Silicon Valley’s Incoherent Idealism

A friend linked me to Why does Silicon Valley seem to love Democrats and dismiss the GOP? A Q&A with journalist Greg Ferenstein which contains an interesting summary of the philosophy of many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with regards to an ideal society and the role that government can play in bringing it about:

The high level elevator pitch is that Silicon Valley and, broadly, urbanized professionals, represent an entirely new political category — not libertarian, not Democrat, and not Republican. I argue that they are pro-capitalism and pro-government and their belief is that the government should be an investor in citizens to make them more educated, entrepreneurial and civic, rather than act as a regulator of the two parties.

[T]he internet was created by a government lab. Much of Silicon Valley is based on government funding, whether it be basic research or education or outreach for free trade the internet requires pretty substantial government involvement.

[T]hey are not fans of libertarians. Libertarians have threatened to cut funding for economic studies, basic research in the sciences, education. These things are absolutely crucial to emerging industries and governments roll [sic] in it.

[C]rucial to what is distinct between libertarians and valley folk that Silicon Valley’s ideology is pro-market but it is not pro-liberty. Liberty is not a value. They are highly, highly, collectivist. They believe that every single person has a positive obligation to society and the government can help people or coerce people or incentive into making a unique contribution.

Silicon Valley is all about inequity and unpredictability. They really believe that some people are much more productive or inventive than others. One of the ways in which this manifests itself is performance based funding, where they will encourage competition among schools and will give some schools more money than other.

If anyone wants to make best friends immediately with Silicon Valley, say you’re going to fix housing. It is a crisis out here; we’re talking about median rents over $4,000, people are getting evicted left and right, and it’s because the super-left progressive wing in San Francisco has basically made it impossible to build anything but single family homes, and it can take years to get anything approved. It is a regulation jungle.

What they want to do is they basically want everyone to live like they lived in college, where you get to play all day long, discover new things, you don’t have to work much, maybe you have a part time job and you just get to chill. The working phrase for this is automated luxury communism. And the way for automated luxury communism to work, and this is a real thing that could be happening within our lifetimes, is that robots replace most work and you just get a check from the government every month that allows you to spend as you want. And it comes from a very, very high tax on the relatively few workers who do have economic value.

When the Atlantic’s James Bennet asked Zuckerberg what his political ideology was, “are you a conservative or a Democrat”, he said, no I’m pro-knowledge economy. And the knowledge economy is a distinctly different beast. Boeing and the other things are also technology companies — missiles and planes. The act of creating information, and believing that information alone can be a solution is a distinct ideology. Most companies will not be information technology companies, and that is why it will remain a distinct way of life.

I will attempt to summarize this into a few key stances, the Silicon Valley philosophy is described by:

  • Pro-capitalism; competition will provide the best solution
  • Pro-government; government can improve people and outcomes by subsidizing the right activities rather than trying to control interactions and exchanges
  • Anti-libertarian; libertarians want to restrict the size and role of government which they see as critical to building the infrastructure and knowledge networks they view as critically important to society’s well-being
  • Anti-liberty; individuals have positive obligations to society to make it better and should not have the freedom to shirk their responsibility
  • Pro-collectivism; “We’re all in this together, play as a team”
  • Anti-egalitarian/pro-elitism; recognize the inherent differences in ability and talent and let competition raise society on the coat tails of the winner
  • Anti-scarcity; they believe economic scarcity is an artifact of technological constraints which are being removed by the march of progress
  • Pro-taxation; high levels of taxation are a leveler and generate resources for government to use to promote the well-being of society as a whole
  • Pro-housing; affordable housing is a fundamental human right and government should assist in providing it

Let’s look at some of these principles and the fundamental contradictions they represent.

First, pro-capitalism and pro-government are antagonistic ideas. Capitalism is a voluntary, competitive market resting on the institution of private property. Government is an involuntary, monopolistic institution resting on the institution of public property. If capitalism produces a competitive outcome where the best idea wins, government handicaps it by taking resources from these competitive winners and using them to subsidize the runners-up.

