So you want to talk about race

So you want to talk about race
By Ijeoma Oluo
Seal Press, New York, 2018

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, and the nation-wide protests that followed, many white people, including me, have finally started to wake up to the depth and breadth of racism and injustice in our police forces and in society as a whole.

For those of us who want to learn more, there are plenty of articles, videos and books to choose from. One of the most frequently recommended books is So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo.

Oluo calls herself a “writer, speaker and Internet Yeller”. She was born in Texas but grew up and lives in Seattle. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Stranger. Oluo’s father is from Nigeria, and her mother is a white woman from Kansas.

Picture of author Ijeoma Oluo

An FAQ for white people

So you want to talk about race, is aimed squarely at white people who want to know more about racial injustice and how to talk about it with Black friends and colleagues.

Think of it as an FAQ for white folks.  Oluo addresses questions like:

  • What is racism?
  • Why am I always being told to “check my privilege”?
  • Is police brutality really about race?
  • What is intersectionality and why do I need it?
  • I just got called a racist, what do I do now?

Each of the book’s seventeen chapters is devoted to answering one of these questions. I think the chapter on “What is racism?” is really important because it sets the framework for the rest of the book.

Oluo uses this definition:

“Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.” [p. 26]

She says it’s not enough to talk about prejudice by itself, because if we do that, then combating racism gets reduced to a battle over sentiment – trying to convince individual racists to change their minds, to be nicer people. It’s critical that we understand racist behavior and racial oppression as part of a larger system. If we just focus on prejudice, then we won’t do the hard work of rooting out the systemic racism that’s built into our structures of economic and political power.

Throughout the book Oluo shines a penetrating light onto the systems of power and oppression that many of us white people either don’t experience or don’t even know exist.  This includes police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, microaggression and cultural appropriation.

Oluo starts each chapter with incidents from her own life followed by a thorough exploration of the question backed by relevant research and statistics. Most of the chapters finish with suggestions or guidelines for how to discuss the question with people of color.

Cover of So you want to talk about race

Oluo writes with passion.  She reveals some of the pain, suffering, humiliation and anger she’s experienced as a Black woman throughout her life, and that countless Black men and women have experienced for centuries.

Understand then act

One of the greatest privileges that white people enjoy in the US is that we don’t have to think about being white. We don’t have to think about race at all most of the time. A lot of us are not even aware that our whiteness means anything. It’s our privilege to read about racism in books rather than experience it in schools, on the streets, at our places of work, or in the courts.  So you want to talk about race makes it painfully clear that racism is an ever-present, ever-oppressive fact of daily life for Blacks and other people of color.

The scope and complexity of the problem make it seem impossible to address. Where do we start?  How can we make even a tiny dent in a problem that has tortured this country for hundreds of years?

I think Oluo would say that we start by talking with each other, trying to understand each other better. Her book is a valuable guide to having those conversations.

But ultimately change only comes from action.  Oluo urges us to take concrete actions to end systemic racism.  The final chapter suggests ways we can all help do that.

Last year I read Ibram Kendi’s excellent 2019 book How To Be An Antiracist which I reviewed here. In the current moment, with protesters getting tear-gassed by armor-clad police, I realized I needed to learn more to understand the situation better and hopefully to act in some meaningful way. So you want to talk about race helped. It’s less academic and less philosophical than Kendi’s book, more a practical guide, and perhaps a little easier to read.  But they also have a lot in common especially the focus on understanding and dismantling systemic racism.

When you want to have a conversation about race, or even if you never do, you’ll be better informed and better able to act after reading this book.

Related Links

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man
A series of videos featuring former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho exploring similar questions about race and social justice.

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Gorsuch Surprises, Alito Spews, Scalia Haunts in Bostock v. Clayton County

The United States Supreme Court Building

On Monday, June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects homosexual and transgender individuals from job discrimination.

This decision has been hailed as a major victory for LGBTQ rights. It is. But it should have been 9-0.

So much has happened in the past week it seems like the announcement was a lifetime ago. Still it’s an important case so I want to take a deeper look. If you’d like to follow along, you can find the Court’s full written opinion at this link. Never read a Supreme Court decision before?  No worries, they really aren’t that hard to follow. A few years ago I wrote a little guide to reading them which you can find here.

The Court actually decided three cases together: Gerald Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Altitude Express, Inc. v. The Estate of Donald Zarda, and Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They’re known collectively by the first case or just Bostock for short. In each of the three cases someone was fired either for being homosexual or for being transgender.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the majority of the Court. He was supported by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor and by Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissent which was supported by Justice Thomas. Justice Kavanaugh also wrote a dissent but I’m not going to discuss it here because it doesn’t add anything significant.

So you can look at this case as an argument between Gorsuch and Alito.  The entire thing boils down to how they interpret a single word: “sex.”

The Gorsuch Surprise

Justice Neil GorsuchA lot of people, myself included, were surprised that Gorsuch – a conservative and a Trump appointee – not only sided with the liberals on the Court but actually wrote the decision.

Gorsuch starts by stating the question before the Court.

“Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender.”  [Opinion of the Court, p. 2]

In legal terms the question is whether the firings violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in particular,

“Title VII’s command that it is ‘unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.’” [Opinion of the Court, p. 4]

Everyone involved in this case agrees that sex is the only relevant characteristic here.

Gorsuch reasons that the firings do violate the Civil Right Act.  He says it is impossible to discriminate against homosexual or transgender individuals without simultaneously discriminating against them on the basis of sex. Imagine, for example, that an employer has two employees, both of whom are attracted to men.  One of those employees is female and the other is male.  Suppose they are functionally equal in all other respects from the employer’s perspective.  If the employer fires the man simply because he is homosexual, then the employer discriminates against him for behavior or traits that it tolerates in the female employee.

