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The Jefferson-Madison Debates: To Pay, or Not to Pay…

June 12th, 2018 // 10:12 am @

Tackling a Universal Basic Income

(Book Reviews: Annie Lowrey, 2018, Give People Money;
Richard Weaver, 1948, Ideas Have Consequences [2013 reprint])

“Neither parents nor children have any other prospects than what are founded upon industry, economy, and virtue…. Hence arises a spirit of universal activity, and enterprise in business…. No difficulty or hardship seems to discourage them.”

—Samuel Williams, History of Vermont, 1794

“Buy that latte and a child dies.”
—Esquire, The Money Issue, April 2016

Up or Down

I recently saw a cartoon that made me smile. If I remember correctly, it portrayed a Raptor on the left, an ostrich-like creature in the middle, and a chicken [Editor: Kiwi, actually?] on the right. The caption read:



I laughed pretty hard. If evolution really did go from raptors to chickens, Darwin’s survival of the fittest and natural selection leave a lot of questions. Funny.

A similar energy frequently invades modern public policy. Far too many government programs seem to accept that if we have the right goals in mind, if our heart is in the right place and we’re really trying to fix things, it doesn’t matter much if we legislate in a way that will actually solve the problems. Just trying is, apparently, enough.

For example, we want better education for our youth, but if throwing more money at public schools would really fix the problem, we’d be ahead of Japan, the United Kingdom and Switzerland in language, math, and science. In fact, the U.S. ranks 17th overall among industrialized nations (Source: Ranking America), and while we rank first in expenditures per student (over $12,000 per year for each high school student), American 15-year-olds score 31st in math literacy and 23rd in science (Source: CBSnews.com). Clearly something more than additional funding is needed—like a re-emphasis on real teaching, which means mentored personalization for each student. Instead, government programs keep throwing more money at schools in ways that don’t help, as if trying harder is somehow good policy.

Likewise, if passing tougher gun laws would seriously solve or even significantly reduce violent crime, they might make sense. But since the statistics clearly show that such laws don’t fix the problem (criminals don’t really follow them, after all), why are we still even debating the topic? Why is it a good idea to have the law-abiding citizens unarmed and the criminals armed to the teeth—as a direct result of government policy—is pretty much mindboggling. But at least somebody is trying, right?

Better than Bad

One more example: if we really could significantly reduce the cost of health care for everyone, and at the same time insure everyone, keep the same doctor, and keep the same healthcare provider, who wouldn’t want that? But Obamacare was promoted and passed even though many of the experts warned of exactly what happened—premiums skyrocketed, many people had to change their healthcare providers, a lot of companies and states pulled out, and a lot of people couldn’t keep their doctor. “We had to try, though, didn’t we?” Some Americans apparently still think this is a sound basis for government policy. We subscribe to the kindergarten mentality of “‘A’ for effort,” or “‘A’ for intention” –regardless of principles or outcomes.

In short, when we don’t understand human nature, we make mistakes. Numerous governmental attempts to solve our problems could be labeled:



This time nobody’s laughing though, maybe because we realize that we are the chickens in the cartoon. And if you’ll forgive a mixed metaphor, now: Not a lot of people like being guinea pigs. We need a better standard for government policy than “But we have to try! It’s such a big problem, so even bad policy is better than no policy.”

And yet: Not so. Government policies sometimes make things worse, not better.

Part II

“Do you see the necessity of accepting duties
before you begin to talk of freedoms?

These things will be very hard,
they will call for deep reformation.”
—Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 1948

“You need $1,000 today. How to get it.”
—Headline in Esquire, The Money Issue, April 2016

Open Account, Open Mind

Which brings us to a very important topic: A Universal Basic Income (UBI). The UBI has been recommended in one form or another by Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Ray Kurzweil, Bernie Sanders and others, and now Annie Lowrey’s new book Give People Money makes an energetic case for it. Lowrey’s subtitle outlines the major perceived benefits of the program: “How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World”.

“Imagine if every month the government deposited $1,000 into your checking account,” suggests the ad copy for Give People Money, “with nothing expected in return.” Interesting. Nothing expected in return? What about the taxes needed to fund the $1K per person across the nation, or the globe? That’s actually quite a significant expectation.

But I digress. Let’s keep an open mind and listen to Lowrey’s proposal. After all, even arch-conservative/libertarian thinkers Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek made a case for a Universal Basic Income, or something like it.

Hayek said:

“The assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the great society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born.”

Friedman suggested that in times of economic stagnancy, when consumers aren’t spending and producers aren’t creating, it might be prudent to jumpstart the economy by “helicoptering.” This consists of dumping large amounts of cash from helicopters, allowing people to pick up the money and spend it—thus rebooting business. Of course, the actual idea behind “helicoptering” was to deposit a predetermined amount of money into the bank accounts of large numbers of people, those making less than a certain amount of money, not actually throwing cash from helicopters. While this plan focused on a one-time event, not a monthly deposit like most Universal Basic Income proposals, the principles are reminiscent.

Ends and Beginnings

To many conservatives, it makes sense that liberals, progressives, and socialists would endorse the idea of a Universal Income. But the same basic support from both Hayek and Milton Friedman is a head-scratcher.

In context, Hayek seems to have made this proposal as an alternative to entrenched socialism: a system where most or all of the jobs are controlled and distributed by government. In such an environment, a Universal Income would actually provide the opportunity for a budding free market, a chance for entrepreneurship, or “to relocate” to another nation with more freedom. (See Matt Zwolinski, “Why Did Hayek Support a Basic Income?” Libertariansim.org).

Lowrey’s proposal, in contrast to Hayek, is set in our current world. Or, more precisely, in a better world built on this one. The benefits of the program would be, mainly:

*End systemic poverty. By “hacking poverty”, we could eliminate much of the suffering and dead-end misery in the world (or nation). (Give People Money) Those who want more than the $1,000 per month, or whatever the UBI is, could work more or build a business, etc.—just like many people do now. But those who choose otherwise would at least have a basic living.

*Emphasize individual purpose. People could focus on doing work they love, rather than being tossed about by the cold demands of market forces. Individuals could emphasize their life purpose, and spend their days doing things they really care about. No more “crummy jobs.” (Ibid.) This might even help create a “groovy, Trekkie post-capitalist world without work”. (Ibid.)

*Improve social justice. It might even help nudge the world towards truly solving the problems of social injustice. “A UBI” Lowrey says, “would undercut the basis of such judgments [including racial, class, and gender discriminations] and be a powerful force for human dignity.” (Ibid.) It would also acknowledge “that our market economy leaves people out and behind, creating poverty and punishing individuals who cannot or are not working for an employer…. It would acknowledge our interdependence as well as our independence.” (Ibid.)

*Increase and spread freedom. Lowrey: “A universal, unrestricted cash benefit—just giving people money—would promote the ‘true individual freedom’ that comes from ‘economic security and independence’ as Roosevelt argued seventy years ago.” (Ibid.)

Into Reality

Most people—whatever their political leanings—can agree with the goals of ending poverty, emphasizing individual purpose in life, improving social justice for everyone, and increasing/spreading freedom. Personally, I don’t know anyone who is against these 4 things. The devil, the cliché promises, is in the details. The disagreement turns on how to accomplish such ideals. Conservatives, libertarians, liberals and progressives, not to mention socialists, anarchists, communists, mercantilists, humanists, distributists, originalists and Keynesians have long pointed out the flaws in each others’ proposals. How indeed can such goals be realized? Or, as Nietszche often quipped: “How now?”

It’s one thing to have a dream; quite another to implement it effectively—in a way that both works and lasts.  Lowrey, fortunately, gives us specifics: She wrote: “Providing a $1,000-a-month UBI to every American citizen would mean spending something like an additional $3.9 trillion a year. This is equivalent to a fifth of the American economy—and equal to every penny the federal government currently spends, on everything from building bridges to fighting wars to caring for the elderly to prosecuting crimes to protecting wetlands.” (Ibid.)

The obvious first question is: Who’s going to pay for this? Lowry: “The top 1 percent of earners pay about 40 percent of all income taxes, which comes to about $600 billion a year. You could tax away every penny they earned, and it would still not come close to paying for a full-fat UBI in other words.” (Ibid.)

Not a good start. But, Lowrey points out: “Eliminating or trimming back other programs would help defray the expense. Right now, the government spends roughly $2.7 trillion on its social-insurance programs…. Still, a $1,000-a-month benefit, or a smaller one, would require new spending and likely new sources of revenue, regardless of how deep other budgets were cut…. Giving the same thing to everyone means spreading the butter a lot thinner, meaning that we need more butter.” (Ibid.)

She identifies some of the major criticisms of a UBI, but suggests that “the knee-jerk opposition to some form of a UBI—crying that it is too expensive or unrealistic—feels over-wrought. Raising enough revenue for a $1,000-a-month UBI is more a matter of will than of mathematics, and would bring the United States’ tax burden in line with that of the European social democracies…. Creating a top tax bracket at 55 percent, instituting a modest wealth tax, ending the mortgage interest deduction, implementing a value-added tax—proposals like those would get us there.” (Ibid.) She further argues that since the U.S. government prints its own money, “dollars are not something the United States government can run out of.” (Ibid.)  [Editor coughs and sputters…]

Lowrey is quick to add that the government shouldn’t print so much money as to cause rampant inflation, but still, she maintains, government debts, deficits, and a bit of inflation aren’t the worst things in the world. A UBI is worth it, she seems to suggest. But her easy approach to the math is…well…you decide: “A financial transactions tax would raise an estimated $100 billion to $400 billion a year. A value-added tax could easily raise a trillion dollars. A well-designed carbon tax would raise about $100 billion a year. Moreover, a wealth tax, such as a hefty levy on estates over $3 million, could raise hundreds of billions.” (Ibid.) Taxes on robots are also a possibility, Lowrey suggests, as are Negative Income Taxes where the IRS sends monthly checks to everyone below the poverty level. (Ibid.)

