Old Ideas, Good Ideas

One of my pet peeves in politics and policy writing is many pundits and politicians’ belief that we must have “new ideas” to fix our political problems. They like to talk all about “innovation” and “new ideas for new challenges” and “21st Century policy-making.” 

This is all fine and well. It’s not incorrect. It is true that creativity in policy development is a good thing, and oftentimes, new approaches are required for new problems. This is all true. I’m not opposed to new ideas. Far from it!

But, I think that the fixation on “new ideas” overshadows a very basic fact about about American politics: many of the problems we face are, in fact, very old. Americans have been grappling with many of the same political economy issues, for, at the very least, the last 100 years. Union suppression and worker surveillance and unpredictable scheduling and too-big-to-fail banks–these are not new challenges in American politics. American policymakers have studied, analyzed, and fought many such problems before. 

So, if we’re trying to build a better society and make new policy, we should first look to the past and consider the earlier eras, in which Americans faced down many of the same demons we’ve faced before. To this end, consider this passage from ‘Other Peoples’ Money,’ Louis Brandeis’ 1914 book about the financial system:

The volume of new security issues was greatly increased by huge railroad consolidations, thedevelopment of the holding companies, and particularly by the formation of industrial trusts. The rapidly accumulating savings of our peoplesought investment. The field of operations forthe dealer in securities was thus much enlarged. And, as the securities were new and untried, theservices of the investment banker were in greatdemand, and his powers and profits increased accordingly. 

But this enlargement of their legitimate field of operations did not satisfy investment bankers. They were not content merely to deal in securities. They desired to manufacture them also. Theybecame promoters, or allied themselves with promoters. [Bolded text not bolded in original]

Note the bolded section. Brandeis is writing about the Wall Street of the later 1800s and early 1900s. And yet, this is exactly what happened to the investment banking industry in the 1980s. For a long while in the post-war period, banking was a boring, stable, and profitable industry. It was so safe that there existed the so-called 3-6-3 rule, whereby bankers made their living by holding money at 3% interest; lending it out at 6% interest; and getting on the golf course by 3pm. Easy, simple, safe, profitable business.

But in the 1980s, as Reagan, Congressional Republicans, and many Democrats de-regulated Wall Street, bankers and investors started getting a bit more creative. As Brandeis said about the bankers of his time: “They were not content merely to deal in securities. They desired to manufacture them also.”

And, Wall Street created derivatives (manufactured securities), and other riskier investment opportunities. And so the U.S. got the dot-com bubble–which burst–and then later, we got CDOs and Credit Default Swaps, and larger and larger bonuses for everyone on Wall Street, and then we got the Great Recession, and now we’re back to the same pattern. 

We’ve seen a lot of this before. So let’s deal with it again, just like we dealt with it back then. Antitrust law; Glass Steagall; stronger regulation; pro-depositor regulations like the FDIC, and other policies of the like.

Sometimes old ideas are good ideas.

A Better World Online

The other day, I finished Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff, a neat little book about the tech economy, inequality, and capitalism. It was good, and, among other things, it reminded me that our digital lives could be very, very different.

We take a lot of things for granted in our internet economy that are not natural or inevitable but are in fact the result of human action and human-made systems. 

For instance, consider social media. 

We're surrounded by stories of how Twitter and Facebook are addictive and that we can't turn off our dependence on them. Many of us groan at our news feeds and the crap they turn up, at least from time to time. As my New Years' Resolution, I decided to quit Twitter for three months because I had grown too addicted to the product. I loved so many things about the platform but I couldn't stop how it sucked me in for hours on end. 

We should remind ourselves that this social media does not need to be this way. It is not the result of "technology" or "human nature" that Americans spend, on average, 4.7 hours on their phones per day and check their social media accounts, on average, at least seventeen times a day. This is the result of human design, motivated by profit-seeking.

Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest and Twitter design their products to be as necessary and ubiquitous in our lives as possible; they design them to be continually rewarding, so that we go back to them again and again; they design them to be hard-to-ignore, pushing notifications and friend requests and features on us that we don't ask for, so that we can't ignore them. This is all to generate one thing: revenue, via advertising and data collection.

And, though it likely sounds a bit far-fetched, it wouldn't be impossible to design an internet economy which didn't force social media companies to always seek out larger audiences and bigger profit margins via data and advertising. Facebook wants to grow big and profitable, I'm sure, but the venture capitalists who first funded Facebook pushed it to grow HUGE and profitable, and those funders are the ones with the real power. They're the ones who can stop putting up funding or try to force the ouster of a CEO who pursues a strategy they don't like. 

I'm not saying it would be easy to change the internet economy, but things like antitrust law (that challenge consolidation and bigness); finance regulation (that govern shareholders' and investors' power); labor law (that would empower workers over executives and shareholders); and privacy rules (to empower users over the companies that currently own their data) are all policy regimes that could be used to redirect and reform our internet economy.

