Nick Reding — Methland: the death and life of an American small town

It’s a book about the hardship and problems that are becoming moreprevalent in rural and small town America.

And, it contains very personal stories about a small number ofindividuals whose lives are connected with and influenced by thosehardships and the struggle against illegal drugs in a small town.

Those hardships circle around (1) illegal drugs, their production,and their use; and (2) around employment, poor wages, loss of jobs,and harsh working conditions.

We are going to be faced with a choice between two conflictingapproaches to the changes overtaking the economies in small towns inthe U.S. and changes in employment and work in general: (1) We canencourage corporations and thereby stimulate the economy producingmore jobs but jobs that pay low wages and have punitive workingconditions. Or, (2) we can push for better pay and better workingconditions, at the possible expense of economic growth and at therisk of encouraging corporations to reduce their number of employeesthrough off-shoring or automation. Neither of these two optionsseems appealing. What makes this especially galling is thatcorporations can use this issue as a ploy to get tax breaks andother benefits in exchange for not making things worse for workers.Even workers know that; even they know or at least believe that wehave to allow corporations to use cheap immigrant labor or theirjobs will disappear.

Until recently, we seemed to be mostly allowing corporations to havetheir way with respect to wages and regulation. Now, with theelection of Donald Trump for President of the U.S., we’ve apparentlydecided that this wasn’t enough and that we should give corporationseven more of an advantage over workers.

“Methland” can be read as an explanation of why rural small townAmerica voted for Donald Trump. There are two ways of looking atthis: (1) They were fed up with the status quo and voted foreffective change. Or, (2) they voted for someone who willdramatically increase the power of corporations and they will bemuch worse off as a result. After all, corporations, left tothemselves and unimpeded will do everything they can to reduce laborcosts, to off-shore production, to reduce benefits for workers, andmore. I’m wondering whether rural, small town America is going toregret their reckless behavior in this election.

With respect to illegal drugs, Reding gives us lots of informationin several areas: (1) He describes some of the causes of the druguse and the problems that drug use and drug production causes in asmall, mid-western town. In part it’s because of how difficult itis to make a living, and how some of the local working conditions,particularly at the local chicken processing plant, are close toabusive. (2) Reding describes some of the local Meth labs, thehorrid conditions they create, and some of the attempts to dismantlethem. And, (3) there is what Reding calls the DTOs (the drugtrafficking organizations), and his account of how production hasshifted from areas in South America to Mexico, and how theavailability of some of the materials needed to produce drugs haschanged so as to enable production and smuggling on a large scale,and how the DTOs control entry of drugs across the U.S.-Mexicanborder, and more.

This book gives stories that describe the one-man meth labs and thestruggle to combat them and the problems they cause. But, there isalso a good deal of description of the illegal drug industry,especially that controlled from Mexico.

From “Methland”, you get a small glimpse of what has happened towork in the U.S. for many. It’s a picture where corporations havean unbalanced amount of power and workers, now that labor unions areno longer there to protect them, are at the mercy of theiremployers. (And, those corporations have very little mercy.) Wehear so much about off-shoring and about sending jobs outside theU.S., but even more important is how automation has eliminated somany jobs. And, even more depressing is the understanding thatworkers have that if something is done to improve wages and benefitsand working conditions, even to reduce the number of immigrantswilling to work for low wages, it will drive plants and employmentaway.

Is it any wonder that there is sufficient hopelessness to drive manyto drug use and addiction.

Reding gives a bit of understanding of the large farm corporationsand the power they have over the supply chain and the influence theyhave in the U.S. Federal government. It’s a picture of how toefficiently produce lots and lots of goods, but it gives us no clueabout how to improve working conditions and wages. You come awayfrom reading “Methland” suspecting that big Ag, huge agriculturalcorporations are the problem in small, rural towns.

One solution for individuals is to move away from small depressedtowns to larger cities. But, that means that small towns are leftwith fewer people, likely loosing the more capable people, and willhave less and less resources to help those who remain. And,besides, big cities have their own problems, especially when theyare flooded with on in-migration from rural areas.

“Methland” is not a happy book, but it is fascinating andinformative.

If you are interested in “Methland”, then you might also beinterested in the following: (1) “Strangers in their own land: Angerand Mourning on the American Right”, by Arlie Russell Hochschild;(2) “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War”,by Joe Bageant; (3) “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family andCulture in Crisis”, by J. D. Vance; and (4) “The New Mind of theSouth”, by Tracy Thompson.

Book review — Ryan Avent; The wealth of humans

What we have now and will have more of in the future: (1) There will be more automation and more replacement of human labor by machines; it will spread to other jobs and kinds of labor. (2) Human worker productivity will increase; the same number of workers will produce more products and provide more services in the same or fewer number of hours. (3) Because of the increase in productivity, we will need less labor and fewer workers. There will be a loss of jobs and employment. (4) That will result in an excess of workers, i.e., in Avent’s terms, an abundance of labor. (5) And, there will be even more pressure for reduced labor costs and reduced wages.

Employers often have a desire to reduce their dependence on (human) labor, even when there is little or no savings in doing so. One thing that delays their attempts to replace labor with automation is when the cost of labor is cheap enough and employees are manageable enough (read easy to manipulate, do not make demands for benefits, do not ask for increased compensation, etc). If steps are taken which raise the cost of labor, firms will attempt to replace labor with machinery, expenditures on capital and equipment, redesigning products so that they require less labor to produce, and so on.

One thing that Avent does not discuss very much is labor misallocation. If I earn my living by dealing blackjack in a casino, and I work in Las Vegas, Nevada and I make demands on my employer (e.g. for higher wages), I can be easily replaced, since there are lots of blackjack dealers in Las Vegas. However, in Tonapah, Nevada, perhaps, I’m the only blackjack dealer in town, so I may be able to demand more pay, at least temporarily. It makes sense I suppose, for Avent to ignore this, because the kind of work that he mostly considers is usually in a competitive labor market. I suppose what he has in mind is work and services that are common and generic: cleaning hotel rooms, repetitive manufacturing tasks, driving vehicles (Avent believes that driver-less vehicles will eliminate the need for drivers).

Avent also seems to be considering work/labor that requires very little training or experience. Workers in a fast-food restaurant feel that they have very little bargaining power possibly because their employer can train a replacement to cook french fries in an hour and a half (not sure about this, but certainly it’s less time than it takes to train a school teacher, for example). The counter example to this easily replaced employee that Avent gives is that of taxi drivers in London. Until recently, at least, working as a taxi driver in London require extensive training and a good deal of intelligence, in part because drivers needed to learn the complex and very irregular road network in London. But, driver-less cars, with their automated GPS mapping applications, will likely put an end to that need; and even now, a mobile phone and a mapping app reduces that need and reduces the drivers’ bargaining power vs. their employers considerably.

ICT (information and communications technology) is a powerful force for automation and increased productivity. I read of one Silicon Valley venture capitalist being quoted as saying: people in my profession go around looking for ways to eliminate jobs. As software becomes more powerful and as computing hardware becomes cheaper, the rational for and pressures to reduce dependence on labor and to reduce labor costs will become even stronger.