Where? How?

On a personal level, I was very excited to read the section on “how” to fund a UBI. After reading over three-fourths of the book and its very interesting examples and ideas about UBI economics, I was thrilled to finally get to the nitty-gritty of the plan. The finances. But…it never came. The paragraph above was as close as it got. Granted, these are interesting ideas about funding a UBI, but there is no actual detailed proposal in this book. Disappointing, to say the least.

In fairness, perhaps a specific plan for a UBI wasn’t Lowrey’s point—such a plan might detract from her real goal, which was to promote the idea of implementing a UBI. The plan can come later. Or, possibly, she has such a plan but felt that this book should emphasize the benefits of the idea, not get people caught up in the details of just one way to do this. Wise choice, perhaps.

Still, without a specific plan, without real numbers, how can we assess the efficacy of pursuing a UBI? “We have to try” simply isn’t good enough. Especially when the numbers are so fuzzy. For example, a carbon tax might “raise about a $100 billion a year”, but how would the same tax reduce revenues from other segments of the economy—with profits impacted by energy prices? Increased fuel prices caused by such a tax would impact almost every sector of the economy. And, yes, a “value-added tax” might “easily raise a trillion dollars”, but this is a gross total, not net. The impact would be huge, and not all for good.

Likewise, even if everything Lowrey says about increased taxes is true, what is the net impact of “[c]reating a top tax bracket at 55 percent, instituting a modest wealth tax, ending the mortgage interest deduction,” etc.? What, precisely, is a “modest wealth tax”? Modest by what standard? And how does such a tax impact charities, philanthropies, and those who receive inheritances? True, Lowrey’s point is that there are ways to increase taxes—and thereby pay for a UBI—but she says little about how such increases will redirect and redistribute money. Or even if any (or all) of these increases will boost or weaken the overall economy. If GDP actually declines, the source of UBI funding will dry up, or at least diminish—while the amount required to send out $1,000-per-month naturally goes up with population.

For the Future

I actually really like Give People Money—it is well-written, enjoyable to read, full of interesting stories – sometimes fascinating, always thought-provoking. The research and quotes are excellent. Any book that features George Jetson in the same sentence as Marie Curie has my attention. By the way, I spent three very enjoyable hours just reading the endnotes and looking up articles and sources that sparked my interest. Fascinating! I’m a Lowrey fan.

In short, I recommend the book. It’s a great read, a fun trip into economic comparisons—from Keynes to Hunger Games to Maslow’s hierarchy to Ford trucks, AI and Silicon Valley. But I didn’t come away from it with any sense that a UBI is realistic. Intriguing, yes. Thought-provoking, yes. Realistic, no. Fundable, possibly—in the short term; but what about the lasting impact?

There is another proposal of this type that is worth considering. Charles Murray has suggested that every adult receive $10,000 per year and that all other welfare-state programs be discontinued. (See In Our Hands; see also “A Guaranteed Income for Every American,” Wall Street Journal) This would cost taxpayers less than the current safety net, some argue, and it would put decisions in the hands of the actual people. Clearly a lot of government waste and misuse of funds would also be eliminated.

The key to this proposal is that it would end all other government social-insurance programs, departments, polices and expenses. Interestingly, most of the criticism against Murray’s plan, nearly all from liberals and the Left, emphasizes that it is financially infeasible. According to Murray’s own numbers, there is a $355 billion shortfall the first year. (Ibid.)

Murray suggests that the gap would be closed, eventually, as the population rises with upcoming generations. Still, the transition costs of, at least for a time, funding both the Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid model and also $10K a year to adults make the program unrealistic—as Murray himself says. But if we continue with our current system, he argues, it’s going to financially collapse anyway—better to get the ball rolling on a system that eventually will work.

Part III

“Arrival of the Fittest”
—Chevrolet/Corvette ad

“How to lead experiments that actually work”.
—Harvard Business Review

From the Starting Point

But here’s the real challenge—for all UBI-style proposals, from Lowrey to Hayek to Murray. Would a Universal Basic Income even be good for people? Is it compatible with human society and culture, human needs, human potential?

This is a big question. The most important question. At first blush, most people would like a check for $1,000 a month. Why not? A number of people could desperately use it. But what is not seen in this arrangement? Such a challenging question demands that we address what Aristotle called first things, or primary goods. First principles. The most basic foundations of human understanding are indeed vitally important, and take us back to the poignant question asked by philosophers, prophets, economists and political sages:

To be human is to ______________. ???

The word we use to fill in the blank tells us a great deal about how we view the world. The original liberal answer, articulated most clearly by thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau, was: To be human is to suffer. In contrast, the conservative answer, from Aristotle to Adam Smith, was: To be human is to struggle.

There are, of course, other views. Shakespeare suggested that To be human is to err, The Romantics answered that To be human is to love, and the German Trifecta of Hegel, Marx and Nietszche argued that To be human is to fight and win—emphasis on win. But the initial debate between suffer and struggle remains at the center of today’s great conversation.

See Both Sides

The first approach makes the following case:

  • human life is suffering
  • it is up to all of us to lessen suffering as much as possible
  • to do this, we need a great deal of power
  • government is the entity most likely to obtain and use power in a way that greatly lessens human suffering in the world
  • we should actively help grow the power and reach of government everywhere

In short: Liberalism.

The second view takes a different tack:

  • the purpose of life is to struggle against all odds for goodness, righteousness, and progress
  • this is best done by individuals alone and individuals voluntarily working in groups
  • institutions that help individuals in this process are useful, but institutions must be carefully watched and limited because they frequently become distractions or even roadblocks to real progress
  • ultimately the great, noble struggle of humans on this earth is threefold—to serve and help others in this life, to improve oneself in ways that make the world better, and in doing these first two things to prepare for better things in the life to come

To wit: Conservatism.

Richard Weaver argued that while the Progressive path tries to make life easier for everyone and institutionalize it for all, Conservatism programs attempts to help everyone more bravely and effectively embrace the path of hard things. (See Ideas Have Consequences). He taught that programs designed mainly to spread ease, especially forced attempts by government, were beneath the dignity and potential of mankind.

Today’s Goal

Weaver wrote of modern efforts to make everything easier for everyone, calling out people for promoting a life based on “Loving comfort, risking little, terrified by the thought of change…” He called this the “spoiled child psychology”, exhibited by too many adults in the modern world. The best, and worst, example of this, he said, is the widespread sense of entitlement among so many modern citizens.

He spoke most forcefully against those who discourage lives of strenuous work, facing and overcoming challenges, struggling-failing-and-continuing-to-struggle. Such work, hard and continuous, is what life is about, Weaver taught. It is why we were born. To do things. Hard things. Alone. Together. Because work matters. And because lives of work and struggle are dignified, meaningful, and very often happy lives. We were not, he assures us, born to bask in lives of ease provided by bureaucrats or aristocrats or anyone else. Such a path he considered worthless.

These are, ironically, hard words—especially to modern ears. “Like Macbeth,” Weaver wrote, “Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said…was that man could realize himself more fully if he would abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals.” (Ibid.) The witches’ solution: Stop seeing life as the battle to seek heaven, and start fixing this earth, through manmade institutions and government power. (Ibid.)

The result of this shift, from “embracing a life of struggle” to “a life of suffering and trying to institutionally force the end of suffering”, began our journey to what Weaver terms “modern decadence”. (Ibid.) In the drive to avoid and forcefully eliminate all suffering, to find the easy way and help our children seek even easier ways, most people turned to materialism. Away from service, and more to amassing money and things—as hedges against potential suffering. As Weaver put it: “Man created in the divine image, the protagonist of a great drama in which his soul was at stake, was replaced by man the wealth-seeking and-consuming animal.” (Ibid.)

It turns out that while a belief in struggle led many people to work and serve humanity, a greater faith in suffering drives most toward materialism. Ironic. An even deeper irony followed: the philosophy of suffering as the great evil spawned a culture of seeking ease through material success, and this in turn created a focus on ease itself. The work motivated by materialism gave way to the work of finding ways to avoid work. Profound. In Weaver’s words: “a carnival of specialism, professionalism, and vocationalism…fostered and protected…strange bureaucratic devices.” (Ibid.) The new mantra: government must make things easier for everyone.


Is it any surprise that today’s generation of youth—considered by many an embodiment of a sixth human sense of entitlement—are often referred to as Snowflakes? “We should be taken care of by the government” is a popular view. “Or if not by government, then by somebody. Anybody…”

“Otherwise, how will our lives be easy?”

In reality, this view extends far beyond any one generation. Weaver said modern society is replacing homo sapiens with homo faber—meaning from “wise humans” to “humans engineered by architects, by experts”. (Ibid.) From freemen to slaves. Weaver’s connection of “the easy life” to “slavery” is interesting. Certainly a life in slavery is not easy, but only those who engage the true struggle of life can remain truly free. And the struggle is hard, not easy. Period. Those who seek lives of ease unwittingly take the path toward slavery.

As conservatives know: “If it is easy, beware…” In most cases, Easy Education, Easy Citizenship, Easy Career = Mediocre Education, Government by Elites, Middling Income. What, then, would Weaver say of a Universal Basic Income?

He wrote:

“The egotism of work increasingly poses the problem of what source will procure sufficient discipline to hold men to production. When each becomes his own taskmaster and regards work as a curse which he endures only to gain means of subsistence, will he not constantly seek to avoid it?” (Ibid.)

And what will such a man or woman do when money arrives each month and no work is required?

A few people, when work is no longer asked of them, will turn their efforts to service, art, or other areas of interest. Some will follow a great passion or goal they’ve long wanted to pursue. But what actually happens is well documented. The majority of people, when suddenly retired, laid off, recipients of the lottery, or otherwise released from daily work, struggle to fill their time with things that bring happiness. Note that this is the wrong kind of struggle.

