Modern knowledge fails again, some further thoughts

One of the more poignant responses to the 2016 presidential election came from Paul Krugman, the CUNY economics professor and New York Times columnist. On election night, as it was becoming clear that Donald Trump would win, Krugman contributed some thoughts to a Times forum on what the election meant, under the headline “Our Unknown Country.” That pretty much summed up his argument. As he put it, “What we do know is that people like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in.”

Of course Krugman meant mainly to evoke the objects of his misunderstanding, those heartland voters who’d given the election to Trump. He was saying that he and his educated, big-city readers had underestimated the ignorance, irrationality, and bigotry lying out there in the heart of American darkness; Trump’s election showed mid-America to be even more benighted than he’d imagined– more benighted than anyone could reasonably have imagined.

But there’s another way to read Krugman’s comments, and it carries a much sadder message: namely, as an unwitting confession of intellectual failure. After all, Krugman’s one of America’s best-known social scientists. He’s devoted his professional life to understanding how societies work, America’s in particular, and he’s brought brain-power, big data, and sophisticated mathematics to the job. In his Times columns and blogs, he’s sought to make all that high-end expertise available to the non-specialist reading public. It wasn’t his intent, but his election night reflections were actually telling us that after thirty years on the job, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. His version of social science doesn’t work, and it hasn’t helped “most readers of the New York Times” either.

If you’ve read some of the posts here, you’ll know that I don’t find that failure exactly surprising. I’ve complained from the outset about the weaknesses of contemporary social science knowledge, and especially about the versions of it you get in America’s economics departments. Mostly the complaints have centered on the radical over-simplifications that the economists have foisted off on us. My line has been, you get a better understanding of the real world from novels and history than from econ department modeling, that is, from forms of knowledge that take human complexity seriously. You may even get a better understanding from the movies, though I go back and forth on that one.

But the 2016 election has foregrounded another, more surprising problem with contemporary social science–because what we’ve witnessed hasn’t been just the failure of an over-abstract vision of how people operate, the kind of abstraction built into so many economics department models. There’s also been an empirical failure, a failure to get the right kinds of data about what’s going on around us. That shouldn’t happen these days, because (as you know unless you’ve been seriously off the grid) Big Data’s become a major force in our world. We’ve now got mountains of the stuff, opinion surveys, endless statistics about income, race, homeownership, and the like, and more and more behavioral indicators, as various agencies track our web-surfing, phoning, shopping, driving, Facebook-friending, and God knows what else.

A lot of contemporary social science involves slicing and dicing these data, calculating averages and correlations, then serving them up as guides for real-life decisions– for ad campaigns, interest rate policies, terrorist monitoring programs, and any number of other purposes. You’ve heard the various metaphors that get used, like “data mining” and “connecting the dots,” and they capture the basic idea: the real story lies hidden below the human surfaces, the social scientist digs out the deep truths, or finds meaningful pictures lurking in the apparent mess. That’s why it’s “social science”– the meanings aren’t visible to just anyone, they only emerge when the scientists apply their techniques.

Usually we don’t get to test out those Big Data claims. Either there’s lots of secrecy involved, as governments and businesses insist on keeping their methods to themselves), or the circumstances are too complicated to know whether Big Data worked or not; you may not think much of the Federal Reserve’s economic policies, but no one thinks it’s easy to get the right take on our multi-trillion dollar economy, no matter how much data you assemble.

But with the election, we got to see the intellectual failure in real time, on an issue that had a simple yes/no answer. We got to see the polling misread the situation, despite endless, carefully analyzed data, and we got to see analysts like Krugman throw up their hands in bafflement. We should consider the possibility that comparable failures are happening all around us, it’s just that we don’t see the screw-ups as clearly.

Maybe 2016 can teach us this:  if we want to “understand the country we live in,” we can start by seeing our fellow citizens as actual people, not as bundles of discreet data points.


