On the Value of Work

Historian James Livingston has written an interesting piece for Aeon. In it, he asks “what is the value of work?” – a question given added urgency by the fact that, hanging just over the horizon, is a future where advances in AI and automation may wipe out a huge segment of job market.

The conviction that there is a clear correspondence between effort and reward probably emerged on the pre-industrial American frontiers. Out in the hinterlands, the connection between hard work and economic return is always obvious. If you’re a farmer, the amount of food you harvest follows directly from the amount of seeds you sow, the work you put into building irrigation systems, and the time you spend tending your crops. Ranchers would have had more beef to sell if they spent more time watching their herds. For a fur trapper, supplies and money varied in proportion to the number of hides he could sell back to a company at the end of the season. Gold prospectors got more money out of mining more gold.

Today, the relationships are considerably more nebulous. Those who have had a lot of luck in life are quick to point to the efforts that preceded it. No doubt, those are causally efficacious, but they are hardly comprehensively explanatory. There are plenty of people who work hard and go nowhere. Likewise, there are even a few people who become wealthy beyond any coherent sense of proportion to the value they add to society. Was the work Lloyd Blankfein did in 2015 really worth over $23 million? Are there products circulating the globe whose value has been increased by $71.5 billion dollars by the efforts of Warren Buffett? Those questions are clearly rhetorical, because the objective answer is a flat, unequivocal “no”.

To argue otherwise is to imbue markets with a sort mystic omnipotence, suggesting that the prices that emerge from economic transactions are always and everywhere reflective of their true value. Which is pure, unadulterated nonsense. There’s simply no way for economic agents to account for all the information that kind of computation would require. As a result, situations emerge where subsidiaries achieve market valuations in excess of their parent companies, or where an 86 year old man is worth $71.5 billion dollars despite never having invented a world-altering technology, discovered a lifesaving medical treatment, or even sold a piece of art. That people have profited immensely from grossly unethical – sometimes even outright criminal behavior – without ever suffering the slightest consequence suggests that the myth that human value is somehow reflected or enhanced by wages and net worth is not only misguided, but laughably deranged.

Once, decades – maybe even centuries – ago, under certain conditions at the fringes of the industrialized world, that was true. Not any longer. Some people work hard and do pretty well for themselves. Others work just as hard and accrue riches greater than the GDPs of entire nations. Some work even harder – two jobs and brutal swing shifts – and can’t save enough to retire or afford health insurance. Desperate to preserve that crusty, ramshackle American ethos of rugged individualism and the self-made man, some might interject that surely, while it is possible to succeed tremendously or fail miserably despite your best efforts, it is also true that it is impossible to succeed at all without at least putting your shoulder to the wheel in the first place. For the most part, that’s probably true – but I would remind that misty-eyed romantic that there are people alive and wealthy today because a rich man’s sperm fertilized a rich woman’s egg – generations ago.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (and Naomi Klein vs. Science)

This Changes Everything is a strange book. I agree with its central premise. Capitalism is a fundamentally flawed ideology, that, unchecked, has the capacity to cause untold social and ecological destruction. Within the bounds of the market, there are no mechanisms suitable to address climate change. The energy corporations responsible for pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere aren’t sensitive to the prospect of rising sea levels, more severe fire seasons, long-term drought, or more frequent and intense natural disasters. They might contain people who recognize these problems, but the ultimate arbiter of their decisions is short-term profit accumulation. Suddenly developing a social and ecological conscience – and acting accordingly – would be economic suicide. Corporations that remained responsive to the interests of shareholders would swiftly swoop in and happily gobble up the share of the energy market abandoned by their more environmentally friendly competitors.

Much has been made of finding market-friendly solutions to climate change. The idea that corporations that make billions off the extraction and production of hydrocarbons will somehow responsibly and organically respond to social and ecological threat of climate change is pure fantasy. There’s too much inertia in their current mode of production, and too little incentive for them to change it. Indeed, as Klein reports, some fossil fuels giants have tens of billions of dollars invested in future extraction initiatives. Shifting away from burning hydrocarbons would entail huge immediate blows to their bottom line.  Which brings us to Klein’s central thesis: while the burning of fossil fuels is directly linked to the increases in atmospheric carbon heating the planet, the final and ultimate cause of climate change is the profit motive and the haphazard paths followed in pursuit thereof. In this regard, Naomi Klein makes a pretty good case.

Klein’s critique of capitalism is bold and refreshing. Interestingly, it’s a point the fossil fuel industry’s most zealous advocates had seized upon well before the terms “global warming” and “climate change” had entered the popular vernacular or become the focus of intense, widespread public scrutiny. Klein reports on conferences held by organization like the the Heartland Institute and Heritage Foundation where attendees issued dire prognostications about the social, political, and economic implications of climate change. Not in terms of the direct ramifications of large-scale environmental change, mind you, but in terms of the large-scale social planning that will inevitably be needed to address them. Surprisingly often, people at these conferences accepted the reality of climate change. Many had even made peace with humanity’s role in causing it. Their concern was not whether climate change was real or not. It was if and how the reality of climate change might redefine the social order, undermining decades of neoliberal policy and the ceaseless march of privatization and deregulation. In short, they were concerned that a public tuned-in to the threats posed by a changing climate could begin to use their influence as voters to exert control over the behavior of markets – via the intermediary control of representative governance. In other words, they recognized that addressing climate change demands top-down intervention – i.e. socialism.

