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Posts Tagged ‘politics

“The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democracy, from beneath which the old aristocratic colors sometimes peep”*…

Almost three decades ago, one of us, Jack Goldstone, published a simple model to determine a country’s vulnerability to political crisis. The model was based on how population changes shifted state, elite and popular behavior. Goldstone argued that, according to this Demographic-Structural Theory, in the 21st century, America was likely to get a populist, America-first leader who would sow a whirlwind of conflict.

Then ten years ago, the other of us, Peter Turchin, applied Goldstone’s model to U.S. history, using current data. What emerged was alarming: The U.S. was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years. Even before Trump was elected, Turchin published his prediction that the U.S. was headed for the “Turbulent Twenties,” forecasting a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe.

Given the Black Lives Matter protests and cascading clashes between competing armed factions in cities across the United States, from Portland, Oregon to Kenosha, Wisconsin, we are already well on our way there. But worse likely lies ahead.

Our model is based on the fact that across history, what creates the risk of political instability is the behavior of elites, who all too often react to long-term increases in population by committing three cardinal sins. First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality. Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who had already succeeded.

Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts.

Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government. But their actions alone are not sufficient. Urbanization and greater education are needed to create concentrations of aware and organized groups in the populace who can mobilize and act for change.

Top leadership matters. Leaders who aim to be inclusive and solve national problems can manage conflicts and defer a crisis. However, leaders who seek to benefit from and fan political divisions bring the final crisis closer. Typically, tensions build between elites who back a leader seeking to preserve their privileges and reforming elites who seek to rally popular support for major changes to bring a more open and inclusive social order. Each side works to paint the other as a fatal threat to society, creating such deep polarization that little of value can be accomplished, and problems grow worse until a crisis comes along that explodes the fragile social order.

These were the conditions that prevailed in the lead-up to the great upheavals in political history, from the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, to the revolutions of 1848 and the U.S. Civil War in the nineteenth century, the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the twentieth century and the many “color revolutions” that opened the twenty-first century. So, it is eye-opening that the data show very similar conditions now building up in the United States…

Two scholars long-ago predicted political upheaval in America in the 2020s. Why it’s here and what we can do to temper it: “Welcome To The ‘Turbulent Twenties’.” An important– and bracing– read.

As to how these challenges might unfold (JIC you’ve not yet seen this widely-circulated piece): “The Election That Could Break America.”

Of course, domestic issues are only one dimension of the challenges facing us. We have to deal with those same issues on a global level, as they play out in radically-changing geopolitics and geo-economics– all underlain by climate change: “Are we living at the ‘hinge of history’?

And finally, for those interested in the “plumbing” that enables the slide toward autocracy: “Money Laundering for 21st Century Authoritarianism: Western Enablement of Kleptocracy” (pdf).

* Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

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As we step up, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1962 that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. A pioneering study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use, it challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

Carson documented her accusations that the chemical industry spread disinformation, and that public officials accepted those marketing claims unquestioningly. Unsurprisingly, the book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies; but, thanks to public opinion, it sparked numerous changes: it led to a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, and a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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Written by LW

September 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

“What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater?”*…

Arman Cinema / Viktor Konstaninov, architect. Almaty, Kazakhstan 1967

“Eastern Bloc Architecture: 50 Buildings that Defined an Era” is a collaborative series by The Calvert Journal and ArchDaily highlighting iconic architecture that had shaped the Eastern world. Each publication has released a round-up of five– so ten in total– Eastern Bloc projects of different sorts. The above, from: “Eastern Bloc Architecture: Sci-fi Cinemas.”

More where that came from at “Eastern Bloc Architecture: 50 Buildings that Defined an Era.”

* J.J. Abrams

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As we take our seats, we might send brief birthday greetings to Valentin Sergeyevich Pavlov; he was born on thus date in 1937. A Russian economist and politician, he served as Prime Minister of the Soviet union for 9 month in 1991. During his tenure he oversaw a major currency reform and (concerned to prevent the break-up of the USSR) he attempted to shift the locus of power from the President– Gorbachev at the time– to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Deputies. When that move failed, he joined a coup attempt… which, when it too failed, cost him his post and landed him in prison.

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Written by LW

September 26, 2020 at 1:01 am

“What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale, but without informed consent”*…

Illustration by Anders Nilsen

“Which category have they put you in?”

This sinister question—at least, it was meant to sound sinister—headlined the advertising copy for The 480, a 1964 novel by Eugene Burdick. His previous best sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, had caused sensations in political circles, and the new one promised to do the same. Its jacket featured the image of a punched card. The title referred to 480 categories of voter, defined by region, religion, age, and other demographic characteristics, such as “Midwestern, rural, Protestant, lower income, female.” Many readers recoiled from the notion of being sorted into one of these boxes. The New York Times’s reviewer called The 480 a “shock novel” and found it implausible.

What was so shocking? What was implausible? The idea that a company might use computer technology and behavioral science to gather and crunch data on American citizens, with the nefarious goal of influencing a presidential election.

In the 1950s and 1960s this seemed like science fiction. Actually, The 480 was a thinly disguised roman à clef, based on a real-life company called Simulmatics, which had secretly worked for the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy. Burdick had been a political operative himself and knew the Simulmatics founders well. The company’s confidential reports and memoranda went straight into his prose. And the 480 categories—listed in an appendix to the novel—were the real Simulmatics voter types, the creation of what one of its founders called “a kind of Manhattan Project gamble in politics.”