ICT also enables and accelerates globalization, global trade, and economic integration across firms, and countries. That global trade is where many corporations make their profits. They will resist efforts to control and reduce it. In order to remain competitive, they will seek to produce their products wherever it can be done most cheaply. This means that workers in one country have to be willing to work for wages as low as or nearly as low as the cheapest world-wide producer. We are seeing the serious effects of this dynamic in the U.S., now, as much of the manufacturing work formerly done here is being done in other countries or as the workers in manufacturing industries and forced to accept lower, competitive wages.

Digital technology boosts the productivity of some workers, enabling them, at least temporarily, to demand and receive higher wages and more benefits. But, the number of those jobs seems to be dwindling. And, we are unlikely to be able to train everyone to perform them.

This kind of change also works by de-skilling some kinds of labor and employment. Cheaply available technology (smart phones, laptop computers with easy-to-use applications, etc.) is enabling some workers with lower skill levels to do work that formerly required extensive training and experience. That enables employers to offer lower pay and still fill their work force.

We have solved the problems of how to increase productivity and how to increase prosperity. What we have not solved are the problems associated with how to distribute the benefits of those increases. Those are political problems, and our political systems have failed to solve them, in part because those political systems are dysfunctional and plagued by partisan extremism. Additionally, those political systems are often controlled to heavily by actors on one side of this struggle, specifically corporations. We need to solve the problems that will enable us to create a world in which the benefits of the digital revolution are shared more broadly and more equitably.

In the U.S., we used to have at least a partial solution to this redistribution problem: we had reasonably strong labor unions. They supported wages and benefits for their members, and that also had a follow-on effect for other workers. But, the strength of labor unions in the U.S. and the number of members in them has been drastically reduced.

The political classes and the rich donors that support them, favor the needs and requests of corporations. Actually, because of the lobbyists hired by corporations, our government hears the corporate interests much more loudly than private ones.

Work in exchange for the ability to acquire/purchase the goods and services that we need and want is an essential and fundamental institution in our current social and economic structure. But, unless we can learn how to make that structure and the capitalist system that it supports function more equitably, that fundamental structure may have to change. If it does not, there are likely to be serious repercussions.

This time is different in the sense that we may actually be able to squeeze enough labor out of the production and services processes so that there is not enough labor to support a broad section of citizens in anything like a reasonable standard of living. Can our government ameliorate that? And, how? Could the federal government put enough people to work at reasonable wages at the tasks of repairing and building infrastructure or creating tourist facilities and industry in specific locations in the country?

In the future, there will less work and there will be more people who want and need it. That part is inevitable. The question becomes: what do we and our governments do in response? Fund make-work programs? Provide access to free training? Build more infrastructure? Some of these are good things to do. But, their effectiveness at solving the labor and societal problems is questionable.

Why this book is especially relevant now — In the U.S. (and Britain, too, if we can take Brexit as an indication), the working classes are rising up against the liberal, globally integrated, free-trade regime. And, since neither the Republican party nor the Democratic party has responded to the demands and needs of these working classes, we are experiencing an insurgency that is attempting to replace those two political parties with “a third way”. That may not be the best attempt at a solution (actually, it may be one of the worst), but since neither of the two major political parties has addressed these concerns, this terrible attempt at a solution at least has the fact that it has not been proven ineffective in its positive column.

However, Avent seems to be saying that there really is no solution to this problem. Increasing automation is inevitable; we cannot stop it; and the only way to slow it is for workers to accept lower wages, thus reducing the motivation of employers to automate.

You can add to that what Avent calls supply-chain trade, where a firm has the components for a product produced in multiple countries and assembled possibly in yet another country. So, you have increasing automation, which is squeezing labor out of the production process and you also have this supply-chain trade (or production strategy) which is likely seeking to produce parts of a product in regions offering the lowest possible wages, and the result is a production process that does not leave much in the way of reward or compensation for labor.

I suppose that I could whine about how these kinds of problems are caused by deregulation run amuck. But, (1) regulation and restrictions on the production process would not fix the labor abundance issues that Avent is explaining and (2) the freedom that firms have because of deregulation likely contributes to overall global prosperity, even while some classes of workers are hurt and suffer in the process.

And, I’d even argue that the standard nostrum (education and retraining for another kind of work) is not a viable solution. We cannot all be retrained and prepared for the high-tech jobs of the future. Why? Those jobs are likely to be automated, too; we are not all capable of doing highly technical work; and there will not be enough of those high-tech jobs in the near future, let alone in the more distant future.

As more jobs become high productivity jobs and as increasingly fewer workers are needed in those positions by corporations, the larger share of income is shifting from away from labor and toward capital, upper level management, and ownership. This means that the economic inequality that plagues our society now, is likely to get worse in the future.

Not only will we not go back to the 1950’s. We could not reset wages and working conditions to that era even if the political classes were to unite in an attempt to do so (which they will not). The transitions and history of capitalism are often ugly and unpleasant; lots of workers suffer and are poorly rewarded; often the larger share of profits goes to capital/ownership and to a few high value and highly placed individuals within each firm.

I suppose that we could hope that our national governments could at least do something to ameliorate the suffering and losses of displaced workers. But that amelioration is not likely to amount to much nor to be particularly effective. We don’t want to live a life without meaningful work and of exiting on the dole, anyway.

Book review — Scott Anderson; Lawrence in arabia

Anderson had written a very dense history of one period, World War I and the time immediately before and after it, and about one specific region, specifically Egypt, western Arabia, Palestine, and Syria.

Of course this is also a fascinating account of T.E. Lawrence and of his thoughts and writings, feeling and passions, strengths and weaknesses, and accomplishments and failures. But, there are other fascinating characters whose stories and activities cross with and influence Lawrence’s own, and whom Anderson follows throughout the book.

My own interest in this book revolves around the question: How did the Middle East become what it is today? Certainly, that question cannot be answered in full by an account, even as detailed a one as that given in “Lawrence in Arabia”, by an explanation of the period surrounding WW I. That would be a bit like saying that we or I could explain me completely by presenting my genome alone, without also describing my family, my education, my work experiences, and more. So, also, it would be a mistake to say that Lawrence and the people around him completely determined the trajectory of the Middle East while absolving all the actors who came after that period from credit or blame. And still, if we are to understand a little of why the Middle East is the way it is today and understand enough to think intelligently about policy decisions that effect the Middle East, then this is an important place to start.

Anderson tells this history through accounts of four principle characters, each, in his way, influential in that history and events that shaped the region: (1) T.E. Lawrence, of course, who started out with a quiet existence in England, but later was transformed by his passion for military history, archaeology, and the people and culture of the Arabian peninsula; (2) William Yale, who started life as a child in a rich family, but who found his footing, after his famil’s fortune was lost, with Standard Oil Company of New York (SOCONY), working in and exploring the Middle East, and later as an advisor and agent in the U.S. government; (3) Curt Prüfer, a highly capable spy and agent for the German government, a government that under Kaiser Wilhelm II, had aspirations for world power. And, (4) Aaron Aaronsohn, already famous for discovering the ancient ancestor of modern day wheat, whose dream was to develop the knowledge and technology needed to make the region around Palestine into a rich agricultural area and the site of the new home for the Jewish people, and who become a spy for the British as part of his plan to do so.

