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Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The history of the Myth America Pageant

When I first opened this book after downloading it, Kindle estimated my reading time at "18 hrs 59 minutes." 824 pages of analytic historical whup-ass, elegantly written, consistently coherent.
And, the authors, while forthright regarding their points of view, are consistently charitable with respect to myriad contrary doctrinal assertions (while also calling BS where logic, facts, and, evidence warrant doing so).
Gonna be a while reviewing this one. Stay tuned. 
UPDATE: from a summary by George Hosea:
The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, explores the historical and cultural roots of the popular belief in the United States that government is the enemy of free enterprise, and that the free market is the solution to all social and economic problems. The authors contend that this notion is not the natural product of a free society but the result of a purposeful effort by commercial interests to change public opinion and legislation in their favor. [It] traces the origins of this effort to the 1930s, when business executives were worried at the advent of the New Deal and the rising influence of labor unions. They worried that government interference in the economy would restrict their earnings and their influence over the workers.

To address this danger, industry leaders made a systematic effort to promote the advantages of the free market and demonize government involvement as an infringement on individual liberty. They supported think tanks, media outlets, and political campaigns that promoted this message and worked to sway public opinion. Throughout time, this effort proved so effective that it has become a deeply ingrained element of American society and politics.

Oreskes and Conway claim that this conviction in the free market and skepticism of government has had severe effects on American society, including increased inequality, a weakening of social safety nets, and a degradation of public goods like infrastructure and education. They argue that it is necessary to review these assumptions and to propose alternative forms of economic organization that promote social welfare and the common good.

To accomplish this, the authors believe that it is vital to confront conventional beliefs about the free market and government, observing that the free market is not a natural, self-regulating system but rather a human creation that needs government intervention to work efficiently. Oreskes and Conway also note that government is not an outside force that limits individual liberty, but is rather a reflection of the collective will of the people, and that its job is to guarantee that the advantages of economic activity are shared equitably.

The authors underline the necessity of understanding the historical environment in which these ideas took root, contending that the contemporary mistrust of government is not an inherent product of human nature but rather the result of particular historical events and political campaigns…

The Big Myth is a thought-provoking and informative exploration of the causes and effects of the overwhelming belief in the free market and skepticism of government in the United States ... Oreskes and Conway trace the roots of contemporary confidence in the free market back to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when corporate executives exploited their money and power to influence public opinion and legislation in their favor. effective in part because it was able to co-opt the vocabulary of populism and position economic concerns as identical to the interests of ordinary people…
Good enough to get us underway. I cleaned up a few grammatical items, but his overall take squares with the basic issues presented in the book.
For openers, there is no such thing as "The Free Market."
If there were only one man in the world, he would have a lot of problems, but none of them would be legal ones. Add a second inhabitant, and we have the possibility of conflict. Both of us try to pick the same apple from the same branch. I track the deer I wounded only to find that you have killed it, butchered it, and are in the process of cooking and eating it.

The obvious solution is violence. It is not a very good solution; if we employ it, our little world may shrink back down to one person, or perhaps none. A better solution, one that all known human societies have found, is a system of legal rules explicit or implicit, some reasonably peaceful way of determining, when desires conflict, who gets to do what and what happens if he doesn’t.

The legal rules that we are most familiar with are laws created by legislatures and enforced by courts and police. But even in our society much of the law is the creation not of legislatures but of judges, embedded in past precedents that determine how future cases will be decided; much enforcement of law is by private parties such as tort victims and their lawyers rather than by police; and substantial bodies of legal rules take the form not of laws, but of private norms, privately enforced.

Friedman, David D.. Law's Order: What Economics Has to Do with Law and Why It Matters (p. 3). Princeton University Press - A. Kindle Edition.

"Private enterprise," "private markets," yeah, of course. But human transactional affairs get "governed" one way or another. Spare me the conflation. Moreover,

A sweeping historical read.

I am now 77, a first-wave Baby Boomer born in Feb. 1946. My parents were Depression-era kids. My Dad and all four of his brothers served in WWII, as did my mother's adult brothers. Much of the bulk of this book spans that period (Pop was born in 1916). I am quite familiar with the socio-political-economic and cultural trends of the era.

My personal awareness of the broader world began roughly with the Presidential tenure of Dwight Eisenhower (I recall the "I Like Ike" buttons). My parents were hardcore (albeit relatively passive) Goldwater Republicans. Patriotic "conservatives" with a fairly reflexive disdain for anything smacking of "socialism" or “worse.”