Movie nights: race, sex, capitalism, violence, cross-cultural comparisons, and other stuff

I’ve mentioned before that Toronto’s a great movie city– a place where you can see all sorts of movies from all sorts of places, without feeling like it’s a Cultural Big Deal. That’s how I wound up seeing the American movie “Moonlight” and the French “Being 17” on successive weekends. They’re weirdly parallel movies, with similarities that encourage thoughts about the good and bad in today’s world– and with differences that touch on a big theme in these posts, the specificities of American and French cultures.

Of course any thoughts have to start with the standard spoiler warnings: I’m not going to give away many plot elements here, but there will be some. Probably that matters more for “Moonlight,” a great movie that everyone should see, preferably with as few preconceptions as possible. “17” isn’t nearly as good, and in that sense a few spoilers don’t matter so much. On the other hand, it’s a movie where the plot surprises count for more.

So what’s the news from these two visits to movieland?

News flash #1 is the basic subject matter, which in both movies is gay male teen sex. It’s fairly amazing that both the US and France can produce serious movies about that topic, both of them including graphic sex scenes. (Does it even need pointing out that lesbian sex has a completely different screen history, for the obvious guy-centric reasons?) For the time being at least, that side of the culture wars seems to be going the right way. Who knows for how long, now that we’ve got Mike Pence already in Washington and François Fillon as a likely next president of France. But whatever the future, having movies that reflect seriously on gay sex is a big deal. It’s hard to imagine either of them getting made even fifteen years ago.

It’s also good news that both movies seriously explore the contexts in which the sex unfolds– in fact, you could say they’re both actually reflections on the modern condition, with gay sex just providing one lens through which to see the bigger scene. So in both we see corners of our market economy (agribusiness in “17,” the street corner drug trade in “Moonlight:” when one of its characters talks about how he’s moved up the drug marketing career ladder, he basically sounds like any other mid-level business guy). Race and immigration are central to both, and both complicate the issues intelligently: “17” features an immigrant Afro-French farm boy, upending some of our assumptions about how race, class, and national identity intersect; “Moonlight” almost never shows us a white face, forcing us white viewers to think about how the world looks from that perspective, and to rethink the idea that we live in a post-racial society.

And then there’s the question of violence, which permeates both movies without usually being shown directly. Of course that starts with the violence young gay men have to deal with, a big plot-driver in both movies, but it also includes all the other lurking violence that our modernity features: war, the prison system, the world of retail crime, even driving– I left both movies shaking my head at how menacing being in a car could seem, and how strange it is that we’ve built a whole civilization around that act. It’s the sort of understanding the movies are uniquely capable of providing, in the space of about five seconds of screen time.

So the good news we get from both movies is, here in 2016 we get to see thoughtful, beautifully made explorations of once-hidden topics; and we’ve got mass market products that seriously explore how our society works. The bad news is, they both show us moderns emmeshed in some awfully oppressive systems, which no one seems able to escape.

But the differences between the two movies also matter, and thinking about them brought me back to an idea I’ve pushed in a few other posts comparing America and France: however crazy American society may be, we’ve got something going over here that’s actually special. Who knows, maybe it’s even that the craziness of American life means you can never entirely avoid heavy-duty thoughts. Whatever the reasons, you come out of “Moonlight” grappling with some of the biggest possible issues; in “17” those same big issues have been fitted into some sadly familiar boxes.

Here’s where the “17” spoiler-alert level should rise to at least orange, possibly to red, because it’s hard to make my point without touching on some of its plot details. For instance, those sex scenes: it’s terrific they even exist, but only “Moonlight” actually conveys what teen sex is like– “17”‘s version is a lot closer to soft porn, in the David Hamilton tradition. And then, “17” gives an apparently unironic shout-out to old-time French military patriotism, with no attention I could see to the dark sides of European overseas power.  We’re a long way from the anti-imperialist indignation that French movies took for granted back in the sixties.

The treatment of race is the strangest of all. Whereas “Moonlight” puts us into an entirely non-white world, “17” shows a lone non-white individual successfully absorbing baseline Frenchness because a socially conscious, loving, open-minded, middle class family takes an interest in him. I’m skipping some real nuances in the story– this is a serious movie, and it does something pretty interesting in making the non-white guy a farmer. But it still comes very close to offering a homeland version of the civilizing mission story that for so long backed up French imperialism.