Libertarians are pro-capitalism. Libertarians believe in individual freedom derived from individual property rights. To be anti-libertarian is to be pro-government and anti-capitalism. Libertarians aren’t against infrastructure and knowledge networks– they’re against provisioning these things via government, that is, taxation and monopoly force. Why does it require violence to build a road, or a telecom network? What does it say about the true value of these things if that really were the only way to build them?

Anti-liberty means to be anti-capitalism. The competition of capitalism entails allowing people the liberty to pick their own valued ends and then to select the most efficient means they can think of to achieve those ends. If you are anti-liberty, then you are into telling people what ends they may or may not value and quest after. It also means you are for taking the resources, the scarce means, that they’d employ to chase those ends and forcing them to be happy watching them get used for something else.

Pro-collectivism is anti-capitalism. Competition entails differences amongst individuals, if “we’re all in this together” then there is no value to competition and no one to provide it. If everyone is on team A, there is no team B to face off against. You can have cooperation and competition existing simultaneously, but you can not have collectivism and competition existing simultaneously.

Anti-egalitarian/pro-elitism is pro-libertarian, anti-collectivist and pro-capitalist. If the best are allowed to shine, it means the worst are allowed to suffer what they will. Libertarians don’t believe in handicapping society’s most able or serving the “least common denominator”; they do not believe in sawing off the legs of the tall to create fairness for the midgets. If the midgets want to get stilts that’s fine, but let the tall slam dunk as much as they want. Being pro-elite and anti-egalitarian is decidedly not pro-collectivist because recognizing differences implies there is no “team” on which we all play.

Anti-scarcity is anti-capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t CREATE scarcity, it is a method of dealing with the reality of it. If scarcity doesn’t exist, there is no need for exchange or competition because everyone can have all they need without the help of anyone else. Anti-scarcity is actually anti-physics, too, because it implies that discrete material matter can occupy multiple segments of space-time simultaneously.

Pro-taxation is anti-capitalism and anti-elite/pro-egalitarian. “Leveling” social outcomes is another word for denying competition and the existence of meaningful differences between people, which is implied in anti-egalitarianism. Using taxation to steal what the most able create under the competitive dynamics of capitalism is to destroy the process of capital accumulation which leads to higher productivity economy-wide. Accumulated capital is a time saver, and saving time means doing more work and thus having more goods in the same amount of time. Being pro-taxation is pro-poverty because you’re making society poorer than it otherwise would be if capital could accumulate according to capitalist outcomes.

Pro-housing is actually pro-scarcity. If goods and services aren’t scarce, there is no need for government to subsidize their production or distribution, now is there?

This “ideology” is completely incoherent. It is so bafflingly confused, it almost makes you wonder if it is intentionally so to hide the real ideology. This ideology also isn’t new. What the Silicon Valley folks are advocating is crony capitalism, the vaunted “middle way” the eternal quest of social philosopher charlatans since time immemorial. What Silicon Valley wants is the right to innovate, compete and become wealthy for themselves, but then once they’ve gotten some for themselves, to put in place restrictions, controls and limits for everyone else that will protect their gains. Government is a tool for restricting competition and buying off people who might upset the apple cart, while using resources you’ve taken from other people to do it.

I think the Silicon Valley ideologues have innovated a non-solution to many non-problems. Here is a quick summary of what I think is a real solution to some of their perceived problems, which I will refer to simply as “the private property society”.

Democrats and Republicans claim to be on different sides of the issues, but the place where they align strongly is their shared belief in the necessity of violent interference in social affairs, that is, using government (a monopoly on violence) to achieve desired social ends. Anyone who shares the philosophy that government is a reasonable tool for solving social problems, especially economic problems, is ideologically aligned with the Democrats and the Republicans. The truly radical position is to recognize violent interference in social affairs as a moral and practical non-starter. You can not make people better by force.

For government to invest in one person, it must de-invest (tax) another. This is a zero sum game and in fact it’s likely worse because by definition every time the government takes from the original owner of a resource by taxation and gives to an arbitrary recipient it has selected a less-valued state of affairs; if this were not true, it would mean individuals were routinely engaging in exchanges they perceived to make them worse off and getting poorer and poorer each time they did so.

It is not the role of the government to build the internet, to provide education, to fund basic research in science, etc. The government has no objective way of knowing which of the many projects it might support are actually more valuable than the projects which would’ve been supported by freely chosen, voluntary exchanges amongst the individuals who would be taxed to provide what the government hands out.