In light of our recent "MAGA" looniness, I irascibly posted this on Twitter last year:

It's easy to casually conclude this extreme "free market GOOD / government BAD" polarization is of relatively recent vintage, but the heated all-or-nothing rhetoric goes back a long time (even if things are further exacerbated by current-day digital social media). The Big Myth lays the long history out in great detail.

It's a history larded with cynicism, ill will, bad faith, and a cornucopia of logical/rhetorical fallacies: Magical Thinking, False Dichotomies, Appeal to Authority/Tradition, the Slippery Slope, Perfectionism Fallacy, Begging the Question, ad hominem attacks, correlation/causation conflation, and so on. The ever-handy toolkit of the propagandist.
The Rogues' Gallery: Von Mises, Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman (with his egregious mischaracterizations of Adam Smith), Goldwater, Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan, and a sizable rogues gallery of lesser "free market uber alles" ideologues (along with their partisan "think tanks"), all given a thorough critical evaluation here. The "sacred, indivisible 3-legged stool" of The Free Market, Liberty, and Democracy (the latter in particular grossly mischaracterized), posited by neoliberals as the ONLY sociopolitical edifice holding off the Merciless Totalitarian Hordes, (and, oh yeah, before I forget, we now gotta toss in white Christian Nationalism to the Sacred Indivisible Liturgy)
...A key part of the manufacturers’ propaganda campaign was the myth of the Tripod of Freedom, the claim that America was founded on three basic, interdependent principles: representative democracy, political freedom, and free enterprise. This was a fabricated claim. Free enterprise appears in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution, and the nineteenth-century American economy was laced with government involvement in the marketplace. But NAM spent millions to convince the American people of the truth of the Tripod of Freedom, and to persuade Americans that the villain in the story of the Great Depression was not “Big Business,” but “Big Government.” [Oreskes & Conway, The Big Myth, p. 16].
Nothing much has materially changed.
The High Cost of the “Free” Market

…In 2019, in a meeting that now seems clairvoyant, experts at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University addressed “preparedness for a high-impact respiratory pathogen pandemic.” Among their recommendations: countries should improve their core public health competencies; draw up national action plans, with strategies to make decisions quickly when needed and prepare for supply interruptions; and develop the capacity for “surge manufacturing in crisis.” Obviously, their advice was ignored.

Over the past thirty years, scientists’ counsel on a wide range of issues—from pandemic preparedness to climate change—has been widely discounted and sometimes rejected outright. A major reason is the influence of the thinking that insists on limiting the power and reach of the federal government and relying on markets to solve our problems. Most damagingly, the market-oriented framework of recent decades has resisted any facts—scientific, historical, sociological, or otherwise—that suggest a need for a strong, centralized, or otherwise coordinated governmental response.

In some countries, concentrated central power may be a threat to liberty, but the United States is not one of them, in part because the country was set up with that concern in mind. The conservative preoccupation with constraining government power has left us with a federal government too weak and too divided to handle big problems like Covid-19 and climate change. Even as the pandemic raged, millions of Americans refused to get vaccinated in large part because of distrust of “the government,” and the lion’s share of those Americans were political conservatives.

The steps necessary to avoid the worst effects of an emergent disease—stockpiling supplies, educating people about hand-washing and social distancing, developing accurate tests and implementing them equitably, and sustaining the research infrastructure that can kick in to develop a vaccine—are not readily undertaken by the private sector. There’s not much of a business case for stockpiling a billion face masks. Nor can we rely on the private sector to step up when a new virus emerges, because by then it is too late. The “just in time” supply model that dominates in business is efficient for many purposes, but it does not work in the face of a pandemic.

For any problem that has a scientific, medical, or technological component, the challenge is not simply to mobilize resources when they are needed, but to have them ready in advance. It takes a year or more to build a laboratory; it takes a decade to train a cadre of scientists and engineers. We could no more muster on demand the needed expertise and infrastructure to fight a pandemic than we could suddenly raise a professional military, replete with aircraft carriers and their air wings, within weeks of an attack. Nearly all conservatives acknowledge the need for military preparedness, yet they have been loath to allow that government is needed to address a wide range of problems—and not just scientific ones—that markets can’t or won’t solve on their own…
[The Big Myth, pp. 539-541]
In 2019, in a meeting that now seems clairvoyant, experts at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University addressed “preparedness for a high-impact respiratory pathogen pandemic.”

Yeah. From my blog in April 2020.