And, what makes the stories about these characters and others and about the events around them so fascinating, is that often (usually?) things are not what they seem to be nor what these and other characters claim them to be. This is not a book about characters who are members of a standard, organized, business-like war effort; they are characters in between: between different fighting forces, between different nations, between different tribes, between different departments in the same army even. It’s that confusion that makes “Lawrence in Arabia” and characters in it such a fascinating book.

This is also a history full of details about about military campaigns, preparations for campaigns and battles, the battles themselves, and the coordination and conflicts between the significant people (possibly) controlling those movements and battles, notably Lawrence, of course, but also his British military superiors and his Arab rebel allies. His main mission, from the point of view of (some at least) of his British military leads was to coordinate the Arab rebels’ actions against the Turks and align those actions with those of the British. But Lawrence, recognizing that British promises to the Arabs were likely to be broken after the war, became increasingly an independent actor both as a liaison and military commander.

It will be a help in understanding this book to have some appreciation of the mind-set of each of the principle characters and how that developed: (1) Lawrence was formed by schools in Britain, by an extremely punishing (even brutal) mother, by a love of history and archaeology, and by an appreciation of the Arabs in Syria and Arabia. (2) William Yale developed from a desire to not fall into the usual employment and life-style of his family’s class, by work that amounted to hardship tours in faraway places, and from a willingness to seek and follow adventure. (3) Aaron Aaronsohn came to be who he was from success in agricultural research and a desire to help the (Jewish) inhabitants of the Palestine region successful in farming, but even more important from his desire that the Jewish people in the region should have a home where they could be safe. He was a man who was arrogant, passionate, and combative; and he believed fervently in the cause of Zionism. (4) And, Curt Prüfer became what he was from an intense desire for success and access to luxury, enabled in part by a sharp intelligence especially with respect to learning foreign languages.

Anderson emphasises how keen each of these four were to gather information for use by their sponsors about the region and it’s actors; he also describes how skilled and adept they each were at doing so.

The part played by Lawrence in all this was an especially important one. He was the one who best understood the Arab rebels, who in some cases had their trust, and who could converse with them in their own language aided by an awareness of their culture and institutions. The British attempted to use Lawrence to encourage the Arab rebels to fight against the Turks and to help in coordinating their fighting with that of the British military, which seemed to need all the help it could get during several failed campaigns in and around Palestine.

Of course there is a good deal about the incredible feats of Lawrence himself: journeys on camel and even on foot across Syria, battles that he led, Arab campaigns and maneuvers that he led. These became part of the history and the myth about Lawrence. Anderson does a pretty reasonable job of helping us to understand which of these stories we can and cannot rely on and believe.

An important story told by Anderson is that of the promises made by the British in bad faith while they also made promises, for example, to the French. This is not a simple story; it has multiple actors with different, often conflicting, agendas. Anderson does a good job of laying out the details of this betrayal.

And yet, we can understand only so much by studying the characters. There are also the events and conditions that shaped their times. Perhaps the most important of these was the new demand for oil and petroleum. In the years immediately before WW I, the number of internal combustion engines and other users of petroleum was increasing at an extremely rapid rate. That’s why Yale was sent to the Middle East and a big reason why the British were there. It was why control of the Middle East and the petroleum resources in it drove the efforts of the major powers and would increasingly do so after WW I.

The latter parts of the book become increasingly grim and horrific as WW I drags on and 100s of thousands of soldiers are wounded and die on European battlefields, as the Arabs fight against the military from the Ottoman Empire, in part led by Lawrence himself, and the British forces too attach to drive the Ottoman Turks out of Syria and Palestine. Anderson, who has worked as a war correspondent, knows how to present the brutal reality of warfare; it’s an ugly picture.

Following these four principle characters throughout Anderson’s book makes this a fascinating read. There is an “Epilogue” chapter, that gives brief accounts of the lives of these characters after WW I, but I will not be a spoiler by summarizing that. This book is well worth the time you’d invest in it to find out about these very special and interesting and bigger-than-life people.

Book review — Jordan Fisher Smith; Nature noir

It’s not a long book, but still, it’s several books packed into one: (1) It’s a set of apparently true short stories about a few ne’er-do-well lawbreakers and about Smith’s attempts to deal with them as a ranger. There are also some investigations and mysteries. (2) It’s a story of a significant portions if Smith’s life, specifically the time he spent working as a ranger in Auburn State Recreation Area, just east of Sacramento, California. (3) It includes a partial history of the proposed Auburn dam, along with stories about those who promoted it and those who opposed it. (4) And, finally, it contains rather lyrical essays about the ASRA and canyon and river and wilderness and not-so wilderness in and around it, along with thought provoking discussions about people and the (more) natural world and about the changing relationship between them.

As the title “Nature noir” suggests, it’s often not a happy book. A ranger is not called in to deal with people who are well-adjusted, steadily employed, loving family members. The people who Smith is sent to deal with are, for example, camping in the canyon by the river long-term and gold mining, likely because they do not “fit” in the society with which many of us feel comfortable. And, because of Smith’s stories about people who are on the far edge of society, this book can also help give us a little empathy with people who are “out there someplace just barely hanging on”.

There is also the story about the woman who was killed by a mountain lion while she was jogging in ASRA. That leads Smith to write about the boundary between humans and nature, and about how places like ASRA enable us to step closer to that semi-wild region, about how that opportunity is and should be important to us, but also about how increasingly more densely populated regions like those surrounding ASRA cause more problems. It’s likely that his thoughts on and around that subject led Smith to research and write his more recent book “Engineering Eden” about the aftermath of the killing of a human by a grizzly bear. And, here is another enlightening and entertaining book about that intersection between humans and nature: “Nature wars”, by Jim Sterba.

Smith’s story about the decades long attempt to build the Auburn dam that would have flooded much of the canyon that he patrolled and came to know so well is also fascinating. Here in California, our history is about water: about what we do when we have it and what we when we don’t; about when we have too much of it and, more often, when we don’t have enough, about the extreme measures and projects we undertake to move water from where some of us do not use it to where more of us, or some of us with more money, will use it. I live in Sacramento, California; the Auburn dam, if it had been built, would have dammed the American River, and that river flows through Sacramento. I live more than an hour’s drive from the ocean (the San Francisco Bay), but I also, believe it or not, live at an elevation of about 50 feet above sea level. The American River that Smith talks about and the Sacramento River that it joins just a few miles from my home must get to the ocean, and while traveling that twisted hundred miles or so, must do so with a drop of a mere 50 feet. The rivers and the dams that control them and the dams that keep those rivers from flooding and the water they store so that I can have water during a long hot summer when there is almost never any rain, all those things matter to me, a lot. So, when Smith talks about the proposal to build a thin wall curved dam that would have to be anchored securely to the canyon walls, and then discusses the prevalence of seismic faults in that area (none as threatening as the San Andreas and Hayward faults that we have in the San Francisco Bay area, but still threatening to a dam) and discusses the composition of the soil and rock in the canyon walls and how that rock crumbles and is of various consistencies, then he’s helping me think a bit about how maybe we can’t do everything we want with water. As an anecdote, I took a walk in the ASRA this last weekend. After reading “Nature noir”, I began to notice the dirt and rock along the sides of the trail, and I started asking “How could they anchor a large dam to that?” I’ve visited Olmsted Point in Yosemite National Park. Olmsted Point is made of huge slabs of solid granite, which is in part why it so scenic and majestic. The canyon walls in ASRA are not like that at all; they are soft and crumbly. After reading Smith and “Nature noir”, I’m more than willing to believe that it would be loony to build a large, thin, concrete dam, to try to anchor it to that jumble of dirt and rocks, and then to put the huge weight of a high wall of water on one side of that dam, which of course is a heavy structure itself.

