Monday, October 08, 2018

Propaganda

"Propaganda" is a 1928 book by Edward Bernays, "the father of public relations" (PR), and a nephew of Sigmund Freud. So it's 90 years old. Some of the ideas seem very quaint - or odious - by today's reckoning, and sometimes you have to remember what was going on 90 years ago to make sense of what he is saying. It was mercifully short, only 175 pages.

I was made aware of Bernays in "Doughnut Economics", by Kate Raworth, where he was identified as "one of the early pioneers of consumerism".

The book has an odd cover: "opaganda" going down the page with each letter starting a blurb. The 1st of these gives what is possibly the main assumption of the book:

Only through the active energy of the intelligent few can the public at large become aware of and act on new ideas.
Can you say, elitism? Elitism upon elitism. as we shall shortly see. And Bernays explains why it has to be that way.


The Introduction was written in 2004 by Mark Crispin Miller. The book attempted to remove the stigma that had come to be associated with the word "propaganda". It failed, but it was a great advertisment for Bernays, who was the premier PR consultant of his time.

Interesting, Miller states that many of the early propagandists were 'the sons of ministers". Ha ha, they grew up in houselolds where selling "pie in the sky" was how you made your living.

Bernays' hero was Walter Lippman.

Lippmann had arrived at the bleak view that “the democratic El Dorado” is impossible in modern mass society, whose members—by and large incapable of lucid thought or clear perception, driven by herd instincts and mere prejudice, and frequently disoriented by external stimuli—were not equipped to make decisions or engage in rational discourse.
Here's a scary thought re propagandists. Were the seeds of the post-truth era we seem to be struggling to avoid now planted so long ago?
those who do such work are also prone to lose touch with reality; for in their universe the truth is ultimately what the client wants the world to think is true.


Moving into Chapter I, titled "Organizing Chaos", we start down the elitist path. I'm not going to comment a lot on many of the passages I am including. I think they speak for themselves.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
So who gets to decide who "the masses" are? And who elects this invisible government?

In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if every one went around pricing, and chemically tasting before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would be hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to it attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.

It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading, committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat. But we have chosen the opposite method, that of open competition. We must find a way to make free competition function with reasonable smoothness. To achieve this society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda.

Some of the phenomena of this process are criticized—the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses. The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.

As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented

So, you'll take your propaganda and like it, cause you'd be overwhelmed otherwise.


Chapter II is titled "The New Propaganda". Wow, 90 years later, and this quote could be about Trumpism right now:

When an Imperial Wizard, sensing what is perhaps hunger for an ideal, offers a picture of a nation all Nordic and nationalistic, the common man of the older American stock, feeling himself elbowed out of his rightful position and prosperity by the newer immigrant stocks, grasps the picture which fits in so neatly with his prejudices, and makes it his own.
You can also watch Scorsese's 2002 movie "Gangs of New York" for the 1863 version.

Ahh, "regimenting the public mind".

It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war [World War I] that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind.

...

But clearly it is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically. In the active proselytizing minorities in whom selfish interests and public interests coincide lie the progress and development of America. Only through the active energy of the intelligent few can the public at large become aware of and act upon new ideas.


Chapter III is titled "The New Propagandists". I'm sure this next is true - hah! Well, the book is an apologia for propaganda and propagandists.

The profession of public relations counsel is developing for itself an ethical code which compares favorably with that governing the legal and medical professions.


Chapter IV is titled "The Psychology of Public Relations". This is probably the meatiest chapter.

The systematic study of mass psychology revealed to students the potentialities of invisible government of society by manipulation of the motives which actuate man in the group. ... the group has mental characteristics distinct from those of the individual, and is motivated by impulses and emotions which cannot be explained on the basis of what we know of individual psychology.
Here's an example of a "blast from the past". Bernays discusses an "international flight" as something to be propagandized. ??? Then you realize, Lindbergh had just performed the 1st solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the prior year, 1927.

Trotter and Le Bon concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits, and emotions. In making up its mind, its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader. This is one of the most firmly established principles of mass psychology.

...

But when the example of the leader is not at hand and the herd must think for itself, it does so by means of clichés, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experiences.

There are so many people mentioned in this book that I had never heard of. You look them up, and apparently they were well known in their day, and maybe for 30-40 years thereafter? But not after 90 years.

Meanwhile, here are some early researchers into herd behavior, which I have mentioned in the past as being hard to find. It's really hard, tho, to want to expend energy into researching old stuff from guys who did not stand the test of time - i.e., nobody remembers them.

Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, so it is no surprise he gives props to the subconscious (the Freudian Id?):

This general principle, that men are very largely actuated by motives which they conceal from themselves, is as true of mass as of individual psychology. It is evident that the successful propagandist must understand the true motives and not be content to accept the reasons which men give for what they do.
Ha ha, here's a good one. What a great PR campaign! Only in the 1920s! (Or not.)
An example of this is the nationwide competitions for sculpture in Ivory soap, open to school children in certain age groups as well as professional sculptors. A sculptor of national reputation found Ivory soap an excellent medium for sculpture.

