The Commons

Social Media is an Engineering Disaster Waiting to Happen Share This

| Oct 20, 2020 | Big Tech

The 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is the textbook example of an engineering disaster. You’ve probably seen the footage: In grainy black and white, what was then the third largest suspension bridge in the world twists and oscillates with increasing violence, empty but for a stalled-out Pontiac parked askew on its undulating deck. After one final rhythmic lurch, the cables give way in spectacular fashion, plunging spans of concrete, the car, and an unlucky cocker spaniel into the choppy waters below.

Physics and engineering students will be familiar with the collapse as a somewhat apocryphal illustration of mechanical resonance. As the wind buffeted the bridge, each oscillation became amplified by its concordance with the bridge’s natural resonant frequency, as if it were an enormous tuning fork. The bridge’s constructors were even aware of its tendency to sway and wobble, having nicknamed it Galloping Gertie. Yet in the belief that its enormous mass assured its structural integrity, they failed to account for the nonlinear aerodynamics of a vortex that hit just right.

Our major social media platforms suffer from an analogous structural design flaw. On a normal day, something on Twitter’s trending tab or Facebook’s newsfeed will inevitably catch your eye, causing your attentional resources to sway away from the straight and narrow. While perhaps not ideal for one’s productivity at work, the software engineers have assured us that the bigger picture is stable.  Read More

Can the Left Overcome its Technopessimism? Share This

| Oct 20, 2020 | Liberals

In his excellent American Compass essay “The Five Deadly Sins of the Left”, Ruy Teixeira calls out the left for what he terms their “technopessimism”. He writes: “the Left has become distinctly unenthusiastic about the potential of technology, tending to see it as a dark force to be contained rather than a force for good to be celebrated.” Not only is the left’s view misguided – technology remains the central driver of improvement in most Americans’ lives – but Teixeira writes that this attitude leaves “techno-optimism to the libertarian-minded denizens of Silicon Valley.” Read More

The Flattering Alarmism of The Social Dilemma Share This

| Oct 20, 2020 | Big Tech

The new and popular documentary, The Social Dilemma, probably could have been an article published in 2018. That’s not to dismiss what it has to say. Framed as the social media equivalent of Food Inc., the movie interviews academics and former tech company execs, all of whom make now-popular arguments about the hidden costs of social media. Unsurprisingly, the movie has received some glowing reviews, and it functions as a good reminder: there are a lot of ways that social media is obviously bad for us. And yet, it sneaks in a self-serving political narrative, one that’s perhaps as subtle as the nudging algorithms it seeks to expose. Read More

Respect the People Share This

| Oct 19, 2020 | Financial Markets

Like every banker, I remember my first bail-out fondly. Mine was January 1995 and I was working for Salomon Brothers bond trading business, and we, like all of Wall Street, had gotten ourselves out over our skis.

The particular reason was Mexico, but the general reason was hype and greed. The hype surrounding the recently passed NAFTA flooded Mexico with foreign money looking to make a quick peso. That worked until Mexico’s financial system collapsed as those who rushed in because of NAFTA hype rushed out because of reality.

Mexico was heading to default. That would have meant billions of losses for US investment firms like us, Lehman, and Goldman Sachs, as well as asset managers. Mexico’s collapse set in motion a chain of market failures across the globe, threatening an emerging global consensus built on the free flow of money and goods to the newly opened economies in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. A few Wall Street firms were at risk of collapsing.

The Clinton Administration came to the rescue however, with a $50 billion international bail out package led by Robert Rubin (US treasury secretary and former Goldman Sachs board member), his young sidekick Larry Summers, and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

President Clinton, against the urging of many in his administration, insisted on first getting congressional approval for the bailout, certain it would pass given the strong support from the very politically influential Greenspan.

Congress however, worried about the image of sending $25 billion to bail out Mexico, Goldman Sachs, and others, while the US was losing manufacturing jobs to Mexico, voted it down.

The markets again collapsed after the failed vote so the administration pivoted to using an existing US Treasury program that their lawyers decided they didn’t need direct Congressional approval for (although they eventually worked to get it). It was, in their minds, an end run around the political process for the greater good, and it worked. Spectacularly well.

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Seven Deadly Political Sins Share This

| Oct 18, 2020 | American Tradition

Self-examination is a useful exercise. I’m grateful to Henry Olsen, Micah Meadowcroft, Josh Hammer, and Michael Lind (in a cognate posting) for their reflection on the sins of the American right. I’d like to add my voice to this collective mea culpa. As a sometime theology professor, I’ll key my observations to the classical list of seven deadly sins. Read More

Tales of Bureaucratic Incompetence and the Sins of the Left and Right Share This

| Oct 17, 2020 | Welfare State

After working as a manager at Chick-Fil-A for four years, Elizabeth Nowowiejski, a married mother of two living in Toledo, began a new job as a patient coordinator at a medical office. Her first day was January 20, 2020. By March 18th her office was down to a skeleton staff due to Covid-19 and Elizabeth was laid off, with the promise that she’d be hired back as soon as possible.

