Urban Studies

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Almost developing a driverless car isn’t nearly the same thing as perfecting a fully driverless one, that last two or three percent to be worked out making all the difference. Getting most of the way there is useful but not transformational. When autonomous has truly arrived it will impact environment, safety, economics, law and urban, suburban and rural life in myriad ways. 

Mary Barra just announced GM is deploying a new fleet of (almost) driverless vehicles for testing. Despite the bold headlines, that’s no so different than what other traditional automakers and Silicon Valley startups are doing, though the company is stressing that it’s uniquely positioned to mass-produce the cars once autonomous is a going concern–whenever that is. If money and talent are mainly what’s required, the industry has those factors covered. GM alone is spending $600 million annually on their division and is in the process of recruiting nearly 1,200 additional engineers.

While those are solid, well-paying positions, the lucky new hires endeavoring to remove human hands from the wheel will also, if successful, be disappearing millions of blue-collar jobs. That will make us richer in the aggregate but put undue pressure on segments of society, though as Nicholas Carr recently wrote, the promised AI-induced jobspocalypse has yet to materialize despite all the bold predictions. Has our “death” been greatly exaggerated or just deferred?

My best guess is that new tools, once envisioned, often take longer to perfect than we hope (or fear)–remember that Lillian Ross reported on VCRs and a Netflix-like service in 1970! The process, however, may speed ahead faster now than in the past because tools today are cheaper and more powerful. It’s probably more a question of whether we’ll produce an adequate array of new positions to replace the old ones and enable workers to educate and re-educate themselves to continually cope with shifting landscapes.

Two excerpts follow, the first about GM’s announcement, and the second concerning AI’s possible impact on the middle class.•


From Brent Snavely in USA Today:

LAKE ORION, Mich. — General Motors said Tuesday it has finished making 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt test vehicles, an achievement that the automaker says will help put it at the forefront of the race to develop and deploy autonomous cars.

CEO and Chairman Mary Barra said GM is the only automaker currently capable of mass-producing self-driving vehicles.

“The autonomous vehicles you see here today are purpose-built, self-driving test vehicles,” Barra said before several hundred employees gathered at the plant in Lake Orion, Mich., Tuesday. “The level of integration in these vehicles is on par with any of our production vehicles, and that is a great advantage. In fact, no other company today has the unique and necessary combination of technology, engineering and manufacturing ability to build autonomous vehicles at scale.”

The self-driving version of the Chevrolet Bolt is the second generation of vehicles capable of handling nearly all road situations on their own without driver intervention. They are equipped with the latest array of equipment, including cameras, radar, sensors and other hardware designed and built by GM and its suppliers.

The new version of the self-driving Bolts must still be driven with a person behind the wheel who is alert and ready to take control if necessary.•


From Cade Metz at Wired:

IN FEBRUARY 1975, a group of geneticists gathered in a tiny town on the central coast of California to decide if their work would bring about the end of the world. These researchers were just beginning to explore the science of genetic engineering, manipulating DNA to create organisms that didn’t exist in nature, and they were unsure how these techniques would affect the health of the planet and its people. So, they descended on a coastal retreat called Asilomar, a name that became synonymous with the guidelines they laid down at this meeting—a strict ethical framework meant to ensure that biotechnology didn’t unleash the apocalypse.

Forty-two years on, another group of scientists gathered at Asilomar to consider a similar problem. But this time, the threat wasn’t biological. It was digital. In January, the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers walked down the same beachside paths as they discussed their rapidly accelerating field and the role it will play in the fate of humanity. It was a private conference—the enormity of the subject deserves some privacy—but in recent days, organizers released several videos from the conference talks, and some participants have been willing to discuss their experience, shedding some light on the way AI researchers view the threat of their own field.

Yes, they discussed the possibility of a superintelligence that could somehow escape human control, and at the end of the month, the conference organizers unveiled a set of guidelines, signed by attendees and other AI luminaries, that aim to prevent this possible dystopia. But the researchers at Asilomar were also concerned with more immediate matters: the effect of AI on the economy.

“One of the reasons I don’t like the discussions about superintelligence is that they’re a distraction from what’s real,” says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, who attended the conference. “As the poet said, have fewer imaginary problems and more real ones.”

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the “hollowing out” of the middle class. The problem isn’t immigration—far from it. The problem isn’t offshoring or taxes or regulation. It’s technology.•

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Despite the robot apocalypse we’ve been promised, statistics don’t show an increase in productivity or decrease in employment. Many of the jobs recently created have been lesser ones, but even wages have shown some rise at times over the last year. Perhaps the decline of the American middle class over the last 50 years has been largely a political result rather than a technological one? It would be tough to convince people living in former manufacturing strongholds, but it may be so.

Three possible reasons the numbers don’t reveal a coming widespread technological unemployment:

  1. The numbers aren’t able to accurately capture the new automated economy. Doubtful.
  2. Automation may be overhyped for the moment the way computers or the Internet or smartphones originally were, but soon enough it will make a dent on society that will be felt deeply. Possible.
  3. The impact of automation will be gradual and manageable, improving society while not creating what Yuval Harari indelicately describes as a “useless class.” Possible.

In a Rough Type post, Nicholas Carr thinks machines may be depressing wages but have otherwise been overstated. An excerpt:

I’m convinced that computer automation is changing the way people work, often in profound ways, and I think it’s likely that automation is playing an important role in restraining wage growth by, among other things, deskilling certain occupations and reducing the bargaining power of workers. But the argument that computers are going to bring extreme unemployment in coming decades — an argument that was also popular in both the 1950s and the 1990s, it’s worth remembering — sounds increasingly dubious. It runs counter to the facts. Anyone making the argument today needs to provide a lucid and rational explanation of why, despite years of rapid advances in robotics, computer power, network connectivity, and artificial intelligence techniques, we have yet to see any sign of a broad loss of jobs in the economy.•

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Yawning wealth inequality breeds suspicion for haves and have-nots alike.