Liberty IS a value, although not a value unto itself. Liberty is valuable specifically because of what liberty allows, for each person to pursue those plans he deems most beneficial to his well-being. Without liberty, individuals are forced to accede to the demands and the plans of government, and these demands and plans may not only be worse than the ones they had in mind, but against their very values and ideas of right and wrong.

It is true that people are unequal– unequal in their starting position in life and unequal in their ending position, for every person will die at a different time and place and under different circumstances. People have different abilities, and different means, and their abilities and means will change continually over the course of their lives. The question is not “How can we make people more equal?” but rather “Will people be allowed to be the primary determinant of those inevitable changes, or will they be forced to change according to the pattern of a will other than their own?” The inequality of life provides all the incentive, encouragement and reward necessary for the best to strive to be better, and the worst to do what they must. Nothing can be added to that equation without inadvertently taking something else away.

Housing is a particular problem in San Francisco and Silicon Valley because that part of the country is particularly in love with the promise and power of government. In a competitive market environment, scarcity results in higher prices; this is the “housing shortage” the Silicon Valley crowd is witnessing and experiencing. Normally, higher prices would incentivize an increased supply. Is it not profitable to build housing in the Bay Area? If it is profitable, why aren’t more investors/business people trying to take advantage by increasing the supply of housing? The fact that a problem that is normally solved by investor activity chasing profits is not only occurring, but getting worse and worse every day in the midst of one of the densest communities of super-investor/business people in the entire country suggests that housing in the Bay Area is not controlled by market forces but political forces. The solution is simple– get the political forces out of the way. Eliminate zoning restrictions, eliminate permitting, eliminate taxes on the sale of land and housing, etc. Let markets work.

Information and knowledge are not new to the economy. And knowledge is not valuable without the liberty to pursue what one has learned. Silicon Valley should be strongly aligned with the private property society and the liberty to employ valuable knowledge that comes with it. The fact that they are not raises my suspicion and concern.

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American Elites On The 1st & 4th Amendments

The 1st Amendment

In Donald Trump Could Threaten U.S. Rule of Law, Scholars Say, the NYT has arrayed a number of experts critical of Donald Trump’s “contempt” for the 1st Amendment:

“They ought to look into Judge Curiel, because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace,” Mr. Trump said. “O.K.? But we will come back in November. Wouldn’t that be wild if I am president and come back and do a civil case?”

David Post, a retired law professor who now writes for the Volokh Conspiracy, a conservative-leaning law blog, said those comments had crossed a line.
“This is how authoritarianism starts, with a president who does not respect the judiciary,” Mr. Post said. “You can criticize the judicial system, you can criticize individual cases, you can criticize individual judges. But the president has to be clear that the law is the law and that he enforces the law. That is his constitutional obligation.”
[…]
Other legal scholars said they were worried about Mr. Trump’s commitment to the First Amendment. He has taken particular aim at The Washington Post and its owner, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.
[…]
“There are very few serious constitutional thinkers who believe public figures should be able to use libel as indiscriminately as Trump seems to think they should,” Professor Somin said. “He poses a serious threat to the press and the First Amendment.”
In When Google Met Wikileaks (Amazon link, also available on the web as PDF via Google search, ironically), a transcript and commentary by Julian Assange about his time with Eric Schmidt of Google, Assange says:

Whistleblowing publishers, they [Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen] tell us, need “supervision” in order to serve a positive role in society. As for who should conduct this supervision, they suggest “a central body facilitating the release of information.” No more detail is offered, and none of the obvious dangers of this totalitarian vision are discussed.

[…]

In December 2010, in the wake of Cablegate, various US politicians called for the extrajudicial assassination of Julian Assange, including by drone strike. US senators labeled WikiLeaks a “terrorist organization” and named Assange a “high-tech terrorist” and an “enemy combatant” engaged in “cyber warfare.”

 

A 120-strong US Pentagon team was set up ahead of the release of the Iraq War Logs and Cablegate, dedicated to “taking action” against WikiLeaks. Similar publicly declared task forces in the FBI, the CIA, and the US State Department were also assembled. The US government began to apply pressure to allied countries to detain Julian Assange, and to prevent WikiLeaks from transiting or operating within their territories.