Thankfully, the mortgage could be put on hold and her husband was still working. She applied for unemployment and received her first check. But weeks later she received a message from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services saying that she was denied and that she needed to pay back the $1100 in benefits that she had already received within 45 days, otherwise it would be sent to a collections agency.

Elizabeth filed an appeal, and for months tried to reach someone at the department. At least three of her coworkers had received similar notifications, and all wanted to appeal. According to one report, by mid-June tens of thousands of other Ohioans were in a similar situation. Read More

The Three Failed Utopias of the Establishment Right Share This

| Oct 16, 2020

In March 2016, as Donald Trump was headed toward securing the nomination of the Republican party for president at the Republican national convention in July, I published a piece in The National Interest about the collapse of the establishment Republican agenda.  Today, on the verge of the 2020 election, my essay is as relevant as ever:

…[T]oday’s orthodox conservatism consists almost entirely of radical utopian schemes to revolutionize America and the world. So-called “movement conservatism” or “fusionism” in its present form is, in fact, an alliance of three distinct utopian movements in economics, domestic policy and foreign policy. All three crusades are doomed to fail in the real world.

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Conservatism Must Be Chastened by Humility Share This

| Oct 14, 2020 | GOP

Re: The Three Deadly Sins of the Right

If a realigned Republican Party is to emerge as a viable national political force, the everincisive Henry Olsen will be one of its leading architects. His American Compass essay, “The Three Deadly Sins of the Right,” once again shows us why. I would merely like to expand upon Olsen’s groundwork.

The combined effect of Olsen’s second and third prescribed “deadly sins,” snobbery and hubris, is that the Republican Party is at once parochial and disdainful. This is a toxic combo, and it would go a long way toward explaining why it is that voters rolls have favored the Democratic Party ever since the New Deal. Political parochialism and insularity imply an obstinate sticking to one’s ways, tangible circumstances and prudential considerations be damned. That is politically and epistemologically problematic in its own right—all the more so when one introduces into this combustible mix an outright scorn for those outside such a dogmatic purview.

One cannot help but ponder thematic parallels between Olsen’s diagnoses and the intra-Right civil wars that have consumed conservatives for so much of the Trump era (to say nothing of how many are already sharpening their knives in anticipation of a prospective Trump loss next month). The thunderous Trump victory, in 2016, awakened many of us on the Right to the possibility that our movement had, at some indeterminate juncture, become muddled. Right-liberalism, rooted in values-neutral positivism and individual autonomy maximalism, has for many become the political end unto itself. The elevation of this proceduralist end oftentimes takes the form of a blinkered ideological dogmatism—the very “free market fundamentalist”-infused hubris of Olsen’s ire. Its most extreme variant, as we’ve all heard the impudent libertarian assert with characteristic gusto, takes the all-too familiar form: “American conservatism just means conserving classical liberalism.”

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Elitism, Right and Wrong Share This

| Oct 13, 2020 | Politics

Re: The Three Deadly Sins of the Right

As part of American Compass’s “Party Foul” series, which seeks to set forth mistakes and self-service by the political establishments of both parties, Henry Olsen has played penitent and confessor for the Right. Republicans have committed, according to him, “three deadly sins,” in the form of market fundamentalism, snobbery, and hubris. I will happily agree that those are three of the sins of the American Right. But while Olsen ties snobbery and hubris primarily to Republican religiosity, separating them out from market fundamentalism, I consider the three of a piece with each other, and Olsen’s concern about GOP Christianity a bit of a red herring.  Read More

No, the New Deal Wasn’t Racist Share This

| Oct 12, 2020

Re: The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist

I recently stumbled on this fantastic New Republic article by Adolph L. Reed Jr., defending the New Deal from the (increasingly in-vogue) notion that FDR’s suite of Great Depression-era reforms were rooted in white supremacy. The piece is an important corrective to a claim that, in my own line of work, is often asserted with such confidence as to be rarely, if ever, contested.

The New Deal was a complex series of reforms with different motivations that are not easily generalized. Nonetheless, if there was some overarching racist intent behind cornerstone programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), or Social Security Act, it is not discernible in the historical data. Quite the contrary. Consider that the Public Works Administration (PWA), as Reed observes,

established quotas to ensure that black workers, and particularly skilled black workers, were hired in construction projects the agency funded. In 1936, blacks accounted for more than 30 percent of the PWA payroll and made up more than 15 percent of skilled workers in the program—a proportion greater than overall black representation among skilled workers.

While other jobs programs lacked explicit quotas, universal eligibility for the unemployed meant that African Americans (given higher rates of joblessness during and after the Great Depression) tended to benefit disproportionately. Thus in 1935, “the WPA employed roughly 350,000 African Americans a year—a figure that represented about 15 percent of the agency’s total workforce,” despite Blacks making up just under 10 percent of the general population. Read More