Many such people soon find their newfound free time “accompanied by intensive explorations of the individual consciousness, with self-laceration and self-pity.” (Ibid.) They frequently turn “inward and there discover…an appalling well of melancholy and unhappiness…” (Ibid.) Weaver used these words to describe certain writers who embodied this view; but if Weaver’s words are a bit too flowery, they aren’t inaccurate. Many people find retirement, unemployment, or just lots of free time unsatisfactory and frustrating.

Reaching for Greatness

A 2015 report in The Atlantic noted: “The jobless don’t spend their time socializing or taking up new hobbies. Instead, they watch TV or sleep…. Two of the most common side effects of unemployment are loneliness, on the individual level, and the hollowing-out of community pride.” (Derek Thompson, “A World Without Work”)

For many people, it turns out that “easy” is unfulfilling, in the same way that achieving something hard is one of the most rewarding things human beings ever experience. Words such as victory, accomplishment, triumph, success, progress, improvement, and even happiness, defy definition and mean very little unless they are preceded by difficulty and hard work. The greater the struggle, in fact, the greater the victory. Thomas Paine made this a central theme in his writings.

The truth is that the reality flies in the face of modern thinking. Specifically, most people want hard, even if they don’t realize it. Without hard, most people simply aren’t happy. It turns out that hard isn’t always equal to suffering, but it is in fact a vital component of happy. “Easy” is nice as a vacation, but it isn’t the basis of a good life. “Hard” can be such a basis, as long as it is accompanied by freedom—or at least the opportunity to gain freedom.

As for a Universal Basic Income, the jury is still out. If people don’t have to work for their basic living, some will argue, they’ll work for other things—better things. This is certainly true of some people, and it may be true for many more. That said: It is definitely not true of everyone. Whether it is true for enough people to make it worth adopting as public policy will likely be debated for many years to come. But the promise of a UBI, that it will significantly reduce human suffering, naturally sounds good to many moderns but sparks immediate skepticism in those who embrace the historical reality of human nature. Humanity has proven, many times, that hard challenges, within reason, are nearly always better for people than lasting times of ease.

I have my doubts that a UBI will do much to fix the actual problem. It could easily do the opposite: when a lot more people aren’t working, some of them might use their time in ways that hurt others and increase suffering. This is certainly a possibility.

Pushing Riding Forward

Modern man, Weaver pointed out, has: “been given the notion that progress is automatic” that he/she has not just a right to pursue happiness but “a right to have happiness”, regardless of what he does, or doesn’t do. (Ideas Have Consequences) He has been told that someone else is responsible for his happiness, and that if he is sad, or unfulfilled, someone else is to blame. (Ibid.) He has been informed that if he feels frustration, some superior “in the hierarchy” has “practiced an imposition upon him”. (Ibid.)

“The truth is,” Weaver said, “that he has never been brought to see what it is to be a man…. [T]hat he really owes thanks for the pulling and tugging that allow him to grow…. This citizen is now the child of indulgent parents who pamper his appetites and inflate his egotism until he is unfitted for struggle of any kind.” (Ibid.) And the following zinger:

“The spoiling of man seems always to begin when urban living predominates over rural.” (Ibid.)

Is it lost on anyone that this is directly related to Blue State/Red State culture?

“In effect,” Weaver continues, “what modern man is being told is that the world owes him a living. He assents the more readily for being told in a roundabout way, which is that science owes him a living.” (Ibid.) “An artificial environment causes him to lose sight of the great system not subject to man’s control.” (Ibid.) Indeed, his moral and ethical senses are shaped by newspapers more than prayers, to paraphrase Nietszche.

What does that “great system” say about work? Easy versus hard? Individual responsibility versus institutions? If we push aside the culture of newspapers and instant mobile news updates for a moment, and instead ask the kind of questions obvious in a culture based on the idea that “humans thrive in the hard struggle,” we find ourselves dealing with bigger issues:

  • Is pay without work good for the soul?
  • Is it good for family life, or is it more likely to hurt families?
  • Will it naturally render adults more child-like, dependent?
  • And, since the pay actually comes from the work of someone else, are we simply taking from their work and accepting it without recompense?
  • What does the fact that they are forced to pay this money say about those who accept it?
  • Can a people remain free under such an arrangement?

Building or Breaking

These are big questions. Unlike most modern policy debates, these big questions ignore the small talk and get to the real point. For some, this is distracting. “That’s not how it’s done,” scolds many a modern expert. But the truth is still relevant, right? Big realities do matter.

The view of human life as a great struggle for goodness puts each citizen forward as a potential hero. But the hero’s currency, Weaver notes, is “exertion, self-denial, endurance”, while “the spoiled child” wants everyone to be protected from hard things—especially making a living. (Ibid.) Preferably, in this latter view, such protection will come from government—the regime as supreme being, the end-all of suffering, the all-powerful state.

To be clear, a society of people who seek $1,000 (or other) payments from the government, not for work but just because they need or want it, is not on a path to freedom—or even to maintaining the freedoms they already enjoy. Speaking of payments from the government, the following story is related by Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences:

“During the early part of the second World War there came to light the story of a farmer from the back country of Oklahoma—one of the yet unspoiled—who, upon hearing of the attack on Pearl Harbor, departed with his wife to the West Coast to work in the shipyards…. [T]he new worker did not understand the meaning of the little slip of paper handed him once a week. It was not until he had accumulated over a thousand dollars in checks that he found out that he was being paid to save his country. He had assumed that when the country is in danger, everyone helps out, and helping out means giving.”

The Spiral

Also from Weaver:

“The past shows unvaryingly that when a people’s freedom disappears, it goes not with a bang, but in silence amid the comfort of being cared for…. If freedom is not found accompanied by a willingness to resist, and to reject favors [from the government], it will not long be found at all.”

Easy kills.

Hard is the future.

But those on the side of freedom embrace the struggle.

This is hard doctrine, no doubt. But it is the doctrine of a free people, and those who would remain free. Those seeking the way of ease will not, by definition, choose freedom—or fight for it when needed. Freedom is hard. Those searching for ever-easier paths will vote for more government, and when unearned $1,000 checks arrive each month to reward their search, a majority will do what makes the most sense in such a situation: vote for candidates who promise to increase the checks to $1,200 then $1,500 then $2,100…and more. Government will increasingly apply more force to the productive individuals and organizations in society, and everyone else as well.

No free society can weather—financially, politically, or morally—such an electorate.


“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”
—Ronald Reagan

Suggested Readings

  1. An important article that addresses the future of work, a basic universal income, and recent trends in technology and employment—Derek Thompson, “A World Without Work,” The Atlantic, July/August 2015
  2. Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind
  3. Joshua Cooper Ramo, Seventh Sense
  4. Virgil, Georgics
  5. Victor Davis Hansen, The Other Greeks

Category : Blog &Book Reviews &Citizenship &Community &Constitution &Culture &Current Events &Economics &Generations &Government &History &Information Age &Leadership &Liberty &Politics &Service &Statesmanship

Jefferson-Madison Debates: What Made America Great? [The “Miracle”]

May 26th, 2018 // 10:17 am @

What Made America Great?

(And What is Making it Less Great Right Now)

[Reviewed: Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg and Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver]

Cleon Skousen called it “The Five Thousand Year Leap,” I’ve called it “The FreedomShift,” and recently Jonah Goldsberg dubbed it “The Miracle.” Specifically, it’s that special arrangement that led to American freedom—the most widespread freedom and prosperity for the most people at any given time in history. What ingredients made it work? What brought us our unprecedented levels of lifestyle and opportunity? And are we headed for more freedom or an era of serious decline in the decades just ahead?

Goldberg outlined key factors that helped create the “Miracle” and bring about modern American greatness.[i] Lose any one of these, and our freedoms decline. Lose a lot, and freedom hangs by a thread. Each of these is vital[ii]:

  • “the individual is sovereign”
  • “our rights come from God, not government”
  • “the fruits of our labors belong to us”
  • no person “should be less than equal before the law because of…faith… class,” ethnicity, etc.
  • merit
  • industriousness
  • innovation
  • contracts
  • rights

This list has been presented in other places, using different words. Skousen outlined the “Miracle” in 28 principles of freedom, and in We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident I showed how freedom is based on 12 crucial natural laws. In “The Four Lost American Ideals” I narrowed the ingredients of what is essentially the “Miracle” down to four:

  • Georgics (hard work, entrepreneurship, ownership of the land and businesses, and free enterprise)
  • Providence (belief in God and higher truths as taught in the Bible, and pursuing our lives in keeping with these beliefs)
  • Liber (a populace that reads and lives by the library of liberty, the great classics of freedom)
  • Public Virtue (the attitude that serving one’s nation and actively overseeing one’s government and keeping it in line with the Constitution, even when this requires personal sacrifice and effort, is an incontrovertible duty for each of us). It is the job of the people, not the Supreme Court, to keep the government limited to the Constitution. The Supreme Court is part of the government, part of the thing that must remain within its limits.

However we outline the specifics, knowing the foundations of freedom is incredibly important. Richard Weaver wrote in 1962: “The past shows unvaryingly that when a people’s freedom disappears, it goes not with a bang, but in silence amid the comfort of being cared for.”[iii] Goldberg put it this way: “…a majority of Americans, I believe, are ungrateful for what the Miracle has brought us. Sometimes this ingratitude manifests itself as simply taking one’s good fortune for granted. And that is enough to destroy a civilization.”[iv] Especially a free civilization.

“Just as the spoiled children of the wealthy are ungrateful for the opportunities provided by their parents,” Goldberg wrote, “we as a society are ungrateful for our collective inheritance.”[v] It took millennia to attain the “Miracle,” to truly learn, value and implement truths like “our rights come from God, not government,”[vi] contracts allow everyone to enjoy the blessings once legally reserved only for a few elites, or “no man should be less than equal before the law because of his faith or class.”[vii] Making these work in our society cost us, literally, blood, treasure, a lot of hard work, and more blood.