The Procter and Gamble Company offered a series of prizes for the best sculpture in white soap. The contest was held under the auspices of the Art Center in New York city, an organization of high standing in the art world.

Apparently, though, the Invisible Hand will occasionally produce good outcomes.
The leaders who lend their authority to any propaganda campaign will do so only if it can be made to touch their own interests. There must be a disinterested aspect of the propagandist’s activities. In other words, it is one of the functions of the public relations counsel to discover at what points his client’s interests coincide with those of other individuals or groups.
Here's the concluding paragraph of the chapter:
I have tried, in these chapters, to explain the place of propaganda in modern American life and something of the methods by which it operates—to tell the why, the what, the who and the how of the invisible government which dictates our thoughts, directs our feelings, and controls our actions. In the following chapters I shall try to show how propaganda functions in specific departments of group activity, to suggest some of the further ways in which it may operate.


The next 6 chapters deal with the application of propaganda to different domains. Chapter V is "Buainess and the Public", in which the domain is business.

Twenty or twenty-five years ago, business sought to run its own affairs regardless of the public. The reaction was the muckracking period, in which a multitude of sins were, justly and unjustly, laid to the charge of the interests.
Ha ha, "justly or unjustly", sounds like v0.5 of "fair and balanced".

Wow, I have been following Peter Barnes in "Capitalism 3.0" in stating that we went from an economy of scarcity to an economy of plenty (Capitalism 2.0) in the 1950s. This sounds like Bernays felt it was there in 1928. Of course, the Great Depression, which started the following year, followed by World War II, were quite a setback.

The result is that while, under the handicraft of small-unit system of production was that typical a century ago, demand created the supply, today supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand. A single factory, potentially capable of supplying a whole continent with its particular product, cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda, with the vast public in order to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable.
One of the odious aspects of the book is of course the blatant sexism. Can you say "double standard"?
Yet the beneficial effect of this branch may be canceled, if the wife of the president is involved in a scandal.
We get a little presaging of Chapter XI, "The Mechanics of Propaganda".
While the concrete recommendations of the public relations counsel may vary infinitely according to individual circumstances, his general plan of work may be reduced to two types, which I might term continuous interpretation and dramatization by high-spotting. The two may be alternative or may be pursued concurrently.

...

the principles familiar to the propagandist—the principles of gregariousness, obedience to authority, emulation, and the like.

We are (quaintly) reminded that Bernays was decades before the gnome of Chicago, Milton Friedman, and "a corporation's only concern is to increase profits for itself and for its shareholders".
The responsibilities are of many kinds. There is a responsibility to the stockholders—numbering perhaps five persons or five hundred thousand—who have entrusted their money to the concern and have the right to know how the money is being used. ... It has a responsibility toward the dealer which it may express by inviting him, at its expense, to visit the home factory. It has a responsibility toward the industry as a whole which should restrain it from making exaggerated and unfair selling claims. It has a responsibility toward the retailer, and will see to it that its salesmen express the quality of the product which they have to sell. There is a responsibility toward the consumer, who is pressed by a clean and well managed factory, open to his inspection. And the general public, apart from its function as a potential consumer, is influenced in its attitude toward the concern by what it knows of that concern’s financial dealings, its labor policy, even by the livableness of the houses in which its employees dwell.
I remember reading about the CEO of Dean Dairy, who resisted a huge salary and stock options because he felt they were immoral and would adversely impact inequality. I was reminded of that by this statement about the owner of Beach-Nut Packing Company, and its acquisition by Postum Cereal Company (Post?):
He absolutely controls the business and flatly stated that he would never sell it during his lifetime ‘to any one at any price,’ since it would be disloyal to his friends and fellow workers.
"Disloyal to his friends and fellow workers"??? Who cares! Greed is good! What a maroon!

Another formulation of how propaganda works on the subconscious:

The application of this principle of a common denominator of interest between the object that is sold and the public good-will can be carried to infinite degrees.
Again, here is something that seems really anomalous for 1928 - again, possibly because starting in 1929 came 10 years of the Great Depression and 6 years of WWII. Or maybe it is just pro-business propaganda - always popular.
Public opinion is no longer inclined to be unfavorable to the large business merger. It resents the censorship of business by the Federal Trade Commission. It has broken down the anti-trust laws where it thinks they hinder economic development. It backs great trusts and mergers which it excoriated a decade ago. The government now permits large aggregations of producing and distributing units, as evidenced by mergers among railroads and other public utilities, because representative government reflects public opinion. Public opinion itself fosters the growth of mammoth industrial enterprises. In the opinion of millions of small investors, mergers and trusts are friendly giants and not ogres, because of the economies, mainly due to quantity production, which they have effected, and can pass on to the consumer.


Chapter VI is titled "Propaganda and Political Leadership".

The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.

Fortunately, the sincere and gifted politician is able, by the instrument of propaganda, to mold and form the will of the people.