Many among today’s Silicon Valley super-rich and deep-pocketed folks are increasingly convinced U.S. society may collapse and are working accordingly on plans to allow them to ride out the storm. Escaping an American nightmare isn’t just for Peter Thiel anymore, as some of his peers are purchasing wooded acreage, stocking up on gold coins and learning survival skills. Prepping 2.0 is for the money makers more than the Jim Bakkers.

What could be spooking them so? We now have more guns than people, traditional institutions are under siege, wealth inequality is spiraling out of control, political polarization has reached its zenith, climate change is worsening, a seeming sociopath is in the White House and tens of millions of citizens are looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Doesn’t sound like a menu for a Sunday picnic.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Evan Osnos reported on the financial elite readying themselves for the big withdrawal. One retired financial-industry lobbyist told him: “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution.”

In 1905, when New York City had nearly a thousand millionaires, seemingly everyone wanted to part them from their money. Cranks would frequently write a jaw-dropping number on a piece of scrap paper and expectantly hand it to a bank teller, believing it was a sure thing. They were escorted from the building–and often sent to Bellevue. But in the waning days of the Gilded Age, some took things a step further, paying unannounced visits to the well-to-do in their mansions. The deep-pocketed were shaken, and precautions were taken, which included cannons, howitzers and fatal electric shocks.

From an article in the November 12, 1905 New York Times:

…The Morosini mansion at Riverdale-on-the-Hudson is equipped with very extraordinary and picturesque apparatus as a proof against burglars and other unwelcome visitors. Several small-bore cannon and sundry howitzers are planted around the house, each piece of ordinance being connected with the house by an electric wire.

Whenever occasion demands, a button may be pressed inside the mansion, and any one or all of the cannon can be fired off. In addition to this novel safeguard the grounds surrounding the mansion can be illuminated by means of electric bulbs scattered thickly among the trees and shrubbery.

Recently there was occasion one night for the police to answer a call from the Morosini mansion, two servants having become obstreperous. As the vehicle containing two officers from the King’s Bridge Station passed through the gate, the lawn for a hundred feet about suddenly burst into light. Adjacent trees glowed with a hundred dazzling flashes. Surprised, the officers came to an abrupt halt. But presently continuing on toward the house, every foot of the way was similarly illuminated, lights budding everywhere, making the grounds almost as brilliant as day. During a subsequent survey of the premises the police learned that all the windows on the ground floor were connected with heavily charged electric wires. When the family retires a switch is turned on, and any one attempting to open a window from the outside is apt to be fatally shocked.•

Epochs pass, cultures rise and fall, but if they do so between a telephone call and the reply, they can cause a shock to the system of individuals and societies that are difficult to withstand.

Despite the racist scapegoating of the recent Presidential election, most jobs that have been disappeared from Middle America’s manufacturing sector have vanished into the zeros and ones of automation rather than through offshoring. Many have puzzled over why this transition hasn’t resulted in a productivity spike. Is there not enough demand because of the decline of wages? Is there another inscrutable reason? 

Tough to say, but while economists are working out the fine points, more jobs, and even industries, will be placed in robotic hands, and the pace of the changeover will quicken as the tools become more powerful. If the process happens too rapidly, however, the driverless cars will handle smoothly but our ride will be bumpy. In an Atlantic article by Alana Samuels about the regions of America most likely to be upended by algorithms in the near term, there’s this harrowing passage:

Previously, automation had hurt middle-class jobs such as those in manufacturing. Now, it’s coming for the lower-income jobs. When those jobs disappear, an entire group of less-educated workers who already weren’t making very much money will be out of work. [Johannes] Moenius worries about the possibility of entire regions in which low earners are competing for increasingly scarce jobs. “I wasn’t in L.A. when the riots happened, but are we worried about this from a social perspective?” he said. “Not for tomorrow, but for 10 years from now? It’s quite frankly frightening.”•

That’s a particularly dystopic view, and maybe technological progress will be slower than expected, but sooner or later, we’ll be forced to change our focus as we’re relieved of our traditional duties. As Kevin Kelly says: “We’re constantly redefining what humans are here for.”

In a clever Guardian essay, Yuval Noah Harari wonders about the future of the post-work “useless class.” In the piece, the historian tries to divine what we’ll be using our wetware for should intelligent machines permanently displace a wide swath of the citizenry. He believes we’ll subsist on Universal Basic Income and occupy ourselves playing video games enhanced by VR and AR. An endless, mass participation version of Pokémon Go, would be, god forbid, the new religion, though Harari is contrarian in believing it won’t be much different from the life we already know.

Hundreds of millions already spend countless, unpaid hours creating free content for Facebook, so I suppose his vision is possible if not plausible. Either way, let’s hope tomorrow will involve more than Taylor Swift and an Oculus Rift.

The opening:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. Many new professions are likely to appear: virtual-world designers, for example. But such professions will probably require more creativity and flexibility, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old unemployed taxi drivers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if the ex-insurance agent somehow makes the transition into a virtual-world designer, the pace of progress is such that within another decade he might have to reinvent himself yet again.

The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

The same technology that renders humans useless might also make it feasible to feed and support the unemployable masses through some scheme of universal basic income. The real problem will then be to keep the masses occupied and content. People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day?

One answer might be computer games. Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside. This, in fact, is a very old solution. For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions.”

What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together?•

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Steve Wozniak’s views have evolved quickly in regards to the existential threat of intelligent machines. In early 2015, he told the Australian Financial Review that “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.” The future is “very bad for people,” he warned. Just a few months later, Homo sapiens received an upgrade from the Apple co-founder, who said AI would keep us around as “family pets,” even if they were making all the crucial decisions.

Two years on, Wozniak has learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. On Monday, he said this on CNBC: “I’ve totally changed my mind — We aren’t talking about artificial intelligence that sits down and says, ‘What is my life in the world? What do I have as obstacles? How do I solve them? What should I solve?’,” Wozniak said. “Only humans do that.”

Well, that’s a relief. In the same week, I successfully filed my taxes and found out my species wasn’t doomed. Nice.