Such principles were worth fighting for. But do we treat them with the respect and value they deserve? In most cases, the current answer is “No.” For example, as Richard Weaver taught: “If freedom is not found accompanied by a willingness to resist, and to reject favors…it will not long be found at all.”[viii] Weaver’s reference to “rejecting favors” is striking. In his view, the meaning of freedom includes voluntarily rejecting government programs and payments that could bring personal financial benefit—all in the name of liberty. “No thank you, government,” the citizen should say, “I don’t accept charity.”

In Hollywood and modern media this concept is almost extinct. Where it does appear, it is almost always found in a private setting—telling a neighbor or friend that one won’t accept charity. “My government will handle it” is now universally implied. Note that Weaver wasn’t speaking directly to the poor—his message was for the middle and upper classes. Think about it: When was the last time you resisted the loss of freedom by turning down a government program or benefit? By paying your own way, even when the government offered you something “free”?

Free people understand the truth: Government programs are never free. Not one. Weaver wrote about the opposite of the “Miracle”, the specific ingredients that would ruin the recipe of liberty, like large bags of salt in a cupcake batter. Such counterfeits, and destroyers of freedom, include:

1. Centralized government (rather than local, leveled, and limited government)

2. Affluence combined with materialism (and the idea that government can provide prosperity for all who turn their choices over to the state)

3. “The love of comfort” (instead of preferring struggle and hard work, the price of individual liberty)

4. The “homogenization” of government-promoted equality

5. The promise of the “easy” way, provided by government[ix]

Weaver said freedom only lasts among people dedicated to the struggle of rejecting “easy” programs and going one’s own way. This he called “strenuous,” “romantic”, and worthy of men.[x] To pay one’s own way. To turn to hard work and God for help, instead of government. To be an owner of the nation, not a peasant, an inferior, hands held out for more government largess. Again, this was directed to the middle and wealthy classes who enjoy the majority of government programs. Emerson made the same argument, using different terms: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity.”[xi] He warns that such society is unworthy: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist…. The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.”[xii]

Weaver blamed most of this decline—the popularization of following the “easy” way instead of seeking the hard path in life, and even teaching our youth to do the same—on our blind faith in “institutions”. Emerson called them “dead institutions.” Government, bureaucracy, media, academia, the network of corporations, and experts became our new god; with painful results. Weaver noted that we stopped seeing life as a time to struggle, to improve our souls, serve others, and qualify for Heaven, and replaced this great human quest with something far more mediocre: the goal of simply making a living and enjoying today’s entertainment.[xiii]

There is nothing wrong with finding enjoyments in life, but Weaver points out that we err when making a living (bread) and seeking entertainment (circuses) tempt us to surrender more and more of our freedoms to government, rather than embracing the difficulties of freedom, of experiencing a lot more liberty but having to work much harder to get by. C.S. Lewis argued that this shift has created a society of “men without chests.”[xiv]

Weaver warned that this search for “easier,” for increased fun and comfort purchased at the price of reduced freedom was becoming our national creed, our modern religion. Here is what it looks like seventy years after his warning:

  • Youth feel entitled (“parents will handle it”)
  • Adults feel entitled (“the government will take care of whatever you can’t”)
  • Students focus on doing well in school because they are told it will benefit future employment rather than great learning or preparation for one’s life purpose (the goal of great learning is rarely mentioned, and then mostly by comedians)
  • Adults focus on success and the bottom line (goodness and service to others is too often an afterthought)
  • People work every day for pay and promotion (spending one’s life seeking to greatly improve the world has become quaint, unrealistic)

This whole philosophy, this new, modern way of seeing our lives, is now known as “reality.” It is no longer viewed as one way of doing things, but rather the only way. “This is just how the world is,” we are told at every turn. But who tells us these things? The new clergy of this modern religion: government and corporate bureaucracy, media, academia, and, always, experts.

Which experts? Answer: Those who work for government and corporate bureaucracy, media, and academia. This is clearly a circular argument. Moreover, any outside views (like the Bible, truth, reason, or morality, for example) are rejected. The views of Emerson, Thoreau, Weaver, C.S. Lewis,[xv] or even Solzhenitsyn[xvi] are, at best, relegated to history.

The principles of freedom, the things that brought about the “Miracle”, are replaced by counterfeits, including 1-5 above as well as 6-12 below:

6. Specialism (to the point of dependence)

7. Professionalism (to the level that the duties of some professions are frequently separated from, and even antithetical to, those of citizenship)

8. Vocationalism (for self, not service to others)

9. Bureaucracy (backed by force)

10. Political machines

11. Media machines

12. School machines[xvii]

Weaver was right. All of these “machines,” he explains, emphasize the human power to replace God, to give us what many modern citizens consider “real” improvements in life rather than what they see as “lesser” tools of praying and hoping. In this process, however, the focus is on increasing our blind faith in one entity: unlimited government. More powerful government—this is the modern solution to every problem.

Except one: Remember Acton’s famous quip that power corrupts, and the reality that if government power keeps increasing, so must the level of corruption. If the government is big enough to touch all our lives each day, so is the corruption. This, above all, is the reality of our times. The evidence is presented each night on the news, and all through the day in 20-minute news alerts and mobile feeds. The Left points out corruption on the Right, and the Right exposes corruption on the Left. If either side is even just 10% correct, the corruption has reached truly alarming levels. What then if there is truth in what both sides reveal?

As corruption spreads, whom do we turn to for help? Not government. Not bureaucracy. Not media, or academia, or the experts. These are too frequently the very perpetrators of the problem. Nietzsche pointed out this paradox when he noted that modern man has replaced morning prayers with the morning newspaper. People who haven’t replaced God with career and materialism can turn to prayer when they face the problems of modernism; but those who have accepted that government is god, that man’s institutions are our modern truth, are left destitute when corruption gains increasing levels of influence in our man-made institutions.”

Goldberg’s book sees other problems, not a turn away from God, as the real issue: “The crisis that besets our civilization is fundamentally psychological. Specifically, we are shot through with ingratitude for the Miracle.”[xviii] We are also experiencing an intellectual crisis because we find ourselves in a situation where the problem is, to repeat: deepening corruption in our government, corporate world, bureaucracies, media, academic and other powerful institutions. To solve this problem, we need intellectual wisdom from places outside the infected areas. Emerson predicted this need: “When private men shall act with original views, the luster will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of [regular] men.[xix] Sadly, the power centers typically reject ideas and wisdom from outside, so the people must find ways to effectively work around infected institutions.

In short, our major national institutions are dominated by an establishment/corporate-media-academia-expert/elite, and we need the people, regular people, to rise to the challenge—intellectually. The only other option is to let this illness run its course—bringing certain decline to the United States.

In the time of the American founding, the regular people responded to a similar problem in a surprising and incredibly effective way: they read the classics, the great books of freedom and civilization. Outside the London centers of power—governmental, corporate, bureaucratic, media, academic—the founding generation searched for and found wisdom from the great books, wisdom at the same or higher intellect than London’s elites.

For example, in 1775 when Britain was deciding how to deal with the American colonies just prior to the Revolutionary War, Sir Edmund Burke told the House of Commons that the Americans weren’t like people in other nations, that they were, in fact, a serious danger to Britain if the revolution escalated, specifically because so many American citizens read the great classics and kept a close eye on their government at all levels. Burke warned in his speech that such widespread and deep reading made the Americans a unique people indeed:

“This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple…judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; [in America] they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle.  They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Samuel Williams of Vermont, soon after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, provided additional details on such reading by the regular people in America:

“All the children are trained up to this kind of knowledge: they are accustomed from their earliest years to read the Holy Scriptures, the periodical publications, newspapers, and political pamphlets; to form some general acquaintance with the laws of their country, the proceedings of the courts of justice, of the general assembly of the state, and of the Congress, etc.

“Such a kind of education is common and universal in every part of the state: and nothing would be more dishonorable to the parents, or to the children, than to be without it.”

In our modern world, such publications, documents and classics are easier to access than ever before, and the great books are still powerfully up to the task of freedom. But are we? It was regular people in the 1770s through the 1940s, reading and applying the great ideas of freedom and teaching their posterity to do the same, that made America great. If America is to remain great, we must be such people today.

Burke also warned Parliament that Americans had purchased and read almost as many copies of Blackstone and other great books on freedom as people in England. There is a reason the founding generations were able to stand so effectively for freedom—beginning with the fact that they deeply understood the principles upon which freedom is based. American citizens of the time heatedly discussed Plutarch, Locke, Hume, Montesquieu and the political ideas of the Bible—along with many others.

Few citizens today are so well read. Yet the same books are still available. They are incredibly easy to access, literally a few clicks away. If we are to be free in the years ahead, we must at the very least understand freedom as well as the Founders. Instead, we seem to have reached the point where the greatest books are basically banned, not because we can’t read them, but because most people simply don’t read them.[xx]

Freedom, and the future of freedom, is up to us. But the first step in freedom is reading—the right kind of reading. Without it, true freedom is always lost. Rights are vital in any free society, but only a deep-reading people will know their rights, and be able to uphold them. Any other type of people will lose the “Miracle”.

Let’s be clear: We don’t need all citizens to read the greats. But we do need some. Each citizen in our nation right now, based on what they have read and are currently reading, is either part of the problem or part of the solution.[xxi]

Which are you?


