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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Sunday, February 27, 2022

The stakes in Ukraine

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Sunday, February 20, 2022

An Individual Perspective

This week I have read Woke, Inc., Inside Corporate America's Social Justice Scam, by 37-year old Vivek Ramaswamy--a book notable both for its content and for who wrote it.  Ramaswamy is a second-generation American, the son of immigrants from India.  Like so many second-generation Americans in previous, he rose to the top of our society via the educational system, attending a Catholic high school in the Cincinnati area and graduating from Harvard in 2007 and from Yale Law School some time later.  Rather than practice law, he worked in hedge funds for a few years and then started a biotech company, Roivant, which has created a number of FDA-approved drugs.  He stepped down as CEO of Roivant in 2021, partly because of disputes with employees over the company's response to the death of George Floyd.  He is a real individualist with an unusual and provocative set of views--many informed by the kind of intense, personal vision of what the United States should be that children of immigrant families often have.

Ramaswamy has experienced the great wave of Wokeness first hand both in academia and in the business world.  He was at Harvard when Larry Summers was forced out as president after presenting data suggesting that actual differences between men and women might explain male predominance in academic science.  For reasons familiar to those who have read my autobiography, my opinion of Summers happens to much lower than his, but it was interesting to learn that Ramaswamy was a student representative on the committee charged with finding Summers' successor and that it was clear that the choice simply had to be a woman.  Then, in 2020-1, he was a CEO when corporate America jumped on the anti-racist bandwagon in the wake of George Floyd's murder.  He objected to this mainly on the grounds that the business of corporations, in his view, should be business, and that they serve their shareholders and employees by making money and serve the public by making useful products--just as universities should serve the public by providing excellent education at a reasonable cost. Thus he especially dislikes of "stakeholder capitalism"--a euphemism for adopting certain political causes--and the ESG funds that favor enterprises that profess proper environmental, social and governance goals.  Taking up popular woke causes, he argues convincingly, allows corporations and universities (on whom he spends much less time) to claim moral superiority without necessarily performing the tasks they are designed to do.  In addition, he argues that their new emphasis on diversity is really false and destructive, since it really values people who hold identical views about the importance of diversity and what it should mean--diversity based on race, gender, and sexual orientation--rather than diversity itself, which would include--if not emphasize--a diversity of views and perspectives.  

None of this is particularly original of course, but Ramaswamy's later chapters provide some new information about corporate America's policies and its relationship to wokeness that I found very striking.  One chapter deals with the way that major corporations such as movie studios and the National Basketball Association kowtow to Communist China to maintain access to its market.  Disney filmed Mulan in Xinjiang province despite the campaign of ethnic intimidation that the Chinese government is carrying out against the Uighurs there, but it announced that it would find it very difficult to film in Georgia if Georgia adopted new laws on voting procedures.  It also dropped a Tibetan character from another movie, Dr. Strange, when the Chinese objected since they do not recognize Tibet as a country,.  Air BnB has shared data on millions of users with the Chinese government.  When the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of Hong Kong's democracy protesters, the NBA and several leading players denounced him and professed their love for China.  Perhaps, Ramaswamy suggests, gestures towards social justice activists at home can make up for damage to their image based on unsavory relationships abroad.  Both Google and Apple, he claims, have allowed Chinese surveillance agencies to use data they gather on users. 

Several chapters of the book deal with the growing power of social media to censor ideas, even in the midst of elections, and what might be done with it.  Ramaswamy in thee chapters puts his legal training to good use.  He is evidently a free speech absolutist and he is shocked that conservative voices, including of course Donald Trump, have simply been banned from these platforms.  He is equally angry that social media decided to block references to a New York Post story about Hunter Biden's lobbying activities at the height of the 2020 election campaign--a story that now seems to have been essentially true.  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives them this power. On the one hand, it exempts the owners of social media platforms for liability for anything people use them to say; on the other, it immunizes them from liability for "any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively biolent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected. [emphasis added]."   This is, he argues, subcontracting censorship--and he cites some Supreme Court precedents stating that the federal government cannot in fact authorize private enterprise to take steps violating rights which the federal government cannot take itself.    Another extended legal argument from the book questions whether companies have the right to fire people simply for making statements that offend woke orthodoxy, such as the Google engineer who suggested that there might be reasons other than sexism why most coders were men.  Wokeness, he argues--echoing John McWhorter, whom he quotes--is really a religion, and the Supreme Court has ruled that one cannot be fired either because of his religion, or because he refuses to accept the religion of his employer.