[…]

In early 2014 documents from the National Security Agency obtained by Glenn Greenwald from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden were published, revealing that the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had conducted bulk surveillance against every regular visitor to the WikiLeaks website, collecting their IP addresses and search queries in real time. The documents show how GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) is authorized to perform “Active Covert Internet Operations,” “Covert Technical Operations,” and “Effects Operations” against online “adversaries,” including infiltrating chat rooms; “false flag” attacks; computer network attacks; DDoS attacks; disruption; jamming phones, computers, and email accounts; and offensive operations intended to “destroy” and “disrupt” adversaries.329 The same documents showed high-level internal discussions between the office of the NSA’s general counsel and other officials about the possibility of designating WikiLeaks a “malicious foreign actor” for the purposes of targeting it.

I have no doubt that Donald Trump is no 1st Amendment scholar or defender. It also seems true that the 1st Amendment has been on shaky ground for some time and will continue to be even if Donald Trump is not president.

The 4th Amendment

In this video interview of billionaire Larry Ellison, “Larry Ellison Talks Steve Jobs and Evil Google“, Ellison shares his frustration about Larry Page and Google using Oracle tools without license:

I don’t see how you can just copy someone else’s stuff, that really bothers me.

He then goes on to share his opinion about the NSA and whether it poses a threat to American liberties:

The great thing is we live in a democracy, if we don’t like what the NSA is doing we can just get rid of the government and put in a different government. We’ve been collecting this information for so long, long before NSA was collecting it, let me tell you who was collecting it– American Express, Bank of A-, Visa, all of your credit card data, all of your financial records, this whole issue of privacy is utterly fascinating to me. Who’s ever heard of this information being misused by the government? In what way? [Whatever the NSA is doing] is great, it’s essential. By the way, President Obama thinks it’s essential. It’s essential if we want to minimize the kinds of strikes we just had in Boston.

If the government used it to do political targeting, if the Democrats used it to go after Republicans, if the Republicans used it to go after Democrats. In other words, if we stopped looking for terrorists, and we started looking for people on the other side of the aisle.

In Stefan Molyneux’s “The Truth About Edward Snowden” video, we learn the following about the NSA and political spying:

  • The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) was created in response to the revelation that President Richard Nixon had employed federal resources to investigate his political opponents
  • Since the 1970s, the NSA has operated a worldwide intelligence gathering cooperative dubbed ECHELON through which partner intelligence agencies around the globe agree to spy on other countries’ citizens by request (ie, US requests UK to spy on US citizen as a “foreign citizen” of the UK government) to avoid domestic surveillance abuse charges
  • ECHELON was engaged in commercial spying in Europe; in one instance a German technology manufacturer had an invention stolen and marketed against it by an American firm
  • Since 1999, Microsoft has inserted special “keys” inside all Windows software at the NSA’s request, granting “back door” access to the US government

So senior politicians (aka the president) have in the past abused government surveillance resources for political gain. And the US intelligence apparatus has been used to violate license agreements (“copy people’s stuff”) and abjure property rights in business technologies. One would think, then, that Larry Ellison would be more skeptical of the NSA.

According to this interview, Larry Ellison has the same opinion of the NSA that a random, patriotic and credulous man-on-the-street might have. I find that pretty hard to believe given that Larry Ellison is a billionaire who owns 98% of Lanai all to himself. Here are some possible explanations that seek to reconcile Larry Ellison’s stated beliefs with his personal success and implicit intelligence:

  1. He is lying; Larry Ellison’s company, Oracle, is a major supplier to the NSA and he doesn’t want to put any sweetheart deals at risk.
  2. He is lying; Larry Ellison has made a sweetheart deal with the government and other power elites that he looks the other way/cheerleads NSA spying and in return he gets “protection”.
  3. He is scared; Larry Ellison knows the high stakes of being a billionaire and knows what can happen to a talkative, uppity guy at the top of the totem pole, so he plays dumb and loyal to save his own skin.
  4. He is lying and a hypocrite; Larry Ellison is using the NSA’s access to competitive intelligence for unfair advantage and license agreement violations of his own and is putting up a smoke screen by playing the annoyed priest in regards to the sins of others which are also his own.