It’s two weeks and counting since I’ve been thinking about this comparison, and I’m still not sure how to add it all up. Is part of the message just, bad times and trouble make for better art than you get in a basically happy, basically satisfied society? Do the US and France just represent an updated version of Orson Welles’s one-liner about the Italian Renaissance, the Swiss, and the cuckoo-clock? Or does the difference come from more specific historical changes? Two generations ago, we in North America relied on the French for serious critical scrutiny of modern life and its travails; we certainly didn’t look for that in American movies. Are French culture-creators just tired? Have recent events jolted them into the go-go defense of European values that I picked up from “17?” Whatever’s going on, it’s another sign of what a weird and fascinating moment we’re living right now.

On not learning from history, yet again

These are strange times for anyone who takes historical thinking seriously– which here I’m defining as, “anyone who believes that reflecting on the past actually matters in the real world, and can help us deal adequately with the present.” It’s high time historians gave that problem a little more attention.

The strangeness comes partly from one of our profession’s basic commitments: we believe in respecting the different-ness of the past, not imposing our values or agendas on it, seeing the gaps that separate us in the present from even recently by-gone eras. “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” as a famous line from a now-forgotten novel puts it. The people who lived there/then had their own ways of thinking and emoting; the conditions of their lives differed from ours. Historians have believed one version or another of those ideas for a long time, but the last generation of scholars has been extra-super attentive to them. That’s why we now have histories of what used to be viewed as unchanging phenomena– histories of the body, the family, love, the senses, and all the other fundamental things of life. As time goes by, it turns out, it’s not still the same old story where those items are concerned.

That’s fine, except then you don’t have much of an answer to the “what good is history?” question. If people and circumstances in the past were so different, what are we supposed to learn from them? How can even recently-vanished worlds offer examples to guide us in our own world?

But it seems to me that current events are forcing us to think differently about learning from the past, and that we professionals ought to dial back our emphasis on the distance separating past and present. For one thing, the alternative forms of social knowledge seem to be collapsing before our eyes. My last post discussed the Great Polling Failures of 2016– with oodles of data and sophisticated modeling, almost no one predicted either Brexit or President-elect Trump. If you’ve been reading along here, you also know my take on contemporary economics- namely, that it’s mostly science-y sounding ideological baloney, some of it directly paid for by various financial interests. Since big data and economics have been presented to us as the main foundations of contemporary social knowledge, their failures are a big deal.  With an intellectual vacuum like this, maybe we historians have an obligation to step up.

And then, there’s the fact that nowadays, people seem to be forgetting even the most basic historical lessons, the kind you might think were so fully established, nobody needed to teach them any more. Take the idea of governments requiring members of specific ethnic and religious groups to register with the cops, as a way of protecting civil society. You might think that the Holocaust of the 1940s had discredited that idea: having created a filing system listing their country’s Jews, the French police could then round them up in an orderly way and send them off to death camps. Lesson learned? Apparently not, since America’s own president-elect has proposed registering all Muslims in the country, just to be on the safe side….

But then you have to confront other not-learning-the-obvious examples that come from the educated, reasonable mainstream. The mega-watt example came just this past week, when the Washington Post ran a story on how “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” as the headline put it. The Post reporter passed along claims that “more than 200 websites” were “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season,” some of them “knowingly part of the propaganda campaign,” others just well-meaning dupes. Whether it’s coming from the Russian mouthpieces or the dupes, the Post emphasizes, all this propaganda constitutes a big-time threat to American democracy. In fact it turns out that all you need to qualify as a Russian propagandist, according to an expert quoted in the story, is wanting “‘to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests'”- which makes it surprising they could only come up with 200 subversive websites.

