How we know what we know

Happy September! 

Class is now in session. This week, we’ve picked three books that were written to give us the analysis we need to make sense out of the crazy talk that seems to have enveloped our world.

  • In her look at Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, Maryann Kerr takes us back to a time when humans knew no strangers.
  • Christopher Barry reviews of The Reality Bubble by Ziya Tong and contemplates the question of we actually do with what we know 
  • Diane Hill has written a sweeping review of The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society by Binyamin Appelbaum, a crash course in how late 20th century free market economists wreaked havoc on the world as some of us once knew it.

Read! Enjoy! Come back for more! 

Gail

Gail Picco, Editor

We weren’t always complete strangers

By Maryann Kerr (September 12, 2019)

Talking to Strangers, What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown and Company, 400 pp, September 10, 2019, $24.75

Do you think you are a good “judge of character?”  Do you think you can look a person in the eye and know something about who they really are? Do you think world leaders, CIA agents and judges might be particularly skilled at recognizing when someone is telling the truth?   

If you answered yes to any of these questions, Canadian author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell has a thing or two to teach you.  In Talking to Strangers, What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, Gladwell gathers and interprets research that is mind boggling and brilliant.  He helps us to understand that ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is a critically important piece of advice and he does it for a very good reason. 

Why write a book about what we know or don’t know about strangers?  

The truth is, as Gladwell points out, we interact with strangers all day long. He introduces the book with the story of Sandra Bland and reminds us she was a 28-year-old African-American native of Chicago who was found hanged in a jail cell three days after being pulled over and detained by police when she failed to signal a right-hand turn in Texas. She had driven from Chicago to Texas to start a new job at a university there. Videos from Bland’s phone and the arresting officer’s dashcom went viral.   

“I suspect that you may have had to pause for a moment to remember who Sandra Bland was.  We put aside these controversies after a decent interval and moved on to other things.  I don’t want to move on to other things.”

He goes on to share a list of the lives of black men lost over the next few years at the hands of police officers and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Sandra Bland and the police officer who pulled her over were strangers to one another.  That, beyond all else, may be the most significant indicator that ultimately led to her arrest and death.

“The Sandra Bland case came in the middle of a strange interlude in American public life.  The interlude began in the summer of 2014, when an eighteen-year-old black man named Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Fergusson, Missouri.”

Gladwell brings us back in time to the early days of colonization and the beginning of interactions between complete strangers.  He points out that until 500 years ago, human beings had at least a basic understanding of each other.  

“Throughout the majority of human history, encounters – hostile or otherwise – were rarely between strangers.  The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules.”

He tells the story of the Spanish conquistador Cortes and the Aztec ruler Montezuma II and the subsequent slaughter of the Aztecs and the “era of catastrophic colonial expansion.”  This, Gladwell points out, was a meeting of strangers and is emblematic of the world we live in today.  

Gladwell lends understanding of why the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain chose to meet with Hitler several times and detailed one these meetings in a letter to his sister.  “… I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”  

Gladwell shares several high profile news stories where most of us definitely took a side.  

You might remember coverage of the rape of a female student at Stanford University, the discovery of years abuse of boys by Penn State University’s former assistant coach and the cover up by the university’s leadership, and sexual abuse scandal where the team doctor for the U.S. Women’s National Gymnastics Team was charged with abusing 250 athletes.  There are tales of CIA agents who were fooled for years by people they thought worked for them.  

The book is hard to read at times.  You want to put your stake in the ground.  You want to yell racism, sexism and frightening abuse of privilege.  You want to take the stance that is most familiar to you and the one that you’ve formed over years and based on your values.  You want to see a rapist, a racist cop or a bad judge.  What Gladwell helps us to see is that it isn’t that simple.  That human beings are complex and so too our interactions.  

“If we were more thoughtful as a society – and if we were willing to engage in some soul-searching about how we approach and make sense of strangers – she (Sandra Bland) would not have ended up dead in a Texas jail cell.” 

The book is incredible and I’m reading it again.  When Gladwell shares details from two high profile child sexual assault cases you will find yourself stunned and you will ask yourself – would I have been fooled too? You will, for a time, second guess yourself and think back on times when others have told you what a bad judge of character you are.  Or perhaps, what a good judge of character you are.  Neither is correct.

Malcolm Gladwell
Photo by Celeste Sloman

When you read about the impact of alcohol on the human brain, for example, and marry this with the way that children are socialized in gender biased ways, you may view the rampant and unacceptable rash of University campus sexual assault in a new light. You will, if you have children, at the very least have a much-needed conversation about the way young people consume alcohol today.   

You will come to understand that by nature, most human beings “default to truth.”  We look for the good in people. When someone sees what is really happening,like the financial analyst who saw Bernie Madoff for what he was long before anyone else, you will choose not to believe.  