The Woz granted an interview to USA Today in advance of this weekend’s Silicon Valley Comic Con, with it’s forward-thinking theme: “The Future of Humanity: Where Will We Be in 2075?”  In that year, the computer programmer believes Apple, Facebook and Google and will be even bigger and more formidable corporations and cities will sprout up in heretofore uninhabitable deserts. Neither seems plausible.

An excerpt:

Woz shared some other predictions on what type of planet we can expect in 2075:

New cities. Deserts could be ideal locations for cities of the future, designed and built from scratch, according to Wozniak. There, housing problems will not exist and people will shuttle among domed structures. Special wearable suits will allow people to venture outside, he said.

— The influence of artificial intelligence. Within all cities, AI will be ubiquitous, Wozniak says. Like a scene straight from the movie Minority Report, consumers will interact with smart walls and other surfaces to shop, communicate and be entertained. Medical devices will enable self-diagnosis and doctor-free prescriptions, he says. “The question will be ethical, on whether we can eliminate the need for physicians,” he says.

— Mars colony. Woz is convinced a colony will exist on the Red Planet. Echoing the sentiments of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin start-up has designs on traveling to Mars, Wozniak envisions Earth zoned for residential use and Mars for heavy industry.

— Extraterrestrials. With apologies to those who believe in aliens, Wozniak says there is a “random chance” that Earthlings will communicate with another race. “It’s worth trying,” he says, “but I don’t have high hopes.”•

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If you believe driverless cars won’t soon impact humans who have jobs behind the wheel, a valid argument would be that you think the technology will take considerably longer to implement than expected. You may not wind up being correct, but it’s a rational stance.

Making a case, though, that robocars won’t supplant taxi, bus, limo and delivery drivers because humans possess priceless intangibles is wrong-minded, with a couple of exceptions. Some in the future may desire a human driver as an expensive luxury item, a status symbol, the way a few among us still purchase hand-made shoes. And elderly passengers might need a helping hand into and out of a vehicle, which could require a human helper, even if that person isn’t doubling as the driver. A graying population almost demands such a service.

Plenty of analysts have fallen into what I believe is a trap by trying to apply the example of the persistence of human and freestyle chess in the aftermath of Deep Blue to all fields. Let’s remember that even though a few souls are employed in the chess field, it’s mostly just a leisure game, not a business looking to eliminate costs. While a human paired with a computer may currently be the team to beat, that’s likely just a transitional phase, with people ending up on the losing end of the board. Driverless cars, once perfected, will likewise kick us to the curb.

From Lisa Eadicicco of Time:

Rachel Bolles, who’s been driving for Uber in the Columbus, Ohio area for just over a year, says her job is about much more than getting passengers from A to B. “I consider myself part nanny, part chauffeur,” she says. “A lot of these people just need someone to talk to.”

That was more true than ever when Bolles picked up a distraught customer coping with the death of his girlfriend’s father. Having recently lost her own father, Bolles empathized and offered advice during the trip. “It was one of those rides you walk away from feeling really good,” she says.

But many observers argue that the approximately 4.5 million Americans who work as professional drivers in the U.S. are at risk of being replaced by self-driving vehicles. Once a far-flung fantasy, the technology is inching closer to reality every day. …

Despite self-driving vehicles’ impressive progress, neither Bolles nor any of the half-dozen other rideshare drivers TIME interviewed expressed fear of losing their job to a robotic car any time soon. Some envision themselves working in a different field by the time self-driving technology is ready for primetime, which will likely take several years at least. (Workers, after all, tend to be short-term thinkers.) Others believe the tech may complement, but not completely replace, human drivers. “There’s a lot more to driving than not running into another car,” said Kat Ellery, who also drives for Uber and Lyft in Columbus. “There are a lot of idiosyncrasies that [self-driving cars] can’t account for.”•

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Fascinating article by the New York Times Technology section detailing how Uber and other Gig Economy giants are employing behavioral science to subtlely manipulate their workers into acting in the best interests of the companies. As the piece says: “Most of this happens without giving off a whiff of coercion.”

Businesses have forever tried to nudge consumers into buying their products, whether though legitimate means or the unethical kind (e.g., subliminal advertising), but using Digital Age tools to stealthily treat employees like lab rats is an altogether different thing. The “freedom” promised to contractors who toil in the piecemeal workforce isn’t really quite so free, and there are broader implications for the future.

An excerpt:

Even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth — an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research.

Uber’s innovations reflect the changing ways companies are managing workers amid the rise of the freelance-based “gig economy.” Its drivers are officially independent business owners rather than traditional employees with set schedules. This allows Uber to minimize labor costs, but means it cannot compel drivers to show up at a specific place and time. And this lack of control can wreak havoc on a service whose goal is to seamlessly transport passengers whenever and wherever they want.

Uber helps solve this fundamental problem by using psychological inducements and other techniques unearthed by social science to influence when, where and how long drivers work. It’s a quest for a perfectly efficient system: a balance between rider demand and driver supply at the lowest cost to passengers and the company.

Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists, Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and noncash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder — and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them.•

The Quartz “Daily Brief” newsletter referred me to “Cars and Second Order Consequences,” a smart Benedict Evans post that tries to anticipate changes beyond the obvious that will be wrought by EVs and driverless. There’s plenty of good stuff on the fate of gas stations, mass transportation and city living when on-demand rides become the new normal.

What really caught my eye, though, was the final idea in the piece, in which Evans imagines how these rolling computers with unblinking vision will change policing. He focuses only on how it will be a boon for law enforcement, but this non-stop surveillance, a totalitarian dream, can easily be abused by governments, corporations and hackers. Let’s recall that a panopticon is a prison building designed to allow all inmates to be observed at all times. There’s no opting out.

An excerpt:

Finally, remember the cameras. Pretty much every vision of automatic cars involves them using HD, 360 degree computer vision. That means that every AV will be watching everything that goes on around it – even the things that are not related to driving. An autonomous car is a moving panopticon. They might not be saving and uploading every part of that data. But they could be. 