It’s hard to overstate the perversity and cynicism of this outlook. Recognizing that unregulated energy markets contain no mechanism for responding to the social and ecological toll exacted by a changing climate, these people are more concerned with protecting their bank accounts than working to ensure the wellbeing of future generations.

Of course, one could go too far in tarring the intentions and motivations of people so concerned about the threat of democratic socialism that they are willing to openly deceive the public about the risks associated with a changing climate. These people are unbridled greed-heads, to be sure. But deeper down, they’re also true believers, possessed of such desperate, unwavering faith in the wisdom of the invisible hand that they are willing to ride full-bore into the maw of ecological chaos, confident that, in the end, the market will provide.

It was once well-understood and widely accepted that there were bound to be economic transactions that involved variables and produced outcomes that couldn’t be accounted for in the price of goods. Recognizing the potential for markets to accumulate unforeseen costs and produce unpredicted benefits, economists advocated the use of taxes and subsidies, facultatively increasing the price of goods that are ecologically or socially harmful, reducing the prices of those that engender surprising benefits. Economists modelled markets as if they were comprised of perfectly rational, infinitely selfish, all-knowing agents as a matter of mathematical convenience. For simplicity, theorists conceived of transactions as instantaneous auctions, wherein everyone knew all the relevant information – including all the potential downstream costs and benefits, however distantly realized – and were entirely open about their values and motivations. Everyone knew everything they needed to know and no one tried to deceive anyone.

Somewhere along the line, this thinking leaped off the rails, and the market principles espoused and enumerated by the likes Smith, Pareto, Walras, Keynes, and Hayek morphed into an ideological religion. Enough people indifferent to nuance and obsessed with the myth of the self-made man read Hayek and Friedman – filtering their works through a hazy lens of Ayn Rand – that market liberalization became a religious crusade. They began to take the simplifying assumptions of economists too seriously. Instead of treating them like normative prescriptions for how things would work in perfect world, they began to treat them like divine ordinances about how things should work in the real world. Market fundamentalists and their allies have since made it their mission to shape the world into an Eden of free, unmitigated exchange – a perfect paradise for the idealized creatures of economic theory. Sadly, this is about as reasonable as setting up a game preserve for unicorns.

Their vision of utopia is one entirely divorced from the realities of human behavior and the natural world from which it emerged. In this vein, market fundamentalists have come to mirror the hardline communists ideologues the United States fought a nearly five decade cold war – punctuated here and there by intense moments of southeast Asian or central American heat – against. They’re so enamored of a romanticized ideology that they’ve been rendered blind to the unburnished strictures of reality. Decades of work in behavioral economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology have revealed evidence that humans are irrational, myopic, parochial, tribal creatures, riddled with internal contradictions, from an awe-inspiring capacity for altruism and selflessness to a sickening taste for self-indulgence and materialism. The governing tenets of normative theories of economics have been repeatedly proven to be false. They make the modelling simpler, but lose descriptive fidelity with reality in the process.

When it comes to their personal fortunes, the people placing such fevered conviction in the benevolent providence of markets probably aren’t wrong. For them, the market will provide – at least for the time being. Incredibly wealthy and politically influential, they’ve got what it takes to ride out whatever storms (both literal and metaphorical) anthropogenic climate change might throw their way. Some of them will even likely make a tidy profit doing so. Already a market has emerged for in the insurance sector for companies interested in buffering themselves against the potential costs and disruptions that are bound to come with a changing climate. Climate change is the perfect storm for disaster capitalism (which Klein has written about elsewhere), opening the door for people to make millions off the suffering of others.

For those unfortunate enough to occupy rungs farther down the economic ladder, outlooks are considerably more grim. Market fundamentalists and their cronies in various world governments have placed so much rabid faith in the wisdom of the market that they are unwilling to budge an inch from the territory they’ve staked out on the frontiers of ideological fanaticism. Their belief that a market, sensitive only to the feedback of profits lost and profits gained, will always provide the best possible outcome for the most possible people has no more basis in reality than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ visions of communist utopia. The men who flew a Boeing 767 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center had just a much justification for their belief that they’d be greeted in the afterlife by 72 virgins as a man like Ted Cruz does for his belief that a market entirely unleashed from the shackles of government oversight and regulation will maximize human flourishing.

Even without the looming specter of climate change, the idea that wholesale privatization and deregulation will benefit anyone outside a small minority of wealthy elites is difficult – if not fundamentally impossible – to justify. Markets simply don’t have the ingredients necessary to set prices that account for all the potential costs and benefits that come with production and consumption. Nor is there a compelling argument to made that, were prices thus set, humans would respond to them in a way consistent with their own long-term best interests. This crude reality alone should be sufficient to derail campaigns for endless market liberalization. Unfortunately, the zealots have sunk their claws so deep into the fabric of modern society that the precepts of unmitigated capitalism are treated like features of the divine order of the cosmos, built and bred into the marrow of social, political, and economic institutions the world over.