Interestingly, Donald Trump, no fan of at least one amendment of the Bill of Rights (according to some of the legal scholars quoted above), believes that the Chinese government engages in corporate espionage:

If corporate espionage is bad, why isn’t Donald Trump talking about the NSA and corporate America’s record on business espionage?

 

Review – Father, Son & Co.

Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond

by Thomas Watson, Jr., published 1990

The son of IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson Jr.’s “Father, Son & Co.” is many things: a collection of folksy business wisdom passed down by his father, memories and recollections of his participation as an airman in World War II and later a US diplomatic career in the USSR, a story about the challenges of growing a global business, lessons in leadership and team building, the pitfalls of transforming an business organization from small scale to large scale and, most importantly, a personal reflection on the value of family. It was most interesting and entertaining for me to read when it dealt with business and some of the personal issues of the author in trying to prove himself in the shadow of a legendary father; I found it less enjoyable and less authentic when the author dabbled in politics or retold sappy anecdotes about popular political figures of his era with whom he had had personal relationships.

The Business of IBM

The axis around which the story revolves is not Tom Watson, Jr., and it’s not Tom Watson, Sr. It’s the company which Senior grew and transformed into IBM, and which Junior effected the change over to actual computing technology in the 1960s, that the book is really about. But because Junior’s and Senior’s personalities, families, fortunes and lives were so wrapped up in the affairs of IBM, it becomes about all of those things in turn as well. That is somewhat surprising because the book is ostensibly a memoir by Junior, yet the gravity of IBM is hard to ignore in nearly every chapter of the book.

When Senior joined on with the company as general manager and, shortly thereafter, president, IBM (then Computing-Tabulating-Record Company) was an important concern but not necessarily a large one. Senior had a vision for it and something of an indomitable will, and he had experienced enough success and failure on his own in other ventures that he had an idea of what it would take to create the vision he had for the company. He built a large, organized and polished sales force, instilled high morale and unity of purpose by creating training programs, achievement awards, national sales team conventions and even company songs that everyone had to sing. He also, like many strong-willed founders, created something of a cult of personality around himself, putting his picture up at IBM offices and facilities, writing memos that were distributed widely to all staff and constantly visiting field offices and manufacturing facilities and “pressing the flesh” with company men and their wives and children, creating a kind of endearing aura of patriarchy.

In later years this intuitive, personality-driven approach was deemed problematic by Junior and other successor senior executives who believed that Senior had created a culture and cadre of Yes Men and hadn’t implemented enough standards and professional protocols that could create stability for growth. But for decades of the company’s history (essentially the first half, to date) this approach seemed to work, and fantastically so. Company publications like “Business Machines” and sales achievement distinctions like the “Hundred Percent Club” put the company’s focus on employee well-being and professionalism and incentivized outstanding achievement in the dawn of the era of lifetime commitment to big companies.

Something that shocked me as I read was how much of IBM’s growth could be attributed to solving statistical problems for the US and other national governments:

IBM more than doubled in size during the New Deal… Social Security… made Uncle Sam IBM’s biggest customer.

Wow! I suppose someone else could’ve come up with the technology as well, but it is kind of amazing to think that the evil New Deal and the disastrous Social Security pyramid scheme would have been too burdensome to administer without the existence of IBM tabulating machines which were a major time saver. It reminds me of Palantir Technologies, which helps the NSA, CIA and other foreign governments conduct surveillance work on target populations, another way to profit off of coercive interference in society’s affairs.

This trend didn’t stop with the New Deal but only started there. During WW2 the company converted many of their factories to help produce armaments (a fairly common industrial practice during the time, but still remarkable) and after the war one of the big incentives (and indeed, initial sources of research funding) for switching the company’s focus to electronic computing solutions were the ongoing “national defense” needs of the US military as the Cold War wore on.