In the end, I was left feeling that I’m glad we see the good in others first.  As always, I read Gladwell’s books and wonder – is anyone paying attention?  Will we use the data we have to change the way we do things?  How we train police officers, help students understand the effects of alcohol, build bridges that don’t provide “easy” access to those with suicidal tendencies and trust and act upon our instincts.  

Will we, in fact, learn to talk to strangers?

(Maryann Kerr has served local, provincial and national organizations in executive leadership. She is currently the Chief Happiness Officer/CEO and principal consultant with the Medalist Group, a philanthropic firm she founded in 2016. (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kerrmaryann/)

The gap between what science sees and non-scientists understand

By Christopher Barry (September 12, 2019)

The Reality Bubble by Ziya Tong, Allen Lane, 376 pp, May 14, 2019, $22.83

Walter Frick wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review that a few years ago, a Reddit user wondered what would be the hardest thing to explain to someone from 50 years in the past. One answer: “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to humanity,” adding “I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.”

The quote captures the essence of what Ziya Tong is trying to tell us in her new book The Reality Bubble. We have all the information at our fingertips to make better choices for ourselves and for our planet, yet we ignore reality around us in favour of what we chose to see, believe and ignore.

The Reality Bubble is a fascinating volume, and my copy has ended up with many underlined sections in every chapter. It is a thoughtful and thought provoking book and discusses so much that is interesting and useful about our physical world in the 21stcentury. Anyone would be wise to buy it and read it, and you’ll be even wiser if you apply its contents and insights to the way you live your life.

Ms. Tong does not waste your time. An award-winning science broadcaster and journalist who anchored Daily Planet, Discovery Channel’s flagship science program until its final season in 2018, she has spent more than a decade interviewing and learning from the world’s top scientists and thinkers. 

As she writes so eloquently, one of the great advantages of working with scientists from many different fascinating fields is that it has given her a broad spectrum of scientific knowledge to draw from, allowing her to share and communicate expertise from a wide range of disciplines. 

Ms. Tong explains that these different disciplines are like pieces in a puzzle. Individually each gives a clue as to what’s going on, but only by putting them together can we see the bigger picture of our world today.

And now more than ever, she writes, we need to see clearly, because we are at a critical junction in human history. Our species is locked on a deadly collision course, one that threatens to extinguish life on Earth precisely because our vision of reality is incompatible with scientific truth. Instead, what we call “common sense” thinking has blinded us for far too long.

In The Reality Bubble, Ms. Tong examines ten of humanity’s biggest blind spots. 

Section One begins with an introduction to the blind spots we are born with as individuals, and reveals how science and technology allow us to see beyond our biological limits. With this new form of sight, she takes us on a journey through the everyday world to uncover what our own eyes are unable to perceive. As she writes, 

“We have the technological lenses to see into the vast distances of outer space, to see the tiniest microscopic organisms, to see right through the human body, and to see the very atoms that make up the material world. But there is one fundamental thing that we do not see. When it comes to how our species survives, we are utterly blind.”

In Section Two, she looks at our collective blind spots and investigates how as a society we engage in wilful blindness. She focuses on the most critical aspects of our basic biology—our food, energy and waste—to see how science has radically transformed the support system our lives depend on and engineered a world that to the average person is almost entirely opaque. 

The sections on food processing (my apologies to my many acquaintances in the food industry but after reading the chapter of global food supply I will never again eat a chicken nugget and I am not so sure about the chicken either!), energy management, and the Earth’s garbage challenge are particularly harrowing and powerful. It is impossible to deny climate change, or the urgent need for more efficient energy sourcing, use and reclamation, as well as garbage disposal on a planetary scale. 

In Section Three, Ms. Tong examines the intergenerational blind spots. There are ways of thinking about the world that seem natural or inevitable but are in fact inherited world views passed on from generation to generation. Here she examines how we navigate the grand dimensions of time and space like the proverbial fish that knows not the water in which it swims.  She poses broader questions. 

What is the value of enhanced surveillance of our everyday lives? We tell ourselves it keeps us safe, that surveillance protects the good people in society by tracking down the bad who engage in criminal behaviour. But ordinary people are being monitored and penalized too. It is no secret that in many countries it is illegal to look too deeply at where our food comes from and the same is true of our energy and waste systems. 

Ziya Tong
Photo by Noel Fox

Finally, she reminds us that while we have eyes, that doesn’t mean we see clearly. Ms. Tong’s urgent message is that we must not shirk our responsibility to respect our connection to the natural world. 

There is often a gap between what science sees with access to modern technology like fMRIs, and what the lay person understands. For example, recent polls confirm a continuing gap between what scientists in the United States believe about climate change and what the general public believes (77% of the scientists who belong to the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe that climate change is a serious problem while only 33% of the public share that concern).

