Category Archives: Mtg Announcements

Monday’s Mtg: Are corporate monopolies damaging our economy?

What’s gone wrong with the U.S. economy? Outside of the horror of our national politics, this may be the central public issue of our time. This is true even though we have had almost eight straight years of economic growth, 4% unemployment, a 20,000 Dow, and record corporate profits.

Something just seems…broken. Wage growth is anemic and average real wages haven’t risen for 40 years. Economic inequality is at 1920s levels. Droves of Americans have dropped out of the labor force. Rural areas are especially stagnant. The gig economy and intelligent robot workers are coming. Americans are angry and anxiety-ridden.

We have talked about these structural problems of modern capitalism for many years in Civilized Conversation. Left and right tend to finger different culprits. But, as I have said before, experts focus their inquiries on these four broad causes:

  1. Technology – Technological advances have raised demand for highly-educated knowledge-based workers but not for anybody else.
  2. Globalization – Free trade and outsourcing expose more Americans to low-wage foreign industries.
  3. Immigration – Migrants depress wages, especially in labor-intensive sectors; and
  4. Government – Tax policy, regulation and/or deregulation, and lack of public investment have weakened the economy and benefitted only a sliver of Americans.

Monday’s meeting concerns a 5th possible perpetrator, one that is getting a lot of attention lately, even in the popular press: Corporate concentration and monopoly. There might even be some room for agreement among liberals and conservatives on the issue (although all national policy will remain frozen for the foreseeable Trumpian future).

But, the harm caused by monopoly power and how to combat it are tough issues. No one denies what we all see around us: Industry after industry has grown to be dominated by a handful of (3-5 or even fewer) gigantic companies. It’s true for health insurance, telecommunications, energy, mining, banking, social media platforms, even retail. Only a few industries are monopolies, dominated by a single company selling to the public. But, many are oligopolies (several firms dominate sales) or monopsonies (they dominate as buyers, of labor and supplies).

Yet, it is not clear exactly how much harm monopolistic concentration is doing to our economy. Experts even disagree on who is being harmed and how entrenched today’s monopolists are. I will go into more detail on Monday, but basically monopolies might be:

  • Extracting what economists call “rents” from the rest of us; i.e., profits in excess of what could be earned in a competitive market;
  • Raising consumer prices and limiting consumer choice;
  • Extracting wealth from their supply chains or employees via lower wages;
  • Depressing innovation and R&D;
  • Contributing to growing economic inequality; and
  • Buying off political power that could be used to stop them.

Here are some readings that purport to explain what’s going on. I’ve tried to note which ones are the easiest and hardest reads. Note the ones that argue growing monopoly power is NOT a big problem.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Re-thinking the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

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Monday’s Mtg: What do today’s movies and TV shows say about us and our future?

Ali’s topic idea is interesting I think, for several reasons. Obviously, a society’s fiction reflects its zeitgeist. Popular culture like TV and movies can mirror back our moral values, our gender and racial expectations, our political beliefs, and so forth. TV/movies can influence culture and public opinion. A few months ago we talked about science fiction in this context. I thought I found some cool background readings for that meeting, like this one and this one. In 2014 we did comedy’s affect ton U.S. politics, in which we focused on the Stewart/Colbert effect. Extending our sci-fi conversation to TV/movies in general sounds like fun.

There are way too many angles to the topic for us to discuss them all (much less for me to find readings on). So, depending on what you all want to do, we might want to focus on some aspects TV/movies’ influence to the exclusion of others; e.g., politics, religiosity, gender roles, racial attitudes, or effects on children. We could focus on specific genres, like reality TV or war movies; or on specific influential shows. After I do the reading I’m sure that I, like you, will think of other ways we could slice the salami.

One other thing I want us to get into.  The entertainment industry is on the leading edge of the digital technology revolution that will sooner or later transform every other industry and corner of our economy. New technology affects how media is enjoyed/consumed (on mobile devices, on demand whatever/whenever we want), and manufactured (on a global scale for a global audience). The industry is decentralizing and centralizing simultaneously as power shifts from producers to consumers, but also to a tiny handful of distributors. Can we see the future of our entire economy in what’s happening to Hollywood?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Are corporate monopolies hurting America?