By implication, in 2030 or so, police investigating a crime won’t just get copies of the CCTV from surrounding properties, but get copies of the sensor data from every car that happened to be passing, and then run facial recognition scans against known offenders. Or, perhaps, just ask if any car in the area thought it saw something suspicious.•

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Megan McArdle seems like a basically decent person, but she’s spent much time railing against the Affordable Care Act which has helped my family and friends immeasurably. She has the privilege of worrying about “innovation” when others are fixated on that not-dying thing. Must be nice.

The Libertarian columnist recently went looking for the American Dream in Utah, a state that’s done a commendable job in combating homelessness and other social ills, though it must be noted that it’s whiter and more patriarchal than a Freedom Caucus meeting about maternity leave.

The role of the Mormon Church is clearly paramount in enabling a higher-than-usual upward mobility for the impoverished, and that aspect is clearly not replicable in other quarters of the country unless a large number of Midwesterners who’ve taken Broadway vacations to catch The Book of Mormon have had an epiphany. 

Worse yet, a scary number of Christians seem to have turned away from their charitable roots, not at all asking, “What would Jesus do?” In the recent Presidential election, Christianity was often a euphemism for white supremacy. Maybe that’s because many who identify with the faith have stopped attending church or perhaps the American strain of the religion is so embedded with prejudice that it’s incompatible with true equality.

Christian politicians are often are even worse when it comes to tending to the poor, pushing punishing policies trained on hurting those who have the least, creating a prison state and denying minorities of voting rights. They simply don’t want poorer citizens, especially non-white ones, to thrive, and there’s no moral equivalency in this regard between conservatives and liberals. For many, power trumps church teachings: Mike Pence was very eager to strike a deal with the devil, while Mike Huckabee has gleefully defended Trump’s incessant outrages.

There’s good stuff from McArdle about Utah’s social services programs, the role of volunteerism and the promotion of self-reliance, but she comes away only moderately hopeful that the Salt Lake miracle can be duplicated elsewhere in the U.S. Of course, if you’re a Libertarian who doesn’t really like government very much, there’s no other conclusion to be drawn. If Obamacare really helped your loved ones, however, you might feel differently.

An excerpt:

“Big government” does not appear to have been key to Utah’s income mobility. From 1977 to 2005, when the kids in Chetty et al’s data were growing up, the Rockefeller Institute ranks it near the bottom in state “fiscal capacity.” The state has not invested a lot in fighting poverty, nor on schools; Utah is dead last in per-pupil education spending. This should at least give pause to those who view educational programs as the natural path to economic mobility.

But “laissez faire” isn’t the answer either. Utah is a deep red state, but its conservatism is notably compassionate, thanks in part to the Mormon Church. Its politicians, like Senator Mike Lee, led the way in rejecting Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. And the state is currently engaged in a major initiative on intergenerational poverty. The bill that kicked it off passed the state’s Republican legislature unanimously, and the lieutenant governor has been its public face.

This follows what you might call the state’s “war on homelessness” — a war that has been largely victorious, with most of the state’s homeless resettled in permanent housing through a focus on “Housing First.” That means getting people into permanent shelter before trying to diagnose and address the problems that contributed to their homelessness, like mental illness and substance abuse.

This approach can be cheaper than the previous regime, in which too many individuals ended up in emergency rooms or temporary shelter seeking expensive help for urgent crises. But Housing First runs into fierce emotional resistance in many quarters, because it smacks too much of rewarding people for self-destructive behaviors. Utah’s brand of conservatism overcame that, in part because the Mormon Church supported it.

That’s the thing about the government here. It is not big, but it’s also not … bad.•

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Recently, I posted about Jack Healy’s excellent New York Times article about the Winemiller farming family in Ohio’s Clermont County, which boasts a low 4.1% unemployment rate. The parents have already lost two of three adult children to heroin overdoses, with the third one battling to beat the same poison. The father is a staunch Trump supporter, drawn by his tough-on-crime talk, hoping someone, anyone, can capture and kill the demons that has run over his life. The faith is misplaced, but grief can sometimes harden into vengeance.

Such demises can be categorized in Case-Deaton terms as “deaths of despair.” The husband-and-wife economists offered, in 2015, a shocking report about the sharp spike in mortality for white, middle-aged Americans, especially those who possess a high-school-or-less education. The epidemic seems driven by suicide, alcohol, opioids and obesity, self-destructive behaviors associated with hopelessness, dysfunction and poor childhood training. Deaton even compared the findings to the scourge of AIDS. The paper was published, appropriately, on December 8, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Economics is certainly partly to blame for the steep decline of those in this demographic, though the full picture is far more complicated. In a follow-up paper, the economists write that the “story is rooted in the labor market, but involves many aspects of life, including health in childhood, marriage, child rearing, and religion.” The duo stresses the importance of dealing with the opioid problem but promise no quick fix for what’s a deeply entrenched disaster. Somehow we need to break free from our often-myopic politics to address these troubles, staying the course over long term. As Case and Deaton write: “The epidemic will not be easily or quickly reversed by policy.”

An excerpt: 

Taking all of the evidence together, we find it hard to sustain the income-based explanation. For white non-Hispanics, the story can be told, especially for those aged 50–54, and for the difference between them and the elderly, but we are left with no explanation for why Blacks and Hispanics are doing so well, nor for the divergence in mortality between college and high-school graduates, whose mortality rates are not just diverging, but going in opposite directions. Nor does the European experience provide support, because the mortality trends show no signs of the Great Recession in spite of its marked effects on household median incomes in some countries but not in others.

It is possible that it is not the last 20 years that matters, but rather that the long-run stagnation in wages and in incomes has bred a sense of hopelessness. But Figure 2.4 shows that, even if we go back to the late 1960s, the ethnic and racial patterns of median family incomes are similar for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, and so can provide no basis for their sharply different mortality outcomes after 1998.