Box 6: What Would the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Look Like Today?
In the worst pandemic in recorded history, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the novel virus infected approximately one-third of the global population over a period of 2 years, ultimately leading to 50 to 100 million deaths world-wide. One might imagine that the death rate would be lower today due to the advent of modern medical equipment and procedures that did not exist in 1918, but the global population is now approximately 4 times greater than in 1918. This growth, however, is disproportionately higher in low- and middle-income countries, often the ones with developing health systems. Many—predominantly in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East—have experienced population growths of 1,000% or more since 1918. Crowded urban areas provide prime conditions for the spread of respiratory diseases, and urbanization is increasing globally, including the emergence of 47 “mega-cities” (populations over 10 million). By comparison, London was the world’s largest city in 1918, at approximately 5 million people. Additionally, global travel has increased by orders of magnitude compared to 1918. Even then, shipping and population movement (including World War I) played an important role in global spread of the disease, but today, humans can fly anywhere in the world in less than 1 incubation period, meaning that global transmission can be expected to be even faster.

In 1918, the global case fatality ratio is estimated to have been 2.5%, but it was considerably greater in low- and middle-income countries, with some estimates exceeding 10%. Today, some high-income countries would be expected to fare much better because of modern health care, but the case fatality in countries with limited access to healthcare could be as bad as or worse than 1918. Simple arithmetic would suggest the possibility of 100 to 400 million deaths if a 1918-like pandemic were to occur today, but unprepared or under-resourced health systems could further exacerbate disease transmission through nosocomial spread and an inability to promptly diagnose and render care, a particular concern for developing health systems. During the 2003 SARS epidemic, 72% and 55% of presumed and confirmed cases in Toronto and Taiwan, respectively, occurred as a result of healthcare transmission. A similar nosocomial outbreak in which healthcare facilities became amplifiers of the epidemic, this time of MERS, happened in South Korea in 2015.
[Page 47 of 83]

Yes, “obviously, their advice was ignored.”

Hat tip to Dr. Naomi Oreskes.
I think this tangentially fits the Big Myth topic.

There is a long-established, conceptually simple, cogent cognitive psych model of dysfunctional interpersonal behavior known as "Script Theory." It emanated decades ago from Eric Berne's work on "Transactional Analysis." Within this model is the Rescuer-Victim-Persecutor concept:
  • I, the benevolent intervenor, arrogate to myself the right to and imperative of "rescuing" you, the "Victim" from your plight(s);
  • You, the "Victim," irritated by (or just apathetic toward) my putatively altruistic and unsolicited ministrations, react with insufficient gratitude and attitude/behavior change;
  • which then give me the right to demonize and persecute you.
Think about it.

The supportive psych literature is rather voluminous.

I pretty much buy it. Occam's Razor simplicity and all that. Think about the drama you repeatedly witness (or participate in) within your family and social circles. 

Shorter Claude Steiner: to the extent that you live a "scripted" life, you are not free.
Of late I can't help but observe that our society in the aggregate is now in the "Persecutor" phase of socioeconomic dynamics, in the wake of our recent disappointments. Ironic, given all this hyperbolic talk about "freedom" of late.

It's probably cyclical. We tend to oscillate between maxima and minima of concerns over "social justice."

Unless you've been off incommunicado in a cave of late, you've seen it.

  • Presidential Candidate Ron Paul gets loud, angry cheers during a GOP primary "debate" wherein he summarily shrugs off the moral implications of allowing the destitute to die at the ER curbside (and, he's a physician, no less).
  • The fatuous writings of the late Ayn Rand (raging against "Moochers" and "Looters") have risen to new popularity.
  • A nationally known AM radio host loudly demeans a woman as a "slut" and a "prostitute"because of her advocacy for contraceptive rights.
  • The long-term jobless are described as "lazy." It is argued, among other things, that they be subjected to drug testing as a condition of eligibility for unemployment compensation. Ron Paul's senator son Rand claims in late 2013 that extended employment insurance is a "disservice" to the jobless.
I could do a very long bullet list.

But, you get the idea. The "failures of liberalism" give us convenient license to blame the the unfortunate, poor, and inept.

The adversity POV:
Ich, Du, Sie

  • I innocently suffered a misfortune.
  • You should have done more to avoid calamity.
  • He is is a parasite, a Moocher.
We tend to attribute our successes to acumen and initiative, while declaiming responsibility for our misfortunes, which are proffered to be the result of bad luck or the machinations of more powerful adversarial others. 
BTW, you might enjoy my 2008 recounting of my 5 year stint in subprime risk management. See "Tranche Warfare."

Gresham's Dynamic on steroids.


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