Capital is the New American Aristocracy

Do you know that feeling, when some person or article says something with which you’ve agreed for years but hadn’t ever been able to properly articulate?

It’s one of the delusions of our meritocratic class, however, to assume that if our actions are individually blameless, then the sum of our actions will be good for society.

The Atlantic think-piece that this is from (The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy) is of course excessively long, but worth reading if you’re interested in that kind of thing, especially if you enjoyed my essay on Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the Twenty-First Century. While the Atlantic piece takes a rather different tack to get there, it ends up at roughly the same set of possible recommendations, and I think the underlying thesis is the same: there are a lot of not-directly-monetary ways in which the future prospects of the working class have suffered over the last few decades.

Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it. Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us.

This was basically one of the theses of my essay, so maybe the Atlantic article doesn’t tack that far from it after all.

Originally, I focused on the value of unskilled labour as the primary change in recent generations. I still think this is generally true, but the Atlantic piece focuses elsewhere: on the walls that the upper classes are building around the other forms of capital. Education is a form of capital, but with the increasing class-segregation of top university admission processes it becomes less accessible to those at the bottom of the heap. Location is also a form of capital, but as the cost of living skyrockets in prime locations (most notable Silicon Valley) that too becomes inaccessible. It seems inconceivable today that a poor person from the slums of Detroit could fight their way into a good university, then afford to move to San Francisco in order to be able to work a decent job. But if we really want social mobility to be a feature of our economy then that’s the story we have to enable.

Finding A Solution

In 2016, I mentioned a basic income as one possible partial solution, with the caveat that it didn’t seem politically or economically feasible. Things have changed a lot in the last two years. From Finland, to California, to Ontario, a number of organizations and governments have started pilot projects of the idea. Perhaps more interestingly, in the current Ontario election, all three major parties have pledged to continue the experiment, effectively guaranteeing a path forward regardless the winner.

In addition to the political will that has sprung up recently, the economics suddenly seem more favourable as well. The cost of expanding Ontario’s experiment to the entirety of Canada has been pegged at only $43 billion, which is eminently affordable in the context of the many hundreds of billions of dollars that Canada already spends on various programs. And proponents are quick to point out that that number doesn’t even include the expected savings in health care, incarceration, and other government services which typically result from lifting people out of poverty.

The purpose of this essay wasn’t originally to sell people on the idea of a basic income, so I’ll leave it at that, but it does seem to me like an extremely promising approach. I’m looking forward to the results of some of the pilot projects, and in the mean time I’m going to do a bit more research and try to raise the profile of this idea.

I hope you’ll join me.

 

Advertisements

Other Opinions #62 – My Adventures With the Trip Doctors

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Performative Emotions and Social Media

Social media has changed the way we relate to each other, and to ourselves. This is not a particularly controversial claim in and of itself; the controversy comes when you attach a value proposition to this change. Even then, “controversy” is perhaps the wrong word. There are a few luddites screaming into the void that social media is ruining kids these days, and by golly in my day we walked thirty miles to school in the snow and we liked it. And then there’s everybody else, who just doesn’t care.

Granted, this isn’t exactly a fair telling. The effect of social media on our relationships, our emotions, and our selves is a hot topic in many social science departments, and has certainly spawned enough TED talks. But there is still a large gap between “we studied this” and “we think this is bad”. Ironically, the talks which are most axiological are the ones most likely to go viral, on the very platforms which they decry.

I would like to reassure you that I’m a young, hip thing and not a luddite screaming into the void, but it isn’t true. Luddite might be a bit strong, but fundamentally this post is about my belief that social media (and reality television, and youtube, and…) are ruining kids these days. How, you ask? By turning us all into actors.

The combination of modern societal/infrastructural wealth and our culture’s obsession with individuality has led to an explosion in the number of people living in the extended adolescence of Paul Graham’s neurotic lapdogs. As in high school, the net result of this is the pursuit of social status for its own sake and beyond any reasonable limits. This would be bad enough on its own, but modern social media amplifies the effect by providing a perfect, shallow, dopamine-inducing medium (is it weird to call “social media” a medium? It feels like I’m violating a plural matching rule somehow) for this pursuit.

What this means is that many people born in the 1990s (and particularly those born in the 2000s) don’t know how to actually feel emotions. I grant this is an unusual claim; it certainly isn’t among the common set of arguments raised against social media. Even so, I believe it is true. Social media and the pursuit of irrelevant status has resulted in a generation and a half of people for whom emotions are performative, instead of felt.

In this world, you can chase happiness, or you can chase the appearance of happiness, and given the distorting lens of instagram only the latter is relevant to the status games we play. Perhaps your sadness is real, but it’s not valuable unless you can ironically caption it with a pithy quote about self-care. Actual felt emotions don’t matter anymore, because it’s become a truth universally acknowledged that “everybody’s a mess on the inside anyway”. This “truth” has somehow simultaneously described the problem and normalized it away, but I believe it’s still a problem. A world in which people are fundamentally unhappy is a bad one, no matter what other nice properties it might have.

The interesting thing to note is that in this world, nerds are at an advantage. I don’t mean the popular, “everybody’s a nerd” modern pop culture version which has lost any useful semantic content; I mean the original version, the people who had just completely given up on social status altogether in pursuit of other interests. Only by detaching yourself from the status games can you start to worry about how you actually feel, instead of how you appear to feel in 10-second snaps. This is something I’ve lost sight of in the last six months, and something I’m trying to recover.

And oddly, on some definitions, going back to my stereotypical nerd roots is going to make me more cool, not less. Either way, I hope it makes me a better person.