[i]  Jonah Goldberg, 2018, Suicide of the West, Crown Forum/New York

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Richard M. Weaver, 1962 (Cited in Richard M. Weaver, 2013, Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London)

[iv] Jonah Goldberg, 2018, Suicide of the West, Crown Forum/New York

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Richard M. Weaver, 1962 (Cited in Richard M. Weaver, 2013, Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London)

[ix] Richard M. Weaver, 2013 [original in 1948], Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841, “Self-Reliance”

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Richard M. Weaver, 2013 [original in 1948], Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London

[xiv] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

[xv] See The Inner Ring and The Abolition of Man

[xvi] See “A World Split Apart”

[xvii] Richard M. Weaver, 2013 [original in 1948], Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London

[xviii] Jonah Goldberg, 2018, Suicide of the West, Crown Forum/New York

[xix] Emerson, 1841, “Self-Reliance”

[xx] This idea is attributed to Mark Twain

[xxi] This expression, in various forms, is attributed to Eldridge Cleaver

Category : Blog

Jefferson Madison Debates: The Age of Star Trek?, Part 2

May 19th, 2018 // 8:09 am @

Continued from previous post. [click here to read Part 1 >>]

Crossing the Finish Line

Today, most Americans believe that, for the first time in over a century, the next generation will have a worse standard of living than the current one.[xliii] This is a source of major disillusionment for many people, who believe that their children’s peers in China will keep enjoying a better and better lifestyle.

14. The Plugged-In Dilemma. People who spend a lot of their time plugged in to electronic devices tend toward less empathy, and are less likely to read the emotions of other people as well as those who aren’t plugged in very much. It used to be that people were worried about the social skills of homeschoolers, but now the experts are much more worried about the future of social skills in general—especially among the generations that are digital natives (born after 1990).[xliv]

For example, a study “at the University of Michigan found a 40% decline in empathy among college students today (as compared to their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago), with most of this decline coming after 2000. According to MIT’s Sherry Turkle, 44% of teenagers never unplug, even while playing sports or having a meal with family or friends…. [T]here are fears that an entire generation of young people consumed by social media is struggling to listen, make eye contact, or read body language.”[xlv]

Kevin Kelly related the following story: “Friends of mine had to ground their teenager for a serious infraction. They confiscated her cell phone. They were horrified when she became physically ill, vomiting. It was almost as if she’d had an amputation. And in one sense she had.”[xlvi]

Schwab noted: “Technology and culture writer Nicholas Carr states that the more time we spend in digital waters, the shallower our cognitive capabilities become due to the fact that we cease exercising control over our attention…. ‘Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious.’”[xlvii]

This has real ramifications in education. The more time young people (and everyone else) spend learning online, the less likely they are to focus, dig deep, and finish reading what they start. A shallow, constantly-switching-to-another-link kind of learning is becoming commonplace. The impact on how we learn is significant.

My Job, Your Job

15. Our Leaders are Too Busy to Read. This is a serious problem. Schwab wrote: “It is not unusual for me to talk to leaders who say that they no longer have time to pause and reflect, let along enjoy the ‘luxury’ of reading…. Decision makers from all parts of global society seem to be in a state of ever-increasing exhaustion…”[xlviii] In this environment, top leaders are busy working while algorithms and AI do much of the thinking. This is the opposite of what robotics was supposed to do for is.

And the more technology evolves, the more the regular people seem too busy, too tired, exhausted, stressed and on the go. Wasn’t technology supposed to make things easier for us? It’s doing precisely the opposite. It does frequently make things more convenient—but not always better. Most people work longer hours in the Digital Age.

16. More Need for Broad Thinking. Rather than the narrow specialization of the Industrial Age, today’s and tomorrow’s technologies demand broad thinking from the regular people.[xlix] As the pace of change increases, we need to be able to more quickly and nimbly assess, understand, plan and take action. This is not something taught very often in our modern schools—which were designed in the Industrial Age and have yet to effectively move beyond it, or even seriously embrace the need for such massive reform.

17. Who owns your data from electronic devices? The provider? The cloud? The crowd that crowdsources things you participate in? The social media provider? Answer: usually not you. Ownership of more and more data is being given to providers (Facebook, Amazon, etc.), and governments routinely take over whatever data they decide they want. This is a true socializing of society. If we don’t own our data, we don’t have rights to our data, and the government eventually owns (or at least controls) it all.

18. The “Digital Rights” Movement. Many people are calling for a “new Declaration” of our rights that resonates with the digital age. One such report suggests: “Digital age citizens have rights—access to digital infrastructures, literacy, media literacy, lifelong learning, and renewed freedom of speech online without the fear of surveillance.”[l]

Whether such “rights” will gain much traction remains to be seen. But who will provide the resources to fund these “rights” and others like them? Governments? Internet providers? These are the very entities most likely to violate such rights. In many places around the world, they already are.

A Thing of the Past

Perhaps Digital Righters want global agencies or entities to provide the resources and enforcement, but this opens up a whole new can of worms. Do we actually want bigger government? At the world scale? This just doesn’t fit well will people calling for “freedom…without fear of surveillance.”

In a world with such challenges, the education of the regular people will tend toward freedom or increased dependence on elite powers.

19. Implantable Technologies. From implantable mobile phones to implantable RFID chips that track and monitor, to smart tattoos that do the same, this technology is a serious concern.[li] Is there any way to keep these things from being weaponized (“weaponized” means to be used by governments or any other entity that uses force).

The NSA stored our phone calls and email, so it’s probably pretty clear what will happen with the data from implantable tech. The real question is, what kind of education does a society need in order to empower its people to remain free even when such technologies are available to those in power?

20. The End of Privacy. It’s going to be over and done: Privacy gone. Or as Milton might have put it, “Privacy Lost.” We will live in a surveillance state. The question for our generation is: Is there any way a surveillance state can be a free nation? The answer—based on all we know from great political thinkers of the past like Aristotle, Cicero, Montesquieu, Blackstone, the writers of the Federalist Papers, Bastiat, and others—is no. Simply no. Our educational system must be up to the task of helping a nation of people overcome such a challenge.

21. Cookie Monster. Everything we do online is part of the tracking and surveillance. Kelly wrote: “Unbeknownst to most people, when you arrive at a website you arrive with a bunch of invisible signs hanging around your neck that display where you just came from. These signs (technically known as cookies) can be read not just by the website you have arrived at, but my many of the large platforms—like Google—who have their fingers all over the web.”[lii]

This information significantly strengthens the power of big business surveillance, and whatever information the government gets from these businesses (or decides to control in the future). Moreover, AI is constantly using this data to learn and profile. In the wrong hands—hacked, stolen, infiltrated by foreign governments, or used by unscrupulous or even well-meaning government agencies, etc.—this is a goldmine of power that can be used to control people.

Back to Basics…and Books

22. Reading Glasses (and other wearable tech) Connected to the Internet.[liii] We won’t have to learn much in school, the experts say, because any time a person we’re talking with says “Ottoman Empire” or “Newton’s Laws” the screen on our glasses will flash details about these things right in front of our eyes. Or, to say this truthfully, we’ll have to learn a whole lot more in schools than past generations—and memorize a lot better—because we’ll need to know if the things the Internet tells us inside our glasses are entirely accurate or skewed by current popular opinions, political correctness, or whatever Apple, Wiki-everything, the Google/Alphabet company or some other more corrupt provider of the information wants us to believe.

This technology (or Internet ear implants that tell us things, or anything like these) isn’t going to make things easier—unless we just turn everything over to Big Brother and go with the flow…

Indeed, what are the chances that governments won’t eventually control, or closely regulate and monitor, whatever such technologies are telling us? This is a massive turnover of knowledge to the few who control the online data. And in this case, knowledge truly is power.

23. The CBS/ABC/NBC Internet. For years, television programming in the United States was dominated by the three big networks. In our modern world of numerous cable channels and even personal channels on YouTube, this kind of centralized control is hard to imagine. But we may soon see something much like it—but even worse—online. As author Kevin Kelly put it:

“The more people who use an AI, the smarter it gets. The smarter it gets, the more people who use it. The more people who use it, the smarter it gets. And so on.

“Once a company enters this…cycle, it tends to grow so big, so fast that it overwhelms any upstart competitors. As a result, our AI future is likely to be ruled by an oligarchy of two or three large, general purpose cloud-based commercial intelligences.”[liv] These mega-AIs could own or control the various providers, platforms, networks and big sites, and rule them from behind the scenes. This may not happen, but it is more likely than not.

The impact on governments will be immense, since the power and resources of such entities could far outpace any single government. Indeed, the mega-AIs may dominate certain countries and use them to compete like they already do with certain corporations.

24. A New Battle. The two biggest battles of the past century have been Free vs. Authoritarian Nations and Conservative vs. Liberal philosophies. Both of these were centered in governments and nations, and the ongoing argument between Nationalism and Globalism.

The Internet Age is shifting these traditional battle lines. The new battle is between the world of nations and the emerging economic/technological world with no borders. “By its nature,” Kelly wrote, “digital network technology rattles international borders because it is borderless.”[lv] Our technologies and businesses are now largely borderless, deeply undermining the long-term legitimacy of national governments. More people are asking: “Do national governments really need to exist? Are they, in fact, causing more problems than they are solving?”

Open Space

This disconnect could evolve in various directions, but whatever happens, today’s technology can only be controlled by larger and larger governments—with increasing power. For many people, this smacks of Orwell’s big brother. It certainly means that the definition of “free” and “authoritarian” nations is in flux. The outcomes are unlikely to greatly promote more freedom. Our current mainstream educational systems are already in line with this top-down environment.

25. New Leadership. Listen to how three different technology and entrepreneurial experts described this phenomenon:

First, as PayPal founder Peter Thiel remarked: “Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying from these guys, you aren’t learning from them…. Today’s ‘best practices’ lead to dead ends; the best paths are new and untried…. [I]t’s hard to develop new things in big organizations…. Bureaucratic hierarchies move slowly, and entrenched interests shy away from risk….