Monday’s Mtg: A New American Nationalism?

We picked a bad week to give up sniffing glue. I mean we chose a hard week to talk about American nationalism, given the fuhrer furor over President Trump’s responses to Charlottesville. Trump’s “new American nationalism” has finally been totally laid bare. It’s ethno-nationalism, pure and simple. It’s a largely symbolic one, too. As was bluntly pointed out today, he has no concrete plans on trade or infrastructure, nothing new on managing the economy, and nothing serious on national security. Bannon/Trump’s Economic Nationalism only works in the areas of (hmmm) immigration and civil rights. We’re deporting more illegal immigrants and changing sides at the Justice Department. It was a con.

Still, the empty content of Trump’s patriotism does not preclude the rise of a genuinely new American nationalism of another kind. Americans love their country and want it to succeed again, for them and their children. As we will discuss, other factors could be public weariness with global leadership, long-building fear of Islamist terrorism, economic inequality and stagnation that needs a culprit, or (mainly) White resentment of globalism and its attendant economic integration and cosmopolitanism.

I am game to try to discuss it all civilly if you are. I’ve been ill this week so I won’t have time to prepare anything. Here are a few optional background readings and the discussion questions I imagine us focusing on.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. American nationalism: How many kinds/flavors of U.S. nationalism it are there? What makes them wax and wane?
  2. Trump’s White nationalism:
    • What is it? How popular is it?
    • How differ from older forms of White supremacy, or same old thing?
    • Why did GOP elites – and voters – ride this tiger for so long? What will they do now?
    • Will Trump profoundly change U.S. nationalism, or be a blip?
  3. Another New Nationalism:
    • Is a more benign “New American Nationalism” emerging, too? What are its main elements (e.g., exhaustion w/global leadership, economic insecurity, anger at Lefty anti-nationalism)?
    • Why has this happened? Is it just a conservative thing?
    • Impacts good bad?
  4. Liberal nationalism:
    • What is the case for a progressive nationalism?
    • Why do many progressives hate all nationalisms? Good/bad thing? When is patriotism just chauvinism?
  5. Global resurgence: Why is nationalism surging in many countries? Effects/will it last?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What do today’s movies and TV say about us?

Monday’s Mtg: Can California Stop Trump?

Has the worm really turned on federalism? Can blue states successfully resist the ultra-conservative agenda emanating for Republican-controlled Washington?   A lot depends on California. In the words of one observer (see link below):

“California is the Trump administration’s most formidable adversary, not only on matters of immigration, but on damn near everything. No other entity—not the Democratic Party, not the tech industry, surely not the civil liberties lobby—has the will, the resources, and the power California brings to the fight. Others have the will, certainly, but not California’s clout.”

Yes, the GOP and Trump have been slow and incompetent at enacting their program. But it is still coming, and some of it will hit California hard (and is aimed specifically at us), including on climate and energy policy, immigration, health care, and even housing and transportation. A lot has already happened. Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and others have been talking tough – and passing laws and filing lawsuits – on almost every conceivable front. This week’s links give some of the details.

How successful CA’s “resistance” to Trump/GOP will be in the long run will depend on all of the usual factors in federalism disputes: Law, legal strategies, and judges; public opinion; congressional priorities; media coverage and sympathies, and so forth. It also will depend on wild card factors of a kind that has become an exhausting staple of the Trump era: Things like the President’s volatile personality, congressional GOP foibles and schisms, and God knows what else.

On Monday, I will go over a few of the main policy battleground areas and talk a little bit about the shape of the legal and political terrain ahead. I’m not up to date on all the details in the news, but maybe some of you who focus more on state politics are.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What are the main Trump/GOP policies that will be aimed at CA and its interests? Which ones require new law v. merely regulatory changes?
  2. Which ones are top priorities for the GOP and/or Trump? What’s coming next?
  3. Pols: What has California done so far to oppose specific GOP/Trump actions? Other states? How is GOP trying to crush it?
  4. Points: Who’s winning so far? Who decides and (how) will the fight end?
  5. People: Do Californians support all of these actions? The broader U.S. public? Does public opinion really matter?
  6. Principles: Is federalism just a tool for hypocrites? What actual and enduring principles are at stake here and is anybody being consistent?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is there a “New American Nationalism?”