Now, as humanity has finally become sensitive to the full range of costs associated with centuries of barrelling growth and consumption, the need to overturn this fanaticism has grown more urgent than ever. This Changes Everything’s greatest strength is the force and clarity with which Klein makes this point, supporting it with detailed reporting and mountains of evidence.

Yet, for a book with such a compelling central thread, I was surprised by how frequently I found myself disagreeing with the author. Klein consistently evokes apocalyptic language, writing of human extinction and the habitability of the planet earth as if either is actually at stake. Climate change could spell untold human suffering and ecological devastation, but it’s very unlikely to drive the human species to extinction. Likewise, she romanticizes the primitive past and indigenous lifeways, treating pre-industrial societies like expert conservationists, living in perfect, blissful, harmony with the earth. Based on available archaeological evidence, this view is naive at best. Globalization is painted as a ubiquitous evil – never mind the fact that, inasmuch as it has contributed to climate change, it has also raised billions of people out of crushing poverty and perpetual hunger. Her treatment of GMOs, geoengineering, and nuclear power evinces a relationship to science that is more a matter of ideological opportunism than a devotion to reason and evidence.

Each of these points is worth addressing, because each entails a breed of error that does much to undermine the strength of Klein’s larger argument.

First, there’s the issue of human extinction. Klein oft references the final end of the human species, written in some onrushing future by the blind avarice and indulgence of past and present generations. Perhaps she’s being deliberately hyperbolic, but I don’t see how that level of exaggeration and emotionalism serves her point. It is disturbingly likely that the drought, biodiversity loss, superstorms, ocean acidification and sea level rise caused by unmitigated climate change could unleash a cascade of escalating disasters, each one feeding into the next, locking humanity into an endless, frantic cycle of catch-up. Klein is savvy enough to recognize how these crises will be handled within the logic of the market – profiteering and exploitation will run rampant, as a small minority reaps enormous benefits from the misery of everyone else.

Yet it is exceedingly unlikely that climate change will cause the extinction of Homo sapiens. This isn’t really much of a ray of hope – it’s entirely plausible that the compounding cycles of disaster released in the wake of worst-case-scenario climate change could reduce the human population to scattered bands living on the fringes of the high arctic, scavenging rancid scraps from the shores of poisoned seas and eating one another to survive. More probable scenarios – mass human displacement, massive social and economic inequality, bloody conflicts over bread and water, the emergence of hardcore corporate feudalism – aren’t much more appealing. But short of making the planet earth literally uninhabitable to our kind of organism (which it seems very unlikely to do) climate change will not drive humans extinct. Our facility with social learning, coupled with our capacity to store and transmit cultural knowledge from generation to generation, make us one of the most adaptable organisms to have ever existed. You’d have to look to tardigrades (water bears) or certain strains of fast-adapting bacteria for a more resilient species.

As with her dire prognostications, Klein’s approach to primitive and/or indigenous lifeways leaves much to be desired. She readily and consistently falls into Rousseau’s old trap, speaking wistfully, if not explicitly, of the wisdom and probity of the “noble savage”. There’s a sort of magnanimous racism to this kind of thinking, which I’m sure anyone given to it would be damn quick to deny. It suggests there’s something fundamentally different about “primitive” peoples, something that makes them more finely tuned to nature and equality than the rapacious scalawags that spilled out of Western Europe and the Mediterranean. This is pure rubbish. In terms of behavior, the only meaningful difference betweens industrial and pre-industrial peoples are cultural. It just so happens that Europeans happened to have inherited and modified innovations in agriculture, animal husbandry, food production, preservation, and storage – significantly conditioned by ecological happenstance – that facilitated massive population increases. Later, they became widely infected by the ideological prescription that material surplus and increase were desirable above all else.

The exact processes that led to this have been dealt with extensively. I won’t dwell on them here. Instead, suffice it to say that the concept of primitive utopia that emerged in the 19th century – persisting, in various forms, to muddy the thinking of an otherwise intelligent author in the first decades of the 21st – is a rosy-eyed fiction. Primitive societies often give credence to the Hobbesian diagnosis of a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short”. Rates of interpersonal violence are higher. Infanticide is commonplace. People die preventable deaths from injury and disease and animal attack. And, more to the precise point of Klein’s romanticism, they are hardly conservationists. Strong evidence indicates that the first Americans had a major role to play in the extinction of the North American megafauna – mammoths, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, giant bisons and ground sloths. In Australia, the first humans played a role in the eradication of a menagerie of bizarre giants – marsupials the size of hippos, carnivorous kangaroos, and an eight foot long tortoise, among others. In New Zealand, the Maori drove the giant moa to extinction. More prosaically, the archaeological record implicates humans in a number of resource depressions, extinctions, and extirpations. By around 1500 years ago, California hunter-gatherers around the Sacramento Valley had significantly reduced deer and elk populations. The earliest inhabitants of Easter Island introduced invasive species and over-exploited local resources, destroying the local ecology. My own research reveals a series of local depressions in steller sea lion populations in the seas around Sanak Island off the Alaska Peninsula – well before the arrival of Russian sailors – caused at least in part by human hunting.