“A new company’s most important strength is new thinking: even more important than nimbleness, small size affords space to think.”[lvi]

Second, from Don and Alex Tapscott, authors of Blockchain Revolution: Concerning the future of the Internet, specifically blockchain technology, ‘Will the Law of Paradigms kick into effect—that the leaders of the old have the greatest difficulty embracing the new? …. Why didn’t Rupert Murdoch create The Huffington Post? Why didn’t AT&T launch Skype, or Visa create PayPal? GM or Hertz could have launched Uber, and Marriot, Airbnb…. Why didn’t NBC invent YouTube? Sony could have preempted Apple’s iTunes.”[lvii]

Old leaders seldom keep leading when it’s time for real innovation.

Third, former Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State, Alec Ross, said: “When I’m asked, ‘What can we do to create our own Silicon Valley?” my response surprises many people: ‘You can’t,’ I say. ‘It’s too late….’ ‘What you can do, though, is position your communities to compete and succeed in those areas of innovation that are still to come…”[lviii]

Open Minds

This is true in education, in business, in government, and in societies. If we want to go a new direction—and we desperately need this in so many ways—we’ll need new leaders. If MacGyver carried a gun, he would have used it. Pouring new wine into old bottles is a recipe for one of two things: watching the new and innovative fail and spoil, or seeing the new and innovative simply try to repeat the old.

For example: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba [China’s eBay-like platform, which is much bigger than eBay], the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”[lix]

Why didn’t Enterprise, ABC/Disney, Macy’s, or Hilton provide these breakthoughs? Because they would almost surely have been hamstrung by the idea that they needed a fleet of cars, contracts with producers and actors, retail and storage facilities, and dedicated hotel buildings. These “old” rules got in the way. The new and innovative came from new leaders with fresh thinking.

Our politics and other sectors of society need the same. Otherwise, as mentioned, we’ll either spoil the new or revert to the old rules. Education needs to learn this lesson, and apply it. Right away.

26. Virality over Plaque. Indeed, the sectors in the most need of new leadership are those that are highly regulated by government(s). When an economic field enjoys light or minimal regulation, it naturally benefits from virality: “the tendency of an idea or brand to be circulated rapidly from one Internet user to another.”[lx]

When no company or product in a sector is able to achieve real virality, the sector stagnates. Instead of virality, this part of the economy develops what we might call a plaque problem. Like in the body’s blood vessels and arteries, a buildup of plaque is both unhealthy and dangerous. If it grows, it can become life threatening. Too much regulation in a field of the economy creates serious plaque buildup.

Avenues to Greatness

As the authors of Platform Revolution noted: “Banking, healthcare, and education are all highly regulated…. Emerging platforms are starting to attack this problem in an effort to create new sources of value [in these fields], but regulatory control is holding them back.”[lxi] Nations that address this head on and reduce as much regulation as they can without creating dangers for their people will lead out in 21st century banking, healthcare, and education—simply by freeing up space for entrepreneurs to improve these stagnating sectors of society.

For example, as mentioned earlier, “more people are using Duolingo to learn [an international] language than all the students in high school in the U.S. combined.”[lxii] And it works! On a broader scale, it is time for a Renaissance in American education—if only the government will get out of the way and let educational innovators and entrepreneurs go to work. A few have started, but regulation still blocks real virality.

To repeat: new leadership is needed. And this is true in politics and education more than perhaps any other sectors. Technologists proclaim that the centuries-old stranglehold of the big political parties and the old-style education system over the nation are slowing or blocking new technological changes that bring more power to voters, students, and families. It is still unclear who the winners and losers will be, but governments and educational bureaucracies tend toward increasing plaque—not dynamic virality.

Still, even the most viral sector, platform, provider, company, brand or product is still ultimately controlled by someone—or a group of “someones”. Until the digital revolution can give the people as a group real teeth in the face of economic and power elites, freedom and the kind of education that prepares a truly free citizenry will remain in peril, and nations will continue their path toward decline.

Halting the Fall

Together these trends paint an interesting and challenging picture. The era of Star Trek technology hasn’t quite yet arrived, but we’re certainly not in Kansas anymore. Things are changing rapidly, and this epoch of change is right now just in its childhood. Get ready, because the teenage years are just ahead!

Indeed, in all of this, education plays a central, even pivotal role. Such technological advancement makes great education in the great books and great ideas, and the corresponding abilities of most citizens to think independently and innovatively, lead, and initiate, even more important than ever before. We need Results-Based Learning. We need education that works.

The future will be dominated by whichever groups become the most effective learners, adapters, and innovators. If this is centered in a small, powerful group of elites, they will rule. If it is made up of larger numbers of the regular people, in contrast, we will live in a society dedicated to freedom and opportunity for all.

Education matters. Moreover, the kind of education we give our children matters—not just for them individually, but for the future of our entire society. Only great education can get us where we want to go.

NOTES (includes notes from previous post)

[i] Schwab, 15, 147-148; see also Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable, 2016, 50-51; Brynjolfsson, 14-20; See Sam Smith, “The Truth About the Future of Cars,” Esquire, April 2016, 69-74; Erin Griffith, “Disconnected,” Fortune, August 1, 2016, 44..

[ii] See Smith, 69-74.

[iii] Scwhab, 15; see also Brynjolfsson, 36-37; Kelly, 53.

[iv] Schwab, 15, 22, 161-167.

[v] Andrea Smith, “Print Your Candy and Eat it Too,” Popular Science, January 2015, 24.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Schwab, 16.

[viii] Ibid., 17.

[ix] “Future of Money Defined,” Forbes, December 28, 2015, 80.

[x] Schwab, 17.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Kelly, 238.

[xiii] Ibid., 5.; see also David Berreby, “Duet ex Machina,” Psychology Today, May/June 2015, 60-69.

[xiv] Berreby, 67.

[xv] Ibid., front cover.

[xvi] Ibid., 66-69.

[xvii] Schwab, 21; see also 168-169.

[xviii] Ibid., 21.

[xix] Ibid., 170-172.

[xx] Ibid., 21.

[xxi] Kelly, 69.

[xxii] See, for example, Andrew Rosenblum, “Virtual Reality Meets the Public,” Popular Science, January 2015, 45.

[xxiii] See Eric Spitznagel, Men’s Health, June 2016, 144-149, 158-159.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] See Matt Giles, “Let’s Talk About Love in the App Age,” Popular Science, January/February 2016, 30-31.

[xxvii] See ibid.; see also Spitznagel, 144-149, 158-159.

[xxviii] See Spitznagel., 144-149, 158-159.

[xxix] See Giles, 30-31; see also Spitznagel, 144-149, 158-159..

[xxx] See Brynjolfsson, 52-56; Kelly, 219-220.

[xxxi] Schwab, 99-100.

[xxxii] Kelly, 72.

[xxxiii] Schwab, 149-150; see also 151-152.

[xxxiv] Kelly, 220.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Cited in Tapscott, 276.

[xxxvii] Schwab, 46-47.

[xxxviii] Wassily Leontief, cited in Brynjolfsson, 178.

[xxxix] Schwab., 47-48.

[xl] Ibid., 49.

[xli] Ibid., 92.

[xlii] Tapscott, 173.

[xliii] Schwab, 13.

[xliv] See ibid., 100-102.

[xlv] Ibid., 100-101.

[xlvi] Kelly, 127.

[xlvii] Schwab, 100-101.

[xlviii] Ibid., 102.

[xlix] Ibid., 108.

[l] Tapscott, 308.

[li] Schwab, 121.

[lii] Kelly, 180.

[liii] Schwab, 125-128.

[liv] Kelly, 40.

[lv] Ibid., 5.

[lvi] Thiel, 10.

[lvii] Tapscott, 309-310.

[lviii] Ross, 187.

[lix] Tom Goodwin, in an article in TechCruch, cited in Schwab, 20.

[lx] Parker, 23.

[lxi] Ibid., 263.

[lxii] Ibid., 267.

Category : Blog

The Jefferson-Madison Debates: The Next Civil War?

May 13th, 2018 // 4:25 pm @

True or False…or False?

It’s getting worse. Just watch the news. This phrase, the “Next Civil War”, was recently used by economic forecaster Harry Dent to describe the growing divide between Red and Blue state cultures. These two sides now disagree with each other to the point that in many cases people experience real hatred for those on “the other side”.

Former president Barack Obama noted that people who largely get their news from the mainstream media and those who get their news mostly from Fox are basically living “on different planets.” They not only disagree on principles and solutions, he pointed out, but they fundamentally disagree on “facts”. What the Blue culture sees as incontrovertible truths, the Red culture frequently sees as lies. Fake. False. And the opposite is just as true: what the Red culture sees as fact is often considered false by Blue culture.

No wonder the two sides are so angry at each other. When you disagree on what the facts are, the solutions promoted by the other side frequently appear ludicrous. Even dangerous. Both sides, each rooted in its own understanding of reality, watch the other side say and do things that are clearly and painfully hurtful—according to the set of obvious but differing “facts” they each believe.


This divide is widening. We’ve reached the point that one of the worst things parents can learn about their child’s “significant other” or new fiancé is that he/she is a Republican, or Democrat—depending on the family. Religion, career, ethnicity, education, financial status, and even a criminal history, are largely negotiable in most modern families. But the other political party? Many parents turn Tevye: “If I try and bend this far, I’ll break.”

Lynn Vavreck wrote in The New York Times (January 31, 2017): “In 1958, 33 percent of Democrats wanted their daughters to marry a Democrat, and 25 percent of Republicans wanted their daughters to marry a Republican. But by 2016, 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans felt that way.” And for many, the feelings run very deep. While in 1994 21 percent of Republicans viewed Democrats in the “Very Unfavorable” category, by 2016 the number was 58 percent. (Pew Research Center) In 1994 17 percent of Democrats saw Republicans as “Very Unfavorable”, but the number in 2016 had skyrocketed to 55 percent. (Ibid.)

