Samir’s Selection 05/21/2013 (p.m.)

  • What are celebrities, after all? They dominate the landscape, like giant monuments to aspiration, fulfillment and overreach. They are as intimate as they are grand, and they offer themselves for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion. But in times of widespread opportunity, the distance between gods and mortals closes, the monuments shrink closer to human size and the centrality of celebrities in the culture recedes. They loom larger in times like now, when inequality is soaring and trust in institutions — governments, corporations, schools, the press — is falling…

    One virtue of those hated things called bureaucracies is that they oblige everyone to follow a common set of rules, regardless of station or background; they are inherently equalizing…

     There is a quality of self-invention to their rise: Mark Zuckerberg went from awkward geek to the subject of a Hollywood hit; Shawn Carter turned into Jay-Z; Martha Kostyra became Martha Stewart, and then Martha Stewart Living. The person evolves into a persona, then a brand, then an empire, with the business imperative of grow or die — a process of expansion and commodification that transgresses boundaries by substituting celebrity for institutions. Instead of robust public education, we have Mr. Zuckerberg’s “rescue” of Newark’s schools. Instead of a vibrant literary culture, we have Oprah’s book club. Instead of investments in public health, we have the Gates Foundation. Celebrities either buy institutions, or “disrupt” them…  they live by the hacker’s code: ask forgiveness, not permission.

    This new kind of celebrity is the ultimate costume ball, far more exclusive and decadent than even the most potent magnates of Hollywood’s studio era could have dreamed up. Their superficial diversity dangles before us the myth that in America, anything is possible — even as the American dream quietly dies, a victim of the calcification of a class system that is nearly hereditary.

    tags: celebrity culture cult UShistory FranklinDRoosevelt inequality aspiration propaganda myth distraction

  • For Nietzsche, and for other cultural elitists of late-nineteenth-century Europe, both the rise of the bourgeoisie and the specter of the working class were bad things-the former for its mindless materialism, the latter  for its egalitarian ideals, which threatened to drown the exceptional man among the masses…

    Hayek cared about liberty for ultimately elitist reasons: liberty is not an end in itself, but a condition that enables the select few to make the world a better place. In his words, “The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.” And those select few are likely to be the rich, for only they have the requisite time and freedom from material concerns: “However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.”

    This idea is obviously echoed in Ayn Rand’s novels, which celebrate the individual genius standing out against the backdrop of collectivist mediocrity. It has also trickled into the contemporary conservative worship of the ultra-rich. The phrase today is “job creators”… 

    I used to say that most Americans voted against their class interests because they thought they would one day be in the upper class: there’s some poll statistic floating around according to which X percent of Americans think they will one day be in the top 1 percent by income, where X is some high number like 40 or 45.  But today, five years after the financial crisis, with median income below where it was fifteen years ago and social mobility at developing-world levels, I can’t imagine many people really believe that vast riches are in their future. An alternative explanation is that many Americans just think the rich are better than they are and that it’s wrong to question your betters.

    tags: Nietzsche vonHayek Europe culture socialclass inequality freedom progress conservative libertarian AynRand capitalism

  • People say things to journalists, possibly in a light-hearted fashion, that end up in print. Inevitably, “official” denial follows. They may also fail to grasp what we mean by “off the record”. For journalists, it simply means that it is reportable as long as the source is not identified. It’s different from a conversation in which a source leaks specific information, such as the weapons expert David Kelly famously did in his meeting with Andrew Gilligan, the tragic results of which I’ll explore in a moment. A single “off the record” quote is also qualitatively different from an “unattributable background briefing”, which usually involves a lengthy and considered statement by a source to a trusted journalist.

    tags: journalism editorialpolicy off-the-record privacy anonymity mediafreedom

  • We human beings pride ourselves on our intelligence, and one of its hallmarks is that we can remember our previous thinking and reflect on it – on how it seemed, on why it was tempting in the first place and then about what went wrong.

      How to compose a successful critical commentary:
      i. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
      ii. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
      iii. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
      iv. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
    Go after the good stuff or leave it alone.

    tags: DanielCDennett philosophy language knowledge reasoning thought error science argumentation debate habit criticism howto

  • there is much to be lost by signalling that Britain can be pressured to give up its commitment to open justice and the rule of law.

    tags: law justice killing UK Russia

  • [I]t is quite possible that workers’ share of what society produces will continue to go down and down, as our economy becomes more and more capital-intensive… In the academic literature, the theory goes by the name of “capital-biased technological change”…

    How do we fairly distribute income and wealth in the age of the robots?
    1. The standard answer is to do more income redistribution through the typical government channels – Earned Income Tax Credit, welfare, etc…
    2. it should be easier for the common people to own their own capital – their own private army of robots… 
    3. … more extreme measures: Everyone is born with an endowment of labor; why not also an endowment of capital? What if, when each citizen turns 18, the government bought him or her a diversified portfolio of equity?

    If the age of mass human labor is about to permanently end – then we need to think fast. 

    tags: robotics AI future labour economics macroeconomics wealth inequality employment publicpolicy Krugman NoahSmith

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