Wow, foreshadowing of the day of Agent Orange and reality TV politics? Agent Orange is definitely a master of drama (if nothing else).
The political apathy of the average voter, of which we hear so much, is undoubtedly due to the fact that the politician does not know how to meet the conditions of the public mind. He cannot dramatize himself and his platform in terms which have real meaning to the public. Acting on the fallacy that the leader must slavishly follow, he deprives his campaign of all dramatic interest. An automaton cannot arouse the public interest. A leader, a fighter, a dictator, can. But, given our present political conditions under which every office seeker must cater to the vote of the masses, the only means by which the born leader can lead is the expert use of propaganda.
More cheerleading for propaganda:
It will be objected, of course, that propaganda will tend to defeat itself as its mechanism becomes obvious to the public. My opinion is that it will not. The only propaganda which will ever tend to weaken itself as the world becomes more sophisticated and intelligent, is propaganda that is untrue or unsocial.

...

“When the interval between the intellectual classes and the practical classes is too great,” says the historian Buckle, “the former will possess no influence, the latter will reap no benefits.”

Propaganda bridges this interval in our modern complex civilization.

Concluding the chapter, "clear understanding and intelligent action"? Ha ha, how about "fake news and gaslighting"?
Is this government by propaganda? Call it, if you prefer, government by education. But education, in the academic sense of the word, is not sufficient. It must be enlightened expert propaganda through the creation of circumstances, through the high-spotting of significant events, and the dramatization of important issues. The statesman of the future will thus be enabled to focus the public mind on crucial points of policy and regiment a vast, heterogeneous mass of voters to clear understanding and intelligent action.


Chapter VII is titled "Women's Activities and Propaganda". The 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote had just been adopted in 1920. Bernays credits the Women's Suffrage movement with making skillful use of propaganda. He also credits them with the 8 hour workday, something I had not heard before.

Ha ha, "music police, you are under arrest".

A music club can broaden its sphere and be of service to the community by cooperating with the local radio station in arranging better musical programs. Fighting bad music can be as militant a campaign and marshal as varied resources as any political battle.
The chapter concludes with a somewhat condescending endorsement of women in politics. I sure am glad I live in the future.
Just as women supplement men in private life, so they will supplement men in public life by concentrating their organized efforts on those objects which men are likely to ignore. There is a tremendous field for women as active protagonists of new ideas and new methods of political and social housekeeping. When organized and conscious of their power to influence their surroundings, women can use their newly acquired freedom in a great many ways to mold the world into a better place to live.


Chapter VIII is titled "Propaganda For Education". Kind of an odd chapter. Bernays is all in favor of education, but feels that teachers have a problem with self-image because they are so poorly paid. I'm glad he seems to feel that this is a sad state of affairs.

The public is not cognizant of the real value of education, and does not realize that education as a social force is not receiving the kind of attention it has the right to expect in a democracy.

...

In a democracy an educator should, in addition to his academic duties, bear a definite and wholesome relation to the general public.

...

The teacher finds himself in a world in which the emphasis is put on those objective goals and those objective attainments which are prized by our American society. He himself is but moderately or poorly paid. Judging himself by the standards in common acceptance, he cannot but feel a sense of inferiority because he finds himself continually being compared, in the minds of his own pupils, with the successful businessman and the successful leader in the outside world. Thus the educator becomes repressed and suppressed in our civilization. As things stand, this condition cannot be changed from the outside unless the general public alters its standards of achievement, which it is not likely to do soon.

...

It is possibly, by means of an intelligent appeal predicated upon the actual present composition of the public mind, to modify the general attitude toward the teaching profession. Such a changed attitude will begin by expressing itself in an insistence on the idea of more adequate salaries for the profession.


Chapter IX is titled "Propaganda In Social Science". Here's the opening paragraph.

The public relations counsel is necessary to social work. And since social service, by its very nature, can continue only by means of the voluntary support of the wealthy, it is obliged to use propaganda continually. The leaders in social service were among the first consciously to utilize propaganda in its modern sense.
Wow, where would be without the wealthy?


Chapter X is titled "Art and Science". We get examples of the art and fashion world manipulating taste and trends to further the goals of specific industries. He references another figure of the time that I had never heard of - Edgar Brandt - as a "famous French iron worker, the modern Bellini, who makes wonderful art works from iron". Per his Wikipedia page, Brandt was "a French ironworker, prolific weapons designer and head of a company that designed 60mm, 81mm and 120mm mortars that were very widely copied throughout and subsequent to World War II. He also invented discarding-sabot artillery shells, and contributed substantially through his development of HEAT rifle grenades to the development of effective HEAT-warhead weapons for infantry anti-tank use. ... He also was a very fine artist." Who knew?

Bernays feels that the arts should do a better job promoting themselves. Of course, he thinks everyone should do a better job promoting themselves, because that is more business for him and his profession.

Why should not the museum, instead of merely preserving the art treasures which it possesses, quicken their meaning in terms which the general public understands?
On propaganda and science:
Propaganda assists in marketing new inventions. Propaganda, by repeatedly interpreting new scientific ideas and inventions to the public, has made the public more receptive. Propaganda is accustoming the public to change and progress.