It doesn’t matter what the behavior or trait is, Gorsuch argues, the key fact is that the employer treats an employee of one sex different than it treats an employee of another sex.  That’s discrimination.

Alito Spews

Justice Samuel AlitoJustice Samuel Alito is having none of it. In a dissenting opinion running over 100 pages, he rebuts every element of Gorsuch’s reasoning. In a nutshell (can you fit 100 pages into a nutshell?), Alito’s argument is this: Title VII lists race, color, religion, sex and national origin as prohibited grounds for discrimination.  Sexual orientation and gender identity are not on the list therefore they are not prohibited.  Period.

 

To be fair, Alito is not saying that employers should be able to fire homosexual or transgender employees just because they are homosexual or transgender. He’s saying it’s not illegal to fire them because sexual orientation and gender identity are not explicitly listed in Title VII. And the Court cannot just “add” homosexuality and gender identity to the Title VII list by stretching the definition of “sex.” Adding to the list is Congress’s job, not the Court’s.

That’s why Alito says, in the very first sentence of his dissent,

“There is only one word for what the Court has done today: legislation.” [Alito dissent, p. 1]

The Ghost of Antonin Scalia

The disagreement between Gorsuch and Alito is fundamentally a disagreement about how judges are supposed to interpret the law. Ironically, both Gorsuch and Alito claim to be following the same theory, known as “textualism.”

Textualism says that interpretation should be based on the ordinary meaning of the legal text at the time it was written, ignoring intent or legislative history or any other factors not in the text itself.  Textualism and its close cousin originalism are the dominant theories on the Court today, especially among conservative judges. A competing theory of constitutional interpretation, known as the “living constitution,” holds that the interpretation of the Constitution should evolve to reflect current context.

That’s why Alito says that back in 1964 no one would have thought that “sex” includes sexual orientation or gender identity.

“… in 1964, it was as clear as clear could be that this meant discrimination because of the genetic and anatomical characteristics that men and women have at the time of birth.”  [Alito dissent, p. 4]

Therefore, the only way the Court can claim that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity are unlawful is if such discrimination

“… inherently constitutes discrimination because of sex. The Court attempts to prove that point, and it argues, not merely that the terms of Title VII can be interpreted that way but that they cannot reasonably be interpreted any other way. According to the Court, the text is unambiguous.” [Alito dissent, p. 6]

Yes, that is exactly the argument Gorsuch is making.

Alito accuses Gorsuch of betraying textualism and its most passionate advocate, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whose seat Gorsuch now occupies.  In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that Scalia haunts this decision and perhaps the Court as a whole.  Alito says,

“The Court attempts to pass off its decision as the inevitable product of the textualist school of statutory interpretation championed by our late colleague Justice Scalia, but no one should be fooled. The Court’s opinion is like a pirate ship. It sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated …” [Alito dissent, p. 3]

A pirate ship! Arrrrrgh! Gorsuch counters that the Civil Rights Act has already been interpreted broadly by the courts to protect characteristics not explicitly listed in Title VII, such as motherhood or sexual harassment of men. And even if Congress might not have imagined in 1964 that the Civil Rights Act would protect homosexual and transgender people, Gorsuch says that interpretation follows directly from the text of the Act.

“When the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest.”  [Opinion of the Court, p. 2]

So here we have two textualists duking it out over who is the true believer, who is the true heir to Antonin Scalia, In the process, they demonstrate the fallacy of textualism.  If two judges following the same textualist approach can come to diametrically opposing conclusions, then clearly interpreting the law involves more than just text.  Inevitably it involves the backgrounds, experiences, values, biases and personalities of the judges themselves. In other words, you can’t keep the judges out of the judging.

Meanwhile, people’s rights, their livelihoods and even their lives depend on the outcome of this empty academic debate. In the year 2020.

I’m happy with the outcome, but the whole spectacle is really quite disgusting.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that Alito’s dissent – that courts shouldn’t be legislating — is very similar to the dissent that Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Obergefell v. Hodges, the same sex marriage case. Then in the minority, Roberts argued that the Court was stretching the definition of “marriage” to include same sex marriage in a way that only Congress could rightfully do under the Constitution. Yet just six years later, here is Roberts siding with the majority in a decision extending employment protection via a broader interpretation of the word “sex.”

Could it be that the Chief Justice is becoming more liberal? I doubt it, but the Chief’s concern for the legitimacy of the Court is well known. Perhaps he understood that a decision permitting continued LGBTQ discrimination would be so out of step with public sentiment that it could jeopardize the Court’s reputation. Maybe for Roberts legitimacy is even more important than textualism.

Trouble Ahead?

One dark cloud on the horizon is the interaction between this decision and religious freedom.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) gives religious organizations an exemption from many laws if they place an undue burden on the exercise of religion. So will churches and other religious organizations be able to claim a religious exemption in this case too? Will they still be able to fire LGBTQ employees just because they are LGBTQ?

Gorsuch explicitly leaves that question for another day. He writes:

“That statute [RFRA] prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it demonstrates that doing so both furthers a compelling governmental interest and represents the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Because RFRA operates as a kind of super statute, displacing the normal operation of other federal laws, it might supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.

But how these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases too.”  [Gorsuch opinion p. 32, references removed]

That sounds ominous. It practically invites religious organizations, and probably companies like Hobby Lobby whose controlling shareholders claim to be devout Christians, to argue in court that hiring or employing LGBTQ people is somehow a “substantial burden” on their exercise of religion.