Monday’s Mtg: Does history have a direction or purpose?

I think this will be a really fun topic. We love our history in CivCon. Yet, this one asks a bit more of us than usual. Determining what “history” is and how and why it moves the way it does can get very complicated very fast. An entire subfield of philosophy is devoted doing so. It’s called the Philosophy of History, and some of the giants have wrestled with its questions, including Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Vico, and Foucault.

But, those links are more FYI. For our purposes, I think just asking some of the basic, big questions about history would be a good way to start our discussion. It also might guarantee we go a bit deeper than History Channel-level generalizations about what history’s direction or purposes might be.

Now, many religious people, obviously, claim history has a divine purpose and/or end-point. YMMV. But, secular people also like to believe that history is governed by comprehensible rules and mechanisms. Some of the philosophers and historians have even seen predictable cycles and scientific laws in history. We can talk about those, too.

If I can find the time this weekend I will work up a short opening presentation on some of this stuff. Try to peruse some of the recommended readings or at least briefly ponder questions like these, please.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What is “history?” Just facts and events? Which events and whose facts? Does history contain a central narrative, or do we make one up? Is history more myth and rationalization than science?
  2. Why: How can historical cause and effect be determined and combined into mechanisms? How complicated is contingency? Can we detect an overall narrative or meaning to history that isn’t just self-reflection?
  3. Who: Who/what drives history? Role of big, impersonal forces (e.g., economics, science/technology, war, cultural interaction) versus individual agency and chance?
  4. Direction:/purpose
    1. Is there a natural direction to history? Are we “progressing?”
    2. Does history repeat or move in cycles?
    3. Does biology or some other natural force provide us a purpose?
  5. Lessons: Types of lessons from history and their use/misuse.
  6. Examples: What is your favorite and least favorite Law of History / theory of history’s purpose/direction?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Can California resist Trump’s agenda?

Monday’s Mtg: Is the Future African?

Africa matters. Yes, media coverage of the continent tends to focus on the bad news like civil wars, coups, corruption, poverty, and disease. And, much of Africa suffered a kind of lost decade in the 1990s, as many of its most brutal post-colonial regimes finally fell from power and civil strife engulfed them. Think Rwanda, the Congo, Liberia, Sudan, and Sierra Leone. Chaos and war and famine reigned in the 1980s and earlier in some countries.

But Ali asks, is Africa poised to turn it all around and be the next big global success story?  Could it one day command as much of the world’s attention and respect (and trade and investment) as Asia does now?

It’s a little hard to generalize about such a vast and diverse continent. As this striking map shows, the United States and China and India and Western Europe could all fit inside of Africa, with room to spare. The Congo alone is about as large as the USA west of the Mississippi.  Africa contains one-fifth of the world’s population (1.2 billion) and will hold one-fourth of it by 2050. In terms of diversity, how about 54 countries, some thinly-peopled desert nations, others tropical, others mountainous. Africa possesses vast natural resources, a rapidly-growing young labor force, and a lot of recent industrial and technological success to brag about. The links below give more details.

the continent has a long list of problems, as well. Civil wars, communal violence, and terrorism still plague some African nations. There is enormous rural and urban poverty, corrupt governance and weak civil societies. In many countries, institutions essential to economic/social development are underdeveloped, like infrastructure, K-12 education, agriculture, and public health.

Yet…so was East Asia’s! Maybe the real underlying issue here is one we have discussed before: What’s the secret sauce of economic, social, and political development? What can African nations do (individually, since “Africa” doesn’t do anything, and together, since regional cooperation is underdeveloped too.) to help themselves turn the corner? How long will it be before centuries of foreign exploitation and decades of local misrule are a memory? Finally, what can we (the United States, the West, whoever else) do to help?