So next time you're annoyed at your news feed; next time you wonder why you're on your phone so much; next time you curse a company whose service you can't stop using, just remember: it's not you, it's them. These are human-made systems, and they can be changed by humans. 

Women's Rights and Male Hedonism

I named the most recent edition of my newsletter “Women’s Rights and Male Hedonism,” after a string of lyrics from this song by the Front Bottoms.

I like the line because it illustrates one phenomenon pretty well. Today feminism is incredibly culturally ascendant and very, very open to male allyship and male feminism. Just consider all the plaudits you’ll get if you become known as the guy who’s down with gender equality in college, or all the praise that male celebrities get for showing a decent, tweet-able understanding of feminism.

So, feminism’s everywhere, and a lot of the world likes feminist men. So what do men do with it?

They support women’s rights and live male hedonism. Consider:

“Feminist” men who go around calling people the c-word. (Seen that one personally)

Sexual assault prevention educators who commit sexual assault. (Know that one secondhand)

“Feminist” guys who spend more time basking in praise than they do engaged in feminist work. (I’ve skirted, and surely crossed, that line a few times)

There’s all sorts of examples, but it’s all the same stuff: guys who take the title of feminist and do nothing with the philosophy of feminism. Guys who publicly support feminism but never stop to consider their own actions. Guys who talk all about gender equality but live their male privilege to its fullest.

Women’s rights and male hedonism.

The funny thing about this phenomenon is that the conservatives totally caught it. Here’s Ross Douthat in 2009, writing that, in the wake of the sexual revolution, “men have been liberated to embrace a piggish irresponsibility.” Here’s Douthat in 2013:

Viewed from one angle, the sexual revolution looks obviously egalitarian. It’s about extending to everyone the liberties — the freedom to be promiscuous, to pursue sexual fulfillment without guilt — that were once available only to privileged cisgendered heterosexual males. It’s about ushering in a society where everyone can freely love and take pleasure in anyone and anything they want.

But viewed from another angle, that same revolution looks more like a permission slip for the strong and privileged to prey upon the weak and easily exploited. This is the sexual revolution of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt and Joe Francis and roughly 98 percent of the online pornography consumed by young men. It’s the revolution that’s been better for fraternity brothers than their female guests, better for the rich than the poor, better for the beautiful than the plain, better for liberated adults than fatherless children ... and so on down a long, depressing list.

By the way, here’s a response to a similar argument by Douthat from Ann Friedman.

But anyway, the conservatives saw it! Douthat isn’t alone on this – talk to enough smart social conservatives and you’ll see this opinion pop up all over the place.

I don’t agree with this argument entirely (especially because Douthat’s opinion relies on the contention that the pre-sexual-revolution-era benefitted women), but I do think the conservatives are on to something.

Women’s rights and male hedonism is emblematic of a culture in which we’ve unleashed (some of) the sexual revolution and (a few of) the promises of feminism, but we’ve done it without erecting a new standard of ethical living for men.

For a certain kind of guy who lives in a relatively liberal environment, it is pretty clear what men are supposed to not do. From mansplaining all the way down to sexual harassment, we know what men are not supposed to do, but it is much less clear what men are supposed to do in our increasingly feminist world.

So, what does ethical, feminist living look like for men?

I’ve got an idea of what that ought to look like, but I think it’s incumbent on people like me (and everyone) to do a better job of developing and articulating that standard, because women’s rights and male hedonism is totally unacceptable. 

A World Transfixed (and made) By Screens

“Celebrity selfies, people alone in a crowd with their phones, events obscured by the very devices used to record that event, the brightly lit faces of those bent over their small screens, these are some of the scenes depicted below.”

This sentence is Alan Taylor’s description of the photos that he compiled for Atlantic Photo the other day. I’m a sucker for his In Focus series, mostly because it is consistently the most beautiful and fascinating thing I can find on the web. 

The most recent collection, titled ‘A World Transfixed by Screens,’ is something else, though. The pictures depict a world transfixed by screens, true, but they also depict a world which is utterly constituted by screens. In them, we see more than attention paid to backlit glass; we see a world made by screens and mobile devices. 

A Chinese boy takes a selfie, with his iPhone 6, as he stands in front of a statue of Chairman Mao. Protestors hold up hundreds of phones to oppose an internet tax. A North Korean sentry checks her (flip)phone. Muslim pilgrims take photos and selfies during the final day of haj. 

My favorite image is Number 26. In it, a few tourists take selfies at Machu Picchu while, in the background, a man crouches to snap a photo. In front of him, in the shot, sits a young woman. She is facing away from the camera, looking toward the 15th century site, and it is not altogether clear if she is the object of the photograph. Is she posed, calmly seated for the purpose of a perfect cover photo? Or, is she merely seated, looking on for the purpose of looking on?

She is probably posed. It looks that way. But, it isn’t clear, and I like that it isn’t clear. There are all sorts of existential questions about the watcher versus the watched, or the significance of the screen-gaze, all sorts of questions I am incapable of addressing. Nonetheless, I loved the collection. Check it out.