Words of wisdom

I enjoyed the many old-timey nuggets of wisdom and rules about manners sprinkled throughout the book which were mostly remembrances of Junior of things Senior had said to him as he raised him or mentored him in the business. For example, Junior talks about the first time he road a cross-country train with his father on a business trip and the way his father taught him to clean up the wash basin in the bathroom of the railroad car to be considerate of others. “The person coming after you will judge you by how the place is left,” he tells him as he uses a towel to wipe down the basin before and after shaving in it. He talks about the importance of leaving the basin in a clean state so that the next person will have “the same chance you had”. There is a deep moral lesson here that goes well beyond the world of men shaving– this is a version of the Golden Rule, not just considering how upsetting it would be to have someone leave a place in a state of disarray for you, but then following that logic through to performing a service voluntarily for other people in trying to leave the world a little bit nicer than you found it.

In another instance, Senior lectures Junior about the practical reasons for treating even the “lowly” members of society in a kindly and generous fashion:

There is a whole class of people in the world who are in a position to poor-mouth you unless you are sensitive to them. They are the headwaiters, Pullman car conductors, porters and chauffeurs. They see you in an intimate fashion and can really knock off your reputation.

Those who enjoy shows like Downton Abbey are familiar with the idea that the “servants” of the world end up having an interesting amount of power and leverage over those they serve because they are so familiar with them they know their weaknesses, secrets and bad habits. There is something noble and self-aware in Senior’s advice here– a cultivated awareness of the reality of power and influence, mixed with a genuine empathy for treating even the relatively less fortunate with respect and concern. It might be read as “These people could really knife you if you don’t pay attention” but I think it is also honestly read as “Don’t forget these are people, too, and they want and need kindness regardless of their station in life.”

Another endearing moment comes when Senior teaches Junior about how he manages his executives:

“Well, I haven’t shaken up So-and-so for a while. So I’ll get him in and ask some questions about his department and in the process part his hair a little. He’ll get a pat on the back if I find something good or a kick in the tail if I find something bad.”

The imagery of “parting someone’s hair” says a lot about the relative authority of the two people in this “process” and while kicking someone in the tail sounds like bullying, it was clear that Senior gave quite a few pats on the back, as well, and when he dished out the ass-kickings, they might have been deserved– these were grown men dealing with a multi-million dollar business, after all, and if they weren’t bringing their problems to Senior’s attention but rather waiting for him to discover them, shame on them.

In teaching Junior about how to be an executive, Senior advised “what a chief executive does outside his business is just as important as what he does at his desk”, which was another idea I found interesting. I’ve been skeptical in the past of chief executives who seem to spend more time glad-handing than running the business. But I’ve come to appreciate that a lot of running a business simply is taking care of relationships– with customers, employees, vendors and even members of the local community. IBM’s business was dependent upon political grace, so there is perhaps a more sinister side to this advice from the standpoint of simply being a businessman but it was an interesting idea to ponder, nonetheless, that the chief executive’s identity and role extend beyond his office hours.

Senior was clearly a hard-driver and a hard-charger himself. So I was interested to hear about his daily routine:

He had his day set up so that he got up at seven, played tennis from seven-thirty to eight-thirty to stay in shape, got to work on time, did his work, went home, read great books for an hour, had dinner, listened to classical music for a while, and went to bed.

Senior ended up dying of starvation; his stomach was so scarred from stress-induced ulcers that it essentially closed up and wouldn’t let enough food in, and he didn’t want to go under the knife and so chose a fairly painful death by starvation (more on health issues in a moment). But despite this, he lived to age 82! I think that’s still considered a long time to live and I am always curious what a person’s habits were when I hear of such longevity, so it was pleasing to see that he put emphasis on daily physical activity as well as daily relaxing, contemplative activity (reading and music listening). Interestingly, breakfast didn’t seem to play a large part in his routine although Junior recounts many times when he had lunch brought in despite it being ignored in this telling.

A few other choice ideas, on restraint:

What you haven’t said, you can say anytime.

And on the value of friendship:

Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.

The son also rises

So, Senior had a knack for keen insight, but what about Junior?

While Senior was the builder, Junior was the administrator and manager. He seemed to take what he learned from Senior and build on it, so many of his notions seemed like continuations of the thoughts of Senior. For example, consider Senior’s advice about how chief executives should behave as Junior extemporizes about the relationships of businessmen:

A good businessman needs a lot of friends. Cultivating them is a laborious process, and how well you succeed is a direct result of how much effort and thoughtfulness you bring to bear.

He isn’t talking about friends in the business. He’s talking about friends outside of the business, which to me sounds like an echo of the idea that the chief executive’s job extends well beyond life in the office.

