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Monday, July 25, 2016
Politics ... Society ...

Just before Donald Trump’s dark and gloomy acceptance speech at the Cleveland GOP Convention last Thursday evening, President Obama gave a much more optimistic review of the current state of the world. At the White House Summit on Global Development on Wednesday, Obama opined that despite international terrorism and the economic distress that many experience from globalization, we are living in the most peaceful, prosperous and promising era in human history. To nail his point home, he asked that we take the view of a young person just entering the world.

when I’m talking to young interns at the White House who are still immunizing themselves from the cynicism that’s so chronic in this town–I remind them, if you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be, you’d choose now. Because the world has never been less violent, healthier, better educated, more tolerant, with more opportunity for more people, and more connected than it is today.

As to Trump — I loved the way that NY Times “soft-conservative” columnist David Brooks related Trump’s convention message to a “coming attractions” clip for an upcoming superhero blockbuster. Brooks asks you to “read this paragraph in your super-scary movie trailer voice”. Yes indeed, watching candidate Trump is just like sitting in a modern wide-screen theater surrounded by images of mayhem (coming attractions indeed!), while a deep loud menacing voice rattles your head and shakes your bones. To wit,

Welcome to a world without rules . . . Welcome to a world in which families are mowed down by illegal immigrants, in which cops die in the streets, in which Muslims rampage the innocents and threaten our very way of life, in which the fear of violent death lurks in every human heart. Sometimes in that blood-drenched world a dark knight arises. You don’t have to admire or like this knight. But you need this knight. He is your muscle and your voice in a dark, corrupt and malevolent world.

(And you can imagine how that clip ends — black silence with only the words “PRESIDENT TRUMP coming November 8, 2016” on the screen.)

So whose point of view is correct? Is domestic social disorder and international terrorism, along with a host of other modern threats (not the least of which includes global climate change and growing economic inequity), threatening the very roots of human civilization? Or is the world on an upward trajectory, where all of these problems are just manageable hurdles along our ever rising road of human progress?

I believe that both points of view are correct, in their own ways. A host of studies support the President’s claims that the world is more peaceful and civilized today. But . . . although the threats to humankind from violent crime and war may be decreasing statistically, at the same time the rising “disruption” threats, whether planned (as in the case of ISIL) or inadvertent (e.g., the unanticipated side-effects of the never-ending parade of technological and financial innovation), increase the odds of very negative and game-changing “black swan” events.

The world today is obviously more linked, more complex, and more inter-dependent than ever; as such, it is more efficient, but also more frail due to its increasing vulnerability to “system cascade effects”. It’s like a group of 10 wooden houses all 10 feet apart, versus 100 feet. If one catches fire in the well-spaced scenario, the damage can be contained. In the tight-packed instance, all of the houses could burn down at once. In the world we live in today, the chances of a house catching fire are lower than ever. But, the potential consequences of a fire are much higher than before.

And even if just a small kitchen fire breaks out in one of the houses and is quickly contained, everyone in the dense neighborhood will find out almost instantly. That’s good if it inspires everyone to take measures to prevent kitchen fires. But if these fires are largely unpredictable and hard to prevent (as with terrorism and global warming effects), especially given the increased complexity of the appliances in that kitchen, then panic and despair (or perhaps anger against those who built those kitchens) is likely to break out. And sometimes, such panic and anger leads to the rise of political demagogues.

I am NOT endorsing Donald Trump here, speaking of demagogues. I do not plan to vote for him in early November. However, I believe that the Democrats would make a big mistake in minimizing and disregarding the sense of uncertainty and fear that Mr. Trump is currently seeking to address in his campaign, now that he is the “law and order” candidate. President Obama is a very smart man and his point about the world being better today is in so many ways correct; but Obama also needs to consider the effects of increasing world complexity, especially the “fat tail” effect on extreme events.

If the Dems keep telling people things like “the chances of dying from a lightening strike are much higher than dying from a terrorist act” or that anti-police violence has not significantly increased despite recent high-profile incidents, they truly risk irrelevance in the minds of many voters. Because, in our highly complex and interdependent high-tech world, the opportunity to “disrupt” the bonds of trust and faith that hold civilization together are quickly growing. We are living in a time of “disruptors”, and many people celebrate the fact that disruption fosters innovation (or vice versa). But too much disruption can make equilibrium impossible, and all living systems, biological and social, ultimately depend upon equilibrium for survival. And bad guys are getting better and better at disruption.