The most eye-catching story in the book, to me, appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2016.  Essentially, it explained that the Obama Administration's Justice Department had used its power to enrich nonprofits, including specifically leftist ones such as La Raza, the National Urban League, and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.  The Justice Department lawyers who collected billions in settlements from the big investment banks after the financial crisis allowed them to pay off the fines at a discount by donating money to approved non-profits.  A $1.5 million Bank of America donation to La Raza, for instance, wiped out $3.5 million of debt. The settlements were supposed to go for "consumer relief," but very little of the money seems to have reached the consumers who lost their homes thanks to subprime mortgages.   Unfortunately the article, which appeared on August 28, 2016 (and which I read on Proquest, not the WSJ site) included only very incomplete data on this phenomenon.

Ramaswamy believes in the American ideal partly because he spent  many summers in India while his family's ancestral village was only beginning to experience modernity.  His own politics are not easy to discern.  Anti-wokesters like himself (and myself) cover most of the political spectrum.  He is very opposed to corporate influence upon politics, which he insists should be ruled by the voters, but I don't think he ever specifically comes out against corporate campaign contributions.  He believes inequality has gone much too far in the United States, but he doesn't say much about specific steps to undo it.  He does want some form of national service for all American youth--done mainly during summers in their high school years--and he realizes what was lost when the nation abandoned the military draft.  He wants producers to produce, schools to educate, and governments to try to meet the voters needs, and he believes, as I do, that all those things can be done much better without our current obsession about race and gender.  He belongs to a growing demographic himself, and evidence is mounting that many Asian and Hispanic Americans now reject wokeness too.  They may in fact turn out to be the critical swing voters in the next few elections.


 


Sunday, February 06, 2022

A remarkable book

 Charles Murray is a self-described libertarian who is best known for one extremely controversial and dubious book, The Bell Curve, which he co-authored with the late Richard Herrnstein.  Not long ago I looked at some of Murray's most recent book, Facing Reality, after listening to a long a provocative discussion he had with Coleman Hughes about it.  Last week, for reasons that I shall eventually explain--it's a very long story--I decided I should read another Murray book, Coming Apart, which appeared in 2012.  According to Wikipedia it was a best-seller, but I don't think it has had much influence since with either political party.  That's because it falls outside both of the ideological frameworks of our two political parties.  It is about changes in the lower third of our population--but unlike most such books, it focuses entirely on white people. And it is most definitely not a book about how wonderful our nation would be if everyone could be like them.

Murray begins the book with a fascinating comparison of American on November 21, 1963 and America in 2012, with particular attention to prices and incomes.  The American upper class in those days, he shows with the help of constant 2009 dollars, was much less rich than today's.  Its life differed much less from the bulk of the population then than now, and more importantly, it did not have a separate culture, or a completely separate educational system, or a separate consumer economy catering to its particular tastes.  It grew much larger in the next 46 years, and more distant.  Belmont, Massachusetts--whose border is less than a mile from my house--serves both as an example of it and as a metaphor for what has happened.  Nationwide, Belmont represents the top 20% of our income distribution.   Fishtown, Pennsylvania--a blue-collar, nearly all white Philadelphia suburb--represents the bottom 30%.  It too has changed, but while Belmont has gotten richer, it has gotten poorer, in many ways.  This leads us to Murray's interesting framework for analyzing our society--a cultural one.