Similarly, he recounts a tale about the importance of making good introductions,

I stuck out my hand and said to him, “I’m Tom Watson Jr.”

Offering one’s name with a hand shake ensures that the other person is not put in the uncomfortable spot of being expected to remember people he’s only met once before, which engenders a sense of gratitude and respect immediately. Consider that this was the practice of an individual leading one of the largest and most well-known companies in the world and he still made the effort to be forward about his identity like this.

I also made a note of Junior’s characterization of the political structure of business:

The government has checks and balances, but a business is a dictatorship, and that is what makes it really move.

I think there is consensus building in business, too. It’s hard to keep a team cohesive and productive over a long period of time if people don’t feel like they contribute ideas and that those ideas get seriously considered. But I do understand the idea that ultimately decisions have to be made by somebody, that is, one person, and a business with a strong will behind it can make those decisions more effectively because everyone may be listened to but they don’t necessarily all get a vote. In the business world, people tend to vote by exit which is rarely an option in the world of politics.

The wealth of health

As mentioned earlier, Senior ended up choosing death by starvation when his health maladies caught up with him, though he made it to age 82. I noticed that both Junior and his younger brother (who headed up IBM’s non-US business) suffered heart attacks in their middle-age, attributed to the high stress of their positions.

Junior describes a life of almost continual travel and social functions, not just for himself but for his father and his brother. It was clear reading the book that the Watson clan and IBM executive leadership in general were part of the “global elite”, they knew dignitaries and heads of state from around the planet and were deeply connected to American political figures as well, a confusing blending of public and private prerogatives and relationships. There were many chapters where Junior described so many different locales and travels simultaneously that is almost seemed as if he was everywhere at once– at the very least he would spend long stretches of time away from home engaged in high level networking. It was a fascinating glimpse into “how the other half lives.”

But it was also terrifying from a health point of view. It is just hard to imagine this high-paced lifestyle allowing one to live with optimal health and longevity. Along with suffering a heart attack, his brother seemed to be frail enough to die from a “fall” at age 55. Junior ended up quitting his official business responsibilities following his heart attack which he reflects on with positivity in the book, saying it was a relief to have an opportunity to look critically at his life and get out while he still could. It seems to say a lot about the lifestyle he was living that he could so clearly connect his longevity to his work and chose the former over the latter.

Working with family

At the beginning of the book, Junior says that if you have the chance to go into business with your father, know that it will be difficult, but do it. I was fascinated by this strong suggestion given that he spends much of the rest of the book relating all the violent disagreements he had with his father, their latent power struggles, the continual struggles with self-esteem and even depression that he experienced living and working under the shadow of his successful father and so on.

There were many touching moments in the book where the reader is afforded a look at the parenting practices of Senior, who was truly from a pre-modern era. But there were also many that shocked my sensibilities of the proper relationship between parent and child, such as when Junior recalled how Senior handled tax documentation of his personal trust:

Each year his accountant would come around and have me sign income tax forms that were blank. He’d make an excuse that he hadn’t had time yet to fill them out. This kept up not only through college but ten years beyond, until I was a grown man with children of my own.

How would hiding this information from a child do anything but stoke their curiosity, fear and self-criticism? Why did this practice continue on even when he was a man with his own family (at which point he had long been a part of the business in a senior role)?

While the book offered many such puzzles and glimpses into family life for the accomplished Watsons, I couldn’t help but wonder how people who had achieved such greatness in so many areas had completely neglected to resolve interpersonal emotional conflicts and instead struggled with this source of unhappiness for decades. What is family for?

For me, reading about the early struggles and the early attempts at growth are always the most interesting parts of a story like Thomas Watson, Jr.’s, and IBM’s in general. I found myself less interested in what it was like being Bobby Kennedy’s friend, or getting tapped for the ambassadorship in Moscow. You can look at the history of the company and of the family and think, “It could’ve been anyone else, it’s not clear what they did that was special or unique beyond being lucky” but you can’t say they didn’t work hard, or purposefully. There’s no simple recipes or formulas for success in this book when it comes to business, family or life, but there are a number of things to think about, struggles that turn out to be common to all of us, great or small in our vision or accomplishments. I think that is where the value in this book lay for me.