The sense that “the whole thing is about to collapse” may be exaggerated on the part of many people today, but it is certainly not entirely irrational or dismissable, given the increasing vulnerability of our high-tech interconnected world. Don’t forget the recent work of Dr. Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist who has studied the pessimistic fate of past societies and empires that had grown increasingly complex, inter-connected, and inter-dependent. Hillary Clinton and her supporters had better start displaying some real concern for these modern perceptions, and had better offer the public some realistic (if not always liberally-correct) proposals to deal with them. I wish that I had a good list of such proposals, but for now, that’s beyond my pay grade. All I can say regarding the Democrat’s mealy response so far to Trump’s “dark world” scenario is — cue the ominous movie trailer voice — DISREGARD IT AT YOUR OWN PERIL.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:46 pm      

  1. Jim, I can’t say I disagree with you about Donald Trump and his gloom and doom approach to everything. But it surely is a way to grab people’s attention, and Trump wants attention or he’s not happy. He might even enlist who knows who to help him get the attention he wants/needs.

    And I think Obama is right: This may be a good time to be born as the generations born in this time will be able to contribute a LOT to society and make some lasting and good contributions IF they first don’t get caught in the “bad” stuff. I think here of the industrial revolution and the “bad stuff” that plagued workers; but in the end a lot of good came of it, the “good” people (as in the “ordinary” folk) ended up standing up for themselves and accomplishing a LOT.

    But at times I find myself wondering if we haven’t returned to the days when society was reaping the worst of the effects of the Industrial Rev; so I can tend toward your approach to things at times.

    I DO have to agree that, giving it some tho’t, Obama is right that “the world has never been less violent, healthier, better educated, more tolerant . . . than it is today”.

    And you are right about the “coming attractions” approach to Trump’s message. You’ve got it nailed perfectly!

    You ask whose view is correct? Obama’s or Trump’s? I tend to think (and I think you yourself admit at times) that you can lean toward pessimism, while I really try to see the more hopeful side of things (or, plain and simple: my stomach gets tied in knots that are a misery). I think too it’s that I’ve seen 8 decades of life (or 4 score; just occurred to me) and have found that most of the time “it” is a matter of being like Chicago weather. The slogan (if it could be called that) re Chicago weather is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute; it will change” (and nothing could be more true). So, life’s shown me that’s how a lot of things are: “Wait a minute; it’ll change”; and more often than not that IS the case.

    One thing I DO find myself wondering about is global climate change. It’s not that I think it’s not happening; it is. But I think it’s happened many times in the history of planet earth, is happening now, and will happen again (wait a few thousand years). While humans may be hastening it, I do not blame them for the whole of global change. (I might say I blame developers for building huge, or even not so huge, buildings in areas they KNOW will eventually flood and drive people out. Why people buy in those places is another conundrum I don’t understand.)

    And you may be correct in saying: “the world [may be] on an upward trajectory, where all of these problems are just manageable hurdles along our ever rising road of human progress”. This sounds as if I am not taking it seriously, but I am: What will the coming generations have as a challenge if they do not use their own particular situations to grow on or with the ordinary “hurdles” that life brings?

    If I understand correctly Nasdaq’s “fat tail effect” (while applied to standard deviations [I think I’ve got that right]), seems much like the “fat tail” effect of squirrels. In the Midwest we have a saying: Watch the tails of the squirrels in autumn and toward winter’s approach; “fat tails” mean a cold winter coming. I think that’s about the same idea only stated as the 99% would state it rather than the 1%. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

    And as regards Prof. Tainter (if I understand his idea correctly): I’ve recently read (again I have no reference as I forget where I read this in my perambulations thru the Internet) that our society is no longer really a capitalistic society; it’s a society based on consumption, that is, getting people to buy more and more “stuff”. If people do not buy “stuff” our society will collapse. And perhaps that same individual who wrote that was reading Prof. Tainter too. And THAT to me seems to really be a big danger. Much like those past societies that “over-planted” their crops in fields and ended up starving to death cuz crops would no longer grow. A consumption society requires that people have enuf money to BUY the things produced. Therefore, it seems the 99% vs. the 1% is not a good idea.

    Yet, still: I tend to think about Black Swans (as you do too), except I tend to think that the Black Swans I see may change things in some good way or people may use the chance as an opportunity to bring about some good effect, rather than use it as a doom and gloom prediction of what could/might happen. And yes, the Black Swan I see could/might not work it’s good effects; but then the generations will have to learn how to use that in a positive way.

    I’m to the point where I’m willing to let the coming generations do their own thing regarding the problems they will meet. My generation did its own thing re the problems we had to meet. Everybody needs his/her/their own chance to solve his/her/their own problems without having the older generations saying, “watch out; don’t make a mistake, be careful”. I didn’t listen to the older generations; I doubt the young generations of today will listen to my generation (or even yours) and our warnings of what can go wrong. People have to find that out for themselves and fix/correct their own problems and grow in their own way; that’s what life’s about and that’s the joy of life too. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 26, 2016 @ 2:29 pm

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