And since Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case, you can expect him to be very sympathetic to that argument.

But if that’s cause for concern, I think there’s also cause for optimism. It seems very possible that this Bostock decision will become a model for striking down other discriminatory policies like the Trump Administration’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, or its recent announcement rolling back protections for transgender people in health care.

Still all that lies in the future. Today, it’s worth celebrating the Court’s decision that employment discrimination against LGBTQ people is against the law.

Man waving pride flag in front of Supreme Court building

Source: New York Times

Your Vote Matters

Neil Gorsuch is usually a reliable conservative on the Supreme Court. I don’t know enough about his background or his previous writing to understand why he decided in favor of protecting LGBTQ rights in this case. It certainly was a surprise.

But we shouldn’t have to rely on surprises like this for sensible progressive victories at the Court.

The next President will most likely get to appoint the successors of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, two elderly liberal justices.  If Trump and Mitch McConnell are re-elected, the US could have a 7-2 conservative majority on the Court.  I shudder to think what that will do to the laws of this country over the next 20 to 30 years.

We don’t vote for Supreme Court justices, but we do vote for the President who appoints them and the Senators who confirm them.

Do you want to preserve abortion rights?  Think we should have universal health care?  Want reasonable gun control laws?  An end to qualified immunity for police officers?  Do you want to preserve and extend minority rights?  How about a decent and compassionate immigration and refugee system?  Should there be limits on the power of the Executive Branch? None of this will happen with a 7-2 Court.

If you care about any of these things, get out and vote this November!

Related Links

To learn more about this decision, I recommend heading over to the excellent Strict Scrutiny podcast and listening to the episode called The Turd in the Punchbowl and the follow up epiode 2020 Bingo Card which goes into much more depth on the legal strategy behind this case.

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Good Economics for Hard Times

Good Economics for Hard Times
By Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Hachette Book Group, New York, 2019

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics for their research into alleviating global poverty.  In Good Economics for Hard Times they take a look at some of today’s most hotly debated issues including immigration, global trade, climate change, and social programs.

Picture of Ester Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee

The book was published last year but got a big boost recently when Bill Gates added it to his 2020 summer reading list.

Good Economics for Hard Times is really a collection of essays.  Each chapter stands on its own and you can read them in any order.  Here are some of the highlights I found most interesting.

Immigration

Banerjee and Duflo make short work of debunking the pernicious myth that low-skill immigrant labor depresses the wages of native workers.

“… there is no credible evidence that even relatively large flows of low-skilled migrants hurt the local population … Indeed migration seems to make most people, migrants and locals, better off.”  [p. 13]

The real problem, they claim is that there is too little migration.  People don’t migrate enough between countries and even within them.  It’s scary; migrants often face high costs and uncertain job prospects at their destination.  They leave behind support networks of family, friends and culture.  As a result, most people only migrate under dire circumstances. The authors quote the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire,

“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark

you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay”

Those who do migrate tend to be risk-takers and entrepreneurs.

“It takes an ability to dream … or a substantial dose of overconfidence, to overcome this tendency to persist with the status quo. This is perhaps why migrants, at least those not pushed out by desperation, tend to be not the richest or the most educated, but those who have some special drive, which is why we find so many successful entrepreneurs among them.” [p. 42]

But mobility helps to even out standards of living across regions and countries so there are good economic reasons to encourage it through immigration and social support policies.  The authors are not blind to current political realities and they realize it’s extremely unlikely any governments will follow their advice on this.

Trade

The theory of comparative advantage is one of the most sacrosanct in economics, yet it is surprisingly difficult to prove empirically.  Economist have long recognized that trade creates winners and losers. The gains from trade are supposed to be sufficient to compensate the losers, but this requires government to tax and redistribute, provide retraining or facilitate movement to new regions and new industries.  In many countries around the world, especially in the US, this has not been done effectively.  As a result, many people have become hostile to international trade and globalization.  We are now entering a period of deglobalization.

Banerjee and Duflo point out that economies tend to be sticky.  Capital and labor do not move as quickly or as efficiently from one location to another or from one industry to another.  So the losers from trade often do not get re-employed.  Instead they stay in their communities which become increasingly depressed.

The authors are not anti-trade, but they do caution that the benefits of trade may take a long time to emerge, and that the costs may be more significant than free trade advocates admit.  They recommend enhanced adjustment programs that support mobility and encourage hiring or subsidizing the wages of displaced workers, especially older workers who may have more difficulty transitioning to new jobs or new towns.

Growth

The 30 years following World War II were a period of historically unprecedented high growth.  It came to a shattering end with the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.  Ever since, economists and politicians right up to Donald Trump have been trying to figure out how to get back to the glory days of high growth.

Surprisingly, it turns out that economists don’t understand growth very well.  Economists disagree on the underlying causes of economic growth and on the policies governments should implement to stimulate growth.  They don’t agree on whether it is even possible to return to high growth rates, or whether developed countries inevitably evolve into a more-or-less permanent low growth state.

“We don’t understand very well what can deliver permanently faster growth.  It just happens (or not).”  [p. 179]

In any case, the authors argue, it may be futile to focus on elusive high GDP growth. Instead perhaps we should focus on the overall well-being of the population, including health, education, a functioning court system and banking system, better infrastructure (roads, sewage) and livable cities.  Not only is that better for everyone, but if and when growth does catch on, countries or regions with these advantages will do better.

