The thoughts associuated with last week’s post continued to haunt me. It hung over my thoughts as I grappled with the whole concept of thankfulness for last week’s holiday. I know implicitly that I have a tremendous amont to be thankful for at both a personal and professional level. By all but the most generous standards, I am very lucky, certainly far better off than the vast, vast majority of humanity. Nonetheless, it is hard to shake the sense of missed opportunity and squandered potential. The USA is not a healthy country right now, and that fills me with a sadness.
With a system that is so dysfunctional most of what we can be thankful for is close to home. Things we used to take for granted, like freedom, and that your children had a better chance at a good life than you do are not secure any more. We have transformed into a society where corporate rights exceed personal or human rights, and there is little trust in any institution public or private. I wrote about the lack of trust in science last week and how it makes a scientists work both overly expensive and underly effective. It is a tragic situation.
Of course the Internet has a lot to do with it. Or at the very least the Internet has amplified many of the trends that were already apparent preceding its rise to societal prominence. In a sense the Internet is a giant communication magnifier, but also allows anonymous communication at a scale unimaginable. I am reminded of what Clay Shirky noted that we may be in the midst of huge reorganization of society similar to what happened after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Its a big deal, but not much fun to be part of. Anonymity can be a horrible thing if misused. We are seeing this in spades. You really can have too much information, or have it too unfiltered. Worse yet than a filter is the propaganda that spins almost everything we read toward some world-view. The money and talent is largely in the corporate camp, and we are being sold ideas they favor with a marketers talent for shaping our views.
Part of my inability to shake these ideas came in the form of a “longread” recommendation about the 40 year decline in the prospects of the American worker (http://prospect.org/article/40-year-slump) starting in 1974. After massive growth in equality in the years following World War II, it ended in 1974, and began the steady march toward today’s perverse levels of inequality. This was the same year as I had posited the beginning of the decline in trust for public institutions such as science. While some institutions such as science, research and government have lost the public’s trust, the corporation has become the centerpiece for society.
Stockholder return has become the benchmark for success. This has become a stark contrast to the actual health or long-term prospects for a company. Likewise, the government-funded research has become starkly risk adverse and commenserately short term focused. Society as a whole will suffer the effects of these twin pathologies. Neither public, nor private interests are investing in the future. Our infrastructure crumbles and no one even thinks of creating a 21st Century infrastructure because we can’t keep our 20th Century infrastructure healthy. R&D has become all development, and has to be attached to the bottom line preferably the next quarter. This progress adverse corporate principle is adopted whole-cloth by the government because of a faith-driven belief that the “market knows best” and business practice is inherently superior to other approaches. One might consider that such research would be application-mission oriented, but no it simply risk adverse and pursued because “success,” such as it is defined, is almost a sure thing.
In the process, the “1%” has risen to dizzying heights of wealth, largely through the decision making process where corporations invest far less capital in their futures and instead to pay massive dividends to their stockholders. The implications for science, and society are far reaching. Is there a connection? I think it is all part of the same thing. Any science that makes life difficult or complicated for a corporation is attacked because the profit motive and margin has become the sole measure of societal success. The human toll is massive and our society shows no mercy or thought for the suffering all this wealth accumulation is unleashing.
I am reminded about the problems of correlation being linked to causation, but the seeming coincidence in timing might be more meaningful. How are these two issues connected? I’m not sure, but I do think there is one. Perhaps science being an endeavour for the common good has lost favor because its benefits can be shared by all rather than a few. Everything that produces a shared benefit seems to be in decline and the entire society is being structured to serve the very top of the food chain. The wealthy have become apex predators in the human ecosystem, and seem have no qualm about “feeding” on the ever-expanding masses in poverty. The loss of trust powers the problem because of the unique nature of the American phyche and its devotion to the individual above all. Now we are transitioning to a view where the devotion is to the corporation (but really the rich who profit from the corporate “success”).
So these thems stretch across the expanse of years that define nearly my entire life, the mystery of how to leave something better for my children is unsolved. This is what really haunts me, and why I’m not as thankful as I would like to be.