Africa is a yawning gap in my international knowledge. I will cook up a brief intro to our topic and then we can discuss. I hope we can take a stab at answering Ali’s question and coming up with factors might determine if Africa’s rosy future ever comes true.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How has Africa fared in the 21st century? In general, big anchor countries, smaller nations?
  2. Reasons to be optimistic? People, leaders, institutions, economies, etc.
  3. Pessimistic same. Worst problems and emerging problems.
  4. What needs to be done: By Africans? By outsiders?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

About Africa –

Africa’s immense prospects – and problems.

Some specific problems –

Specific Countries –

  • [Maybe I’ll add some this weekend.]

NEXT WEEK: Does history have a direction or goal?

Monday’s Mtg: What is the purpose of our criminal justice system?

Criminal justice reform stays perpetually under the Media radar, but not CivCon’s. We have debated juvenile justice, the death penalty, mass incarceration, marijuana legalization, and other topics. This stuff can get complicated and it is not my area, so I usually like to tackle it one issue area at a time.

But, Linda had an interesting idea: Go back to first principles. What should our criminal justice system be trying to do? Is the goal punishment, vengeance, public safety, rehabilitation, or something else? Who sets those goals and how do we know which purposes are the priority?

The Trump Administration sure acts like it knows. And you’ll applaud if your idea of reform is to reverse Obama-era reforms that made the system a little less punitive. As promised, law and order is back. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expanded use of mandatory minimum sentences and local police departments’ asset forfeiture powers. He probably will refuse to enforce the many consent decrees that the Obama DOJ negotiated city-by-city to clean up systematic police mismanagement and abuses. There’s more, and more coming. See the links.

Liberal reforms still have momentum, however, because a fragile but bipartisan consensus has emerged at the state/local levels that the current mass incarceration-producing system needs a big rethink.  It is unsustainable financially, politically, and morally.  It probably has passed the point of net marginal benefit (to society, individuals) and it is no longer necessary as crime rates have dropped.

So, despite events in Washington, D.C., Linda’s question fits the times. Specifically, Linda asks whether the true purpose of America’s criminal justice system is:

  1. Punishment,
  2. Retribution, or
  3. Rehabilitation.

To those goals I might add:

4. Incapacitation (warehousing so they can’t commit more crimes),
5. Deterrence,
6. Restoration (reconciling with their victims and communities).

We also can debate more controversial notions about The System’s real intentions, such as whether it is a deliberate system of racial control and/or increasingly just a big stream of cash to be privatized for a profit motive. I have other theories that I will raise. This is a big topic.  But, how can we judge the need for criminal justice reform without knowing what the current system is trying to do?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. In whose eyes? Who sets the purposes of justice? Legislatures/courts? Bureaucrats? The police? Experts? The public (which public)?
  2. Motives/Incentives: What motivates each of the above actors? Different interests/preferences or different biases?
  3. The System – Purposes: Which ones matter overall the most and how do you know this?
  • Punishment
  • Vengeance
  • Rehabilitation.
  • Incapacitation.
  • Deterrence.
  • The precautionary principle or the inertia of decision accretion. Important concepts!
  • Others: Racism, fear, profit, etc.
  • JUSTICE? What does that mean?

    4.  The System – Evolution: How have purposes evolved since 1980? Why?
5. Future: Which way will reform go? How can your preferred direction be realized?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING – 

Purposes

Trump’s Reforms –

Stuff you may not know –

NEXT WEEK: Is Africa’s future a bright one?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Rural v. Urban Our Worst Political Divide?

Since Donald Trump’s election, some observers have declared that a growing “urban versus rural” divide is our worst and most unbridgeable political conflict. Supposedly, a huge cultural, economic, and values gap between cattlemen and sheep-herders Americans in big cities and small town America lies at the root of our partisan warfare. Certainly, it’s well worth an evening’s discussion at Civilized Conversation.

But, let’s be accurate in what “rural v. urban” means and what people are divided about. Small-town voters did not elect Trump. (FYI, nor did White working class voters, ¾ of whom live near cities). He won two-thirds of rural votes, but, they are only 17% of the electorate, ergo not even 10% of his voters. Small-town, “heartland” America is nowhere near a majority of the country, even a silent one.