Banerjee and Duflo are unequivocal about one thing, however.

“In a policy world that has mostly abandoned reason, if we do not intervene we risk becoming irrelevant, so let’s be clear.  Tax cuts for the wealthy do not produce economic growth.”  [p. 177]

Social Programs

In the final chapter of the book, Banerjee and Duflo look at social programs, how they’re structured and how they’re perceived.

Essentially social programs can be arranged on a spectrum.  At one end are direct all-cash transfers such as Universal Basic Income or traditional welfare. In the middle we see contingent cash transfers where recipients must satisfy certain requirements, such as work or education, to continue receiving benefits.  Finally, there is non-cash aid such as food stamps or job training programs.

The problem with all of these programs today is that recipients are stigmatized.  Even though there is no evidence of significant abuse of social programs, “those people” are seen as lazy, incompetent or undeserving.

“The deep disregard for the human dignity of the poor is endemic in the social protection system.”  [p. 318]

Combined with a deep suspicion of any government program, the result is that even people who are eligible for programs often do not enroll.

“A social protection system that treats anyone with this kind of callousness becomes punitive, and people will go to great lengths to avoid having anything to do with it.  Make no mistake. This does not just affect some small sliver of the extreme poor that’s very different from the rest of us.  When part of the social system conveys punishment and humiliation, it is the entire society that recoils from it.  The last thing a worker wants when he has just lost his job is to be treated like “those people.”  [p. 319]

In the most compassionate writing of the book, the authors argue that we don’t have to run our social programs or treat our fellow human beings this way.  To deliver long term benefits, to treat people with dignity, social programs much change from being patronizing to respectful.

“What is common among a drought-affected farmer in India, a youth in Chicago’s South Side, and a fifty-something white man who was just laid off?  While they may have problems, they are not the problem.  They are entitled to be seen for who they are and to not be defined by the difficulties besieging them. Time and again, we have seen in our travels in developing countries that hope is the fuel that makes people go. Defining people by their problems is turning circumstance into existence.  It denies hope.  A natural response is then to wrap oneself into this identity, with treacherous consequences for society at large.”  [p. 322]

The book was written before the outbreak of COVID-19 but those words seem prescient when millions of people have been thrown out of work through no fault of their own.

Cover of Good Economics for Hard Times

Unsolicited Feedback

Banerjee and Duflo write from an economic perspective, but with humility and even occasional flashes of humor that I wouldn’t normally expect from a pair of economists.

They recognize that markets don’t always deliver the results that economic theory would predict.  One of the main reasons – this is a recurring theme of the book – is that economies are sticky.  People don’t move as quickly or as easily between jobs or regions as economists might like.  Even capital doesn’t always get redeployed from declining industries or locations to rising ones.  It turns out that people don’t always act for strictly economic reasons and Banerjee and Duflo are wise enough and compassionate enough to recognize that economics and politics must adapt to this reality if they are to truly serve their communities.

The book draws upon the authors’ own research and the work of dozens of other economists and theorists.  It’s laced with examples from India, Bangladesh, China, Peru and many other places around the world.  This was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book for me.  It was really refreshing to read a book that wasn’t exclusively focused on the so-called developed (and mostly white) world.

I was disappointed by the relatively light emphasis given to the environment.  There is a chapter on climate change – the authors favor a carbon tax like most economists – but it’s the shortest chapter in the book.  And the lengthy chapter on growth doesn’t really address the question of sustainability or whether we need to move to a no-growth or even a degrowth economy.  (For more on that, please read my review of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics.)

Nonetheless Good Economics for Hard Times tackles controversial questions head on, and often reaches unconventional conclusions.

Related Links

These two brilliant economists explain hot-button issues
Bill Gates’ review of Good Economics for Hard Times.

 

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Supreme Court Upholds Limits on Attendance at Church Services

Picture of the United States Supreme Court building

At about midnight last night the United States Supreme Court, in a 5.4 decision, upheld California’s restrictions on the number of people who can attend church services during the coronavirus emergency.   Scotusblog has posted the written decision.

The South Bay United Pentecostal Church, near San Diego, had asked the court to block enforcement of the Governor of California’s Executive Order restricting the number of people who can attend church services to 25% of building capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower.  The church claimed the Order discriminated against religious institutions in violation of the Constitution.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal members of the Court in denying the church’s request.  Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the dissenting opinion.

The Chief Justice noted that there was no evidence of religious discrimination because restrictions on church attendance were similar to those imposed on places of “comparable secular gatherings” such as movie theaters, concert halls and sports venues where “large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

Justice Kavanaugh claimed that the Order discriminates against churches because banks, florists, restaurants, grocery stores, laundromats and other “comparable secular businesses” are not subject to the same restrictions.  Roberts countered that these are “dissimilar activities” in which “people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”

Roberts also noted that deciding when to lift restrictions during the pandemic is a “dynamic fact-intensive matter” best left to the elected branches of government.

Hopefully this puts an end to these ridiculous lawsuits.

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Together

Together
By Vivek H. Murthy, MD
HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 2020

You can die of loneliness.  It’s not just poetic sentiment, it’s a medical fact.  Research shows that lack of social connection is just as hazardous to life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Humans are social beings.  We are hard-wired for connection, and when we don’t get enough of it, our bodies send a signal as strong as thirst or hunger, a signal we call loneliness.

Yet in today’s hectic, individualistic world, we face an epidemic of loneliness and a yearning for connection.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy learned about this epidemic when he served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States.  Shortly after his appointment in December 2014, Dr. Murthy went on a listening tour to find out what health issues Americans were most concerned about, and how his office could help. He heard about well-known problems like opioid addiction, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

But he also discovered an unexpected theme running through many of these problems: loneliness.