Traditionally, Murray argues, four virtues defined the United States.  They were a commitment to the institution of marriage; "industriousness," by which he means mainly a willingness, sometimes obsessive, to work and work hard; honesty, referring mainly to obeying the law; and religiosity, which is self-explanatory.  Using census data, Murray devised simple measurements to discover what had happened to those virtues both in Belmont (again, now the top 20% of white people) and Fishtown (now the bottom 30%) since 1960. The results are striking.  Looking only at adults aged 30-49, Murray found that in Belmont (again, used metaphorically to refer to a particular class nationwide), 96% of them were married in 1960.  That figure fell to about 88% by 1990 but it has been stable at that figure ever since.  In Fishtown the 1960 figure was 86% in 1960, 70% in the early 1980s, 60% in 1990, and 50% in 2010.  On the other side of the coin, divorced people in Belmont rose from about 2% in 1960 to 7% in 1980 and has stayed there ever since, while in Fishtown it rose from 5% to 33%.  And children living with a never-married, separated or divorced parent increased from less than 1% in 1960 to about 2.5% in 2010 in Belmont, and from 2% to 22% in Fishtown. The unmarried  proportion of new mothers among white women, Murray notes, rose from about 2% in 1960--where it had been since 1920 at least--to about 30% in 2010.  That, by the way, is higher than the nonwhite proportion of out-of-wedlock births in 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan set off a firestorm with The Moynihan Report, a study of black unmarried birth rates and their consequences.  And the vast majority of that increase is among white women who have never been to college or never finished high school. 

Turning to "industriousness," Murray found that in Belmont (all uses of these names will be metaphorical from here on), 98% of prime-age (30-49) males were in the labor force in 1960 and about 88% in 2010.  In Fishtown the same figures were 5% in 1960 (and 3% in 1970) and 12% in 2010.  Meanwhile, unemployment among all Fishtown males was about 40% higher than the national average by 2010, while in Belmont it was about 70% lower.  20% of Fishtown males with jobs worked less than 40 hours in 2010, nearly double the number in 1960.  (Belmont males, interestingly enough, are working longer hours than they did in 1960).  Meanwhile, female labor force participation has essentially doubled among married women in both groups, with Belmont women working at only a slightly higher rate. 

Crime shows the most dramatic differences of all.  Arrests for violent crimes rose from about 100 per 100,000 population to 700 in Fishtown from 1960 to about 1995, falling to about 600 in 2010.  Property crimes, which are about four times more common, followed a similar path.  All this time the crime rate in Belmont was negligible. And as for religion, the General Social Survey began counting non-believers in 1970, when Murray finds that they comprised about 8% of the Belmont population and just 3% of the Fishtown population.  By 2010 they composed about 20% of both.

What all this means is that the United States has for quite a while now had a white underclass--the bottom 20% of its population--which is similar in almost all respects to its nonwhite underclass, and which is larger, since the white underclass is about the same size as the entire black population.   Murray blamed this on changing values and the welfare state; I am much more inclined to blame it on changes in our economy which have robbed the uneducated of good job opportunities, and a grave decline in our educational system at all levels.  Yet in either case, the fact remains: there is no problem that blacks and other minorities have in the United States that a greater number of white people do not have as well.  The one exception is the number of people in prison, where whites trail blacks by a small number of inmates, with Hispanics (many of whom identify as white) in third place.   Murray found that when he added data on black Americans in the bottom 30% of our income distribution to his figures, the percentages for his key variables--marriage, labor force participation, etc,--hardly changed at all.

Now it is true, of course, that higher percentages of blacks and Hispanics are in that bottom 30% than the percentage of white people--even though the total number of white people is higher.  Yet that obviously cannot mean that blacks and Hispanics find themselves there because of racism while white people find themselves there because of character flaws--nor does it mean that the white predicament is less serious.  The Republican Party has been essentially ignoring the growth of inequality for 40 years now, while the Democratic Party increasingly views it as a racial problem.  Neither of those views in my  opinion offers any hope of a solution.  If we want to fix inequality we have to change the shape of our economy, its wage system, and its tax structure, just as we did from 1933 until about 1970, when the entire lower half of the population benefited a very great deal.  (I shall present figures on that at another time.)  Emphasis on the problems of any particular group only divides us more politically without bringing us any nearer to a real solution.