is something that I really do wish workers in this country fully understood. I wish I could internalize this value and I guess if there’s one value that I would suggest to them above all others, it is the power of striking. We were talking about this before we turned the microphone on that we are literally one sit down strike away from deep profound societal transformation. In the early 1930s, the workers sat down on the job and that terrified the owners. It terrified those in power to the extent that we had a card carrying member of the New York elite, inherited wealth, the whole bit, Franklin Roosevelt as president becoming very sympathetic to these people out of which came the new deal.
GP: It’s economic empowerment in our collective ability when we’re not divided. As we were talking a little bit before, we started this. I know that a lot of progressive organizations in leadership talk about what do we do if Robert Mueller is fired? What if that investigation which is incredibly important to preserving a thread of our aspirations ofdemocracy, what do we do? There’s a lot of thought about well, if that happens, we go out into the streets and march. Well, there really needs to be some thought about an extended labor strike if that happens and it can’t be people pouring into the streets on a Thursday afternoon and then going back to work on Friday morning as if nothing had happened. If that happens, this is a very different America unless we all gather together in an action. When you’re dealing with a concentration of wealth as we are now among the Koch brothers and the Walton family, and the Mercer family, and the Sheldon Aldeson‘s. Then hitting them economically is the only place where it’s going to make them reconsider the fact that they have pushed American society over a threshold.
NPS: Right. The capacity to organize nowadays … Again, when I ask this question, I refer to these points in history where people organize in the industrial revolution or the aftermath you had news journals that were produced by localities and it was a very lively press that enabled them to quickly organize just using the printing press. Now, what we have is the capacity to communicate with anyone in this entire world pretty much almost instantaneously because of the internet which is another reason that I’m really excited about civ.works and the role that it can play. One thing I definitely want to get to before we run out of time is what are the needs for civ.works? We’ve discussed this before that there is a need and demand for software engineering support among other things. If you can talk about that a little bit, I wanna share those things with listeners and readers so that they will know what they can do to help?
GP: That’s a great question, Neil. The biggest challenge that we face isn’t the fact that there are resources available but the issue is we end up competing. We have campaigns with political campaigns and other work that’s going on. We’re really long-term infrastructure and so we’re not the cool building, apartment building or condo building that everybody wants to live in with great views. We’re the infrastructure, were the plumbing and the electrical grid. We tended not be very sexy and so if we’re competing with somebody like Doug Jones in a political [race], people want to expend their money in such a way that they feel that they’re having a tangible and direct impact on what’s happening right now. That’s still very important. I mean, the campaigns absolutely need funds. They need television airtime. Ronald Reagan made sure of that by eviscerating the fairness doctrine but for us, we do need money. We need resources, we need people to become active subscribers. What we’ve done, we didn’t want economics to be a barrier to use for civ.works and we struggled with how do we fund this and make this viable? We adopted a model very much like The Guardian newspaper. We didn’t want to have a pay wall and so we took away the pay wall but we do ask if people can afford to do it that they purchase monthly subscriptions for $3.99. That helps us immeasurably. That creates a foundation of revenue that we then use for operations, for new software development. There’s absolute things that we want to do. We want to have a native mobile platform available for civ.works to make it easier to use. We want to improve our core experience. There are certain very powerful functions and features that we to implement that are really waiting for the resources to get … I mean, we know what we want and we’re waiting for the financial or engineering resources to help us get there. Then once we do, once we have what we believe is a pretty well evolved set of features, functions, and mobile capability, we want to democratize development. This is the people’s social platform and so we want our subscribers to weigh in and say, “You know something? This would be a great … If we did this, let’s build this.” For us, it’s about resources whether it’s tax deductible donations as a 501(c)(3) organization. It’s about people that volunteer on the platform by helping us review and approve actions that we collect from all over the United States and really the world. There’s some talk about extending our capability. There’s been talk about using us in the UK.
GP: Some great discussions about potentially using this platform in Brazil. Anywhere, where we’re talking about how to organize people against the interest of organized, concentrated wealth. civ.works can be an effective mechanism in the tool chest of society, in the tool chest of the 99% to actually help rebalance power. Anyway, for us, it’s really about money and about engineering resources and then people that can actually be involved in the platform. We have created an environment. I would characterize it honestly in terms of a social platform. We’re nowhere near as good as Facebook in terms of features and functions but we haven’t had the hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in user experience.
NPS: Also, you’re not selling data to other malevolent actors.
GP: Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer not getting our data. Cambridge Analytica is not …
GP: That’s right. God help us, Peter Thiel. Anyway.
NPS: They make so many of us look bad. This is very, very exciting work and I think that is incredibly important and often times when I review LinkedIn profiles looking for recruiting opportunities just for my day job, I noticed that a lot of people are looking for ways to volunteer their time for causes they believe in. I think that this is something that might be of great utility if we can find the right people who have the right skills who want to donate the time. I know that I’m a believer and I want to donate my time.
GP: I’m very grateful, Neil. I know that you and others that have advocated and helped us evangelize the work that we’re doing inspire me. I mean, there are days … These are dark times. I haven’t drawn a paycheck for a year-and-a-half and it’s challenging. You wake up and something that’s very different from the America that we’re really taught about when we’re young. People like yourself inspire, and motivate, and keep us going on days when it’s very hard to keep going.
NPS: Well, certainly you do that for me, so thank you very, very much for this very enlightening and exciting hour, and also helping me pilot this series of interviews with activists. Thank you very much. I look forward to what we’re doing in the future.
GP: I’m always happy to be a beta test, Neil.
NPS: Thank you very much. I usually end up being a gamma, so there you go. All right. Thank you so much, George.