Finally, the last chapter, #XI, "The Mechanics of Propaganda". I pointed out some places earlier where there were some preliminary examples of this. Not really that much more here.

There is no means of human communication which may not also be a means of deliberate propaganda, because propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group.

...

Fifty years ago, the public meeting was a propaganda instrument par excellence. Today it is difficult to get more than a handful of people to attend a public meeting unless extraordinary attractions are part of the program. The automobile takes them away from home, the radio keeps them in the home, the successive daily editions of the newspaper bring information to them in office or subway, and also they are sick of the ballyhoo of the rally.

Hmmm, I guess public meetings for commercial propaganda purposes are pretty passé, but town halls and political rallies seem to still be popular.

Bernays draws a distinction between newspapers and magazines: newspapers don't care if an item is propaganda or not, as long as it is news; magazines, on the other hand, are pretty much propaganda organs by design. Other propaganda modes:

The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world today. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions.

...

Another instrument of propaganda is the personality. Has the device of the exploited personality been pushed too far?

...

Yet the vivid dramatization of personality will always remain one of the functions of the public relations counsel. The public instinctively demands a personality to typify a conspicuous corporation or enterprise.

We almost, but not quite, made it out of the book without another condescending, sexist double standard anecdote.
There is a story that a great financier discharged a partner because he had divorced his wife.

“But what,” asked the partner, “have my private affairs to do with the banking business?”

“If you are not capable of managing your own wife,” was the reply, “the people will certainly believe that you are not capable of managing their money.”

Finally, here is the last paragraph of the book:
Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.


Well, I guess the main thing I learned from this book is that propaganda is not advertising. Advertising targets the conscious mind, propaganda is targeted much more at the subconscious mind. And I guess I will try to figure out how to better appreciate the invisible government that actually runs the world. [sarcasm]

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

It's Alive!

The Tuesday night jam at Lynagh's is back! Good to be out playing my rig again! House band is Brent Carter and I on guitar and vocals, Matt Noell on bass and vocals, and Roger Barber on drums.

A little better crowd, but only 2 jammers out. Hopefully we'll get back to the 10-15 musicians we were getting out before. You could tell we hadn't played in 6 weeks. A couple of songs we had pretty well down were flubbed a bit. Did some new stuff all of which went pretty well.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Old Favorites

Back to reading sci-fi, I decided to read the stuff I had by authors who were old favorites.

Oldest was John Varley, whom I have been reading since the late 70's. Not that prolific an author. His latest is "Irontown Blues", 2018, 304 pages. This is set in his "Eight Worlds" universe which was my favorite of his stuff. It heretofore included the great novel "The Ophiuchi Hotline" and a couple of short story collections. This is a story of a wannabee cheap detective ala a film noir.

There was a bit of a curve about 1/4 of the way into the book when a 2nd narrator is introduced: she is a Dog Whisperer communicating with the protagonist's cybernetically enhanced bloodhound. The rest of the book alternates chapters between the detective and his dog. At 1st I thought this was not going to go well, but it turned out to be great! Who knew that cybernetically enhanced canines liked puns? And thought humans were stupid? Some really good stuff too about what it would be like living with a dog's sense of smell. Here's a passage I especially liked:

Irontown smelled like . . .
(I have to interrupt Sherlock at this point. I tried to tell him that most of what he was saying made no sense to me, but he was having none of it. Smells are so important that he spent most of an hour listing them for me. By the time he was done, there had been over two hundred separate and distinct smells. I had names for fewer than fifty of them, and many of those I had to guess at. It was made all the more difficult because many of the smells were new to Sherlock, too. He knew precisely where to file them, to categorize them by similarity to other smells, or by who-knows-what system a dog has of classifying smells. Once more, it’s a case of describing the ten thousand shades of “red” to a color-blind person.—PC)
A quick and enjoyable read, and not too much libertarian/heinlein nonsense.

Next oldest was Walter Jon Williams, whom I have been reading since "Hardwired" in 1986. His latest effort is "The Accidental War", 2018, 496 pages. This is his 6th book in the Dread Empire's Fall (Praxis) series, and starts a new trilogy of novels. An extremely regimented, hierarchical society, lots of military foo, space yacht racing, yada-yada... He does include a financial meltdown, with subsequent social turmoil, that is a well-told accounting of the 2008 meltdown and the Great Recession that followed. He writes well, but, I find the concept of feudal futures depressing. Still, a page-turner, and I will stick with the series.

Finally, Greg Egan, whom I have been reading since "Quarantine" in 1992. His latest is "Dichronauts", 2017, 312 pages. This story is set in a universe with 2 dimensions of space + 2 dimensions of time, rather than 3+1. So just all around weird. The story is about explorers trying a find a place to move their city after a draught makes their current location non-viable. The plotting is good, and some interesting social issues are raised, but still, I really felt that this whole 2+2 dimensions thing would have been much better carried out by an animated movie using intensive CGI. Egan does provide a web page exploring the physics of this universe - a bad sign maybe? Still, a fairly quick and enjoyable read.