It sounds like satire, and there’s been plenty of push-back, mocking the Post story for both its shoddy sources and its Joe McCarthy-style reasoning. (For two great examples, check out the responses from Glenn Greenwald and Yves Smith, whose “Naked Capitalism” website made the list of 200.)  Unfortunately, serious policy makers are on the same page. Right now, according to the same Washington Post reporter, Congress is preparing “an initiative to track and combat foreign propaganda amid growing concern that Russian efforts to spread ‘fake news’ and disinformation threaten national security.” The initative has support from both political parties.

So to me the interesting question isn’t what’s wrong with the substance here– in 2016, does anyone actually believe “U.S. government interests” offer a reliable yardstick for measuring truth? Instead, the interesting thing is where this talk is coming from–not from the backwoods yahoos in Red State America, but from Democratic senators and the Washington Post, one of our two semi-official purveyors of sensible, respectable, middle-of-the-road political views. Presumably all these people learned in various history classes about the evils of McCarthyism, and they’ve probably seen movies like “Trumbo” or “Good Night, and Good Luck;” the Post reporter was even a college history major, apparently. And yet here they are, replaying the same Red Scare scenarios- and even replaying them with the same Kremlin villains in the lead roles.

In times like these, no one can say historical isn’t relevant- even if it’s not being applied.

Modern knowledge fails again: the election edition

Like everyone else, I’ve got lots of processing to do about last week’s presidential election– and much of that processing will depend on how real life plays out in the coming months. That’s one thing we historians are supposed to know: you don’t actually understand an event until you see its consequences and sequels, in fact you can’t even see why it happened without seeing what it did. So I won’t have much to say about US political issues for a while, until those consequences start unfolding.

But there’s one big election issue to be talked about right off the bat. In fact, it has to be talked about now, before it gets covered over by all the newsy events that undoubtedly await us: how did so many progrnosticators mess up their prognostications so badly?

On this one, “badly” is actually an understatement. In the weeks up to the election, the main debate among sophisticated analysts was whether Donald Trump had any possible path to victory, or was he just wasting our time and bandwidth? (And that’s in recent weeks, as the election was starting to tighten– six months ago, the main response to Trump was incredulous laughter.) The Huffington Post, the New York Times, Nate Silver’s 538 site, and lots of others all basically told us that a series of miraculous interventions would be needed for Trump to happen. They had major league data to back them up, too– high tech polling, serious efforts to aggregate multiple results, controlled simulations, methodological reflections, super-duper innovative statistical techniques.

Which puts us back in familiar territory, because we’ve now had over a decade of dramatic prediction failures: about 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, and Brexit, to name a few. Each of these ended with the experts in anguished bafflement, wringing their hands about how their knowledge failed and promising to do better next time. Now we have a new next time, and more anguished hand-wringing.

Our 2016 prediction failure has another feature in common with those past failures. This time too, a few people actually got the story straight– but (also as in the other failures) the successful prognosticators were mainly outsiders, who didn’t come from the realm of big data and advanced statistical analysis. Instead, they came with knowledge of actual people and their settings, and with a basic vision of what’s going on around us.

Here’s the movie maker Michael Moore back in July saying Trump would win; he’d already said so six months before, in December 2015. Yves Smith, who runs the wonderful Naked Capitalism blog, didn’t exactly predict what was coming– but she concluded a long overview of her readers’ comments by saying that if they were representative, the Democratic Party was screwed; that happened back in June 2016. Her article drew mainly infuriated denunciations from well-informed experts. Almost a year earlier (and a full year before the Republican National Convention), the Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison predicted Trump’s nomination, and urged Democrats to worry about how his candidacy would play out; as 180,000 You Tube watchers now know, that suggestion got big laughs from the well-informed hosts of the talk show where he was appearing.

So some people got the story right by basing their insights on conversations, anecdotes, background knowledge, web comments, and yard signs. In my casual web browsing, I see only two more scientific predictions that matched these unscientific impressions– and they both confirm the idea that real-human knowledge serves us better than big-data-and-algorithms knowledge. Scientifc success #1 came from the historian Alan Lichtman, who called it for Trump back in September and stayed with that prediction from there on. You might call his method low-tech, small-data science. It involves a thirteen-point yes/no questionaire about how America’s doing and about the basics of the election. If a certain number come up yes, the incumbent wins; if not, not.