So, all in all, I think that “Nature noir” is a very thoughtful and thought provoking book.

Book review — Brian Fagan; The little ice age

This book has a number of lessons to teach us.

One is that climate change can happen rapidly. A major regime change can take place in significantly less than a century, perhaps even within a decade.

Another lesson is that abrupt climate change is unpredictable. A natural but unpredictable event such as volcanic eruption, an earthquake, or even major storms can trigger changes that cause significant changes in temperature that last multiple years. But, even ignoring those unpredictable natural events, the climate and weather system itself is chaotic. The ocean currents and global air flows form a complex system that works in ways that we do not fully understand and that cause chaotic changes that cannot be explained by simple causal chains.

And additional lesson is that the system (wind patterns, ocean currents, storm patterns, volcanic eruptions, even the eccentric orbit and changing tilt of our planet around the Sun, and more) is very complex; we do not thoroughly understand it; and it works in non-linear ways.

One more lesson is that not even the direction of climate change is predictable. Yes, we are in a period of global warming. But, as Fagan explains, that could cause changes in ocean currents that could send us back into another “little ice age”.

Some of the complexity of that global system of weather and winds and ocean currents is explained in an early chapter of “The little ice age” where Fagan discusses the NAO (the North Atlantic Oscillation). The NAO has to do with the difference in atmospheric pressures over Iceland and the Azores Islands: persistently high over one and low over the other, and sometimes the reverse. Changes in the NAO are associated, in history, with times of extreme cold and rains over England and Europe. In 1315 C.E., at a time when little food could be saved for use during years of low or no harvests, this had disastrous results.

And, one of Fagan’s warnings would seem to have no consequences for me, but is vastly important: as he says, hundreds of millions of people in the world live, today, on subsistence agriculture, subsisting from harvest to harvest. A crop failure for them is close to a death sentence. Unlike me, they cannot go to the supermarket and buy food on their credit or debit card. Our policies and actions might push us closer to a regime whose weather patterns, in some years, are outside the boundaries that produce successful harvests. For these people, that human forced global warming, even modest and incremental warming, is not a matter of slightly less comfortable summer temperatures; it is, again in some years, a matter of life and death.

The overriding lesson: It’s not smart to mess with Mother Nature.

One additional comment by Fagan that should give us reason to be cautious about what we do that affects the global climate and weather system: we still do not understand, as of his writing, what caused the Little Ice Age. When you do not understand the mechanism, it is wise to be very cautious about tampering with its controls. And, keep in mind that our planet Earth is not an isolated system. In order to understand that system thoroughly, we would also need to take into account variations in the Earth’s eccentric orbit around the Sun, as well as changes in the Sun’s surface and its output, although we do not have any control over those conditions and that behavior.

Fagan’s views on these matters seemed to have developed and are supported by his study of long-term weather patterns. For more on that, you may want to read one of his other books: “The attacking ocean”.

Book review — Brian Fagan; The attacking ocean

It’s a book about the places that have been attached and destroyed by rising sea levels and storm surges. There have been a variety of causes of these destructive events: earthquakes and tsunamis for one, cyclones and hurricanes for another. And, rising sea levels have been and will make those events even more destructive. Fagan gives accounts about how these events have affected human populations over a long historical time period.

Fagan does a good job of emphasizing how incredibly costly it will be for populated areas along sea coasts to protect themselves. Building defensive structures around cites on the coast is very costly, and Fagan is right to tell us that the maintenance on those structures will be massively expensive, too, and that is if we do shoulder the cost of building them in the first place. Some regions and nations, Fagan suggests, can afford to build these defensive works in protection against rising and surging water. According to Fagan, the Netherlands seems to be one of those; Cairo and Egypt seems not to be. Perhaps even more worrisome are places and times where there has been a will to build the defensive structures in the first place, but then, either through negligence or an inability to shoulder the costs, the maintenance work has not been kept up, leaving people who were tempted to live in protected areas at risk.

Moving people away from threatened regions on the coast is another strategy that Fagan discusses. In some situations, that might be a costly but acceptable strategy, in particular where the threatened population is small and the buildings and infrastructure is not so valuable that they cannot be given up. But, even when that might seem to some of us to be an acceptable option, to those who would have to give up their homes and other buildings, it often seems not. So, even then, this becomes an unacceptable (or at least, unaccepted) solution, especially when those living in the threatened area are wealthy and politically connected, or even when not and, for example, a minority group can claim that their homes are being unfairly sacrificed when those of the privileged are not.

Fagan, as you’d expect, does discuss climate change. And, he dumps a reasonable amount of scorn on those who deny climate change, its effects and threats, and its human causes. He makes clear that there is more to this than the rise of the sea level by just a few centimeters. It’s also that increased damage that will be caused when that sea level rise is compounded with storm surges, especially at high tides and, when we have, as we do already, subsidence along the shoreline caused by ground water pumping.

And, in our age, there is another factor we should consider. In Fagan’s time scales, hundreds and even thousands of years, formerly, populations were much lower and smaller that they are currently. Now, we have huge cities containing tens of millions of people situated in threatened areas on the coasts and at the mouths of rivers. Where the number of lives threatened formerly was large, now it is immense. Any loss of life is deplorable, but in our future, that loss of lives and the destruction of property that likely will come with it will be catastrophic.

There is more to this book than stories of threatened regions. Fagan also tells a story of the advance of civilization as weather and climate and sea levels, too, have changed over the last 12,000 years. You get some of that story in the early chapters of this book. You can find many more details about those millennium long changes in one of Fagan’s other books: “The little ice age”.

There are chapters about rivers and deltas and the storms and storm surges that attacked them. And, there is a chapter about tsunamis and the regions they destroyed.

I regret one thing about “The attaching ocean”: I live near the U.S. west coast (I’m actually in central California). I’ve read that one of the most threatened areas is the Pacific northwest and the coast of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. There is a fault, a meeting between the tectonic plates off the coast of Oregon, that has not given way for several hundred years. It’s called the Cascadia subduction zone. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cascadia_subduction_zone) When that earthquake comes, and it must, the damage and loss of life will be severe. I wish that Fagan had spent a few pages on that story. He is excellent at explaining and describing the risks that face us along our coasts, and he’d have helped us understand that one, too.

In the later chapters of “The attaching ocean”, Fagan explains why all this matters, what it means to people across the world. For example: (1) Rising oceans will result in loss of agricultural land. That means that the world will have less ability to produce food for a population that is already pushing the limits of our ability to provide for it. There will be hunger. (2) Rising oceans means that there will be loss of land where people now live, resulting in huge migrations of those who have lost their homes. Fagan notes that the population of cities near coast where there will be inevitable flooding is huge. In many cases, these populations and their governments are poor and will be unable to afford the cost of building the defensive works needed to offer some protection against rising sea levels and will be unable to provide the relief and alternative living space for those that will be displaced.