Humans are humans, gifted with the same level of foresight, cursed with the same level of myopia, wherever they live. The idea that there has ever been, anywhere, a perfect relationship between humanity and nature (or even a clear demarcation between the two) is a point of hopeful fiction. The places where superficial appearances are otherwise relate not to the pure, uncorrupted conservationist ethos of indigenous peoples, but to a lack of technology or a sufficient resource base to sustain long-term population growth.

Globalization is a trickier beast. Free trade agreements have been disparaged across the political spectrum, often due to their perceived role in job loss. Because they make it easier for companies to outsource work to wherever they can find the cheapest employees, free trade agreements are often implicated in the decline in the availability of local manufacturing jobs. There is some truth to this – free trade agreements have resulted in job loss – but the larger reality is that, in the United States, most of the manufacturing jobs lost in recent years have gone to robots, not foreigners.

More insidiously, globalized commerce tends to increase the carbon footprint of economic endeavors and undermine localized efforts at political self-determination. As Klein notes, an increasingly globalized economy depends on the transportation of goods over longer and longer distances. This inherently entails pumping more carbon into the atmosphere, as cargo planes circle the globe and massive container ships drive through the oceans. Not only does this intensify and accelerate climate change, it also distances consumers from the direct ecological costs of their economic decisions. The already frail and unreliable tools consumers might have available to punish a local factory for producing goods in a way that damages local water and air supplies are entirely extinguished when the poisoned water and smoggy air are thousands of miles away. Throw in an international court system that allows foreign polluters to sue local governments for establishing regulations that favor cleaner businesses closer to home and the prospect for constructing sustainable, environmentally conscious markets look incredibly dim.

Klein’s solution is to refocus economies on a local level. This is all well and good, but it ignores the ways in which people in the developing world have benefitted from globalized trade. Certainly something must be done – urgently – to address the ecological costs of international commerce, but it shouldn’t be done at the cost of throwing billions of people back into poverty. Localized trade is generally a good idea: it lowers the carbon footprint of economic transactions and puts people in direct contact with the consequences of their economic behavior. But in finding a way to realize those benefits in local communities, it’s essential that we don’t fall into the trap of placing a higher premium on local lives simply as a consequence of proximity. The people who have been lifted out of poverty by global trade matter too – let’s find a way to limit the harm produced by a globalized economy without eliminating its benefits.

Which brings to my final major criticism: Klein’s selective science-phobia. She has a wealth of praise for solar and wind technology, but every other potential energy source is either greeted with the wary eye of a hardened Luddite or outright dismissed as too scary or too tainted by corporate greed to be a feasible alternative to fossil fuels. In my view, the best solutions to some of the environmental problems posed by global trade are technological. Let’s not do away with international commerce because of its large carbon footprint. Instead, let’s just do away with the large carbon footprint and power humanity’s aerial, terrestrial, and aquatic shipping fleets with clean fuels. This, of course, involves developing more and more efficient means of converting solar energy into electricity and inventing more efficient and resilient storage techniques (i.e. better batteries) – both realistic, if unrealized, prospects. It might be the science fiction enthusiast in me, but I have a hard time swallowing the argument that the solution to any of our problems will somehow involve less technology and innovation.

Klein seems to have a narrow and rigid list of technologies she considers worthy of approbation. Ubiquitously, they are those technologies that are perceived to make the most unobtrusive use of existing natural resources: wind and solar power. I don’t disagree with her that these are technologies that should be pursued with vigor. Especially not when it comes to solar power. Rather, my point of contention is with her ideologically defined disregard for any technology that involves manipulating the natural world in ways that might be trespass some vague bound of permissible use.

The most glaring example is nuclear power, which Klein brings up and dismisses repeatedly without offering any solid justifications for doing so. As near as I can tell, her concerns boil down to the fact that nuclear power seems scary, representing as it does a distillation of man’s abusive dominion and exploitation of the natural world. There seems to be an arbitrary boundary between good innovation – where humans create novel materials and systems to harness solar energy – and bad innovation – where humans create novel materials and systems to harness the energy of nuclear fission. Probably this has a lot to do with the relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, in addition to the looming specter of disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Nuclear power, however, is safe. Since its invention, nuclear power has been linked to 300 deaths worldwide (and that’s a rather generous estimate). Over the same period (starting with Fermi’s discovery in 1934) coal mining has been the direct cause of 29,949 deaths in the United States alone. Globally, the count is surely much higher. The generation of energy from coal has killed 100 times more people in the United States than the generation of nuclear power has killed in the entire world.* Obviously, this doesn’t even begin to account for the colossal environmental costs of coal – even if we were to stop mining and burning coal tomorrow, the environmental toll would still be counted for generations to come.

The idea that we should dismiss nuclear power because of a few frightening accidents is patently absurd, especially when one considers the fact that technology already exists to build reactors that are inherently safe. In the 1970s, 80, and early 90s researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory developed and tested the integral fast reactor (IFR) – a reactor made safe by the very physics upon which it operates. The IFR was tested, simulating loss of coolant flow (the problem at Fukushima) and all normal shutdown options: it shut itself down, proving itself a meltdown-proof reactor.