This finding led to years of research and interviews and ultimately to his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

Together is divided into two parts.  The first part looks at the physical and cultural origins of loneliness and how it manifests itself in problems such as anxiety and depression.  The second part is about building greater social connection into our lives and teaching our children how to build connection into theirs.  Along the way, Murthy introduces us to a host of individuals, researchers and practitioners who have either struggled with loneliness themselves or tried to help others deal with it.

A few themes stood out for me.

First of all, loneliness isn’t something to be ashamed of.  Most of us experience it at various points in our lives.  For me, loneliness was most pronounced during and shortly after my years in college.  In fact, we all need connection: it’s baked into our DNA.  As a species, human survival depended on our ability to connect in groups, to share knowledge, stories and emotions.  Becoming separated, or exiled, from your tribe was usually a death sentence.  Loneliness is a physical signal, like hunger, that tells us to attend to our need for social connection.  And when we do connect, we feel it physically too, as relaxation and a reduction in stress.

Cultures differ in the degree of connection that is expected and provided.  Some cultures, Murthy says, are like tall, narrow bowls in which individuals are tightly packed together, constantly in contact and rubbing up against each other.  Other cultures are more like wide shallow bowls in which individuals can spread out and have fewer, less frequent interactions.  These days the bowls are becoming wider: we’re experiencing a growing culture of independence.

“I think many of us feel pushed by modern society to be more independent, even as, deep down, we crave the interconnectedness that our ancestors depended on.” [p. 61]

On the other hand, extremist religious or political groups often impose connection through suspicion, rejection and hatred of outsiders or “others.”  These are pathological cases where community is enforced to the point of oppression, allowing no room for debate or dissent.

Murthy also looks at social media which can be both a cause and a potential cure of loneliness.  It allows us to maintain connection with more people than ever before, but are those connections real or superficial?  And how do our kids navigate the pressures and temptations of social media while still learning how to build real-world friendships that, hopefully, last many years.  (I wrote a post on this topic called We Don’t Say Goodbye Anymore a couple of years ago.)

Murthy makes an eloquent case for the critical value of friendship in our lives, beginning with this quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

“With every true friendship, we build more firmly the foundations on which the peace of the world rests.”

Friendships bring us out of ourselves and allow us to both support and be supported by others.

“When our friends support us, they remind us that we are worthy of love, which makes us feel better about ourselves.” [p. 217]

And,

“… a profound side-effect of friendship is gratitude.  Gratitude for the opportunity to show vulnerability and still be loved. For the forgiveness of our flawed lives. For the shared trust and time together and the feeling of belonging, which is the ultimate glue that holds friends together.” [p. 218]

Together book cover

Unsolicited Feedback

Together is a heartfelt call to build connection and community in our lives.  I think Murthy does a fine job tracing the origins and the impacts of loneliness. I worry that our society, especially here in the US, has become so fragmented, even atomized, that Murthy’s suggestions for building greater connection will be overwhelmed by political and social forces.  Still the effort is worth it.

My one complaint about the book is that there are too many stories.  It’s great to bring dry research to life by telling stories about the lived experiences of real people.  But Together contains so many of these that they started to blur together for me, and I found myself glossing over them.

Together was published before the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. Yet the pandemic highlights many of the themes Murthy writes about.  Most of us around the world have experienced some form of lockdown or social isolation.  It’s a shared experience that illustrates Murthy’s claim that humanity is a “family of families.”  This experience has also shown us that we can’t take connection for granted, that we have to make a deliberate effort to reach out to family and friends.  That we need to reach out to family and friends.  I hope we take these lessons to heart as we bring the virus under control and figure out how to restart and rebuild our world.

Related Links

We Don’t Have To Fight Lonliness Alone
Episode of the WorkLife podcast hosted by Adam Grant featuring Vivek Murthy

A Social Prescription: Why Human Connection Is Crucial To Our Health
Episode of the Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam featuring Vivek Murthy

The Epidemic of Lonliness
Aspen Ideas Festival 2017

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Solar power is becoming insanely cheap

The cost of solar power has fallen by a factor of 5 since 2010, and it will keep falling for decades to come.  That’s the gist of a May 14, 2020 blog post titled Solar’s Future Is Insanely Cheap (2020) from energy analyst Ramez Naam.

aerial photography of blue solar panels

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

I’ll get to the highlights of the post shortly, but first let me take a moment to explain how solar energy prices are calculated.  Feel free to skip to the highlights if you’re familiar with this.

National, state or local utilities buy electricity from energy producers on behalf of their customers – you and me.  They sign contracts called power purchase agreements (PPA) lasting anywhere from 15 to 30 years for a certain amount of electricity usually measured in megawatt hours (MWh).

Wait! What’s a Watt hour?  Well it’s the way we measure the amount of power used by an appliance such as a fridge, hair dryer or laptop computer.  A typical laptop, for example, would use about 1000 Watt hours or 1 kilowatt hour (kWh) if you ran it continuously for a whole day.  A megawatt hour is one million Watt hours, but it’s a bit more convenient to talk about kilowatt hours.

If you take a look at your electricity bill, you’ll notice you’re being charged for the number of kWh you use each month. Here in the US, you probably pay between 10 and 15 cents per kWh.

Utilities pay a whole lot less since they’re buying huge amounts of electricity directly from the producers. Recent reports, like this one from Portugal, show solar electricity costs coming in under 2 cents per kWh.