There is a microeconomic literature on health determinants that shows that those with higher incomes have lower mortality rates and higher life expectancy, see National Academy of Sciences (2015) and Chetty et al (2016) for a recent large-scale study for the US. Income is correlated with many other relevant outcomes, particularly education, though there are careful studies, such as Elo and Preston (1996), that find separately protective effects of income and education, even when both are allowed for together with controls for age, geography, and ethnicity. These studies attempt to control for the obviously  important reverse effect of health on income by excluding those who are not in the labor force due to long-term physical or mental illness, or by not using income in the period(s) prior to death. Even so, there are likely also effects that are not eliminated in this way, for example, that operate through insults in childhood that impair both adult earnings and adult health. Nevertheless, it seems likely that income is protective of health, at least to some extent, even if it is overstated in the literature that does not allow for other factors.•

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All manner of largef-than-life 19th-century Americans struggled financially in that century despite their great celebrity. P.T. Barnum lost everything. Edgar Allen Poe never had anything. Mathew Brady was turned away from easy street despite having in his possession the photographic history of the Civil War.

Thomas Nast suffered a similar fate. As Poe was to the short story, Nast was to the political cartoon: The father, more or less, of the U.S. version of an enduring genre that has survived numerous technological and media shifts. He was wildly influential into the 1880s, credited in the previous decade with helping to bring down the corrupt Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cohorts, as well as responsible for creating the Republican elephant symbol and the popular visual concept of Santa Claus. Nast was ahead of his time as an abolitionist and integrationist, though he wasn’t perfect in regards to race and ethnicity, repeatedly displaying in his drawings a fervent anti-Irish strain, for whatever reason.

Despite wide renown and handsome paydays, Tweed went broke in 1884 after investing his wealth in a brokerage firm operated by a swindler. He never really recovered. By the time of his death in 1902, the artist was referred to as “once famous” and, having been forced to push his pencil aside, was employed as Consul General to Ecuador, essentially a gift position from President Roosevelt, a longtime fan of his work.

The cartoonist’s death from yellow fever was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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From the February 21, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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When it comes to technology, promises often sound like threats. 

In a very smart Edge piece, Chris Anderson, the former Wired EIC who’s now CEO of 3DRobotics, holds forth on closed-loop systems, which allow for processes to be monitored, measured and corrected–even self-corrected. As every object becomes “smart,” they can collect information about themselves, their users and their surroundings. In many ways, these feedback loops will be a boon, allowing (potentially) for smoother maintenance, a better use of resources and a cleaner environment. But the new arrangement won’t all be good.

The question Anderson posed which I used as the headline makes it sound like we’ll be able to control where such technology snakes, but I don’t think that’s true. It won’t get out of hand in a sci-fi thriller sense but in very quiet, almost imperceptible ways. There will hardly be a hum. 

At any rate, Anderson’s story of how he built a drone company from scratch, first with the help of his children and then a 19-year-old kid with no college background from Tijuana, is amazing and a great lesson in globalized economics.

From Edge:

If we could measure the world, how would we manage it differently? This is a question we’ve been asking ourselves in the digital realm since the birth of the Internet. Our digital lives—clicks, histories, and cookies—can now be measured beautifully. The feedback loop is complete; it’s called closing the loop. As you know, we can only manage what we can measure. We’re now measuring on-screen activity beautifully, but most of the world is not on screens.                                 

As we get better and better at measuring the world—wearables, Internet of Things, cars, satellites, drones, sensors—we are going to be able to close the loop in industry, agriculture, and the environment. We’re going to start to find out what the consequences of our actions are and, presumably, we’ll take smarter actions as a result. This journey with the Internet that we started more than twenty years ago is now extending to the physical world. Every industry is going to have to ask the same questions: What do we want to measure? What do we do with that data? How can we manage things differently once we have that data? This notion of closing the loop everywhere is perhaps the biggest endeavor of our age.                                 

Closing the loop is a phrase used in robotics. Open-loop systems are when you take an action and you can’t measure the results—there’s no feedback. Closed-loop systems are when you take an action, you measure the results, and you change your action accordingly. Systems with closed loops have feedback loops; they self-adjust and quickly stabilize in optimal conditions. Systems with open loops overshoot; they miss it entirely. …

I use the phrase closing the loop because that’s the phrase we use in robotics. Other people might use the phrase big data. Before they called it big data, they called it data mining. Remember that? That was nuts. Anyway, we’re going to come up with a new word for it.                                 

It goes both ways: The tendrils of the Internet reach out through sensors, and then these sensors feed back to the Internet. The sensors get smarter because they’re connected to the Internet, and the Internet gets smarter because it’s connected to the sensors. This feedback loop extends beyond the industry that’s feeding back to the meta-industry, which is the Internet and the planet.•

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Economist Tyler Cowen just did a fun Ask Me Anything at Reddit, discussing driverless cars, the Hyperloop, wealth redistribution, Universal Basic Income, the American Dream, etc.

Cowen also discusses Peter Thiel’s role in the Trump Administration, though his opinion seems too coy. We’re not talking about someone who just so happens to work for a “flawed” Administration but a serious supporter of a deeply racist campaign to elect a wholly unqualified President and empower a cadre of Breitbart bigots. Trump owns the mess he’s creating, but Thiel does also. The most hopeful thing you can say about the Silicon Valley billionaire, who was also sure there were WMDs in Iraq, is that outside of his realm he has no idea what he’s doing. The least hopeful is that he’s just not a good person.

A few exchanges follow.


Question:

What is an issue or concept in economics that you wish were easier to explain so that it would be given more attention by the public?

Tyler Cowen:

The idea that a sound polity has to be based on ideas other than just redistribution of wealth.


Question:

What do you think about Peter Thiel’s relationship with President Trump?

Tyler Cowen:

I haven’t seen Peter since his time with Trump. I am not myself a Trump supporter, but wish to reserve judgment until I know more about Peter’s role. I am not in general opposed to the idea of people working with administrations that may have serious flaws.


Question:

In a recent article by you, you spoke about who in the US was experiencing the American Dream, finding evidence that the Dream is still alive and thriving for Hispanics in the U.S. What challenges do you perceive now with the new Administration that might reduce the prospects for this group?

Tyler Cowen:

Breaking up families, general feeling of hostility, possibly damaging the economy of Mexico and relations with them. All bad trends. I am hoping the strong and loving ties across the people themselves will outweigh that. We will see, but on this I am cautiously optimistic.


Question:

Do you think convenience apps like Amazon grocery make us more complacent?