Klein, I’m sure, would be quick to point out that there are additional hazards associated with an IFR. Some of its constituents – like liquid sodium – are inherently dangerous. Though the IFR produces less waste, it still comes with attendant waste disposal problems. These are real concerns, but they aren’t cause for a wholesale abandonment of nuclear energy. They should motivate further research, not outright dismissal. The raw reality is that every technology comes with its share of problems. Windmills kill bats and produce vibrations that disturb burrowing animals and subterranean communities. Solar photovoltaics are often produced using heavy metals like cadmium, which have the potential to accumulate in food chains. There are no perfect solutions. And, often enough, the only way to find out how good a solution is and what costs it carries is to try it out.

This is precisely the reason why I don’t see the use in taking large-scale geoengineering options entirely off the table. Researchers have dubbed these the Pinatubo Option, after a volcanic eruption that laid the seed for thinking about climate change in terms of solar radiation management (SRM). The basic idea is to ameliorate the effects of harmful greenhouse gases by pumping aerosols like sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to cut down on the amount of solar radiation (i.e. sunlight) that reaches the earth’s surface. These are clearly last-case scenario options, but the idea that they should be automatically shunted into the intellectual dustbin because they come with a fog of unknowns – some of them likely dangerous – is truly strange.

In general, Klein is eager to steer the safest possible route, both ideologically and environmentally, eschewing all but the most well-established green technologies. Investments in nuclear power and geoengineering are risky, and therefore anathema. I used to be sympathetic to that kind of thinking – less and less so, as I grow and learn. The fact of the matter is that all human progress entails some amount of risk and uncertainty. Dealing with that fundamental fact is the flat fee that comes with living in a dynamic, vibrant society that values curiosity and exploration.

The puzzling thing about This Changes Everything is that it can simultaneously be such an incredibly forceful, scrupulously sourced argument against the perilous excesses of unrestrained capitalism and so gravely misguided when it touches on issues of human nature and the power of innovation. In the final analysis, Klein’s book is as much an ideological screed as it is a cold assessment of the facts. She meets the barking madness of free market fundamentalists with an ideological fervor redeemed only by the fact that it currently aligns with humanity’s best interests. This, of course, makes her an ally – not only to progressives, but to all humanity. She’s not wrong: capitalism, left unchecked, will devour the world.

Klein fetisizes indigenous lifestyles, exaggerating their cultural commitment to sustainability and regeneration. Low impact living is a natural outworking of forager lifestyles, not an internalized ideological commitment to perpetual balance. At the same time, she casts the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution as Icarian follies – humanity learned too much, too fast, hungrily consuming the world’s resources in callous indifference to the potential consequences. Certainly it’s true that the fruits of the Enlightenment/Scientific/Industrial revolution have poisoned the natural world. That point is virtually inarguable. But the endless cycles of discovery, criticism, debate, and revolution they set in place are also responsible for every good thing in existence. The notion of individual human rights was an Enlightenment invention. Thanks to science, we now have treatments or cures for hundreds of terrible diseases. Our very understanding of the natural world – including the ways in which we’ve harmed it and the ways to cease doing so – are due to the scientific revolution. Klein’s most cherished ideal – sustainability – is a modern invention. It’s not a vestige of the primitive past, but a modern discovery.

Climate change is a problem. As are the underlying patterns of production and consumption. More fundamentally, the driving ethos of the industrialized West – that markets, unleashed, are pristine, unimpeachable optimality engines, spelling the best lives for the most possible people anywhere and everywhere they reach – is not only blatantly fallacious, it’s wantonly destructive. Markets are very good at some things (e.g., stimulating innovation) and very bad at others (e.g., adapting to variables that can’t be accounted for in price, or basically anything that requires even a modicum foresight about the social or environmental implications of market behavior). For those of us willing to accept this rudimentary truth, the necessity of top-down – yes, that is, socialist – intervention is obvious. This isn’t a matter of surrendering to a colorless dystopia of central-planning. It means whipping the dusty, tattered, rapidly decaying tools of representative government into shape and using them to assert our will in systems that are otherwise beyond our control.

This really isn’t a radical proposition. Within the confines of the market, few of us have the capital necessary to exert meaningful influence over the behavior of giants like Exxon and BP, but all of us will be affected by the environmental consequences of their business model. Using our powers as voters and citizens (diminished – and diminishing – though they may be) is the only viable option left to us. That’s why the efforts of the protestors at places like Standing Rock are so important. Civil disobedience is rapidly becoming our last line of defense against an economic system hell bent on devouring the world.

Nowhere in this recognition is there an obvious repudiation of the larger framework of values and methods that emerged out of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolutions. There’s no denying that they gave us the coal-fired steam and gas fueled internal combustion engines whose exhaust is currently warming the planet. But there’s also no denying that, inasmuch scientific discovery has the power to doom us, it is also true that it is the only thing that can save us. Modernity comes with its own litany of woes. It also comes with a wealth of invisible comforts that make life today better than life at literally any other time in human history. Fewer people live in poverty or die preventable deaths. The attendant ecological problems are real and in urgent need of redress. In no way is that a matter of trading one delusional ideology for another. The truth is much deeper and far more difficult to master: there are no perfect solutions. Utopia is an illusion. It has not and will never exist. But progress is real. It’s just riddled with error and struggle, giving way to faltering improvements – each new order better than the last, but still flawed and ripe for replacement.