It’s important to note that these wholesale prices refer to the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) which includes the cost to build and operate the solar energy farm over the life of the PPA.  This presentation from the US Department of Energy explains in detail how LCOE is calculated.

backlit bruno scramgnon fotografia dawn dusk

Photo by Bruno Scramgnon on Pexels.com

OK, with that background, here are some highlights from Ramez Naam’s post:

  • The cost of solar-generated electricity (I’ll just call it “solar” from now on) has dropped by a factor of 5 since 2010. Solar costs have been falling way faster than forecast.  In fact, falling costs have beaten some forecasts by decades.
  • Solar prices have been falling so quickly because of a roughly 30% learning rate. As we build more solar capacity, we get better at it.  This follows a pattern known as Wright’s Law.  For each doubling in total installed solar capacity, costs fall by about 30%.  This rate of decline will likely continue for many years,
  • Solar is now competitive with the cost of new fossil fuel generating plants. It’s cheaper to build a new solar farm than to build a new coal or natural gas generating plant in many parts of the world.  Again, “cheaper” here refers to the LCOE, which for coal is 5 to 6 cents/kWh.
  • By 2030 or 2035, solar will be cheaper than the operating costs of fossil fuel plants, as you can see from the graph below. It will cost less to build an entirely new solar farm than to continue running an existing fossil fuel plant.  This is “insanely, world-changingly cheap” clean energy.
Future-Solar-Cost-Projections-by-Year-to-2050-Naam-2020-1-800x487

Source: rameznaam.com

In most parts of the world today, there’s little reason to build a new fossil fuel plant.  In about a decade there will be no excuse to even operate existing fossil plants.

As Naam points out, solar isn’t a panacea.  The sun doesn’t shine at night.  In colder parts of the world, demand for electricity is highest in winter, but it’s sunnier in summer.  We’re going to need continued advances in utility-scale energy storage to tackle challenges like this.

But the stunning drop in the price of solar is a clear sign we can decarbonize electricity generation.  It also means electricity should be cheaper for everyone.

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The Storm Before the Calm

The Storm Before the Calm
By George Friedman
Penguin Random House, New York, 2020

I can’t decide whether George Friedman is a genius or a crackpot.

Friedman has made a career of geopolitical forecasting.  He’s founded a couple of consulting companies that specialize in the field.  He’s the author of several bestselling books including the The Next Decade and The Next 100 Years.

In his latest book, The Storm Before the Calm:  American Discord, The Coming Crisis of the 2020s, And the Triumph Beyond, Friedman presents a model of American history and then uses his model to make some very specific predictions about the next decade and beyond.  If you agree with the model, then his predictions will seem like a natural progression.  If you’re like me and you don’t buy the model … well you still might find his predictions hard to dismiss.

The Calm Before the Storm - Cover

Model

Okay, let’s start with the model.  Friedman’s model of American history consists of two overlapping cycles; an eighty-year institutional cycle and a fifty-year socioeconomic cycle.  The reason the 2020’s will be so tumultuous, Friedman says, is because both cycles are ending within the same decade.

The Institutional Cycle is about major changes in the structure of America’s political institutions. Friedman argues that this cycle is primarily driven by war. The US was founded in war and has been fighting in wars great and small for most of its existence.  He says America’s wars in the Middle East are what ends our current cycle.

There have been three of these institutional cycles so far:

  1. 1787 – 1865: From the drafting of the US Constitution in 1787 to the end of the Civil War and the constitutional amendments of 1885, the first institutional cycle was about establishing America’s national political institutions.
  2. 1865 – 1945: The second institutional cycle, culminating at the end of World War II, established the indivisibility of the union and the authority of the federal government over the states. But the federal government did not play a significant role in the economic and social life of the country during this time. In fact, the prevailing laissez faire ideology meant that national institutions were not equipped to meet the challenge of the Great Depression.
  3. 1945 – 2025: The third cycle started at the end of WWII and will end in about five years, or so Friedman tells us. This cycle has been about the relationship of the federal government and the American people.  During this time, we’ve seen massive growth in the involvement of the federal government in the economy and society.  This started with the industrial and military mobilization needed to end the Great Depression and win WWII.  It continued with social programs, mortgage loan programs, student loan programs and the like. It will end due to pressures brought about by the eighteen-year long war against the Jihadists.

Friedman predicts that the fourth institutional cycle, starting in 2025, will be about the relationship of the federal government to itself.  He argues that the federal government no longer functions well, it has become too entangled with itself, too diffuse and too distant from the needs of the people.

The Calm Before the Storm - Cycles

The Socioeconomic Cycles run at a slightly faster clip; every 50 years.  I won’t go through them in detail, but here they are:

  1. 1873 – 1828 (George Washington to John Quincy Adams).
  2. 1828 – 1876 (Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant)
  3. 1876 – 1929 (Rutherford B. Hayes to Herbert Hoover)
  4. 1932 – 1980 (Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter)
  5. 1980 – 2028 (Ronald Reagan to whomever is elected President in 2028)

At the end of each cycle, policies that have worked for the last 50 years stop being effective and even cause harm.