Back on the magazine stack, then I think some fantasy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Music is Life

Music out: the Tuesday jam at Lynagh's died in late July. We were getting decent numbers (10-15) of musicians out, but a minimal crowd. I think a bar 2 blocks from the UK campus is probably the wrong venue for mostly old farts playing blues and rock. So we still have the Blues and Groove Jam at Squires Tavern on Sunday evenings 7:30-10:30. I usually go there after playing with Steve at the Listen Locally Open Mic (formerly Red Barn Radio Open Mic) at Twisted Cork 5:30-9:00. There is also the excellent jam at Backstretch Bar & Grill on the last Sunday of the month 3-7.

Steve & I also play at the LexJam Open Mic the 2nd Saturday of the month at various venues 1-4. There is a female singer who brings her autistic son out to the open mic. He likes to channel Elvis, so I have played and sang "Blue Suede Shoes" a few times with him onstage with a guitar. I added 4 more fast Elvis songs to my book for next time - I'm tired of "Blue Suede Shoes".

Meanwhile, I continue to add any song requested or played by someone else at jams and gigs to the OnSong app on my iPad, plus any song I stumble upon that I like and could possibly play. It generally winds up being 3-6 new songs a week. I'm currently at 580 songs. Man, I love that app.

Steve & Chris played a couple of gigs this month which went pretty well. Our last gig of the year is this Friday at The Cellar 7-10.

Muppet news flash! I just had a text from the guy at The Cellar cancelling the gig. He was not there when we played earlier in the month, but said they had "negative feedback on fit". I asked for details, he was nice enough to respond that they wanted a more "lively, upbeat act". Ha ha, I guess someone noticed we were old farts - curse you, ageism! Oh well, we are indeed old farts. I think I'll call that strike 2.
A person who wishes to remain anonymous, and who I would not have guessed had a lyrical bone in their body, sent me lyrics to 2 songs to see about getting them published. So I wrote music for them and posted them online. Steve & I also performed them. My contention that, if you give me lyrics I can crank out a song, seems to be born out. Putting music to these lyrics was easy.


Music in: Man, it seems like I just did this. Time sure flies by.

  • "Summerteeth", Wilco, 1999, 17 tracks (including "23 Seconds Of Silence". Wilco is the favorite band of music aficionado (and GM of J. Render's Southern Table) Josh Brown. He recommended this older album of theirs as one of his favs. Indeed very listenable tunes, 4 stars. Here's "When You Wake Up Feeling Old" (ha ha, I don't yet!)

  • I mentioned to Josh I didn't have any Springsteen in my iTunes. He recommended "Nebraska", 1984, 10 tracks. This is a largely acoustic album, I would probably have preferred something with the E Street Band. Well, I want to get some Springsteen into the rotation, so 4 stars. Here's "Atlantic City".

  • "God's Favorite Customer", Father John Misty, 2018, 10 tracks. These aren't bad tunes, but I find FJM's pretentiousness to be off-putting. Funny, I like other over-the-top performers - Vic Thrill + The Saturn Missile or Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. 3 stars.
  • "Apart", "Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson", 2018, 5 tracks. I liked their last effort, this also is catchy, poppy tunes. 4 stars. Here's "Iguana Bird".

  • "Earthtones", Bahamas, 2018, 11 tracks. Another recommendation from Josh Brown. Bahamas is a 1 man act out of Toronto, Afie Jurvanen. Very tasty tunes, 4 stars. Here's "Opening Act (The Shooby Dooby Song)".

  • "Come Tomorrow", Dave Matthews Band, 2018, 14 tracks. I think I read this was their 1st album in 6 years. Dave Matthews doesn't seem to be aging well. When some of his older stuff comes up on shuffle play, my reaction tends to be "meh". I still enjoy playing and singing "#41". But, no catchy tunes in this effort. 3 stars.
  • "so sad so sexy", Lykke Li, 2018, 10 tracks. I read a review of this that said she had gone seriously mainstream modern pop and I think I concur. I did not like this nearly as much as her earlier stuff. 3 stars.
  • "Lush", Snail Mail, 2018, 10 tracks. I'm not sure where I got this. Plaintive, emo female singer, I am a sucker for this stuff. "Snail Mail is the American indie rock solo project of guitarist and singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan." per the Wikipedia article. 4 stars. Here's "Let's Find An Out", short and sweet.

  • "The Blues Is Alive And Well", Buddy Guy, 2018, 15 tracks. Buddy Guy is the last of the old bluesmen left alive. So, it is required that I keep up on his stuff. Some of the tracks are the required "Yes, I'm still alive and playing" type songs. A good effort, 4 stars. Here's "Cognac", featuring Jeff Beck and Keith Richards.

  • "The Broken Instrument", Victory, 2018, 13 tracks. I think my weekly Amazon email recommended this. Apparently she was a busker in NYC who drew attention. Very enjoyable, 4 stars. Here's "Jazz Festival".

  • "The Now Now", Gorillaz, 2018, 11 tracks. These guys continue to make tasty tunes with great grooves. 4 stars. Here's the 1st track, "Humility", featuring George Benson.