Such is the case with the mythological market of the rational, all-knowing, self-made man. It has its merits. Hard work and self-determination are great. Competition is a powerful engine of innovation. A market wound-up and left to its own devices is a blind behemoth. Let’s use the tools of scientific discovery and representative government to give it a little discipline and foresight.

* It might be contended that these numbers aren’t fair. More people have worked in coal than in nuclear power, so obviously more people have died in the former than the latter. I considered this, and tried to calculate per capita fatalities. Unfortunately, good labor statistics for the nuclear sector are notoriously difficult to find. That said, I gave it my best shot. Between 1934 and 2015, 1 in every 680 coal workers in the United States died of job-related illness or injury. Grossly underestimating the number of nuclear power workers (assuming that no one has ever worked in nuclear before 2015 and using the Nuclear Energy Institute’s best workforce estimates), nuclear power related injuries and illnesses in the United States have claimed the lives of 1 in every 11,111 employees. Coal has gotten safer over time. In 2015, just 1 in every 8,567 workers died. The same is true of nuclear, however: in the same year, 0 of an estimated 100,000 nuclear workers died.

God these things are long…

Here’s the book. Criticism withstanding, it’s well worth a read.


Media Bias Isn’t Right or Left – It’s in the Very Nature of the Market

“The media is biased.”

The above might be one of the most common refrains on the modern political landscape. Conservatives decry the selectivity of the liberal media and the limitless capacity of left-wing pundits to find offense in the mundane. Likewise, liberals bemoan the pernicious influence of the conservative echo chamber and the accompanying spread of the poisonous white victimhood narrative. The details vary, but the core complaint is the same. Indeed, that news outlets do an incredibly poor job at fulfilling their journalistic mandate – to deliver a detached and accurate presentation of the facts – is one of the few points of near unanimous bipartisan consent. The only thing people can’t agree on is where that bias comes from. Is the spin right or left?

The answer, paradoxically, is both and neither. It’s hard to argue that the quagmire of vitriol and misinformation that populates conservative talk radio and Fox News isn’t tainted by ideological bias. Likewise for outlets like MSNBC and the Huffington Post – to their credit, they’re not engines of white grievance culture, but they add their fair share of spin to their reporting.

Deep down, however, the problem is more insidious. It doesn’t stem from journalists and media moguls with an ideological agenda. On a more fundamental level, the desultory lows of modern reporting are an inevitable outworking of a system that makes profit the final arbiter of success, dictating what does and does not work in an industry tasked with contributing an invaluable public good to society. Most of the sensationalism, hyperbole, and misinformation that characterises the 24 hours news cycle and your Facebook news feed is attributable to the fact that outlets are concerned with making money before and above any interest in presenting the public with reliable information and thoughtful analysis.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

For decades – maybe even centuries – the studied doctrines of neoclassical economics have been the closest thing America has had to a national religion. The free market is a sacred institution, ever wise and all-knowing, securing the best outcomes for the most people by letting their acquisitive impulses guide them to success. It doesn’t matter the partisan affiliations of the congress or presidency – neoclassical thinking and neoliberal policy has dominated government agendas for decades.

Truly, markets are extraordinary engines for innovation. This is hardly controversial. But there are severe flaws inherent in the central dogmas of traditional economic theory. For over a century, economic research has been dominated by a program aimed at deducing theoretical expectations from logical axioms about what people ought to do get the most bang for their buck. Lacking a strong observational or experimental basis, it has come to entail a number of assumptions that run contrary to what people actually do in the real world. That humans are perfectly rational and all-knowing, for one. If the economy were comprised of millions of Lt. Commander Datas or Mr. Spocks, this would make sense. Unfortunately, it’s comprised of humans with severe limitations on time, knowledge, and attention, along with deep psychological biases that inhibit their ability to behave with perfect rationality.

Here’s another flaw in traditional economic thinking: it treats the economy like a closed equilibrium system. In less arcane terms, that means economists have tended to model the economy as something that exists in isolation – i.e., the only inputs are economic inputs like supply and demand – tending in the long run to seek balance and stability. Neither assumption is true. What happens in the economy affects the social and political world, and vice versa, often in unpredictable ways. The downstream consequences of a firm’s decision to produce a product or adopt a marketing strategy echo well beyond the pocketbooks of its employees and shareholders.

In economics parlance, down-the-road or outside effects of market behavior are termed “externalities”. They can be good or bad, positive or negative. Think of a business that moves into a community, creating new jobs, increasing wages and providing a new source of tax revenue, perhaps allowing residents to afford needed improvements to languishing school facilities. Or think of an industry that, as a byproduct of production, creates hazardous waste materials, some of which leach into the local water supply. These are externalities.

On a policy level, externalities generate a lot of the conflict over how much of a hand governments should have in policing the behavior of economic agents. Market fundamentalists – i.e. the most devout adherents to the neoclassical paradigm – argue that economic agents can react to externalities by changing their market behavior, rewarding or punishing companies depending on the full range of social, economic, political and ecological changes they generate. If a company poisons the local water supply, consumers can punish it by buying from a competitor.