The ratchet effect — Fagan makes clear that some populations and nations across the globe are more able and can better afford to both prepare for the effects of rising oceans and to deal with those effects when they do come. But, he also describes how being able to do so is a mixed blessing and because it results in larger and larger populations that live in threatened areas. In effect, eventually, what this means is that when those preparations and defenses and accommodations fail, as they inevitable and eventually will, many times more people will be harmed. Nature’s time-line is not smooth. It is not monotonic, regular, or predictable. We are preparing for a range of events that will eventually be exceeded. Add to that the fact that a 100 year storm with today’s sea level will mean something different from that same storm with tomorrow’s higher sea level. And, our preparations have the effect of encouraging and enabling many more people to stay and live in the areas that will be destroyed by tomorrow’s storms and earthquakes.

I suggest that you look for Fagan’s comments about salinity and soils. Yes, we live in an industrial and even post-industrial age. But, we still depend on food grown on land, and as more of that land becomes saline (either because of rising sea level or land subsidence) our ability to feed ourselves will be threatened.

This is a frightening but fascinating book.

Book review — Matt Ridley; The rational optimist

This is an uplifting and even cheerful book to read. If you are like me and you worry about climate change and the environment, then you may be put off a bit by Ridley’s some what hardy sweeping aside of concerns about climate and environment that he finds are misguided. But, it’s good to see things from the other side. And, Ridley is a extremely witty writer. “The rational optimist” is both enjoyable and well work reading.

Rather than try to evaluate Ridley’s claims, I give some chapter summaries and will let you evaluate and analyse for yourself.

  • Prologue — Progress and prosperity come from communication, sharing, collective work, ideas that feed other ideas and thinking, and the benefits of specialization, plus sharing, trading, and selling what you are a specialist in producing.

  • Chapter 1, A better today — The past was not better than the present; it was terrible. The future will be better, yet. Today, even the poor are better off than most near everyone of fifty years ago. The things that are important to us are getting cheaper and more available, in particular, food, energy, light, transportation, communications, shelter, and plumbing. We live well because we have the work of others available to us; self-sufficiency is the road to poverty. We live well and can do so without slaves, which was not possible in ancient times.

  • Chapter 2, The collective brain — What makes humans unique and different from other species is that they share, in particular they share knowledge and ideas, goods and services. They communicate ideas and know-how. They trade and barter for goods. They perform tasks and work for each other. Individuals do specialized and different labor and tasks. There is division of labor. And, that encourages individuals to improve the particular tasks that they do. Individuals learn skills and technologies from each other; they innovate; and they pass those innovations along to others. In order to make this sort of progress, a sufficiently large population (with prevalent contacts and communication) is necessary; else the civilization will regress. Self-sufficiency will take you backwards.

  • Chapter 3, The manufacture of virtue — The need to negotiate with others, to barter and trade with strangers as well as those we know, and to negotiate with others for our own benefit all teach us to be good people. There is not a conflict between Adam Smith’s two books: our moral sentiment to need others to be happy on the one hand, and to seek self-interest on the other, are not in conflict. Virtue, cooperation, collaboration, trade, teamwork, and much more are all possible because of the human capacity for empathy and trust. Altruism and cooperation are more natural and innate than their opposites (selfishness and self-seeking in opposition to the efforts of others). The world of human interaction (trade and cooperation) is not a zero-sum game; it is one where we both (both sides of many transactions) benefit from trust and cooperation. Acting unfairly in our dealings with others is not, in general, a good strategy for success. The effect is, long term, that the world is becoming more safe and less violent.

  • Chapter 4, Feeding the nine billion — Across long-term history, we are feeding more people with less negative impact on the environment. Eating local is not good for us; it is not a good policy in general for all people, though it may be rewarding for some individuals. Improved technology is enabling us to grow and produce more food, and to feed more people with less negative effects on land and air and water etc.

  • Chapter 5, The triumph of cities — Population density is needed for innovation and the maintenance of civilization and society. There has been a long-term trend away from more people working on food production (farming) and toward more people working in cities (producing things that benefit humans in addition to food). The ability to trade goods across increasingly longer distances augmented prosperity. Trade across oceans is an extension of this. Free trade between cities and countries produces prosperity and the goods and materials that make our lives better. Ridley warns against bureaucracy, red tape, excessive taxes, restrictions and rules that stifle the formation of businesses and companies and markets and trade. And, free trade causes prosperity. Slums, factories, sweat shops, tenements, etc., according to Ridley are all good: people go there because life is better there than on the farm; people go there hoping for a better life, and eventually find it, for their children and possibly even for themselves. Subsistence farming (farm to fork, eating local) is a poverty trap; the city offers freedom and opportunity. The city is where the collective brain becomes effective; it’s where economic growth is born and happens. And, by the way, living in cities is good for the environment, in part because city dwellers take up less space (have a smaller environmental footprint) than rural dwellers.

  • Chapter 6, Escaping Malthus’s trap — Most of the world is transitioning from the demographics of high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility. Those who predict a population explosion and disastrous consequences from it are wrong. Countries lower their birth rates as their populations become healthier, wealthier, better educated, more urbanised, and more emancipated.

  • Chapter 7, The release of slaves — Successful capitalism eliminated slavery. Cheap (non-human, non-animal) energy was the enabler. Manufacturers and transportation providers, for example will choose and use non-animal and non-human energy sources when they have the option (rather than human energy or work). Advances in well-being and prosperity were (are) caused by mechanisation, i.e. by the amplification of one person’s labour by machinery and fuel. Increased productivity (per person), caused by mechanisation (increased use of machinery and power by workers) enabled workers to produce more, earn more, and become consumers as well as workers. Renewable energy sources cannot replace use of fossil fuels without disastrous consequences for the environment. And, biofuels are the worst of all. Energy efficiency is increasing; we are getting more and more useful work out of each unit of fossil fuel.

  • Chapter 8, The invention of invention — Several false predictions: (1) The increase in knowledge and productivity will slow down. (2) The economy and levels of production are headed towards a steady, stable state, diminishing returns, and slower growth (approaching zero). Ridley is trying to explain what drives innovation. And, he is trying to argue that the rate of innovation will not slow down, although where it happens and what field or industry it happens in will shift over time. Science, Ridley claims, is not the driver of innovation; many inventors were not scientists and were not scientifically ignorant. Was capital and investment the driver of innovation? No, says Ridley. Intellectual property protections? No, again, he says. Government. No. Exchange and sharing? Yes, he says. New technologies emerge from the combining of previous technologies. And, our newly enhanced abilities to share information and to work cooperatively will enable us to solve more problems and to solve them more quickly than ever before. Ridley envisions a future which is much more bottom-up. It’s a future with much less top-down control, both from governments and within corporations; it’s a future in which much more happens through the cooperative efforts of individuals.

  • Chapter 9, Turning points (pessimism) — Ridley discounts reasons for feeling pessimistic about the future. His most important arguments in this direction are (1) the future will not be like the past; (2) we will not continue to do things as we’ve done up until now; and (3) we will be able to solve lots of problems (see previous chapter for more on that). The argument from horse manure: If we keep on doing things the way we are now, there will be 10 feet of horse manure in every major street of every major city; but, we did not keep doing things the way we are now. Ridley believes that this argument can be used as a counter argument to all sorts of pessimistic claims about the future.