That leaves just one actual poll that got the story right, also way in advance of the outcome. This was the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Presidential Election Poll, run by a political scientist at the University of Southern California, and it took a completely non-standard approach.   The USC folks set up a group of poll-ees early in the electoral cycle, then went back to them again and again to check on their mood and opinions, so as to see which way the winds were blowing. I’m sure they used plenty of high-tech scientific methods as they did so, with proper attention to sampling sizes, t-numbers, correlations, and all that stuff. But beneath the shiny surface, it sounds like the USC pollsters were doing basically the same thing as Michael Moore. They familiarized themselves with a group of people, and they took seriously the idea that we humans are historical beings: to understand us, you start by seeing us whole, then track how we change over time.

Which seems to be nearly the exact opposite of most of the election polling, and of much else that passes for social science “knowledge” these days. There the operating principle seems to be, people can be understood as bundles of discreet data points, which you can pluck out from the rest, recombine with thousands of other data points, and analyze without reference to real-life contexts, actual human beings, or any vision of how societies work. If you’ve got enough data points, they’ll supply “the vision thing” for you.

Maybe this time we’ll learn, that actually just doesn’t work.

Coaches’ corner: football, class, and American ways

It’s football season again here in the US, and (as seems to happen every autumn) I find myself drawn back into football-decoder mode, trying to sort out what the sport says about us Americans. It’s not because I’m a fan or even an occasional viewer. In the past I’ve had some serious football-watching phases, including my last two years in graduate school, when I’d spend Saturday afternoons at the mostly-empty stadium, watching Cal get humiliated by USC, UCLA, and once even by Illinois; Cal was terrible back then. But for the last twenty years I haven’t even watched on TV, except when I’m in a bar and it happens to be on.

Yet I’m still guzzling the football news, still fascinated by the personalities, the off-the-field machinations, the fans’ opinions. Since Marshall McLuhan explained it to us back in the 1960s, we’ve known about football’s overwhelming TV watchability. But even now, do we understand why trivial news about football ins-and-outs is also so addictive?

Of course football this year has acquired some bonus newsworthiness, because politics-politics and football-politics have overlapped so dramatically. Buffalo’s NFL coach Rex Ryan made the headlines back in April when he introduced Donald Trump at a local rally and offered lavish praise; according to Ryan, Trump courageously says aloud what lots of others think but are scared to express. Ryan’s body language at the event is especially interesting. He’s known for his truculent, roughneck image, usually accessorized with a Bills cap and a flamboyant pickup truck. But at the Trump event, he’s in suit and tie, hair diligently brushed, grinning bashfully, and generally looking like a sixth-grader at an awards ceremony. He’s apparently thrilled to mingle with the truly eminent.

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There’s a weirdly similar photo of Bill Belichick, another coach famous for his indifference to fashion (he’s taken to wearing short-sleeved hoodies on the sidelines) and grouchy, fuck-off attitude; in 2000, less than twenty-four hours after being named head coach of the New York Jets, he wrote an eight-word resignation letter on a cocktail napkin and took off for another job.

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Yet around Donald Trump, all that attitude apparently goes out the window. Like Ryan, Belichick dresses for the occasion, nice jacket and tie, hair nicely brushed, and an “I’m excited to be here” grin. And let’s not overlook the blonde on the right who’s cozying up to Trump– she’s actually Belichick’s girlfriend. (She’s the one who posted the picture, along with the gushing caption.) Trump’s thumbs-up gesture points straight at her right nipple, and his left hand hides behind her butt. Even a hard-core skeptic about the recent “Trump groped me” stories would have to acknowledge, the coach is giving him plenty of room to operate.

Are these guys kinkier than we suspected?

Sadly, the answer is probably no. My guess is, these images say more about how power and money function in twenty-first century America than about our sexual preferences– but then, the power/money dynamics here have their own kinky elements.