Critics argue that this view isn’t very realistic. What if the company poisoning the local water supply does most of its business overseas? How are local consumers to wield their buying power to induce the local factory to adopt better waste management procedures when the vast majority of the revenue supporting that factory comes from India or China? Perhaps they can prevail upon the Chinese to stop buying the product, but since the traditional paradigm also assumes economic agents are infinitely selfish, this seems unlikely. As rational agents, the overseas consumers are buying that product because it is the best option among available alternatives. They aren’t going to change their behavior because some people in a small town thousands of miles away are feeling sick. It’s difficult to see how the market contains any mechanism for correcting the problem.

Profit and the Press

Now, consider the problem that emerges when businesses are tasked with producing a product that is primarily intended as a social or political good. This doesn’t have to be weighed as some kind of nebulous abstraction. There is a real-world example, and this is where we get back to the news media.

Think of the purposes of journalism. Make a quick list. Read it off. Where, on your list, did you put “to generate a profit”? Not very high, I suspect, if it even came up. You probably listed things like “encourage and maintain an informed citizenry” or “discover truth” or “present information” or “record history” before you got around to “make money for owners/shareholders”. And, contrary to the views of free market fundamentalists, you weren’t wrong in your assessment.

Journalism, from the inception of the American experiment, has been widely understood as essential to the successful function of government. Participatory governance – by the people, for the people – is impossible absent an informed citizenry. News outlets do the important work of keeping people apprised of world events, helping them make smart decisions when it comes time to choose which candidates or policy initiatives to support in the voting booth. In economics terms, most of their value exists in the form of externalities.

In the traditional paradigm, this doesn’t really represent much of a problem. The vast majority of people don’t have the time or the resources to keep an eye on all the events that might be pertinent to their choices as a consumer or a voter, so they outsource that work to the media. The value of any journalistic endeavor rests primarily in its relative capacity to edify its audience, so according to the rational actor theory of economics, people should subscribe to the news outlets that do the best job of delivering quality, reliable information. It’s in their own best interest to do so.

But in the real world, we’re faced with the question – what exactly is the market for high quality information? Most of the issues voters face are complicated. Understanding and interpreting them requires nuance and sophistication, prolonged attention and careful analysis. How many cable subscribers are there who would rather sit through a three-hour presentation on the causes and consequences of climate change than watch a football game? I would, but I’m a weirdo. Most people would prefer the football game – and all the attendant spectacle – to the lecture.

Media outlets invested in providing journalistic coverage face stiff competition. Not only do they have to compete against other journalistic entities, they have to compete against every other piece of entertainment jockeying for our attention. Given the predilections of the audience, it’s no surprise that this leads to situations where something like an inelegant but accurate description of Donald Trump’s voting base can be exploded into a point of vicious contention. Controversy sells – a mundane reporting of the facts does not. People are more likely to pay attention to strife and sensationalism than they are to raw information, nuanced discussion, and considered analysis. The market responds accordingly. We get the news media we deserve, not the news media we need.

Governing Blind

The myriad failings of modern news media can be boiled down to a simple disparity between the goals of journalism and the goals of the market. Journalism is principally meant to inform and enlighten, but economic agents sink or swim by their ability to make money. In the rational utopia described by traditional economic thinking, this wouldn’t be a problem. People would recognize that they stand to benefit from searching for and zeroing in on the news outlets that do the best job of providing them with reliable information and thoughtful analysis. Ideological biases would be immaterial, because people would be compelled by raw economic self-interest to look beyond partisanship and uncover the truth. The reporting strategies of CNN and Fox would be eradicated by consumers rationally pursuing their parochial monetary interests.

Problem is, we don’t live in that world. That’s a world where people know exactly what is in their own best interests and act accordingly. But we know, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that people don’t actually behave that way. Most people don’t save as much money as they should. Many people use credit cards and high interest loans to buy giant flat-screen TVs and impractical cars. Diabetics eat candy bars and alcoholics continue to drink alcohol. Rarely do people have the information necessary to create an accurate forecast of the downstream consequences of their buying choices, and even in cases where people do, they still often make the wrong decision. Irrationality pervades individual decision-making and entire markets (which are, of course, the emergent result of hundreds, thousands, and millions of individual decisions). 

It has been understood for decades that human rationality is, at best, extremely bounded. People are significantly more inclined to satisfy short-sighted emotional impulses than they are to act on a carefully calculated assessment of the costs and benefits of each decision they make. So, where it would certainly be best for people to seek out deeply reported, scrupulously sourced journalism, they instead choose to lend their attention to stories about a grossly unqualified candidate’s latest blunder, distant murders with no real relevance to their day-to-day lives, or vapid celebrity gossip. People gravitate to the macabre and the outrageous. The news media, seeking to profit before they inform, is eager to indulge.