Tyler Cowen:

Anything shipped to your home — worry! Getting out and about is these days underrated. Serendipitous discovery and the like. Confronting the physical spaces we have built, and, eventually, demanding improvements in them.


Question:

Given that universal basic income or similar scheme will become necessity after large scale automation kicks in, will these arguments about fiscal and budgetary crisis still hold true?

And with self driving cars and tech like Hyperloop, wouldn’t the rents in the cities go down?

Tyler Cowen:

Driverless cars are still quite a while away in their most potent form, as that requires redoing the whole infrastructure. But so far I see location only becoming more important, even in light of tech developments, such as the internet, that were supposed to make it less important. It is hard for me to see how a country with so many immigrants will tolerate a UBI. I think that idea is for Denmark and New Zealand, I don’t see it happening in the United States. Plus it can cost a lot too. So the arguments about fiscal crisis I think still hold.


Question:

What is the most underrated city in the US? In the world?

Tyler Cowen:

Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world, just love driving around it, seeing the scenery, eating there. I still miss living in the area.


Question:

I am a single guy. Can learning economics help me find a girlfriend?

Tyler Cowen:

No, it will hurt you. Run the other way!•

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Rebuilding the world has to rank at the top of economic low-hanging fruit of the last century. America, its forces marshaled, played a leading role in piecing together the shattered globe in the wake of WWII. Yes, four decades of unfortunate tax rates, globalization, automation and the demise of unions have all abetted the decline of the U.S. middle class, but just as true is that the good times simply ended, the job completed (more or less), the outlier ran headlong into entropy. The contents of this half-empty glass finally spilled all over the world in 2016, provoking outrageously regressive political shifts, with perhaps more states becoming submerged this year.

As An Extraordinary Time author Marc Levinson wrote in 2016 in the Wall Street Journal: “The quarter-century from 1948 to 1973 was the most striking stretch of economic advance in human history. In the span of a single generation, hundreds of millions of people were lifted from penury to unimagined riches.” In “End of a Golden Age,” an Aeon essay, the economist and journalist further argues the global circumstances of the postwar era were a one-time-only opportunity for runaway productivity, a fortunate arrangement of stars likely to never align again.

Well, never is an extremely long stretch (we hope), but the economic-growth-rate promises brought to the trail by Sanders and Trump, which have made it to the White House with the unfortunate election of the latter candidate, were at best fanciful, though delusional might also be a fair assessment. If I had to guess, I would say someday we’ll see tremendous growth again, but when that happens and what precipitates it, I don’t know. Nobody really does.

An excerpt:

When it comes to influencing innovation, governments have power. Grants for scientific research and education, and policies that make it easy for new firms to grow, can speed the development of new ideas. But what matters for productivity is not the number of innovations, but the rate at which innovations affect the economy – something almost totally beyond the ability of governments to control. Turning innovative ideas into economically valuable products and services can involve years of trial and error. Many of the basic technologies behind mobile telephones were developed in the 1960s and ’70s, but mobile phones came into widespread use only in the 1990s. Often, a new technology is phased in only over time as old buildings and equipment are phased out. Moreover, for reasons no one fully understands, productivity growth and innovation seem to move in long cycles. In the US, for example, between the 1920s and 1973, innovation brought strong productivity growth. Between 1973 and 1995, it brought much less. The years between 1995 and 2003 saw high productivity gains, and then again considerably less thereafter.

When the surge in productivity following the Second World War tailed off, people around the globe felt the pain. At the time, it appeared that a few countries – France and Italy for a few years in the late 1970s, Japan in the second half of the ’80s – had discovered formulas allowing them to defy the downward global productivity trend. But their economies revived only briefly before productivity growth waned. Jobs soon became scarce again, and improvements in living standards came more slowly. The poor productivity growth of the late 1990s was not due to taxes, regulations or other government policies in any particular country, but to global trends. No country escaped them.

Unlike the innovations of the 1950s and ’60s, which were welcomed widely, those of the late 20th century had costly side effects. While information technology, communications and freight transportation became cheaper and more reliable, giant industrial complexes became dinosaurs as work could be distributed widely to take advantage of labour supplies, transportation facilities or government subsidies. Workers whose jobs were relocated found that their years of experience and training were of little value in other industries, and communities that lost major employers fell into decay. Meanwhile, the welfare state on which they had come to rely began to deteriorate, its financial underpinnings stressed due to the slow growth of tax revenue in economies that were no longer buoyant. The widespread sharing in the mid-century boom was not repeated in the productivity gains at the end of the century, which accumulated at the top of the income scale.

For much of the world, the Golden Age brought extraordinary prosperity. But it also brought unrealistic expectations about what governments can do to assure full employment, steady economic growth and rising living standards. These expectations still shape political life today.•

Futurist Thomas Frey has published “25 Shocking Predictions about the Coming Driverless Car Era in the U.S.,” a Linkedin article which envisions a time in the near future when almost all vehicles are autonomous and individual ownership has become a thing of the past.

Of course the idea that driverless will be imminently perfected and come to dominate the streets, roads and highways in, say, the next 15 years, is the most stunning of all prognostications and certainly not a sure thing. Technological and legislative hurdles most be surmounted and those unpredictable humans must be willing to let go of the wheel, if Frey’s “explosive transformation” is to proceed.

It’s certainly not impossible. Think of the monumental changes the Internet has brought in its 20+ years of wide usage and the way smartphones have rearranged life in only a decade. Driverless may do the same or perhaps we’ll all be talking when we’re old and gray about how the revolution never quite arrived.

If it does materialize, one big headache in addition to the jobs that will be shed too quickly for society to absorb is that we’ll rest inside surveillance devices while surveillance devices rest inside our pockets. We’ll be too deep inside the machine to ever extricate ourselves.

The opening two items:

1.) Life expectancy of autonomous vehicles will be less than 1 year

I’ve been doing some math on driverless cars and came to the startling conclusion that autonomous cars will wear out in as little as 9-10 months.

Yes, car speeds will be slower in the beginning, but within ten years as speeds increase and cars begin to average 60-70 mph on open freeways, a single car could easily average 1,000 miles a day.