That’s because just adding up the dollars doesn’t really help you understand these scenes. On the one side, both the coaches are themselves mutli-milliionaires. Ryan’s making $5.5 million a year, Belichick $7.5 million, and that’s just in salary– you have to add in whatever endorsement deals they’re getting. Of course those millions come with serious job insecurity, and coaches have to save for the rainy days that most eventually face; Ryan’s probably out if his team does badly this year. But Belichick’s generally viewed as the greatest coach of the modern era, and his job security roughly matches the Pope’s. He can make as much money as he wants, as long as he wants.

And on the other side? Probably we’ll never get a clear idea of Trump’s income, since multi-dimensional trickery accompanies every estimate we see in the news. The high-end versions ($400 million a year!!! What a business genius!!!) turn out to confuse gross corporate revenue with income. The lows (zero for a couple of years back in the late 1970s, under $500,000 in some recent NYC tax records) reflect creative uses of the tax codes. But given this numerical dust storm, it’s not impossible that Ryan, Belichick, and Trump meet as income equals. It’s even possible that their pay packets beat his.

So if the numbers don’t explain the coaches’ puppy-love grins in Trump’s presence, what does? My guess is, they’re expressing our American infatuation for ownership itself, as a status that qualitatively separates the real players from the paid menials– however well-paid the menials may be, and whatever their creative greatness or place in the record books. Here’s the team owner Belichick works for, talking about his warm feelings for the coach and the team’s star quarterback, Tom Brady: “’They are my guys. They are part of my family,’ Kraft said. ‘Bill, Tom and I have had many difficult discussions over the years.'” And here’s Belichick in reply, talking about the owner: “’I have a great relationship with Mr. Kraft,’ Belichick said. ‘I really appreciate the opportunity every day to coach the New England Patriots.'”

So we’ve got the owner talking about Bill, Tom, and family ties; Belichick talks about Mr Kraft and his daily gratitude at having the job. The seven-figure salary just sharpens the messages– it tells the world, no amount of money changes the employer-employee relationship.

It’s not exactly late-breaking news that football coaches tilt right in their politics, and you can see why– it’s the ultimate in manhood-centric sports, with no room for metrosexual, gender-bending sophisticates, and it puts respect for authority front and center; in football the coach calls all the shots. But I don’t think conservative views explain the coaches’ excitement about Trump, and I don’t think Trump’s business record counts for much either. Bill Belichick’s actually way more successful, and he may be bringing home more money, too. In the closest they’ve come to direct competition, Trump’s football investments went belly-up back in the mid-1980s, just as Belichick was emerging as one of the game’s masterminds.

So I don’t think it’s what Trump thinks or what he’s done that appeals, I think it’s what he is— namely, the personification of American big-time ownership, with his name affixed to buildings all over the country. In that sense, the dollar totals aren’t the point. Just as Belichick’s high income underlines his employee status, Trump’s uncertain and possibly low income tell the world that what defines him is property, not monthly paychecks. In that sense, you could say these guys are actually all closet Marxists. Just like Marx, they understand it’s not the money that makes a social class, it’s the relationship to the means of production.

Theories of the ruling class

What makes a ruling class tick?

That might seem like a simple question with a simple answer– you might think, the rich just want as much pleasure as they can get, and they pursue wealth and power as means to that end. But it’s actually not that simple, as my last post tried to show. My point last week was, lots of doings by our contemporary top dogs make no sense in terms of pleasure-maximizing self-interest. They’re the people who ought to be fondest of the world as it is, and they have lots to lose from the not-so-remote mega-threats we face– like climate change, nuclear war, and general societal meltdown. But they’re not doing much to slow the arrival of these apocalypses, and quite a lot to speed them up. You’d almost think, they’re downright eager for things to go south. (See here for a related example, from my brilliant friend over at The Kramer is Now blog.)