Simulmatics was founded in 1959 and lasted eleven years. Jill Lepore mentioned its involvement in the Kennedy campaign in These Truths (2018), her monumental history of the United States; she was already on the trail of the story she tells in her new book, If Then. Lepore is a brilliant and prolific historian with an eye for unusual and revealing stories, and this one is a remarkable saga, sometimes comical, sometimes ominous: a “shadow history of the 1960s,” as she writes, because Simulmatics stumbled through the decade as a bit player, onstage for the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the riots and protests. It began with grand ambitions to invent a new kind of predictive behavioral science, in a research environment increasingly tied to a rising defense establishment amid the anxiety of the cold war. It ended ignominiously, in embarrassment and bankruptcy.

Irving Kristol, the future architect of neoconservativism, dismissed Simulmatics in 1964 as “a struggling little company which, despite the fact that it worked on a few problems for the Kennedy organization in 1960, has since had a difficult time making ends meet,” and he wasn’t wrong. Today it is almost completely forgotten. Yet Lepore finds in it a plausible untold origin story for our current panopticon: a world of constant surveillance, if not by the state then by megacorporations that make vast fortunes by predicting and manipulating our behavior—including, most insidiously, our behavior as voters…

The ever-illuminating James Gleick (@JamesGleick) unpacks the remarkable Jill Lepore‘s new history, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future: “Simulating Democracy.”

See also: this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek, and for historical perspective, “Age of Invention: The Tools of Absolutism.”

* Jaron Lanier (see, e.g., here and here)

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As we think about the targets painted on our chests, we might recall that it was on this date in 2011 that Facebook introduced the Timeline as the design of a user’s main Facebook page.

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Written by LW

September 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Button, button, who’s got the button?”*…

If something is “fit for the back of a postage stamp,” it’s generally understood as lacking depth and nuance. A similarly sized object, however, has been upending that saying for 125 years. From political campaigns to punch lines to keepsakes, the button has packed bits of incredibly rich history into just a few inches. “It seems like a niche little object, but it really tells a very general American history,” [observed] collector and manufacturer Christen Carter

The wearable item is, in fact, an entry point into the complexities of the past.Carter recently co-authored the forthcoming book Button Power—which is available for pre-order on Bookshop—with notable dealer Ted Hake, who’s been collecting the objects for around 60 years. Through composed displays and black-and-white photos, the tome delves into the item’s history, spanning its invention in 1896 to contemporary usages. “Early on people were wearing buttons, and mostly it’s a temporary thing. It’s a moment in time,” Carter says. “They connected you to something else. One-hundred-twenty-five years ago, images weren’t as prevalent as they are now.” Button Power compiles a diverse array of notable figures, from Shirley Chisholm and the Ramones to Rube Goldberg and Muhammad Ali, each represented through the wearable item…

A medium with popularity perpetually in flux, the button has risen and fallen since its creation and notably surged in the 1960s and 1980s as it was used more widely for countercultural movements and protests. Of course, mainstream efforts from political campaigns, public figures, and large-scale events generally still sought out buttons to share their visions. Many of the slogans and broader undertakings of alternative movements that may have evaded popular narratives, however, also are preserved by the object. “It’s a people’s history, too…

More (and more nifty buttons) at “A New Book Chronicles the 125-Year History of the Button, Its Design, and Its Role in Cultural Change.”

* children’s game

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As we wear ’em with pride, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948 that Margaret Chase Smith of Maine became the first woman elected to the United States Senate without completing another senator’s term.

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Written by LW

September 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Have you ever heard a blindfolded octopus unwrap a cellophane-covered bathtub?”*…

The relentless progression of human technology leaves us with many relics: the Walkman, the Game Boy, the payphone, the VCR. But there’s an aspect to these devices that isn’t preserved when you let them gather dust on a basement shelf: their signature beeps, clicks, and whirrings.

In the interest of salvaging these obsolete noises, Brendan Chilcutt has since 2012 maintained the Museum of Endangered Sounds, for which he aims to complete data collection by 2015. Then he’ll “spend the next seven years developing the proper markup language to reinterpret the sounds as a binary composition.” Suggestions of exhibits to include are welcome.

The site is already fascinating place to click around; depending on your age, you’ll be transported by the original default Nokia ringtone, or the Windows 95 startup chords. The AOL Instant Messenger alerts in particular take me back—someone wants to chat! Is it the devastatingly cute girl I have a crush on? No, just one of my fellow nerds. But hope lives on.

When technology reaches a stage of silent frictionlessness, Chilcutt says, these audio files will offer some of the most direct links to our mechanical past. Nice to have them all in one place…

The din of typewriters and Tamogatchis lives on: “Museum of Endangered Sounds keeps vintage noises alive.” Explore the museum here.

See also: Conserve the Sound’s “Projekt.”

* Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

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As we listen carefully, we might recall that it was on this date in 1830 that the Anti-Masonic Party, the official first third-party in United States political history, convened its convention. The Anti-Masons formed, as the name suggests, to combat the perceived secret government influence Freemasonry held in the U.S. While the party quickly dissolved after anti-Masonic public feelings died down (most of its members folded in the Whig Party), It did pioneer presidential nomination conventions and the adoption of a party platform.

For more on the Anti-Masons see “Nearly two centuries ago, a QAnon-like conspiracy theory propelled candidates to Congress.”

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