Aaron Blake summarized this concern in The Washington Post: “If 58 percent of Republicans hate Democrats and 55 percent of Democrats hate Republicans, that would mean about 35 percent of registered voters hate the opposite political party.” (June 19, 2017) “But that’s not quite hate…. 45% of Republicans see the Democratic Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being…. [and] 41% of Democrats see the Republican Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being”. (Ibid.) When you add independents, the “hate” one of the parties (those who see the other party as a threat to the nation) makes up 39 percent of registered voters or “About 1 in 4” Americans. (Ibid.)

There are a lot of others who see the other side in an unfavorable light, around 33 percent of additional Republicans (for a total of 91% with “unfavorable” or “very unfavorable”) and 30 percent of additional Democrats (86% with “unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” views). (Ibid.) Note that all of this occurred before the Trump presidency. Again, this divide is real, and deep. In the Trump era the intensity has only increased.

But does any of this justify the phrase “Next Civil War”? Not yet. Not unless we’re going to surrender to hyperbole. Yet this conflict is escalating in many sectors—it’s moved beyond the traditional battlegrounds of politics and news media to additional culture and power centers including education, television, movies, entertainment awards shows, daily and nightly talk shows (both radio and television), sports, and multiple venues on social media. Even social media and Internet platforms are getting involved by adjusting algorithms to promote certain political leanings—or dampen the voice of those they dislike—often without informing their customers.

Platforms and Soapboxes

For many Americans, the sight of some NFL players purposely kneeling during the National Anthem is the ultimate symbol of this divide. One side sees young role models and leaders using their public platform to bravely protest government abuse—especially what they consider racially charged police violence. The other side feels hurt and confused by millionaire beneficiaries of the American Dream figuratively spitting on the American Flag and the sacrifice of dead and maimed military heroes.

It’s difficult to even discuss this situation rationally in many venues due to the raw and heartfelt emotions of people on both sides of the Red-Blue cultural divide.

Sadly, many schools have also become places of great conflict. For example, a national uproar occurred when a middle school teacher assigned her students to write letters to political officials urging them to pass stronger gun control laws. Should teachers tell middle school children what sides to take on political issues? And assign them to engage in activism for one specific side? At what point does teaching become brainwashing? A father of one of the students, a policeman, refused to allow his child to do the assignment. The father deeply disagreed with the politics of the teacher, and many of the other parents disagreed with the politicization of middle school in general. In response to backlash, the teacher allowed students to skip the assignment without penalty, but didn’t suggest writing against stronger gun control if this more accurately aligned with the student’s views. The same week, an elementary student was expelled from school for drawing himself hunting during a “free art” assignment, and a high school teacher was fired for a lengthy history-class soliloquy describing current members of the military as “the lowest of the low” in our society. Red and Blue cultures passionately disagreed on how these events should be handled. Both sides largely see the other’s view as ridiculous and extreme.

Another moment that epitomizes this division occurred on Broadway when the cast of Hamilton stopped the musical midstream to lecture the new Vice President elect, Mike Pence. Hamilton itself is an artistic icon—an American Les Miserables that underscores how the struggles of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and their families and peers unleashed freedom in a way that has now spread to people of all backgrounds. The lecture itself was seen by one side as a welcome comeuppance to a dangerous new administration, and by the other as yet another gauche elitist attack against the will of the voters and the American system.

Networks, Numbers, and New Divides

Thankfully this war is largely cultural—it has not devolved into massive physical violence between the two sides of a nation (like the French Revolution, U.S. Civil War, or Russian Revolution, etc.). Hopefully it will always remain peaceful. But in the fight for hearts, there is no doubt that a major civil war for the future of our republic is already under way.

Worse, it is doubtful that any real solution is imminent. When one part of the nation generally believes most of what airs on CNN, ABC, NBC and MSNBC, while another part tends to place more trust in Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or Trump tweets, the two aren’t going see eye-to-eye on much of anything. And when these two groups are the largest political blocs in our republic, we’re going to have genuine and repeated disagreements.

Perhaps the epicenter of this battle for “the hearts and minds of the people” is found in the media. And this poses a major challenge. Why? Because most of modern media—from both the Left and Right—has three serious problems:

1-It is largely agenda driven (“Forget the facts, full speed ahead!”)

2-It is shallow.

3-It is electronic.

Most people realize the problems with item #1. As a result, they stop listening to media outlets that are clearly against their views—and seem hostile to anyone with a different perspective. This has created another significant problem with modern media:

4-It is isolated. The Right listens to the Right, while the Left listens to the Left. Few listen to both. Few listen to the other side. Over time, media outlets increasingly cater to their narrow audiences, so the extremism increases.

Result: the divisions in our nation are getting wider, deeper, and more susceptible to anger and, too often, extremism and unhealthy thinking and actions.

The Missing Depth

The  2nd and 3rd problems listed just above are equally dangerous. Many people are very busy—work, family, more work, community, more family. Little time is left over for meaningful civic involvement, much less for taking the time to really dig into each day’s news, truly understand what is happening, and go way beyond the 30 second sound bites or even 3 minute segments on any given story. An hour of the news is more than most can spare—and most hour newscasts only provide a very shallow overview of a few of the day’s news topics. In short, shallow. No time for depth.

The result is that nearly all shows repeat a few top stories, with only a bit of detail. Even if a person watched television all day, he or she would usually only hear about the same top stories, addressed shallowly over and over—with different opinions but nothing really weighty or reflective. Depth is almost unheard of in most of today’s media.

This is especially true of the electronic media. Besides, television, radio, and online media typically interact with human brains more like entertainment than like something really, truly important. When we watch or listen or surf our news, in most cases, we are in the mode of moving quickly from one thought to the next. Even if we try to focus, ads, pop-ups and crawlers invade our screen with multiple headlines and distractions all at once. Our devices were purposely designed this way, in fact.

Reading the news, in contrast, naturally moves the focus into our intellect. A good start. “But nobody wants to read anything longer than a page…” today’s editors assure everyone. Many editors put the limit at “two paragraphs.” If we don’t read more deeply, we’ll truly and literally become a nation of sheep. Deep thinking is needed to deal with the reality of today’s complex and globally-interconnected world—for any citizen. And deep thinking about the news is basically impossible unless we’re reading (or listening/watching to a source that takes) much more than 5 minutes to really address an issue in some depth.

The Jefferson-Madison Debates

The term “fake news” means the following to most people: news that pushes a false agenda, distracts from truth, lies. But “shallow news” is just as bad for the nation. Even “accurate news” that is shallow is a major blow to our society. And this accounts for most of what media consumers experience. When it is both fake and shallow, we’re in real trouble.

The Left and Right argue about which news reports are “fake,” but few even claim to offer real depth in their news. And even fewer consumers seem to be actively searching for and embracing deeper news.

To reiterate: the Red-Blue divisions are growing, and intensifying, and this means that major problems are ahead unless we do something about it. My plan is to write a weekly (or, sometimes, every two week) article that treats real topics in enough depth to help readers take a step back from the constant screaming of electronic news, and really understand a topic (one at a time) enough to see behind the scenes of modern media spin and fake/shallow posturing.

More will, of course, be needed to stop our seeming national sprint toward more civil conflict. But I know this weekly column will make a difference—for those who read it.

It was the reading and thinking about articles and pamphlets during the American Founding generation that helped America gain freedom, and deep thinking is vitally needed today. I’m calling this new series of weekly articles The Jefferson-Madison Debates, and I hope you’ll join us.

It’s going to be fun.

— Oliver DeMille

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The Jefferson-Madison Debates: Are Today’s Education and Politics Entering the Age of Star Trek?

May 12th, 2018 // 9:02 am @

“A shoe, too, is no longer a finished product, but an endless process of reimagining our extended feet, perhaps with disposable covers, sandals that morph as you walk, treads that shift, or floors that act as shoes.” —Kevin Kelly 

“We have long argued that as the Web extends in usage…increased access to factual information would improve the quality of public discourse. However, the opposite seems to be occurring.” —Don and Alex Tapscott

Given how much technology has changed the world in the past twenty years, and how differently we now live, it’s easy to assume that the Internet Revolution has brought the big change—and this era of massive shifts will slowly relax back into some kind of normality. But the truth is that we are just at the very beginning stages of the Information Age. The changes have just begun.

Following are a few of the major developments still ahead, as described by the experts on current technologies. As you think about each of these, consider the ramifications of these trends as they relate to the future of education, career, the economy, and the type of education needed for the emerging economy:

1. Autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars are a reality.[i] How long they will co-exist with human drivers before the laws require all cars to be driven electronically remains to be seen.[ii] Self-driving planes, boats, and trucks will also change our lives drastically. Flying vehicles are next. As drone technology improves, taking people as passengers may not be too far away.

