Friday, May 13, 2016

How My Sons Will End Revolutions

Meg and I were in Paris when Francois Hollande was elected president of France four years ago. The streets were a joyous celebration of the return to power of the socialists. The French people, like so many of that time, were feeling beaten down by the global recession. Angela Merkel was offering austerity. Hollande offered hope.

We’re going back to Paris soon, and we just got a notice from the US State Department to avoid certain areas where mass demonstrations on behalf of labor are expected. Things could get ugly, the notice warns. There might be tear gas. Hollande is on his way out.

One of my most enduring, and oddly fond, memories of Paris is of demonstrations and tear gas. I’ve been seeing those newsreels off and on for decades. The French Revolution, it seems, is not over.

Nor, perhaps, the American Revolution. We are railing against tyranny again this election season. Only this time, as Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo said on Earth Day in 1971, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Revolutions happen when people get really pissed off. They just need to burn down the castle. Nothing less will do. They are sure there is a better way to arrange society for the common good. And they are mad enough to throw caution to the wind. Anything will be better than this.

What has often followed revolutions has been disappointment. The way communism promises a better life for all, for instance, is by the state controlling the means of production. We see how that worked out in terms of the economic welfare and personal freedom of ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, China.

Our American Revolution was a little different: it was more, Get off our backs, will you! They did and we went on about our business. We are a land of great opportunity, but we are a far cry from communist or socialist. It’s hard for us to agree on universal anything. Not even television streaming standards, and lord knows, we all want to stream Game of Thrones.

We are having something like a revolution in our politics this year. I don’t know what else to call Donald Trump. He is our Robespierre (same hair, not as smart). Many are pissed off. Heads will roll.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? The two biggest culprits are: too little (undeniably) correct information; and too much misplaced anger.

Economists have been battling for hundreds of years now about the best way to arrange society to maximize production and provide for the wellbeing of as many as possible. The battle continues. You’d think we’d know by now what works—and we are getting better at it—but there is still a great deal of uncertainty. At what point does raising the minimum wage hurt more people than it helps? We don’t know yet. Ten dollars is certainly okay. But fifteen? We won’t know until we try it. 

Our economic policy swings from trickle-down to expanded welfare are the way we learn. No one expected getting tough on crime in the 1990s would lead to bloated prisons and a lost generation of black men. Now we know, and our politicians are ready to storm the Bastille to free the inmates.

The economy is like the climate, they say. So complex, with so many inputs and variables, that it is impossible to predict. But, as with the climate, we are getting better. Our economic models are more sophisticated every year, and they are plugged into more data streams than ever. One of these days we will know, in advance, whether the optimum minimum wage is $12.50 or $17.50. 

This is where my son Christopher comes in. He’s a budding macroeconomist. He and his pals are going to figure this out. He’s never let me down.

Now, even if we know the optimum way to structure the economy, some people are still going to be pissed off. Maybe a man has lost his job. Or a woman’s son has fallen in with a bad crowd. He’s ready to work and, in a just society, he’d have a job, the man thinks. The woman has worked hard to teach her son to be a good boy, and in a just society, she thinks, those bums who led him astray would be in jail. 

There is no utopia. So even when we are doing our empirical best, some will be left out, some will be aggrieved.

A lot of disaffection stems from a feeling of powerlessness. This is a close corollary of feeling we are not heard and understood. But what if others heard? What if they understood?

This is where my son Nick, and his tribe of computer scientists, comes in.

Social media is the tool of the future. And not just for kids and advertisers. It’s a practical way for each of to be a meaningful part of the conversation about our lives. With machine learning, and eventually true artificial intelligence, our smartphones will be able to empathize. They will be like “Her.” But instead of being our romantic partners, they will be something like our personal therapists and life coaches.

“It’s not that bad. These recessions rarely last more than 18 months. You can get unemployment compensation at this address. You have been pre-qualified based on your biometrics. There is a party tonight for out-of-work young adults sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. Open bar. Don’t drink too much, though. Employers come to these things hoping to meet good prospective workers.”

Desperate people need someone to talk to. Why not Her?

Does this sound too big-brotherish for you? Not sure you want your smartphone to know that much about you? 

Fair point.

But think about the kinds of communities that we mythologize as the best of the good old days. Small villages where people knew and supported one another. Everyone knew everyone’s business. That was how the support happened. You could be a recluse, but you didn’t get the support of others if you chose that path.

Technology can make us a village again. (Thank you, Nick.) And deep data access and analysis can keep us informed about each other and how we can best work together. (Thank you, Chris.) All this and indoor plumbing too. And no tear gas. What could be better? The only thing I might add would be fresh croissants.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderfully hopeful take on our crazy world, Mac!