“When the crisis matures, it concludes with someone who will be regarded as a failed president and with the emergence of a new president who does not create the new cycle but rather permits it to take place.  Over the following decade or so, the United States reshapes itself, and the new era emerges.” [p. 116]

Severe social and economic crises are the driving factors of each cycle, even though they are named for the presidents who bracket them.  These crises create political turmoil and force change on the political system, but,

“The cycle is working itself out in the murky depths.”  [p. 117]

Let’s take a look at the murky depths of our current cycle, the Reagan cycle, which Friedman says is nearing its end.  This cycle began by implementing tax cuts and encouraging investment in order to reignite the US economy following the oil price shocks and high inflation of the 1970’s.  Those policies, combined with incredible technological advances, especially in computers and software, have led to significant GDP growth over the last 50 years.  However, the distribution of wealth has shifted dramatically toward people whom Friedman calls “technocrats” – university educated professionals with highly specialized expertise and a pragmatic focus on efficiency.  Left behind are the industrial workers who prospered during the post-war growth years.  Real income for middle and lower-middle class families has been stagnant since the mid-1970’s.

Rising animosity and contempt between these two groups fuels the political tensions tearing at the country today, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump.  Friedman says the current crisis has not fully matured and that it will be up to the winner of the 2028 presidential election to usher in the beginning of a new cycle.  He’s very specific about this.

Friedman finishes the book by confidently predicting some of the essential characteristics and challenges that will emerge in the 2030’s and beyond as new institutional and socioeconomic cycles get underway.

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Large parts of this book seem no better than astrology to me.  I’m not disputing that the US has gone through difficult times, through crisis and war, nor that it has changed its institutional and socioeconomic structures along the way.  But the idea of American history running like clockwork on predetermined cycles is absurd.

Friedman gives no explanation for why these cycles should last 80 years or 50 years.  In fact, he says,

“The roughly eighty-year periods between the American Revolution and the Civil War, and between the Civil War and World War II, are possibly accidental.  Still, that number is real and I think too odd to be a coincidence.”  [p. 96]

“Too odd to be a coincidence” is a flimsy foundation for such a grand theory of history.

Some of the events that define these cycles seem problematic too.  World War II and the Gulf War did not originate in America.  If Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, or terrorists not struck on 9/11 would the institutional cycles still have ended when they did?

It seems just as likely to me that Friedman has fallen victim to the Narrative Fallacy.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes this common error in The Black Swan (review).  Humans like stories.  We like them so much that we often impose a story line on random events in order to make sense of them. “Bad news comes in threes,” is great example.  We hear two items of bad news, so we start looking around for a third event to complete the pattern.  Hmm, let’s see … we’ve had two periods of American history lasting about eighty years, both culminating in a war.  Is there a war that happened about eighty years after the last cycle ended?  Why yes, there’s the war against the Jihadists in the Middle East.  Well, it’s several wars actually. And none of them were as intense or as destructive as the Civil War or World War II.  Still, it’s the only war that fits the eighty-year pattern, so it’ll have to do.

I think there are some other problems with the book too.  Friedman largely ignores the demographic shifts that are rapidly changing the racial makeup of American society, especially the growing Hispanic and Asian communities.  He essentially pleads ignorance on the problem of climate change.  He does highlight the importance of computer technology in the current socioeconomic cycle, but it doesn’t seem to occur to him that technological change might also impact the very nature of these cycles.  Maybe they’re getting faster.

Another gripe: the book (at least the Kindle edition that I read) has no bibliography, no footnotes or endnotes, and no index.  I admit this is a pet peeve of mine, but books like this don’t just spring full-grown from the author’s brain.

And yet …

Friedman’s diagnosis of the disfunction of the US government is indisputable.  It has become too cumbersome and too unresponsive to the needs of the people.  The post-war systems built by technocrats, founded on globalization and technology, have failed to benefit large segments of the US population.  And the cartel of elite universities that educate and certify new generations of technocrats has become an insanely expensive barrier to class mobility.  Even though I would call myself a technocrat, it’s clear our ecomony is out of balance.  So I’m intrigued by his prediction that the descendants of today’s white working class families could form an unlikely political alliance with African Americans who have been even more poorly served.

His discussion of the impact of declining birth rates and longer life expectancy on our values around gender, marriage, family and community are also insightful.  I was especially struck by the passages dealing with loneliness and our need for authentic connection.

“Loneliness is one of the most powerful forces in the world. People get sick, and I know who will take care of me if I do … Living a long life without anyone needing you, no one really caring if you live or die, is liberation, but the terrible implications of liberation emerge with time.”  [p. 219]

And that leads me to one final observation:  The Storm Before the Calm was published just before the Coronavirus pandemic struck the world.  I think the pandemic illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of this book.  The pathetic failure of the US government to deal with the pandemic in an organized and united fashion tragically confirms Friedman’s diagnosis of institutional disfunction.  Yet the occurrence of a pandemic also illustrates the futility and the hubris of making highly specific predictions about the future.

But who knows?  Maybe Friedman will have the last laugh.  He says that wars punctuate many of our cycles because they leave existing societies in ruins and make room for new ones to emerge.  Perhaps COVID-19 is the real “war” that brings the present cycle to an end.

* * *

Thanks to What’s Nonfiction for blogging about the upcoming publication of this book last year in this list of new nonfiction books for 2020.

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Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom

We watched Strictly Ballroom last night.  Again.  Hadn’t seen it in years.

I first saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award.  A few months later, when it was released in theaters, I organized a big group of friends to go see it.  I bought the DVD.  Now it’s on Netflix.

Strictly Ballroom is an off-beat romantic comedy about competitive ballroom dancing.  Scott Hastings (played by Paul Mercurio) is dumped by his long-time dance partner for doing his own choreography – it’s not “strictly ballroom.”  He has to train a new, inexperienced partner in time for the big competition.

But that’s all surface stuff.  The movie is really about self-expression, challenging the establishment, and breaking free of repression.

It’s about not living our lives in fear.