As far as I can tell, these days nobody’s giving much thought to such ruling class self-destructiveness. If anything, the trend’s the other way, with social theorists and the general public alike redefining weird ruling class choices as self-interested utility-maximization. Of course in the economics department, pretty much all behavior has been redefined as utility-maximizing, no matter how self-destructive it looks. But you’ve got the same thing happening among less orthodox social scientists, like the followers of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. For them just like for the economists, all sorts of apparently gratuitous behavior is actually part of the process by which ruling groups extend their power and acquire more stuff. So when they donate to the art museum or give their kids expensive educations or get obsessed with golf, they’re not wasting their money. They’re actually affirming their power and paving the way for new economic successes, by keeping out newcomer competitors and making connections with others of their own kind. What looks wasteful is actually canny and self-interested.

Notice that you don’t even have to like the ruling class to get on this rationality bandwagon. You can think they’re devious, destructive, and parasitical– and still give them credit for knowing which side their English muffins are buttered on.

But it wasn’t always like this, and earlier generations of social theorists thought a lot about the strangeness of ruling class behavior.

Take Max Weber, the German sociologist who gave us the concept of the Protestant ethic and who counts as the founding grandfather of most modern social science. For Weber, modern self-interest itself is basically an insane delusion. Piling up billions of dollars makes no sense, he explained; it has nothing to do with pleasure seeking or utility, it’s actually forced upon us by various hidden cultural mechanisms. We work hard because of leftover religious guilt, which teaches that idleness and pleasure-seeking are sins, and that money-making is a sign we’re doing something right– irrational beliefs that survive long after the original religious beliefs have evaporated. The implication is, rich people are driven by psycho-social forces they’re not even aware of.

Of course hidden impulses like those play an even bigger role for Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, but for them the impulses were cruelty and the pure desire to push other people around. Deep down, Freud said, all of us want to exploit, humiliate, expropriate, torture, and rape other people. We don’t do those things as means to other ends, like getting sexual pleasures and consumer items we couldn’t get otherwise. Exploitation, humiliation, and all the rest are the ends we’re seeking, they’re the features, not the bugs. Nietzsche had pretty much the same view, for instance about the matter of punishing criminals. His line was, we like punishing people just for its own sake, not to protect society or reform deviants or set a good example for others. In fact he dismissed the whole idea that people strive to maximize utilities. What we’ve come to call pursuing self-interest is just a cleaned-up, pseudo-rational way of talking about power: in his terminology, “all utilities are only signs that a will to power has become lord over something and has stamped its own functional meaning onto it.”

Now, for both Freud and Nietzsche, these were basic human traits, just as prevalent among us pawns as among the power players. But the rich and powerful can give freer rein to these impulses than the rest of us; we can’t understand their doings without keeping that in mind. And we have to keep in mind an even more disturbing possibility: that all those angry, agressive impulses connect to an underlying desire for peace and quiet, for just giving up on the whole business of living. Freud believed this was a universal human urge, what he called the “instinct for death.” For Nietzsche, “man’s sickness of man, of himself” emerged from the more specific circumstances of civilization, which crippled our animal nature. Whatever the story, though, they agreed on the basic point. We need to take seriously the possibility of genuinely self-destructive behavior, and see that too as  a feature not a bug.

All this to say, maybe our top dogs aren’t just sharp operators looking out for number 1.  Maybe self-interest and utility maximization are lousy guides to understanding human nature. We’re seeing some real craziness these days, and maybe we should be calling in some of the older doctors for consultations.

The billionaire underground

One of the questions I occasionally ask here is, why don’t today’s hyper-wealthy, power-elite types worry more about the state of the world? I’m not so concerned about the morality side of that question. I mean, you might want rich people to show more compassion for the rest of us, but it’s not exactly a secret that they’re sometimes selfish, and anyway lots of them give away plenty of money. Apparently the US has got about 1.5 million charitable organizations. Even if many of those are cheesey scams, that adds up to lots of well-meaning concern and some authentic do-gooding.