  • Chapter 10, The catallaxy — The word catallaxy was used and discussed by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. That origin should tell us something about Ridley’s leanings. In particular, the ability of markets and economies to thrive in spite of, possibly because of, divergent needs and wants, ideas and values. The only thing that can stop our progress toward greater prosperity is a political system (or perhaps a religious one) that attempts to shut down our attempts to invent and innovate.

Ridley’s message: arise, collaborate, and innovate.

Book review — Matt Ridley; The evolution of everything

There are a number of themes in Ridley’s book, and I believe we can classify under several broad categories: (1) There is the descriptive aspect under which he wants use to view many of the processes in the world around us (and inside us, too) as processes that evolve, processes that are self-organizing, that are not controlled in any top-down or centralized way, and that are driven in a bottom-up and decentralized way by the actions of many agents. And, (2) there is the normative aspect where he wants to tell us that this decentralized, bottom-up, self-organizing way is how things should be, and that lots of things go wrong whenever an wherever top-down, centralized control takes over.

I think we can see where we’re headed with that. We’re off to a political agenda that promotes small government and low taxes.

You can likely also easily figure out that I’m on the opposite side of the political spectrum on this. I’d be on the liberal side of the aisle in the U.S. Congress, if I were a member of Congress. Whereas, Ridley, who actually is a member of the British House of Lords would be on the libertarian side, which, because the terminology may be different over there, might be called the liberal faction.

No matter, lots of Ridley’s ideas and thoughts are worth reading and thinking about.

Actually, Ridley has me leaning in his direction early on in the book, because he introduces and praises the ideas from Lucretius and his “De rerum natura”, in particular the way it is discussed by Stephen Greenblatt in “The swerve: how the world became modern”.

In terms of explanation and understanding, Ridley is very much opposed to what he calls skyhooks. I take that to mean an explanation based on an idea that cannot be observed, verified, or refuted. Elsewhere in “The evolution of everything”, Ridley refers to Karl Popper’s ideas about refutability and about how a theory or claim that cannot be refuted actually has no explanatory power or meaning.

Early on in “The evolution of everything”, Ridley criticizes Enlightenment thinkers for maintaining their religious beliefs in their explanations of nature. And, I think it would be useful to view much of Ridley’s book as an attempt to purge our thought of all thinking that is backed up by some sort of irrational belief that cannot be refuted, and, therefore, really has little or no explanatory power. In a sense, Ridley’s project in this book is to see just how far he can go in eliminating skyhook thinking, the use of an unsupported base for our ideas, and especially in eliminating any top-down, authority basis for our ways of understanding ourselves, our history, our values, our politics, our technology and science, and much more.

A word or two about Ridley’s use of the term “evolution” — Ridley does not mean to infer some sort of biological or genetic sense of evolution. He really is trying to emphasise incremental, often (but not always) gradual change, and change that is not designed in advance or controlled in some central way. Another way to to describe Ridley’s approach is to say that he wants to show that nature, society, science, technology, morals, and all the rest changes in a pragmatic way, that these processes change and advance (although we need to be careful about assuming some sort of universal and god given values about that is and is not advancement) by muddling along and by trial and rejection, etc.

Part of Ridley’s goal is to show that the institutions, conceptual frameworks, etc that are important to us are currently evolving and will evolve in the future. But, an important part of his agenda is also to show that they have evolved in the past and that their development in the past was incremental and bottom-up, and, importantly, that they had no central planner or design. Ridley believes that institutions, just like biological organisms, are subject to selective pressures while they evolve, resulting in incremental changes that cause them to become better suited for the environment they evolve in and to become more (better) adapted for that environment.

In fact, Ridley believes that, for example, (the collection of all our technologies?) is or has become an autonomous, self-perpetuating organism. I suppose that suggests that our technology is going to go on evolving and developing, regardless of anything we do to limit, control, or stop it.

Ridley is opposed to most and current patent and copyright law. He feels that, rather than encourage innovation and technological advance, these laws and “protections” protect monopolies. It would be of value to hear Ridley’s thoughts about copyright protection applied to Open Source software and writings. One purpose of applying an Open Source copyright is to prevent the capture of a project or body of work by someone who might try to put a restrictive copyright to that work. That seems to me to be an effective way to encourage innovation.

To get an idea of just how broadly Ridley wants to apply his ideas about evolutionary, incremental, self-organizing development, think a bit more closely about the book’s title: “The evolution of everything” and then take a look at its table of contents. Sixteen chapter titles begin with “The evolution of xxxx”. One of Ridley’s central themes is that nothing appears out of nothing; everything develops (incrementally) out of many predecessors. New technologies develop out of previous ones, which develop, in turn out of previous technologies. New laws develop from previous ones and from much else, in addition. New morals, customs, fads, etc develop from earlier ones. Etcetera.

Some of Ridley’s optimism about the ability or likelihood that incremental processes will turn out for the best and that they will do so without control or regulation from a centralized governing body makes me queasy. Ridley is not a blind or oblivious optimist. He has been a writer for “The economist” and “The Times” of London for a number of years. He was chairman of the UK bank Northern Rock when there was a run on the bank and the bank was bailed out by the British government. So, he must surely understand how things “left to themselves” can go awry and go haywire. One would think that he’d have come to believe that a bit of centralized regulation would be helpful in some contexts. But, that does not seem to be the case. He really does seem to be a full-throttle, in it all the way, free market, deregulation purist.

There is a downside to all this talk about how our institutions, science, technology, society, and so much more evolve, develop incrementally, and are emergent. To say that an organism or structure is emergent, is to say that it evolved out of many things in a path dependent way, and that this development was not predictable. That implies that we cannot say much in the way of explanation about why it developed into the particular structure that it did. The background for this emergence and the predecessors from which something emerges (the items in the path dependent development or emergence, so to speak) can be extremely complex. What’s more, those preceding events and conditions can include both things in the physical, natural world and things and events in the society, educational system, accumulated media and literature, etc from which the emergent conditions and system develops. Ridley is well aware of this complexity. He is, from what I can tell, a believer in and proponent of chaos and complexity theory.

For Ridley, to say that something came about through evolution is to say that it is made up of cumulative changes. That implies several things. For one, it means that the road to its current state was (is) path dependent. And for another, it means that changes are (mostly) preserved as new changes are added. So, I suppose, we can look at any complex, evolved system as a series of states, each one of which proceeded from a previous state.

One important aspect of seeing evolution in so many different systems at so many different levels is that those systems can interact with and influence each other. That’s a bit hard for me to my get my head around. One example that Ridley gives is that our genetic system influences and is influenced by our social system (society). So, we as a species are changed by the society and culture that our species has created.

Ridley has unbounded confidence that incremental, bottom-up, evolutionary, organic changes produce better results that any top-down centralized control could have. I’m sure there are cases and contexts where that is true, but I’m also sure that there are cases where uncontrolled growth has produced unpleasant results. Ridley seems to be claiming that the incredible, unprecedented economic growth and increase in the average standard of living that has occurred since the start of the industrial age is one of those success stories. I’ll agree. But, that growth has also had serious negative consequences. To me, it seems that a bit of planning and control would have helped at times. But, I get the feeling that Ridley believes that not only would control of that process be bad, but that it would also be impossible. These are strange claims from someone who criticizes belief systems because they are not refutable and because no amount of evidence is accepted as destructive to belief in the system.