The costumes are amazing.  The music and dancing are terrific. It’ll put a big happy smile on your face.

Strictly wonderful.

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Six Word Story

Cherry blossoms spring with irrepressible hope.

IMG_2085 - Copy

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Relationships at Work: Power, Trust and Peek-a-boo!

I’m working from home during the coronavirus shutdown and I’ve got into the habit of taking a long walk around my neighborhood at the end of each day.

One of the podcasts I listen to on my daily walks is WorkLife, hosted by Adam Grant.  He’s an author and organizational psychologist who studies “how to make work not suck.”

Worklife_Podcast

The March 29, 2020 episode features a brilliant discussion with couples therapist Esther Perel about relationships at work.  It called, strangely enough, Relationships at work with Esther Perel.

The two of them come at this topic from very different backgrounds and approaches, but that just makes for an even livelier discussion.  There were so many fascinating ideas and insights packed into this episode.  It left me feeling energized and exhilarated, like a runner’s high but without the sweat.

Adam Grant Esther Perel

Context

Adam Grant kicks of the discussion by asking if there are differences between work relationships and romantic or personal relationships.

Esther Perel answers that all relationships exist within a context — cultural, political, or socio-economic.  Actually, context is a recurring theme for her. Work relationships have a different context than romantic relationships, but they have many common elements.  All relationships come with boundaries and expectations especially around accountability, responsibility and communication.  Good relationships are built on a foundation of trust.  It’s the context that’s different.

Power

All relationships have a power element too.  That’s because relationships come with expectations, and expectations imply some level of dependency.  Dependency confers power on the other person.  But trust can neutralize that power, transform it from “power over” into “power to”.

I love this distinction: “power over” meaning domination and coercion, “power to” implying agency and tinfluence.

Power is a two-way street, it creates interdependence, Perel says.  In some ways the CEO is really the weakest person in any organization since they depend for success on the performance of everyone else in the hierarchy.  But, as Grant points out, CEOs have control over resources like salary, promotions, status, and ultimately, continued employment, so they of course have overriding power.

Trust

Grant and Perel agree that trust is intrinsic to all healthy relationships.  But what is trust?  Perel calls it a concept “swimming in vagueness.”  She quotes Rachel Botsman who defines trust as a “confident engagement with the unknown.”  (I reviewed Botsman’s book Who Can You Trust? about a year ago, here.).

Another definition, kind of poetic, is “Trust is a risk masquerading as a promise.”

This element of risk is critical.  Grant and Perel agree that trust implies a willingness to be vulnerable, and that implies taking a risk on the other person.

This leads to my favorite part of the podcast about how we develop the ability to trust in the first place.

Peek-a-boo!

You know the peek-a-boo game we all play with little children? The one where you put your hands over your eyes then quickly pull them away and call out “peek-a-boo!” The kids giggle with delight. Perel says this silly little game is played all over the world.  She calls it the universal foundation of trust.

At a certain age, around eight or nine months, children learn that objects continue to exist even when they’re out of sight.  A spoon falls off the child’s tray onto the floor. The child can’t see it.  For them, it ceases to exist until you bend down and pick it up.  Wow!  The spoon pops back into existence.  Then the child deliberately drops the spoon onto the floor and watches you pick it up.  Over and over again.  They’re not being annoying little rascals, they’re learning.  They’re learning something called “object constancy” or “object permanence”.

Peek-a-boo is object constancy for people.  It teaches children that people, especially their parents, continue to exist even when they’re out of sight.  It helps children overcome the fear of abandonment.  It is the foundation of trust.

As toddlers, children sit in your lap and then jump down into the world.  They venture a little bit away from you but frequently check back to see if you’re still there.  As they gain confidence in your continued presence they move a little farther.  Eventually, as young adults, they strike out on their own completely.  But it’s this basic trust that you’re still there, that you haven’t abandoned them, that provides the safety that enables them to confidently take risks, to learn and to grow.

Trust enables us to take risks in the workplace too, to take a new job that may or may not work out, or start a new project that may or may not succeed or to voice an opinion that may or may not be accepted.

And it all starts with peek-a-boo.

Autonomy vs. Loyalty

Perel asks the audience if they were raised for autonomy or loyalty.  Were the primary messages you received as a child telling you that you are fundamentally alone in the world, that you must be self-reliant?  Or did those messages tell you that you were never alone, that there were lots of people who could help you and likewise that you were obliged to help others?

Perel says the US is the Mecca of individualism and autonomy, but having been raised in Europe, and being the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, she herself knows that we depend on others.  We live in a communal structure.  There is no such thing as a self-made person.

Passion

Finally, Grant and Perel talk about passion at work. These days, we’re often told that passion should be our guiding compass in work and career, that we should follow our passion and seek out jobs where we feel intensity and engagement.  Only then can we do our best work.  Only then can we be fulfilled.

Perel points out that historically, passion at work was the privilege of artists and artisans.  Nobody ever felt passion about subsistence farming or working in a factory.

But today, we expect things from work that most of us used to get from religion and community; things like belonging, purpose and meaning.

“Never have we expected more from work,” she says.

Yet ironically, never have we been more transient.  We leave one job and move to the next after just two or three years, even jobs we were once passionate about.

Coming full circle, Perel warns that the quest for passion at work needs to be taken in context. Not everyone can afford to make self-centered decisions to follow their passion, especially when they have families who depend upon them for support.  Context matters.

There are some jobs, and some relationships that we wish we had left sooner, and some that we wish we had stayed longer.  This, she says, is the story of our lives.

 

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