No, what’s really interesting is how unruffled the rich seem to be about the collective catastrophes looming on our horizon– the real existential stuff, the kind that’s likely to affect them as much as the rest of us. Of course number 1 on the list is climate change, which in a generation or two will make large parts of the earth uninhabitable. Right behind comes the nuclear war possibility, which is probably greater now than it was fifty years ago, and then the assorted possibilities for public health and internet disasters; given our current technological dependence, having the internet go dark would leave things like food distribution and power generation pretty much non-functional. The old-fashioned social collapse scenarios come farther down the list– but current social trends sure make it easy to imagine possible futures of famine, brigandage, and a general collapse of law and order.

With these big-ticket catastrophes, the questions don’t so much concern morality as self-interest. Don’t rich people like the world as it is, and don’t they worry about having it disrupted? After all, they’re the ones getting the biggest share of the good things life offers right now. They’re the ones strolling Greenwich Village, partying in Miami, lounging at their beachfront vacation homes, and they must want their grandkids to have the same pleasures. Shouldn’t they be more worried than the rest of us that climate change will leave Manhattan, Miami, and all those beachfronts underwater, or that just one serious war will leave them frozen in nuclear winter?

Plus, these are people whose opinions actually count. A few phone calls, and they could change some policy-makers’ minds.

And yet where climate change is concerned, the billionaires mostly line up on the wrong side– they’re all for building pipelines, subsidizing fracking, and funding climate-change denialist think tanks. Sure, there are a few billionaire environmentalists, but they’re mostly advocates for extreme slo-mo policies, the kind that will start reducing greenhouse gases by about 2030. As for nuclear war, even David Stockman is worried by our big shots’ enthusiasm for a possible war with Russia. (For those too young to remember, Stockman was a big player in the Ronald Reagan administration– we’re not talking about a hippy-Bernie-bro peacenik.) Then there’s William Perry, former Bush Secretary of Defense, so someone with his own right-winger cred; he’s been quoted saying, “The likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War.” If these guys are worrying, probably the rest of us should too.

So what’s going on? A link provided a few days ago by the amazing, wonderful Naked Capitalism blog gives one hint– maybe the rich actually are worrying about these collective disasters, but they’re worrying in their own special way. The story comes from the show-biz newspaper The Hollywood Reporter, which tells us that the mega-rich are setting up disaster shelter bunkers, often high-luxe and very, very pricey. Deep underground, with systems for producing food and power and a full stock of entertainments, the rich can ride out whatever disasters are coming, then eventually reemerge and get back to enjoying life. Needless to say, the contractors setting up these survival systems aren’t encouraged to reel off their clients’ names; the only one mentioned is Bill Gates. But the story hints that lots of other famous name billionaires are following along.

What this suggests is, the mega-rich see the same looming disasters that worry the rest of us, they just think they’ve got the situation covered– for themselves and their families. The rest of us are going down with the ship, maybe, but not our captains of industry.

From some angles, there’s nothing surprising here. For Bill Gates and the others, the cost of a luxury bunker is trivial, so why not do it just for the added peace of mind, even if you’re not that worried. And then there’s the individualism aspect: we’re a capitalist society, so of course those who’ve got the cash take a self-interested approach to future disasters, just as they apply enlightened self-interest to the marketplace.

It all sounds reasonable, until you think about the form of self-interest that’s in play here. Apparently the rich are willing to gamble away their smorgasbord of billionaire delights– all that strolling, partying, and lounging– because when things go to hell, they’ll be holed up underground, with a five-years supply of videos and Kraft Dinner, leading roughly the life you’d lead in a Danish low-security prison. I mean, the videos/Kraft Dinner plan might make sense if you combined it with serious efforts to address climate change and nuclear war; it wouldn’t be my personal back-up plan, but it’s one I understand. What we have instead is either indifference to the big collective threats, or behavior that actually heightens them.

In an earlier post, I quoted Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of the whole idea of rational self-interest, and I think that critique applies here. What looks like the pursuit of self-interest, Nietzsche said, is really a will to dominate other people, even to hurt them. How else are we supposed to make sense of our billionaires’ current behavior?