Another criticism that Ridley has of top-down, centralized systems is that the goods and services they provide are more expensive that similar goods and services that might have been provided by an uncontrolled, decentralized system. Again, you can see where he is headed with this: towards smaller government, reduced regulation, and lower taxes. But, I wonder how Ridley would explain how we get bridges and roads and major parts of our communication systems if everything must be funded by the private sector?

“The evolution of everything” seems to be an argument for no centralized government control or funding for anything: science, technology, infrastructure development, and education, too; they are all worse off from centralized, government control. So, does that mean that our roads and bridges will be better if produced by the private sector? That seems like a very extreme position. And, Ridley’s arguments for these positions usually amount to citing from a single book that he has found that supports his claim. That’s very weak, don’t your think? In my public library or at Amazon.com I’m confident that I can find some book to support almost any position.

Ridley’s heroes are rational skeptics: Lucretius (whom he quotes that the beginning of each chapter), Spinoza, Voltaire, and Richard Dawkins. I’d say that we should follow that kind of recommendation and that we should be rational and skeptical about Ridley’s ideas, too, and that we should look for worthwhile, informative ideas in “The evolution of everything”, as well as ideas to be skeptical about.

In spite of my criticisms and skepticism (I’m trying to take Ridley’s advice to be a rational skeptic), “The evolution of everything” is very much worth reading. It’s packed with lots of interesting ideas and arguments that will stimulate you to think in new ways about very significant problems.

Ridley, himself, is a fascinating character. For more about him, you might start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Ridley. I’d love to hear his thoughts on the current (Feb. 2016) controversy between the U.S. government and Apple computer over whether Apple should provide the government with the ability to access data on any of Apple’s smartphones. I’m guessing he’d have a few rants about that.

Book review — Peter C. Whybrow; American mania: when more is not enough

Here are two approaches to reading “American mania”: (1) View it as a description and analysis of American society. Or, (2) use it to analyze your own life, looking for help with your own attempts to make intelligent decisions about what is best for your life and needs. This book and Whybrow’s analysis are valuable in both ways.

Whybrow claims that too often we are not rational and not intelligent when making decisions about how to spend our money and how to spend our time. There are actually two claims packed into that: We both (1) make poor decisions and (2) we do not choose consciously. This book is a guide to correcting both of those problems.

He encourages us to stop measuring our social success and even our well-being based on an excess of material goods.

Often when we spend extravagantly on material goods that do not even make us happy of content, we go into debt. When we go into debt, we have to work harder and longer. When we work harder and longer, we become stressed. This is the process that Whybrow warns us about. We have, he believes, created many environments that are ideal for creating stress and anxiety.

Whybrow refers a number of times to the writings of Adam Smith. He wants to balance the acquisitiveness and self-seeking described in “The wealth of nations” with the communitarian attitudes advocated in “The theory of moral sentiments”. This is a balance that he feels we have moved away from and lost, to our detriment, since the 1960’s. In fact, he devotes most of a chapter to a discussion of how to obtain this balance. See chapter 9.

Whybrow claims that we as a nation are genetically disposed to an excess of materialism, self-seeking, acquisitiveness, etc. It’s because, he claims, we are a nation of immigrants, and immigrants are self-selected to be adventurous, hard working, inquisitive, etc., all trains which give us a predisposition in a land of excess material goods to spend and purchase irrationally. Possibly, but another explanation for our tendency to over-indulge, over-spend, and over-work in an attempt to pay goes something like this: our grandparents came to this country to gain a better life and they wanted a better life (better than their own) for their children; our parents (our grandparents’ children) wanted a better life and they wanted an even better life for their children; now we want that better life and we want a yet more better life for our children. So, it’s not surprising that our children (adolescents, teenagers, young adults) end up pampered, self-indulgent, self-centered, self-seeking, and spending too much money on too many things that are not enriching and not doing much to make us happy.

Whybrow does, briefly, consider the effects of the extremes of wealth and poverty and the extreme disparities of income size in the U.S. But, for his purposes, he considers that mainly to explain our desires for excess, unneeded material goods: members of the middle class are being enticed into attempting to live in a upper class lifestyle. He does not spend much space considering the reality that many in the U.S. face, namely that they are barely able to afford and pay for necessary goods and that one reasonably large, unexpected expense (car repairs or a set of tires to replace dangerously worn ones, medical or dental care for themselves or their children), let alone “unnecessary” but very valuable expenses (placing their child in a school that is not dangerous, a child’s college expenses, for example). For these, material goods, the ones they purchase, are a necessity.

Whybrow considers the aggravating factor that full-time, predictable, long-term employment is becoming less common in the U.S. This transformation is a structural change in American industry and commerce, in part caused by information mangagement. And, as that change happens, Americans over-extend themselves, trying to maintain the pretense that they are still middle-class by going into debt, and perhaps even working extra hours just in the hopes of not being laid off. We should ask: are those extra work hours misguided, or is that a rational response to precarious times. Is that borrowing and spending frivolous, or is it a justified response to harder financial times? Those of us who are fortunate enough not to be forced into that predicament, and keep in mind that current trends indicate that we will all be contractors someday, should try to walk a mile in their shoes.

We should Whybrow to ignore those faced with more threatening economic times, I suppose. The people whom Whybrow treats as clients and who likely are the case studies that he describes in this book can, after all, afford his care and fees, so they are, we can guess, not people who are struggling to pay for groceries. But, many in the U.S. are.

It’s worthwhile, also, to consider another, small, class of people that Whybrow does not talk about: those for whom vast amounts of money comes to them, successful musicians, for example, and who cannot resist the extravagant lifestyle, the excess women and sex, and the alcohol and drugs that do more damage to their lives than good. But, that’s a topic for yet another book.

We, members of the human species, have evolved (1) to be curious and seek novelty and also to take risks. We have also evolved (2) to be conservative and to seek safety and security and also to form alliances and friendships and kinships that help to obtain and preserve that security. The need to obtain balance between these two tendencies is a theme that Whybrow returns to a number of times. He believes that our success in finding and living within that balance makes all the difference in living a successful life with a reasonable amount of stress and emotional discomfort.

And, in terms of evolution, Whybrow believes that traits like curiosity and the willingness to take risks breed true across generations. That’s part of his argument that our being a nation composed of a high percentage of immigrants, effectively people who have self-selected to be curious about living somewhere different and willing to take the risks to do so, is what explains the large number of people in the U.S. who spend excessively, seeking novelty and obtaining the material goods others have. I’m doubtful that this story based on evolution is very important for Whybrow’s attempt to explain the problems he sees or his attempts to help us with our lives, but I don’t believe that the possible weakness of the genetic argument affects the value of his book.

Whybrow spends some time explaining the brain and neurological basis for our problems in terms of serotonin (calming), norepinephrine (activating, and dopamine (modulation of brain pathways with a central role in curiosity and novelty seeking behavior). Again, that’s interesting, but for us lay people, those of us for whom that explanation is not going to lead to any ability to deal with our behavior, I’m not convinced that this explanation is useful.

Whybrow is a bit obsessed with the idea that we live in a temptation rich environment. Much of that temptation is created by marketing, but even state governments add to it by running state lotteries, even though, Whybrow claims, the costs for the resulting needed rehabilitation exceed the earnings.