In a participatory democracy, this presents a severe problem. Absent good information, the will of voters is nearly impotent, easily hijacked by charlatans and hucksters who appeal to their extant ideological biases and unsavory prejudices. For evidence, one need look no further than the desperate state into which the right-wing media echo chamber – putative news outlets like Drudge and Breitbart and Fox News – has driven the Republican party: millions of conservatives have been driven to a point of ideological lunacy by the blustery voices of media pundits who get rich selling fear and rage and conspiracy. The ramifications of this are manifest every time a poor voter punches the ballot for a candidate who will enact policies virtually guaranteed to worsen her economic prospects, simply because they present a facade of family values or down-home traditionalism they she appreciates.

Democracy does not work without an informed electorate. People need to have a basic understanding of the issues they face if they are to have an effective voice in addressing them. Productive action on problems like climate change and the nation’s precipitous slide toward plutocracy is impossible when large segments of the population are in the dark about their causes. Already, a disinterested and uninformed electorate has allowed the legislative process to be captured and bent to the parochial whims of special interest groups. Voter influence on the shape and function of laws is virtually nonexistent.  But there are still domains where the will of voters is decisive, and it is becoming increasingly clear that their profound ignorance about a host of important issues hobbles their power to help sculpt a functional government.

King Dollar

There are plenty of people who think that an urge to promote a political agenda has corrupted news media. They aren’t entirely wrong. Outlets like Fox News and Breitbart are, to be both fair and inclusive, purveyors of politically motivated garbage. But the entire apparatus of modern news media represents the market’s unequivocal failure to secure an optimal outcome in an industry built to do something more important than sustain itself and make money. Fox and Breitbart exist because the public, contrary to their own practical best interests, has an appetite for partisan rancor and misinformation. Those outlets exist, above all else, to pay tribute to King Dollar.

Consider the reality of our world. By almost any metric, we occupy a segment of human history safer and more stable than any preceding generation. More people have access to basic healthcare and infrastructure than at any point in history. Interpersonal violence has been declining for years. Minority rights are more broadly recognized. Fewer people die preventable deaths. Accessing information – about practically any subject – is easier than it has ever been.

Yet the news media – obliging its audience’s thirst for the ominous and prurient – has done an outstanding job of convincing everyone that the world is tottering on the brink of destruction. People see harm in the most unlikely of sources and dismiss real hazards that are difficult to put into everyday terms. Parents think their children will be kidnapped if they play outside unsupervised. Nearly everyone overestimates their chances of being a victim of a terrorist attack. People across the political spectrum think GMOs are threatening and vaccines are dangerous, despite substantial evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, conservatives consistently dismiss legitimate concerns over anthropogenic climate change as part of some perverse liberal ponzi scheme and large segments of the public remain oblivious to the patterns of regulatory and legislative capture that are rapidly eroding their democratic voice. 

In each case, the weight of evidence is clear, but the news media has assiduously cultivated an impression of discord and debate. Why? Two reasons: First, an acrimonious atmosphere attracts more attention. Second, those outlets that opt for a careful reporting of facts risk alienating the portion of their audience that subscribes to the relevant brand of nonsense.

The failings of modern journalism are perhaps the starkest illustration of the market’s inability to generate optimal outcomes in any industry with loftier ambitions and more profound implications than the accumulation of wealth. We expect more of news outlets than an ability to pay the bills or enrich shareholders. But the need to do both while appealing to the basest predilections of short-sighted, fickle humans – competing for attention with Dancing with the Stars and Keeping up with the Kardashians and the Walking Dead – pulls the media off course. There’s simply more ad revenue in a story about a celebrity meltdown, a controversial candidate, or the nefarious backroom dealings of the political opposition than there is in insightful, rigorous reporting about how the world actually operates.

Saddeningly, this is not a bug in the system. Since its inception, professional journalism has been shackled to the yoke of markets, ceaselessly bent to the task of generating revenue through the sale of subscriptions, individual newspapers, or advertising space. From the yellow journalism of the 19th century to the scandal-mongering of modern news networks, the entire enterprise has shown an unfortunate – but predictable – tendency to drift away from its purpose as a social good, perpetually guided off-course by the narrow incentives imposed by capitalism. In this light, it is clear that the paragons of journalistic professionalism are aberrations. As long as King Dollar rules, bad journalism will remain unavoidable.

To market fundamentalists, this is heresy. Already conservative politicians and pundits who recognize the corrosive influence right-wing media has had upon their base are positing that a market correction is on its way. There’s really no indication that this is actually a reasonable expectation. It’s simply a desperate recitation of an old article faith: that the market always know best. That would be true in the market of Homo economicus – that cold, rational, calculating beast with perfect knowledge and infinite foresight. Not so, in the world of Homo sapiens, who have limited time and attention, extremely faulty and myopic foresight, and are plagued by a variety of cognitive biases that reliably pull them off course.

Brass tacks, this is a massive problem. But it’s also a solvable one. I can think of a number of useful measures, but for the time being, let me suggest just two: turn off the 24 hours news networks, permanently, and be a little more discriminating in your Facebook clicks. Think of what you want in your journalism and act accordingly. This means mastering our impulses – and that’s no simple trick. In the long run, however, we’ll need to rework journalism from the ground up.

For now, if you’re still inclined to think of the media is biased, so be it. Just remember that the bias isn’t so much Red or Blue as it is shades of green.