Links for October 23, 2020
Why can't America build things? Also, Ivy-obsessed parents, Francis Fukuyama, Foxconn in Wisconsin, and Russian microwave attacks.
Some links, somewhat related:
The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents (The Atlantic) Highly recommended. Good comments and discussion here.
Liberalism and Its Discontents (Francis Fukuyama) Great article. Argues that liberalism has two downsides: economic inequality and a culture of atomization. It’s also useful to think of liberalism as an advanced social technology that keeps people with different interests from butchering each other. It requires fine-tuning and constant upkeep.
On the theme of America’s seeming inability to build ambitious, large-scale projects any longer, some examples of quickly accomplishing ambitious things together (Patrick Collison). You’ll notice that most of these occurred quite a long time ago. To this list I might add the hundreds miles of freeways and interstates Robert Moses added to NYC between 1920 and 1960 as documented meticulously and engagingly by Robert Caro in his 1,300 page book The Power Broker. For context, this line of thinking has been motivated by these pieces by Marc Andreesen and Tanner Greer, which I linked to previously.
[B]oth innovation and institutional capacity are at least partially a product of social training and cultural experience. Americans were once accustomed to solving problems themselves—less as rugged individuals, than as rugged communitarians. When a novel problem occurred, they would gather together with others affected, and would together take action to resolve the problem before them. This lived experience of jointly solving novel problems has largely disappeared from American life. Americans have spent several generations the subject of bureaucratic management, and are rarely given real responsibility for their own affairs.
Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning (Rittel and Webber, 1973) A more academic take by two professors of Urban Planning and Design at Berkeley. Goes well with the last link. The authors give ten characteristics of what they term “wicked problems.” RAND and “systems analysis” also gets called out (negatively) on the second page. Eerily relevant despite being almost 50 years old. From the first page:
George Bernard Shaw diagnosed the case several years ago; in more recent times popular protest may have already become a social movement. Shaw averred that "every profession is a conspiracy against the laity." The contemporary publics are responding as though they have made the same discovery.
Few of the modern professionals seem to be immune from the popular attack—whether they be social workers, educators, housers, public health officials, policemen, city planners, highway engineers or physicians. Our restive clients have been telling us that they don't like the educational programs that schoolmen have been offering, the redevelopment projects urban renewal agencies have been proposing, the law-enforcement styles of the police, the administrative behavior of the welfare agencies, the locations of the highways, and so on. In the courts, the streets, and the political campaigns, we've been hearing ever-louder public protests against the diagnoses of the clients' problems, against professionally designed governmental programs, against professionally certified standards for the public services.
Some initial thoughts:
Why can't we build thing anymore? And why, when we do build things, does it takes so long, and turn out so terribly? One reason might be that in the past there were fewer costs involved or the costs were ignored. Building a railroad across the United States is easy when the land is mostly empty—except for the Native Americans, and who cares about them?
One might also think of it in terms of systems operating well within their limits versus systems operating at the edges of their limits. For example, driving 50 mph down a straight road means your tires can be a little flat, the timing belt a little squeaky, you can adjust the radio, eat a McFlurry, and drive all at the same time. You are operating the car well within its limits and have wide latitude to overcome errors. Conversely, when operating a car at its top speed, you are suddenly worried about those flat tires, their interaction with the grade of the road, the weather's effect on the road, the turning radius of the car, upcoming traffic, and you are definitely not rummaging around with your right hand under the passenger seat looking for a napkin. We now must be much more aware of the boundaries between systems, and the interactions between these nested systems (the car and the road/weather/traffic system), than we needed to before. Driving close to boundaries is more costly in attention and in potential consequences. A crash here might be death and a ten-car pile-up. Maybe everything pre-1970s was like driving your car on I-40 at 50 mph, and everything post-1970s is like driving your car at 110 mph on the Autobahn in the rain on the night Oktoberfest ends and everyone heads home.
In this sense, things should take longer. Our choices intersect with more people and entail lots of second- and third-order consequences. Robert Moses could literally pave over a low-income ethnic neighborhood, because no one cared about low-income people in ethnic neighborhoods. You are less likely to get away with ignoring these costs today, and in some sense that seems...good? At the same time (getting away from the car analogy), trust among people seems to have fallen, interests are entrenched, and it's much easier to organize and voice dissent. So the cost for people to complain has also fallen and the threshold for complaining has fallen as well.
This seems to be part of the thrust of Fukuyama’s article. There is a “thinness of shared moral life in liberal societies.” Those on the right feel that liberal society undervalues a shared national identity, and those on the left feel that liberal society, for all its emphasis on equality, still allows racism, sexism, and bigotry to persist. Neither side quite trusts the other’s motives, and this would seem to hamper coordination on large socially beneficial projects.
Another part of this might be a loss of organizational capacity among current and future generations that starts from an early age. One stylized fact about modern childhood is that kids are relentlessly overscheduled, have goals dictated to them by neurotic parents, and only learn to resolve conflict through appeals to adults. They do not learn how to organize impromptu playdates (previously just called hanging out), create ad-hoc rules for baseball when there’s not enough people to play all the positions, or even determine, among peers with different interests and constraints—what to do to pass the time. The article about niche sports among Ivy League-obsessed parents describes these kids lives, and it sounds miserable. It also sounds like a cohort of people that will have little experiencing getting together to solve problems and build things.
The 8th Wonder of the World (The Verge) What happened to all those jobs Foxconn was going to create in Wisconsin?
The Mystery of the Immaculate Concussion (GQ). Are CIA operatives getting concussions from Russian microwaves? Very strange.
Books I’m Currently Reading:
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Alec Nevala-Lee) I’d read a review of this that talked about the role science fiction played in a post-WW2 society dealing with a grim uncertainty about the future, and it seemed potentially relevant. I’ve become a little interested (motivated by a newsletter reader’s complaints about trends in speculative fiction) in the relationship between science fiction and actual science and public policy, and it seems like there’s some precedent here. From the review:
The Golden Age [of Science Fiction], I think, offered both solace and motivation for people doing ugly, necessary things in dark times, by putting the positive aspects of all the technological possibilities being opened up in the spotlight. The competent man archetype — now reduced to a snarky trope — was a genuine source of felt agency back then, when most humans alive felt powerless under the shadow of nuclear armageddon.