Another theme that Whybrow returns to repeatedly is that we as a society are transitioning toward more and more risk taking, toward more self-seeking behavior, and away from a communitarian lifestyle, away from an inclination to spend time with family and friends. Whybrow also describes a drift or transition away from civic mindedness, away from social activism and social involvement, and toward a self-seeking and self-interested and even selfish lifestyle, toward a more materialistic society, and toward focus on celebrity, fame, money, and possessions. He claims that this drift is causing an increase in stress and anxiety, even while it may be bringing an increase in wealth and material goods to some (perhaps for only a few, depending on how you measure). He views this transition as a failure of the kind of balance that Adam Smith envisioned and expected, a balance where greed and acquisitiveness are held in check by social concerns, by our empathy for others, and by, in Smith’s words, moral sentiment.

In terms of leadership, the elites whom we follow and attempt to emulate, are transitioning from being generative, humanitarian, and communitarian toward being competitive, self-seekers who follow a winner-take-all set of values.

I’ll agree with Whybrow about how we are often led to unwise choices by the ready availability of buying opportunities. Online merchants and brick and mortar stores, too, try to make it as easy as possible for us to make purchases. They would be incompetent and misguided if they did not. Online merchants, in particular, try to enable us to make purchases with as few clicks as possible. And, the ready credit and payment mechanisms provided by credit cards are key enablers of this all to easy ability to make purchases, whether we need them or not, and whether we can wisely afford them or not. Advertising, promotion, and marketing push us further in that direction. And, because it is important to their viability and profits, corporations have become very good at this.

We, as a species, are weak on our ability to determine when we have had enough of a good thing and to act accordingly. We did not evolve, as a species, to be able to deal with abundance. When we evolved, there was not much survival value in the ability to deal with abundance, whereas there certainly was survival value in being able to deal with scarcity. I suppose there is some truth to this, but, to me, it smells of the arguments in favor of a “paleo” lifestyle. If you need some caution about that, read “Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live”, by Marlene Zuk. It’s an entertaining book, and one of Zuk’s points is that we have evolved plenty, and continue to do so, since paleolithic times.

Whybrow’s claim that we (now) live in artificial habitats sounds a bit like more of this warmed over “paleo” theory. Yes, we do, as Whybrow claims, need to adapt (or adjust) to our artificial habitat, but we humans live in so many artificial environments and have done so for so long, that talk about evolving to be able to live in them seems a bit hopeless. And, if we want to talk about individually adapting to the environment that each of us lives in, I believe that can best be viewed as making smart choices, which Whybrow is certainly advocating, rather than some kind of genetic adaptation.

Here are some of the causes of our difficulties, in Whybrow’s view: (1) our drift toward a celebrity model of success; (2) the ready availability of cheap food with lots of calories; (3) the mass marketing of food, especially food with artificial flavors, appealing textures and colors, and lots of calories; (4) our drift toward a more sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise; (5) our confusion of freedom to buy with real freedom, e.g. political freedom; and (6) mass marketing and big box stores. In general Whybrow advocates wise living and describes how we are not doing it. Mostly, it’s what your mother tried to teach you.

We are seeking prosperity, social success, financial success, abundance, etc. while ignoring whether it brings happiness and contentment and satisfaction with it. Prosperity and various kinds of success are good; they bring other and additional kinds of benefits.

In some sense, this book is analysis and recommendations on how to live your life well and intelligently, on how to align your efforts, work, and time with your real needs and wants, and especially hoe to not go chasing after things that would make you crazy and stressed and sick. That’s a lot; that’s very valuable, if you take it seriously enough to think through your own situation and choices. And, perhaps one of the biggest benefits of “American mania” is the amount of details and stories woven around these issues and the help they can give in trying to think through those problems.

I have one serious reservation about “American mania”: Whybrow assumes that the good life is a communitarian one, a life with lots of connections and time spent with friends and family, and a life where that time spent with others is what makes life valuable. But, I’m a loner. I’d be a member of The Loners Society”, except that loners can’t have a society. I’m most happy when most of my time is spent alone, with a reasonable amount of time with my wife, and a small amount of time with friends. So, while I’m all in on Whybrow’s advice to think through our life choices carefully and I’m very much in agreement with his claims about the importance of empathy and “moral sentiment” for our lives, still I’ve got to push back a bit about his encouragement to spend more time with family and friends. After a bit, that bores me. That’s to be expected I think, since I’m a computer programmer and computer programmers must be able to spend large amounts of time working alone. (We’re not the only ones, by the way. Think of writers and mathematicians.) So, for me, I attempt to follow some of Whybrow’s advice, but look for ways to get life’s satisfactions and contentment from time spent alone, too.

Book review — Stephen Breyer; The Court and the World

Possibly, Breyer has two central points: (1) that the Supreme court especially, and possibly other courts in the U.S. as well, will increasingly need to deal with cases that have foreign and international connections, perhaps because the interested parties come from or have foreign connections, perhaps because the case itself is effected by international situations or has international consequences; and (2) that Justices will increasingly need to be informed about international events, international history, and international law as well as law from other countries.

Some additional points that Breyer discusses:

  • When the security of the nation/state is threatened, do not expect normal law to apply, or at least not to have the strength that it might normally have. Yes, but, surely there is a difference between a time of threat to the existence of the nation or its government, on the one hand, and threats to some of its citizens, on the other. In the first case, certainly, we need to mobilize all the citizens and resources of the nation for the purpose of its defence, whereas in the second case, we need police action and, especially the rule of law.

  • Foreign affairs are different from domestic ones. The President of the U.S. has broader, stronger powers with respect to foreign affairs than the U.S. Congress, in comparison to the President’s and Congress’s relative power with respect to domestic affairs.

  • That an official, for example the President of the U.S. has a power to do something does not automatically imply that this official has the power to delegate that power to someone else. For example, the President of the U.S. has the power of clemency, and can grant pardons and commute sentences. But, it does not follow that the President can delegate the power to do so to another official.

A question that Breyer deals with — If we suppose that the U.S. Supreme Court has the duty to limit the power of the President of the U.S. especially powers assumed during and because of the “War on Terror”, then (1) how and by what mechanisms is it to do so; and (2) how is it to become informed and what does it need to know in order to do so, given that for security reasons some information may be classified and available only to the President, possibly even due to the President’s orders.

Breyer stresses that other current modern democracies and their courts have also worked on and are developing solutions to some of these problems. We and our courts can learn from their work, writings, court cases, and laws, and still not merely adopt their solutions without consideration and adaptation. This is especially relevant to limits on executive power and to actions based on the “War on Terror”.

In addition, the Court must understand the threats (e.g., terrorist threats) themselves, and this requires information from outside the U.S. and possibly information that is classified as secret.

This is an extremely informative book, in part because Breyer works hard to explain relevant, related prior cases and to show why and how they relate to his current topic. What also makes “The Court and the World” so helpful and informative is Breyer’s care in explaining what basis the U.S. Supreme Court used to reach specific past decisions and because he even, in some cases, reports the thinking of members of the Court while doing so, for example, based on their written notes, memoirs, etc.

I wish for and feel we have a need for an equally detailed and educational book like this one but about the case of Citizens v. United and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to campaign finance law.

Still, for the range of cases that Breyer covers, this is an extremely informative book. If you want to read more about the law, it’s a great read.