This is a very timely book, written by a journalist at the top of her game. Read it!

(A former combat paratrooper and Logistics officer in the Canadian Army, Christopher Barry has worked as interim CEO or COO for a range of charities.)

How market-driven economists gained influence and power and left devastation in their wake

By Diane Hill (September 12, 2019)

The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society by Binyamin Appelbaum, Little, Brown and Company, 448 pp, $33.77

Reading The Economists’ Hour is like watching a slow-motion horror movie. The pace is glacial, but we can’t take our eyes off the bloody mayhem slowly unfolding on the screen. And the show is real.

Author Binyamin Appelbaum has reported on economic policy for the New York Times since the 2008 financial crisis. A decade earlier, he was part of a team of reporters who uncovered a pattern of “questionable sales practices” and subprime housing loans in North Carolina. Their work led to investigations by federal agencies and a Pulitzer Prizenomination.

InThe Economists’ Hour, his first book, he argues wealthy nations rise to prosperity by carefully steering their economies. Then he shows how, between 1969 and 2008, the U.S. government handed the keys over to free market thinkers. Not only did they crash us into a financial ditch, they’ve left liberal democracy teetering on the brink of collapse.

We watch, dismayed but enthralled, as an overconfident cast of economists, headquartered at the University of Chicago, emerge from obscurity, rise to power, and reshape the American economy according to their core vision: Trust the Market.  In painstaking detail, Appelbaum tells the story of how previously suspect economic policies—tax cuts, reduced public spending, deregulation, monetarism, and globalized trade—slowly become not just accepted wisdom, but sworn gospel. 

Despite their claims to be driven by data, Appelbaum says this new breed of economic conservatives were—and remain—ideological zealots. 

“Just as anything less than free trade was a step toward communism, anything less than the free flow of money moved society towards totalitarianism.” 

We meet influential players such as free market economist Milton Friedman, who once argued against licensing requirements for doctors, and Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, who firmly believed “a laissez-faire economy is the only moral and practical form of economic organization.” 

We also meet lesser known actors like U.S. Congressman, Richard Armey, from Texas, and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. 

“The market is rational, and the government is dumb,” said Armey.
 “Reduce the size of government until it [is] small enough to drown in a bathtub,” said Norquist. 

Our eyes widen as the U.S. government abandons anti-trust laws, destroying competition and enabling corporations to grow into massive monopolies with frightening political power. 

We gasp in disbelief as politicians across the globe willingly trade “small bursts of sugar-high prosperity at the expense of spending on education and infrastructure” like roads and transit and hospitals and libraries and fire departments. Free trade is deified, even as it sacrificed well-paid factory jobs for low-cost electronics and weakened “the fabric of society and the viability of local government.”

Appelbaum shows us the impact.

In 1981, the top 1% of earners in the U.S. made 27 times more than the bottom half of earners. Today, they make over 80 times more. 

Rich American women will live 13.6 years longer than poor American women. In 1980 rich women lived 3.9 years longer than poor women. 

~

The economists who rose to power over the last forty years were not outliers. Until the devastation of the Great Depression, governments mostly kept their hands off the economy, and free markets and free trade were the order of the day. 

In the 1930s, British economist John Maynard Keynes offered a solution to America’s collapse: economies needed careful management in both good times and bad. Governments could easily adjust economic conditions “like the settings on a thermostat” byraising or lowering taxes and increasing or decreasing government spending. 

The world-wide economic boom after World War II made endless prosperity seem guaranteed. It was understood that borrowing too heavily from other countries would erode the U.S. manufacturing and industrial base, and trading with developing nations would collapse working-class wages. 

Concerns about corporate concentration, which first flared up during the late 19th-century age of the Robber Barons and again during the Great Depression, re-emerged after the war and led to beefed-up anti-trust enforcement. 

During the 1960s, a series of high-profile events—such as the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire due to industrial pollution—convinced a growing number of Americans that corporations couldn’t be trusted. The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Health and Safety were a result of that distrust. 

But free market economists had their fan base.  In the 1960s enthusiastic corporations began funding university research chairs and think tanks, providing the lustre of “legitimate” research attackinglegislation and regulation as “government activism.” 

Then, in 1973, the status quo was interrupted by the Arab oil embargo, which led to “the deepest downturn since the Great Depression.” Unemployment and inflation began to rise together, and growth stalled—a phenomenon called stagflation. To the surprise of Keynesian economists, the usual tinkering such as increased government spending didn’t work. The thermostat seemed broken. 

Quietly sharpening their pencils for decades, the Chicago free market economists saw their opportunity. Led by Freidman, they told governments to stop tinkering and get out of the way. Themarket was rational and self-correcting, they argued.  Government regulation was unnecessary. 