2. 3D Printing (additive manufacturing).[iii] This will revolutionize transportation, shipping, and manufacturing. Things that can be printed out in our own homes don’t need to be built in factories, or shipped by truck, airplane, or even drone. 3D printing will also have significant impact in medicine by printing certain medical implants.[iv] In fact, 3D printers now print food, including candy—and some people think it even tastes good.[v] One taste tester wrote: “It tastes like an after-dinner mint mixed with a sugar cube.”[vi]

3. 4D Printing. The printers will print smartobjects that are self-learning, and self-altering in response to their environment.[vii]

4. New Smart Materials. As Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum, put it: Some are “self-healing, self-cleaning, metals with memory that revert to their original shapes, chemicals and crystals that turn pressure into energy, and so on…. Take advanced nanomaterials [nano means smaller than the human eye can see] such as graphene, which is about 200-times stronger than steel, a million times thinner than a human hair, and an efficient conductor of heat and electricity. When graphene becomes price competitive…it could significantly disrupt the manufacturing and infrastructure industries.”[viii]

5. iMoneyCenter. As Forbes put it: “Your cellphone will become a global bank. Mobile money accounts already outnumber traditional bank accounts in parts of the developing world, and new technology will turbocharge that trend, allowing payments to anyone, anywhere, in local currencies.”[ix]

6. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). Tiny tags can be put on pretty much anything, or anyone, and track where it is at any time, all over the world.[x] This technology is cheap and easy to use. The tags can even contain sensors that keep track of how well the item is doing, and what it is doing.[xi]

New Normal

Kevin Kelly said of the various kinds of small digital devices that are being created: “A few are shrinking to the size of the period following this sentence. These macroscopic measurers can be inserted into watches, clothes, spectacles, or phones, or inexpensively dispersed in rooms, cars, offices, and public spaces.[xii] Sensors can be built to watch and listen.” He also wrote: “Massive tracking and total surveillance are here to stay.”[xiii]

The machines are becoming ubiquitous.[xiv] Moreover, a lot of people like it this way. One report summarized the trend as “Our Love-Hate Affair With AI.”[xv]

The ramifications of the new era of machines for freedom and relationships of all kinds are immense.[xvi]

7. Gene Mapping and Synthetic Biology. This is popularly called the creation of “Designer Babies.” “It will provide us with the ability to customize organisms by writing DNA.”[xvii] “Today, a genome can be sequenced in a few hours for less than a thousand dollars.”[xviii] And at some point scientists foresee artificial memory implanting into peoples’ brains.[xix] Just download what you want to know—facts, dates, formulas, etc. Gene Mapping will impact agriculture and the energy sector (by producing biofuels) as well as medicine and education.[xx]

8. Personalized Medications. Medicine, from those used to treat advanced diseases to simple aspirin, will be personalized for each individual—“tailored to your DNA.”[xxi] These will likely be very expensive at first, further widening the gap between the upper and other classes.

9. Non-Communicative Relationships. A number of popular magazines each month present articles that tell men and women they need to turn off their electronic gadgets and talk to their spouse or significant other. The articles are detailed and specific, with advice like “look your spouse in the eye while you talk to her,” and “actually listen to the words he says and try to connect with his logic and feelings,” etc.

The volume of such articles suggests that this is a serious problem. Relationships are often victims of addiction to electronic devices, texts, messages, and other incoming communication that is more highly valued than interaction with the live person in the same room.

Relationships and Roboticships

Moreover, emerging technology will very likely throw a serious monkey-wrench into many relationships. VR (Virtual Reality[xxii]) is incredibly advanced now, and will soon be on the market in extensive ways. A person can slip on a VR helmet or glasses and be transported mentally to a whole new world. Some VR research and development is focused on porn, although the tech world prefers the term “alternative relationships.” How will this impact marriage, family, education, and stable relationships?

Robotics have reached the point that lifelike “partner dolls,” sometimes called “sex dolls”, that talk and interact are already available.[xxiii] Soon, experts say, they’ll be easily accessible online and sold in our corner neighborhood stores.[xxiv] It’s a potential revolution in lifestyles, and the impact on relationships will certainly be real.[xxv] It is unclear how this will influence marriage and family, but the prospects seem quite negative.

A number of apps try to fulfill the same need—for relationships in an electronic format.[xxvi] If we find it difficult now to put down our phones or take off our headphones to engage in meaningful conversation and relationships, imagine how difficult it will be to turn off the robots, apps, and VR glasses.[xxvii] VR, and lifelike personal relationship robots, can be programmed (or told by the user) to never argue, nag, disagree, shout, or storm away.[xxviii] Again, such devices won’t take the place of quality, mature relationships, but they could very well hurt or make such relationships more difficult.[xxix]

10. The Rise of the Algorithms. Online technology now employs numerous advanced algorithms and AI technologies that are learning to do everything from sensing where our eyes are gazing (in order to know our interests and sell to us)[xxx] to what our politics are (as mentioned above, this could be to allow providers like Facebook and Google, or others, to determine what news feeds to send us—to promote their own political goals), to how empty the milk carton in our fridge is (in order to order a fresh one).

Schwab said: “Amazon and Netflix already possess algorithms that predict which films and books we may wish to watch and read. Dating and job placement sites suggest partners and jobs—in our neighborhood or anywhere in the world—that their systems [algorithms] figure might suit us best.

The Man AI in Charge

“What do we do? Trust the advice provided by an algorithm or that offered by family, friends, or colleagues? Would we consult an AI-driven robot doctor with a near perfect diagnosis success rate—or stick with the human physician with the assuring bedside manner we have known for years?”[xxxi]

AI is tasked with watching us and learning from us, and as AIs become smarter, some of them will be incredibly effective forecasters. Companies may even be valued based on their AI. For example, Kelly wrote: “Amazon’s greatest asset is not its Prime delivery service but the many millions of reader reviews it has accumulated over the decades.”[xxxii] These reviews, and the AI that runs them, learns from them, and uses them to help predict what books each user is likely to enjoy, is a huge asset.

The concept of establishing corporate boards of directors made up entirely of Artificial Intelligence is discussed openly and seriously.[xxxiii] Do we want algorithms in charge of everything?

In education, the possibilities are seemingly endless—and just as alarming. Kelly wrote: “The tiny camera eyes that now stare back at us from any screen can be trained with additional skills…researchers at MIT have taught the eyes in our machines to detect human emotions. As we watch the screen, the screen is watching us, where we look, and how we react.

“Since this perception is in real time, the smart software [algorithms] can adapt what I’m viewing. Say I am reading a book and my frown shows I’ve stumbled on a certain word; the text could expand a definition.”[xxxiv]

This means that the text of the book is changing before you read it, based on what you have read so far and how you reacted. In other words, the computer is in effect censoring what you read before you even read it.

What about the author’s intent? Well, that depends. The AI, or the people who commission and oversee the AI, may decide to carefully protect the original text, or they may not. They may edit, censor, distract, etc.—whatever they think best achieves their goals.

Remember that thing called Thinking?

They may even have different ways of dealing with different people—like Google gaming the search system so that people who look up a certain Republican candidate get the most negative articles about him on the first page, while those who search for his Democratic opponent get the most flattering articles (or vice versa).

Or they might simply guide your searches to the companies who paid them the most to do so. If these guides are personalized and targeted to each individual user (like in the movie Minority Report), different readers will literally be getting a very different education. One student will read very different things than a second student, while the third reads yet another thing—all determined by AI and/or those who program and control the AI.

Kelly continued: “Or, if it realizes I am reading the same passage, it could supply an annotation for that passage. Similarly, if it knows I am bored by a scene in a video, it could jump ahead or speed up the action.”[xxxv] If we choose such functions on a menu, that’s one thing. But what happens if the big businesses or the cyber-governmental-industrial-complex just decides that this kind of censorship is best for the people? Or for a certain group or type of people, such as those from a certain religion or political party?

On purely educational grounds, having the computer supply definitions, commentaries and links is bad for thinking. It teaches rote dependence on experts, even if the expert is an AI. If we don’t have to question, ponder, or debate the books we read, we’ll be thinking a lot less. The words censorship and brainwashing aren’t farfetched in this context.

What about politics? The media and party-media machines already spread a lot of false information. What will happen when algorithms take over the media spin? It will personalize to each reader, each person using the Internet (or whatever kind of Supernet or Skynet takes its place). As such, the AI will learn how to confuse each person the most effectively. Again, this isn’t far from the personalized billboards and ads in the movie Minority Report.

(Un)Locked Doors

On an even larger scale, if an algorithm claims to predict which of various candidates would make the best president, prime minister, judge or senator, do we just give up voting altogether? After all, the voters seldom put in leaders who truly deliver what they promised. Or will the experts try to convince us that an algorithm-based AI should be our president and Congress and Court and make our top government decisions—getting rid of human error altogether?

And in all this, let’s not forget that someone can access the algorithms. All computers can be hacked—so far. As author Marc Goodman put it: “There’s never been a computer system that’s proven unhackable.”[xxxvi] Bigger technologies mean bigger hacks, with more drastic impact on people.

And won’t the growth of the Internet just funnel more and more power to a few elites who control the algorithms? The answer is “Yes. Emphatically yes!”

In fact, is there any way to stop this from happening?

11. “Reshoring.” This means that when high tech processes like 3D printing, gene mapping, and RFID tagging become mainstream around the world, many industrial jobs will be lost—but a lot of high-tech jobs will move back to the most advanced nations in search of highly-trained workers with expertise in areas conducive to high tech.[xxxvii] Whether this will happen or not remains to be seen. It may not happen at all. “…many workers [may]…end up permanently unemployed, like horses unable to adjust to the invention of the tractors.”[xxxviii]

12. Portfolio Careers. These occur where a person’s career includes doing several different jobs for different employers in the same day.[xxxix] For example, one person might be a teacher during the school day, a restaurant manager during the evenings, and an eBay seller in his spare time—all to make ends meet. Portfolio careers may become very widespread in the new economy. A lot of people probably won’t like such a development, leading to increased class divisions and conflicts.[xl]

13. Even Greater Class Divide. As Schwab wrote: “…half of all assets around the world are now controlled by the richest 1% of the global population, while the lower half” of the population control less than 1% of world assets.[xli] Or as the Tapscotts put it: “…the global 1 percent owns half of the world’s wealth while 3.5 billion people earn fewer than 2 dollars a day.”[xlii]

To be continued next week …


[i] Schwab, 15, 147-148; see also Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable, 2016, 50-51; Brynjolfsson, 14-20; See Sam Smith, “The Truth About the Future of Cars,” Esquire, April 2016, 69-74; Erin Griffith, “Disconnected,” Fortune, August 1, 2016, 44.

[ii] See Smith, 69-74.

[iii] Scwhab, 15; see also Brynjolfsson, 36-37; Kelly, 53.

[iv] Schwab, 15, 22, 161-167.

[v] Andrea Smith, “Print Your Candy and Eat it Too,” Popular Science, January 2015, 24.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Schwab, 16.

[viii] Ibid., 17.

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