Aspects of the Uncool

John Scalzi recently wrote an interesting explanation of what he sees as the difference between being “cool” and not, which I think is worth a read. While it’s possible to pick nits or disagree with his definitions, I’m not here to do that; language is descriptive, not prescriptive. Instead, I wanted to talk about how not cool I am (on his definitions) and what that means for me.

Scalzi defines “cool”ness as being effectively self-contained in your personhood, which he distinguishes from confidence by talking about how much we care about what other people think of us. I believe this effectively mirrors my discussion of confidence vs security which I included as part of my synthesis from Principle-Centered Leadership. On this definition of coolness, I (like Scalzi himself) am very, deeply, uncool. I care very much what other people think of me, and I lack much of that self-anchored security necessary for personal stability. I am, fundamentally, afraid of the world where somebody doesn’t like me and so I do my best to be likeable, to be malleable and pleasant and nice.

This is not, I think a particularly uncommon way to be; most people like to be liked, because most people need to be needed. Certainly it is a matter of degree, and not black and white, and there must be at least a little of this in all of us. What this means for me though (and presumably for other people in whom this trait is particularly strong) is that I become very passive and indirectly indecisive. If you ask me where I’d like to go for dinner, I will likely waffle, hedge, hem and haw. To me internally, it feels like I legitimately have no preference, I’ll eat whatever. There is a certain extent to which this is true as I am not a picky eater, but there is also a certain extent to which this indecision is a reflection of my passive uncoolness.

As a matter of uncoolness, my indecisiveness is an active likeableness-generating mechanism. If I don’t have a strong preference, then whoever is asking the question will be more likely to have their preferences met. When I then agree and happily go along with their request, that builds rapport between us and elevates their mood. If instead I were to express my own preference, that risks generating conflict, which automatically feels threatening.

Aspects of Conflict

It is easy to read into this that I don’t feel comfortable dealing with conflict, and there is a certain degree to which this is true, but it is hardly a blanket rule. In purely technical conversations I am happy and comfortable being firm in my convictions and arguing a point, both because the process is heavily factual/empirical, and because the environment for these debates is usually one of mutual collaborative respect. We may disagree, but we both acknowledge that we’re working toward the same goal and simply need to figure out exactly what trade-offs allow us to get there most effectively.

Even on deeper, more personal topics like religion I will prefer conflict to completely reversing my values. If you push me, I will admit to being an atheist and explain my rationale behind that even to a strongly religious audience; I won’t flat-out-lie. But I am much more likely to avoid the topic, or lie by omission. Since I grew up as a fairly religiously aware child, it’s easy for me to… “drop hints” which socially signal a certain affiliation, without ever actually saying anything untrue. As a child who also grew up reading a great deal of fantasy literature, you can bet that learned a lot of tricks from Robert Jordan’s Aes Sedai.

Practically, this has a couple of effects. I get along with almost everybody, but I make a poor leader except in purely technical situations with clear answers. I can be indecisive and prone to waffling. Fundamentally, I am insecure and lack self-trust. I am afraid of being in a state of deep interpersonal conflict.

Fear of Conflict

This fear of conflict does not feel unnatural to me, though clearly it is not universally shared. Surely conflict is not pleasant for everyone, but active fear is a different matter. I am certainly capable of justifying this fear in practical terms, but I am not convinced that these justifications end up being legitimate. Conflict is both fundamentally inevitable in some situations and not intrinsically immoral or problematic. The key is how we resolve conflict, which I suppose explains my comfort with technical conflict: I have a clear script for resolving it.

As I have already mentioned though, I tend to avoid more interpersonal conflict, resulting in a situation where I’m not as good at resolving it simply because it’s a skill I don’t practice. The caveat to this is that I believe I am an excellent mediator, since my general likeability and rationalist outlook make me very good at acting as a trusted, neutral third-party. Unfortunately for me those skills do not naturally translate to the case where I have chips in the game.

I do not believe it is fundamentally a bad thing to want to avoid conflict, but I do believe it is a bad thing to not be able to resolve conflict when it arises, and I definitely wish that I was more willing to stand up for myself and accept the resulting conflict in some situations. It is a skill I’m looking to build, but I plan to start small.

Hopefully you agree.

Other Opinions #60 – Dating Apps are a ‘total crapshoot’

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/dating-apps-are-a-total-crapshoot-but-new-offerings-give-hope-for-meaningful-dating-1.4657672

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Reflecting and Rebalancing

It’s been an… “interesting” couple of months. Life has a tendency to happen whether you want it to or not. Over the last few days I’ve been backing up some old media (ancient home videos and the like) and also re-reading some of my past blog posts. This has obviously put me in a reflective, somewhat nostalgic frame of mind.

Over the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve been trying to recover my balance in a certain sense. After everything that happened, I feel like I lack self-trust, purpose, and psychological safety. It’s an odd state to be in, because it’s easy to forget until something triggers it, as simple as spending an evening in an unfamiliar hotel room with nothing to do.

I’m aware of the tendency to “rosy retrospection”, aka focusing on the positive aspects of the past. Even so, it seems like I was in a better place last summer than I am now. This is uncomfortable because I can’t necessarily pin down why. I have changed (as people tend to do), but for the first time in my life I’m not convinced that I like how I have changed.

I don’t know if it is possible to change back, or if that’s really the right metaphor anymore. This feels like something where you can only control how you move forward, not how you move back. While historically I’ve always known where I wanted to go, and my only problem was how to get there… now I lack sufficient confidence in myself to pick a direction.

Time to find my balance, and recover a little bit of who I was last year. Reading some of those old blog posts has helped. I need to make some promises to myself, and then keep them.