  • "High as Hope", Florence + The Machine, 2018, 10 tracks. I like this one a lot better than her last. Much less bombastic. I was going to go 4 stars, but couldn't find a track I liked enough to include here, so, 3 stars.
  • "Uniform Distortion", Jim James, 2018, 11 tracks. Kind of a retro sound, engineered with lots of reverb. It doesn't do much for me. I wonder when My Morning Jacket will have a new album? 3 stars.
  • "Songs In The Key Of Life", Stevie Wonder, 1976, 21 tracks. I was surprised I did not have this album. What a great album, with some of Stevie's most popular tunes: "Sir Duke", "I Wish", "Pastime Paradise", "Isn't She Lovely". "As". 4 stars. Here's "As", which he recently performed at Aretha's funeral.

  • "Lamp Lit Prose", "Dirty Projectors", 2018, 10 tracks. I think they are still feeling the loss of 1 of their female vocalists. Still, 1 of my favorite new alternative groups. As usual, the orchestration is all over the place. 4 stars. Here's the 1st track, "Right Now", featuring Syd.

  • "Back Roads And Abandoned Models", The Jayhawks, 2018, 11 tracks. Very listenable. I don't know how it took me so long to discover this band. 4 stars. Here's "Leaving Detroit".

  • Eponymous, Giant Swing, 2018, 6 tracks. The 2nd album of this Local Lexington 3-piece band. Ab fab guitarist Jeff Adams is backed by Logan Lay on bass and Keith Halladay on drums. I have been lucky enough to get to play with all of them. 4 stars. Here's "Circus Murder".

  • In The Pines, eponymous, 2016, 5 tracks, and "Mirror of Evolution", 2017, 10 tracks. I saw these guys at Best Friends Bar at the corner of Woodland and Euclid after playing at Lynagh's. A 5 piece band out of Cincinnati. Very good, tight southernish rock. I offered them $10 for a CD, they gave me 2. Well engineered, the lead singer's voice is not very distinctive. Almost 4 stars, but not quite, so 3 stars.
That brings us up to early August. _Unrated playlist has 118 songs, not too bad. So until next time ...

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Darwin Economy

"The Darwin Economy", subtitled "Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good", is a 2011 book by Robert H. Frank, a Cornell economics professor. 272 pages. Frank has published several other books.

I found this book fairly disappointing, for reasons I will detail. So I won't do a Cliff Notes level summary.

Without trepidation, then, I offer the following prediction. One century hence, if a roster of professional economists is asked to identify the intellectual father of their discipline, a majority will name Charles Darwin.

If the same question were posed today, of course, more than 99 percent of my colleagues would name Adam Smith

The main idea of the book is that Adam Smith's Invisible Hand is completely unreliable as a means of assuring good outcomes in economies or societies. Darwin's idea that strategies that benefit the individual quite often harm the species as a whole is a much better way to look at things. Traits that are involved in sexual selection quite often turn into an arms race. For example, the antlers of a male elk have evolved to be larger and larger so that the elk can defeat rivals in battles for access to females for breeding. But the large antlers impede their movement through forests and make them more vulnerable to predators, so they are bad for species survival.

It seems to me that there are then 2 flavors of sexual selection:

  1. As in the elk example, development of hardware that allows a male to defeat other males in combat for access to breeding females.
  2. What I had thought of as sexual selection before: traits that don't aid species survival, but "chicks dig it": the peacock's tail, language and music in humans.
The 1st chapter of the book "Paralysis", talks about how our paralyzed government is unable to address the ever-increasing problem of wealth inequality. I found this statement, which he repeats later in the book, interesting.
Nor will business investment spark recovery, because most firms already have more than enough capacity to produce what people want to buy.
So maybe, no wonder corporations did nothing with their recent increased profits due to the 2018 tax cuts but stock buybacks - no point in building more factories if they already can produce more than they can sell. Can you say, post-scarcity economy?

Ha ha, here's an interesting new word to describe our current system of government: "ignoramitocracy—a country in which ignorance-driven political paralysis prevents us from grappling with even our most pressing problems".

The book seems to me to go off the rails in that it seems to be written as if the target audience is "rational libertarians" - libertarians who don't believe as a matter of dogma that all government and taxation is a violation of their liberties. From his Wikipedia article, Frank doesn't seem to be a libertarian. And he is clearly in favor of trying to fix the inequality problem. So why does he devote so much of the book with arguing with libertarians, as if they are the keepers of some worthwhile knowledge, rather than just selfish pricks?

I mean, the book's last chapter is titled "The Libertarian's Objections Reconsidered". With John Galt featured as a serious person to be discussed. Seriously? F#ck a bunch of libertarians. They are a fringe group at best, why is Frank so concerned about them?

And I was annoyed when he had the 2 participants in 1 of his thought experiments to be named "Rand" and "Paul". Our junior boy-senator continues to devolve into more and more sleazy behavior, as long as it gets him some attention. I really don't like to be reminded of him.

One principle Frank refers to frequently is that of John Stuart Mill: "preventing harm to others was the only legitimate reason for restricting individual liberty". He expands this principle to include indirect harm.