If we move the goalposts a bit, however, we start to get somewhere. As I will explain on Monday’s opening remarks, evidence is piling up a widening gap between Americans that live and work in (1) large and medium-sized cities and their close-in suburbs, and (2) those cities’ exurbs, small towns and true rural areas. This way of seeing blue/red as city/country doesn’t explain everything in our politics, nor does it fit easily on a bumper sticker. But it sheds a lot of light on some of the forces that are tearing us apart politically, I think.

This geography-based theory leaves a lot out to be sure, notably our racial and religiosity divides. But the poles of these other deep divisions in American society are starting to line up in either rural/small town or urban/cosmopolitan camp, so the metaphor still has value.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Terms: What is meant by rural and urban and country/city? Who are we talking about: How many people, who, where?
  2. Econ: Are there big differences in objective material circumstances between rural and urban America?
  3. Culture: What about culturally, especially family and religious values and comfort with diversity?
  4. Divide: How does all this translate into a partisan political divide? How do race, religion, and immigration get mapped onto it?
  5. Trump as cause and effect.
  6. What can be done?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What is the purpose of our criminal justice system?

Monday’s Mtg: Is technology ruining our attention spans?

I know, I know. You thought ruining attention spans was my job. Information technology’s effect on human attention spans is just one of those how-info-tech-is-changing-the-world topics we dip into occasionally.  We’ve done porn’s effect on sexuality, cyber security, and Facebook’s influence on friendship.  I remember linking to at least one article for some meeting that said the internet is changing the hardwiring of our brains.

The attention span angle is a new one for us but it is a topic of both general and academic interest.  I don’t know about you, but everybody I know complains the internet has ruined their ability to focus for any length of time on just one thing.  They’ve all but stopped reading books, can’t finish articles they start reading on-line, stop watching videos on-line after 34 minutes, etc.  Academic work on the issue got a short burst of media attention (is there any other kind of media attention?) a few years ago after a major study claimed technology has reduced average human attention span to a mere eight seconds – shorter than that of a goldfish. I don’t know if the study was any good or how it defined “attention span,” but I’ve linked to an article about it, below.

So, on Monday we can discuss the readings and anything else people have read or seen on our allegedly disappearing ability to pay attention. Also, this would be an especially good meeting, I think, to share some personal experiences. Most CivCon regulars grew up before the internet existed at all, and the full-on social media age is new to everybody, everywhere. What has happened to your attention span and those of people you know?  How do you fight it?

We also could get into related issues. For example, how has the information technology revolution affected our memories, how and how much we learn, the capacity for empathy, and openness to opposing points of view?  What about our intimate relationships and social lives?

I’ll see you Monday at 7pm.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is rural versus urban America’s worst political divide?

Monday’s Mtg: What does the United States stand for?

[Update Saturday:  See above for Ali’s suggested readings for this topic.]

[DavidG’s original post follows]

Ali had this great topic idea for the day before Independence Day. At least I think it’s great. It seems to me like fundamental and long-standing notions of what America stands for are up for grabs.  A lot of it is Trump’s election, sure. But I think it goes much deeper than just him.

 

We just seem to be re-litigating bedrock principles these days. Should the United States remain a world leader and provider of expensive global public goods? Does the 20th century American social contract need to be junked or expanded? Are we still a nation of immigrants? Arguably, even very basic aspects of our democracy are in doubt, like voting rights and federalism.  I guess the exact meanings of even basic principles are always in flux in a modern democracy like ours.  Still, something sure seems different to me.

Luckily for all concerned, I have no time this weekend to over-think this topic, so I won’t give much of any opening presentation.  Instead, I will give Ali first crack at opining.  So we don’t just have everybody pontificating all night on their broad (uselessly vague?) vision of America, I will step in from time to time during the discussion to bring up specific points for us to debate.  Happy 241st birthday to us.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

 

NEXT WEEK: Is technology ruining our…attention spans?