Over a 10-month period, a single car could travel as much as 300,000 miles.

Cars today are only in use 4% of the day, less than an hour a day. An electric autonomous vehicle could be operating as much as 20 hours a day or 21 times as much as the average car today.

For an electric autonomous vehicle operating 24/7, that still leaves plenty of time for recharging, cleaning, and maintenance.

It’s too early to know what the actual life expectancy of these vehicles will be, but it’s a pretty safe assumption that it will be far less than the 11.5 years cars are averaging today.

2.) One Autonomous Car will Replace 30 Traditional Cars

2028-2030 will be the years of peak messiness for the driverless car revolution. The number of autonomous vehicles will grow quickly but they will be intermingled with traditional driver-cars.

Drivers bring with them a hard-to-quantify human variable, and that’s what makes driving today such problem-riddled experience.

There are roughly 258 million registered cars in the U.S. and replacing them will be a long drawn out process. But here’s what most people don’t understand. One autonomous vehicle that we can be summoned from a local fleet will replace 30 traditional cars.

For a city of 2 million people, a fleet of 30,000 autonomous vehicles will displace 50% of peak commuter traffic.**

During off-peak times, 30,000 autonomous vehicles will handle virtually all other transportation needs. Peak traffic times that will be the hardest to manage.•

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The problem with pointing out that the Trump Administration wants to severely shift focus on Muslims involved in terrorism to the point of ignoring domestic radical right-wing and anti-government groups is that it’s not an oversight.

These are some of the very people, often white nationalists, who most ardently supported Trump’s bigoted campaign, and it’s not likely that the self-avowed tough-on-crime politician will turn on these militias. That will put law enforcement officers, government officials and non-white folks in general in harm’s way. Perhaps an outcry from police groups can bring greater light on what could be a lethal decision?

From an article by Emily Tamkin, Robbie Gramer and Molly O’Toole of Foreign Policy:

Such a shift would also downplay the threat from other forms of terrorism. Far-right and anti-government groups plan and carry out domestic attacks at a greater frequency than foreign terrorist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focused on advocacy and civil rights. There are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States, such as the Crusaders, which counts among its membership three men in Kansas who plotted in October 2016 to bomb an apartment complex where Somalis live. The SPLC noted an increase in hate crimes in the month following Trump’s election.

And since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anti-government groups have racked up a death toll on par with that of Islamist extremists, according to New America, a think tank, which keeps a database on terrorist incidents. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, in which a New York man pledging allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people, far-right extremism caused more deaths in the United States than did jihad.

“The trend lines look very similar,” David Sterman, a terrorism analyst with New America, told FP.

According to a 2015 survey of nearly 400 law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, authorities considered anti-government violent extremists, rather than radicalized Muslims, to be “the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”

And that threat may be growing. The former U.S. counterterrorism official said recent intelligence briefings showed an uptick in domestic threats associated with white nationalists and anti-government groups. Police officers are being threatened by these groups as well, the official said — and are even being infiltrated by them, according to a classified FBI counterterrorism policy guide from April 2015.•

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From the September 2, 1938 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

From the September 4, 1938 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI halftime performance was dubbed “apolitical” by many news outlets, though that’s an odd way to describe a singer interrupting Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” for a blast of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the latter being an angry retort to the former. From Murray Kempton in 1981:

Woody Guthrie had composed “This Land Is Your Land” as a bitter parody of “God Bless America.” It had originally closed with the stanza:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief office I saw my people
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.•

• • •

The Dustbowl was central to the songwriter’s sardonic bite, but Guthrie had some dalliances with the un-Oklahoma of New York City beginning in 1940, which resulted in the two articles below published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The first looks at Guthrie’s involvement in It’s All Yours, an anti-Fascist, anti-Hitler musical drama performed in 1942 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was co-directed by singer-songwriter Earl Robinson as the piece says, but what goes unmentioned is that the other director was Nicholas Ray, who would begin his big-time Hollywood career a half-dozen years later. In the second article, Guthrie brings his dirty boots to the home of etiquette expert (and erstwhile Staten Island Advance reporter) Amy Vanderbilt to celebrate the publication of Bound For Glory. As Charles B. Driscoll writes in the second piece: “Woody isn’t Phi Beta Kappa, but he knows a lot that they don’t teach in schools.”

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From October 5, 1942:

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From April 5, 1943:

Smartphone-enabled rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft are disruptors that provide greater convenience and information but also kill steady, secure jobs and place people deeper inside a surveillance machine. The thing is, nothing seems more prone to disruption than these businesses themselves. I’ve already mentioned how the emergence of driverless cars could make possible an ownerless and growing fleet of taxis. But why wait for autonomous, with its imprecise start date?

LibreTaxi is an app that removes the middleman, letting the fare and driver do cash (and, soon, Bitcoin) business directly. Roman Pushkin’s brainchild actually wasn’t designed to compete with the Kalanicks, instead aiming at rural and out-of-the-way locales that Uber and others do not service and likely never will. But it has begun creeping into urban areas, and some other similar apps to come will be aimed directly at the behemoths. 

Below is the opening of Pushkin’s recent Medium essay and a few exchanges from a Q&A he did with Bitcoinist.


From Medium:

Uber, a company evaluated at $60B, will unlikely go to remote Siberian region where I was born. About 1000 people still live there. It’s not far from Russian Silicon Valley — Academgorodok in Novosibirsk, only 80 miles. But there is no road to such villages: deepest forest, Taiga, and the river. It takes about 2 days to get there by boat.

Sometimes I think that nobody understands remote regions better than me. And I don’t mean Russia only. I lived in 10 countries before I settled down in San Francisco Bay Area. I found that problems in Russian remote regions are very similar to problems Indian/Nepali remote regions have. And I expect they are the same somewhere outside of big cities in South Africa, China, Latin America and Middle East.

I remember when I visited my relatives in Siberia ~10 years ago, and explained them how cellphone works. They never heard about that and now they are lucky to have their own cell tower. Now they have few computers, mobile phones, internet connection. They use motorbikes to get to the same villages around in summer, and use special light vehicles to do the same in winter time. But with all of the technology available they’re still struggling with problems western civilization solved already.