Frank also references John Kenneth Galbraith:

The late John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, stressed the contrast between the “traditional sequence” envisioned by Adam Smith's modern disciples and a “revised sequence” that Galbraith saw as a more accurate portrayal of the modern marketplace. In the traditional sequence, consumers enter the market with well-formed preferences, and firms struggle to meet their demands as well and cheaply as possible. But in Galbraith's revised sequence, powerful corporations first decide which products would be most convenient and profitable for them to produce, and then hire Madison Avenue hucksters to persuade consumers to want those products.
One good issue that Frank raises is relative vs absolute needs or position.
Reproductive fitness is thus a quintessentially relative concept.

...

Expenditure categories that are more easily observed—such as those for cars, clothing, and jewelry—should also tend to be more positional than those that cannot be observed, such as those for insurance.

...

On balance, then, the prediction is that savings is nonpositional

This reminds me of the old joke, that if you and a companion are being chased by a bear, you don't have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than your companion.

[I was going to put this at the end, I'll go on and do it here. I decided to read this book after it was referenced by this blog post by David Brin, in this passage:

Robert Frank ... asserts that – as one supporter put it - there is a homeomorphism between, on the one hand, natural selection and economic competition for absolute goods, and, on the other hand, sexual selection and economic competition for relative (positional) goods.
I thought this was a great insight. But Frank actually never says this?!?!? In consultation with The Google, I was unable to determine who actually said this. And meanwhile, Brin, who seems to be wanting to found a cult of Adam Smith, takes offense at Frank wanting to displace his hero with Darwin.]

Frank talks about why there are not more worker-owned companies. I don't know that he really concluded anything.

He talks about misguided efforts to shrink government which wind up costing us all more $$$ in the long run.

He talks about "expenditure cascades" - consumerism and conspicuous consumption spreads from the upper income levels of society to lower levels as well.

He proposes to tame positional consumption by replacing income taxes with a progressive consumption tax. This would reward saving, but, so what? The world is already awash in capital. There is no mention of a Piketty/wealth tax.

In general, Frank wants to use taxes rather than regulation to control bad behavior. I'm not sure this is a good idea. This just makes bad behavior - pollution for example - a budget line item. If the bottom line is still in the black, corporations are fine with that, it's just part of the cost of business. Meanwhile, the rest of us get poisoned. As with the lack of jail sentences for Wall Street fraudsters after 2008, hefty fines won't stop corporate bad behavior. You need to attach personal peril, to put people in jail for transgressions. So we need laws and regulations, not just taxes.

Of course, and I think Frank says this, our current oligarch rulers and their GOP flunkies have no use for either regulations or taxes, so, for now, this is a moot point.

This is an interesting point: "opportunities for causing harm to others clearly increase with population density". Hence the need for more regulation and law in cities than in rural areas.

Frank also has a chapter on "Success and Luck", where he notes that luck is probably more important than hard work, creativity, anything, in being breakout successful. I think we have seen this meme before. I personally was the beneficiary of a very lucky business break. Hard work is a given, but it it is still more luck than anything that leads to a significant liquidity event. Studies have shown that there is no correlation between CEO salary and bonuses and CEO performance. Ha ha,

These managers also enjoy remarkably favorable tax treatment, for reasons that no one can seem to explain with a straight face.
Frank also mentions the mythical "Tragedy of the Commons". As we learned here, the Tragedy of the Commons is a myth promulgated by advocates of privatization. Managing a commons is not that hard a thing to do.

From the halfway point on, Frank leans heavily on Ronald Coase - "the world's foremost authority on behavior that causes harm to others". And we then partake in many examples in which all conflicts are resolved by computing how much different solutions will cost the participants, and then implementing the cheapest solution.

I have 3 problems with this:

  1. We previously encountered Coase in "Misbehaving", and there found that behavioral economics had shot holes in the Coase theorem.

  2. So many of the examples in this part of the books use homo economicus at the peak of his powers:
    the best available metric for assessing the strength of such feelings is the amount they'd be willing to pay for what they want.

    ...

    Talent and temperament are again assumed to be perfectly observable.

    For example, in a thought experiment with a smoker and a non-smoker rooming together, they are able to assign $800 as the value to the smoker to be able to smoke in the shared digs, and $1600 as the value to the non-smoker to be smoke-free. Seriously? This is just silly - the smoker would find another smoker for a roommate, ditto for the non-smoker.

    We learned in "Doughnut Economics" that getting rid of homo economicus was way #3 of 7 in thinking like a 21st century economist. So finding him so prominently featured here was definitely off-putting.

  3. Frank says that liberals are offended by using cost-benefit analysis on everything. Yes, for some things that is true for me. Maybe cost-benefit analysis on providing adequate nutrition, education, etc to children who don't have it would show that we should feed, educate, etc all children. But, if it doesn't, then f#ck cost-benefit analysis.

    Meanwhile, as a scientist, I am indeed offended by invoking homo economicus, pulling meaningless numbers out of your ass, computing with them, and then pretending they have even the slightest worth.