According to the new breed of free market economists, price and efficiency should be the yardstick for all economic decisions—not the vibrancy of the small business sector, not job growth, not community health. All of those things would follow, they insisted, if the economy was free and open. They dismissed concerns about potential job losses from trading with developing nations, claiming that “the winners would compensate the losers.” But they didn’t explain how that would happen, since they also called for the deep cuts to the social safety net that people in the charitable sector have been struggling to address for the last several decades.

It was a series of policies seen by these economists as “cruel but fair.” One of their most durable fictions was the idea that lowering corporate taxes would lead to economic growth.  

Liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith fought back. “What is called sound economics is very often what mirrors the needs of the respectably affluent,” he wrote.  

But a new day had dawned. 

Winning the 1980 presidential election on an aggressive campaign of “supply-side” economic policies, Ronald Reagan reduced government spending, lowered taxes, cut regulation, and tightened the money supply. The rising tide would lift all boats, he said. The benefits would ‘trickle down’ to everyone in the form of lower prices and higher employment.

Opponents called it ‘voodoo economics,’ saying it would only lead to bigger deficits. They were right. 

The Economists’ Hour argues that tax cuts like those instituted by Reagan and others have been “a political triumph and an economic failure.” Lower taxes didn’t lead to economic growth, just less government revenue. 

Since cutting services was, and is, politically unpopular, most governments try to reduce spending slowly over time, leaving them two choices: print more money (driving up inflation) or borrow from the private sector (driving up interest rates). 

When tax revenues failed to rise, Reagan was forced to borrow foreign money “on the largest scale since World War II,” further undermining American manufacturing. The prime interest rate jumped to an eye-watering 21.5%, causing many people to lose their homes. Real wages fell and still haven’t recovered. But bank profits soared.

Appelbaum argues that many right-wing politicians knew full well that tax cuts wouldn’t strengthen the economy. They simply wanted to cut taxes to “blow a hole in the federal budget, then close it with spending cuts,” thus shrinking the size and role of government. These are the people who want to eliminate public services like libraries, public education, public housing, parks, and the post office. They fight to eliminate laws that support worker’s rights, such as minimum wage and workplace safety. But above all, they want to end government regulation. In that regard, Reagan became their hero, leading the charge to deregulate the airline, trucking, and banking industries. 

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 it seemed the free market victory was complete. Communism was dead.  Long live Capitalism. 

“Governments pulled back from efforts to regulate the marketplace, to invest in future prosperity, or to limit inequality.” 

In the 1990s, George W. Bush doubled down on supply-side policies, this time during an economic boom, to “keep the good times rolling.” As Appelbaum is quick to point out, “…the economy tanked just as quickly as it did in 1981.” 

Yet deregulation continued. Predatory lending practices increased. But by then regulation had become such a dirty word, no one was interested in cracking down on what turned out to be “one of the largest outbreaks of white-collar crime in U.S. history.” 

For decades, the Depression-era regulatory wall between commercial banks (which collect deposits and make loans) and investment banks (which trade stocks, arrange corporate mergers, and create new products like hedge funds and derivatives) had been weakening. In 1999 it disappeared completely, opening the door to a new breed of risky financial products and corporate consolidations that led to the 2008 global financial crash. 

To date the crisis has cost U.S. taxpayers $16.8 trillion, all paid to the big banks. No attempt was made to help the borrowers, many of whom lost their homes and their jobs. From 2005 to 2011, median household wealth in the U.S. fell by thirty-five percent.

Binyamin Appelbaum

During the Economists’ Hour, “America sacrificed its factories” in exchange for lower prices. Millions of Americans lost their jobs. Wages collapsed. Workers’ rights were destroyed, and profits efficiently funnelled “into the pockets of a plutocratic minority.” The saddest sentence in the book, “it didn’t need to be this bad.” 

But the political fallout is even more frightening. Appelbaum points out that finding common ground is very difficult when “the interests of the poor and rich are very different, and the middle class is shrinking.” Populists win when people become angry and look for someone to blame. 

His conclusion should terrify us: “…the very survival of liberal democracy is now being tested by nationalist demagogues, as it was in the 1930s.”

If you’ve ever wondered how the heck we got into such a mess, Appelbaum’s book will provide many answers but a word of warning: his decision to structure the book by major topic rather than chronologically requires him to jump back and forth in time, making an already complex story even harder to follow.

In The Economists’ Hour, Appelbaum doesn’t offer a quick solution or new economic theory, only a very humane yardstick.

“The measure of a society is the quality of life at the bottom of 
the pyramid, not the top.” 

May his words and warnings be our guide for whatever comes next.

(Diane Hill is the Director of Communication for the Gender Equality Network Canada, a national network convened and facilitated by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.)

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