To my surprise, when I visited my native village 2 years ago, nobody knew what Uber is.•


From Bitcoinist:

Question:

What is LibreTaxi?

Roman Pushkin:

It’s free alternative for Uber, Lyft, etc. It doesn’t compete with these companies directly. I made it for a remote area where I was born and found that people around the world like it. Uber probably won’t go to remote and rural areas, so LibreTaxi is perfect for that.

Question:

What problem does LibreTaxi solve?

Roman Pushkin:

People need a ridesharing service in remote and rural areas where big companies will never go. At least I started with this idea in mind. Now I see how people are starting to use it in some cities as an Uber replacement. Also, you can never predict what type of taxi you want – boat, helicopter, rickshaw etc. LibreTaxi is open-sourced under MIT license. People can update it relatively easy or add vehicle types and run Uber-like services for their areas independently.

Question:

Are you targeting any specific markets, cities or demographics?

Roman Pushkin:

Our main market is rural areas, but it seems like it’s expanding into cities now. I have to think about improving and polishing functionality to make it even more easier to use.•

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#deleteuber exploded across Twitter last night when the ride-share company tried to exploit the flash taxi drivers’ strike at JFK against Trump’s anti-immigrant ban. It was alarming the company treated a Constitutional crisis as if it were business-as-usual but unsurprising considering Uber’s past dubious ethical behavior and Travis Kalanick’s recent defense of his relationship with the Administration: “We’ll partner with anyone in the world.” Really? Trips to internment camps, even?

There are other reasons to be wary of piecemeal employment, that Libertarian wet dream, and the main one is that it often undermines solid middle-class jobs and replaces them with uncertainty. And, no, despite what some might say, most Uber employees aren’t entrepreneurs just driving until venture-capital seed money comes in for their start-up; they’re actually trying to somehow subsist in this new normal. It isn’t easy.

The opening of Eric Newcomer and Olivia Zaleski Bloomberg piece:

In the 1970s, the Safeway grocery store in San Francisco’s gleaming Marina neighborhood, known as the Social Safeway, was a cornerstone of the pre-Tinder dating scene. Armistead Maupin made it famous in his 1978 book, Tales of the City, calling it “the hottest spot in town” to meet people. For years afterward, locals called it the “Singles Safeway” or the “Dateway.”

Forty years later, German Tugas, a 42-year-old Uber driver, got to know it for another reason: Its parking lot was a safe spot to sleep in his car. Tugas drives over 70 hours a week in San Francisco, where the work is steadier and fares are higher than in his hometown, Sacramento. So every Monday morning, Tugas leaves at 4 a.m., says goodbye to his wife and four daughters, drives 90 miles to the city, and lugs around passengers until he earns $300 or gets too tired to keep going. (Most days he nets $230 after expenses like gas.) Then, he and at least a half dozen other Uber drivers gathered in the Social Safeway parking lot to sleep in their cars before another long day of driving.  

“That’s the sacrifice,” he said in May, smoking a cigarette beside his Toyota Prius parked at the Safeway at 1 a.m., the boats in the bay bobbing gently in the background. “My goal is to get a house somewhere closer, so that I don’t have to do this every day.”

The vast majority of Uber’s full-time drivers return home to their beds at the end of a day’s work. But all over the country, there are many who don’t.•

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Are we hypochondriacs or are we really very sick?

Many among the Silicon Valley super-rich and deep-pocketed folks are increasingly convinced U.S. society may collapse and are working accordingly on plans to allow them to ride out the storm. Escaping an American nightmare isn’t just for Peter Thiel anymore, as some of his peers are purchasing wooded acreage, stocking up on gold coins and learning survival skills. Prepping 2.0 is for the money makers more than the Jim Bakkers.

What could be spooking them so? We now have more guns than people, traditional institutions are under siege, wealth inequality is spiraling out of control, political polarization has reached its zenith, climate change is worsening, a seeming sociopath is in the White House and tens of millions of citizens are looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Doesn’t sound like a menu for a Sunday picnic.

In an excellent New Yorker piece, Evan Osnos reports on the financial elite readying themselves for the big withdrawal. One retired financial-industry lobbyist tells him: “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution.”

An excerpt:

Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of Chaos Monkeys, an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”

In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.”•

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Utopias don’t often end well. Usually they just fall flat, but sometimes they fall spectacularly apart. Shangri-las, you could say, have a nasty habit of becoming shambolic. 

It’s not just madmen like Jim Jones and August Engelhardt who fail to realize Edens. Perfectly reasonable souls like George Ripley and Bronson Alcott saw their farms turn fallow, their dreams go awry. Creating a better way is complicated business.

The common denominator of these failures: human beings. Wonderful though we are, we tend to make a mess.

Recently read Jordan Harrison’s 2011 play Maple and Vine, a drama about a couple bedeviled by the technological world who quit society and join a gated community that’s “set” in the 1950s, a place that has gone an awful long way to “make America great again.” It becomes apparent over time that it isn’t so much the modern world as the human condition that the “escapees” are primarily fleeing. 

Self-sustaining cultures are difficult to manage for a variety of financial and logistical reasons, but a considerable obstacle is that we bring our humanness, that blessed and cursed thing, with us as we sail into the “new world.” To quote the Professor Irwin Corey: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

In Emma Green’s excellent Atlantic piece, the reporter looks at Americans who want out of the new abnormal, a place that seems to them tricked out, dumbed down and Trumped up. The connective tissue of the many “intentional communities” she visited is environmentalism, but they’re also trying to evade politics, which, I’m afraid, is unavoidable. The opening:

For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.

These communities show just how hard it is to live without fossil fuels, a government safety net, or a system of capitalist exchange. They struggle with many of the same issues that plague the rest of America, including health problems, financial worries, and racism. At the center of their political lives is a question that every American faces, but for them, it’s amplified: whether to save the world or let it burn.

Their answers are different, but they share one thing. They’ve seen what modern American life looks like. And they want out.•

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From the December 18, 1926 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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From the March 19, 1939 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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