In summary, I wish "The Darwin Economy" had had a lot more Darwin, and a lot less Coase, homo economicus, cost-benefit analysis, and libertarians, "rational" or otherwise. But here's a good quote from the last chapter:
We need good government because individual and societal goals are often squarely in conflict. When they are, it's naïve to expect an invisible hand to produce good outcomes.
This was my 1st economics book in almost a year, I'm really sad it was so disappointing - although I did get more out of it than I did "Value and Capital: An Inquiry Into Some Fundamental Principles of Economic Theory", J.R.Hicks, 1939 in 2015. Ha ha, I guess I better go read a bunch of science fiction!

ICYMI, here is the link to the blog post listing all of the economic books I have reviewed/summarized.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

3 + 1

The escapism ends - after this post. Seriously, I am on the magazine stack. Sky & Telescope done, reading Scientific American. Technology Review and Wired still to go. Then, on to an economics book! Note, I have switched all my magazine subscriptions over to digital only, and read them on my iPad. My decades of taking old magazines to the Dunbar HS library appear to be over.

So, 1st read "The War Dogs Trilogy" by Greg Bear: "War Dogs", 2014, "Killing Titan", 2015, and "Take Back The Sky", 2016. Greg Bear was one of my fav sci-fi authors for years. I was a little concerned about this being just some militaristic sci-fi, but he got into some other interesting concepts, including several alien races, and some interesting ideas about the dynamics of the solar system. So these were much better than I expected. Note, Bear throws some theism in, as he seems to be wont to do of late :-(

Then, the 35th and final "The Year's Best Science Fiction", edited by Gardner Dozois. The final collection because Dozois died in May. Well, he went out with a bang. The last couple of years I did not enjoy the collection that much. This year, a totally outstanding collection of stories, surprisingly enjoyable. 2 or 3 I had read before in other collections, but there were pretty much no weak stories in the lot.

I liked the story by Tobias S. Bucknell, so I bought a couple of his short story collections on Kobo. He had a novel trilogy, the Xenowealth trilogy, that looked interesting but was no longer available on Kobo. So I went to his website and emailed him, asking if the novels could be made available on Kobo - which I use because my local independent bookstore, Carmichael's, then gets 40% of the proceeds. He emailed me back, said he was changing publishers, and included as attachments epubs of the 3 novels! He was glad I enjoyed his stories! Wow, I love living in the future!

Monday, August 06, 2018

What If?

[I wrote this November, 2017 and did not publish it - I'm guessing because it contains way too much personal financial info. Oh well. Please treat the personal financial info solely as a data point. Some good ideas in this I think.]

Keynes famously speculated that someday, capitalism would have done its job and generated all the capital the world would ever need and could then be retired. I have not read Marx, but he also foretold the end of capitalism.

But let's just focus on Keynes. I retired 5 years ago and have lived off the 6% ROI that my most excellent Merrill Lynch financial advisers have generated via interest on bonds but mostly via dividends and capital gains off of stocks. With CDs returning maybe 1%; savings accounts < 1%; bonds maybe 4-5% (although I see I just had a corporate bond mature that paid 5.6%), increasingly the stock market is the only place to put funds for a reasonable ROI.

Why is the ROI on all other investments so low? What if it is because we have reached Keynes' predicted point where the world has all the capital it needs? Do the low low interest rates on raw capital show that there is more capital than there is need for?

I will theorize: if indeed we have reached the point of capital sufficiency predicted by Keynes, then the stock market will not crash in the foreseeable future, because there is pretty much no where else where you can invest your money and get any ROI. The Fed has no reason to raise interest rates. The economy is not overheated. Unemployment is low - underemployment, who knows? Deflation is much more of a concern than inflation, although you can never convince conservatives of that.

The most recent stock crash in 2008 was caused by financial markets being flooded by fraudulent instruments. I don't think that will happen again real soon - although it would have been better if a lot of the fraudsters on Wall Street did some jail time.

I think I may have mentioned before that 1 side effect of having a world awash in capital is that it might mean that the Fed could fire up the printing presses and fund an aggressive Universal Basic Income program without having to worry about inflation (see below).

Even if they added $5T to the money supply it would represent only 2% of the $250T wealth of the world. (Note, that wealth figure is probably understated by a factor of 2 to 4. Also note, a better calculation might be $3.6T ($12,000 x 300,000,000 US citizens) / $92T wealth of North America = 3.9%) Add that to some Eisenhower era income tax rates (90%) on top earners, and we could maybe make a dent in inequality.

The only downside I see is that increasingly the climate crisis will continue to destroy more and more capital every year. This is yet another reason to address the climate crisis with urgency, and right now.

Inflation: I think inflation is driven only by supply-side shortages, which we haven't seen in quite a while. We moved to capitalism 2.0 in the 1950s, from scarcity to abundance. The only instance of real inflation in my lifetime was after the 1974 OPEC tripling of oil prices. It took more than 10 years for that to ripple through the entire economy. The OPEC monopoly artificially generated a supply-side shortage.