Review – Class

Class: A Guide Through The American Status System

by Paul Fussell, published 1983

“A touchy subject”

Is class “America’s forbidden thought”? Does class bring up “unpleasing” notions? Does class exist in America?

While things may have been different in 1983 when this book was first published, for most of my life I have heard a lot about class– in literature, reading history, in the news and in conversation with friends, family, colleagues and strangers. The divisions that are most common are “upper class”, “middle class” and “working class”. Oh, and “the rich”. We don’t seem to have “lower classes”, and it isn’t always clear what the difference is between “the rich” and “upper class”, or even the well-to-do “middle class” and the “upper class”, or the barely-hanging-in-there “middle class” and the “working class.” We often hear about “the poor” but no one seems to have ever seen or spoken to one. The homeless don’t count.

These are primarily economic distinctions but, then, America’s economic identity has loomed larger than much else throughout time so that stands to reason. But Paul Fussell is more concerned with the elements of class which are connected to choice, call it taste, and so am I. Class is a confusing and complex subject and I don’t think Fussell manages to precisely and objectively define the term before launching into his observations, yet somehow this doesn’t prevent him from hitting his mark.

There’s so much to the idea of class and yet what has always fascinated me is the behavioral aspect of it. How a person of a certain class will tend to behave whatever his economic standing, whatever his occupation or role, whatever his level of education or wherever he grew up. Is there something genetic to class? It may be.

Segmenting the classes

Fussell identifies nine primary American classes despite the typical sociologists system of five:

  1. Top out-of-sight
  2. Upper
  3. Upper middle
  4. Middle
  5. High proletarian
  6. Mid-proletarian
  7. Low proletarian
  8. Destitute
  9. Bottom out-of-sight

The first three constitute a group, the next four constitute a second group and the last two constitute the final group. There are several interesting things to note about this arrangement. First, Fussell sees many similarities in behavior between the absolute top and the absolute bottom which is why they are similarly named (for modern, statistically-inclined socialists, read “top 1%” and “bottom 1%”). Second, the arrangement of classes 2-4 highlight the tendency of those closer to the top to see themselves as more average while acknowledging the penchant of those closer to the middle to identify more closely with the top out of aspiration-exasperation and paranoia.

Third, there is a glaring emphasis on crude commonality and the reality that much of the American populace looks, lives and behaves in a peasant-like fashion. While the proletarians were historically disenfranchised, undifferentiated masses providing cheap labor in industrialized urban environments, the truth is these people were and always will be peasants at heart and Fussell, joyously, acknowledges this in his class distinctions. The lack of buffer between destitution and proletarianism also shows how, whether they’re aware of it or not, those who look “down” on them from “above” can rarely tell the difference between a stable prole and a lost one.

While he comes up with 9 categories, in reality Fussell spends an inordinate amount of his time discussing the habits and tastes of proles, another, smaller fraction typifying the “uppers” and the remaining moments pointing out how anxious the few middle class people are between these two poles.

Class safari

Through an exploration of appearance, living space, consumption habits, intellectual pursuits and speech Fussell tries to narrow in on specific details that can help us see class clearly. As you read through this material, two things happen: one, you become retrospectively more observant of the behavior of others you’ve witnessed without special note and two, you flinch each time you realize you’ve done something prole yourself.

This might be a good place to collect some of my favorite observations and append my comments.

Our former lower-middle class, the new high proles, now head “the masses”… they are identifiable as people things are done to. They are in bondage to monetary policy, rip-off advertising, crazes and delusions, mass low culture, fast foods, consumer schlock.

To that I’d add food pyramids (government nutritional diktat), public education and (increasingly related) a lifestyle of indebtedness. And “social engineering” broadly understood.

Imagine being under the constant eye of the foreman, a figure who has absolutely no counterpart in middle-class society [and] being required to bring a doctor’s note if they are absent a day…the degree to which your work is overseen by a superior suggests your real class more accurately than the amount you take home from it.

Interpreting class as a choice, I think it is even truer to observe whether one’s supervisor feels the need to ask you for that note or not, for example. The truly lower class person is held in check and formally “made honest” by the routine of the doctor’s note (even if he’s making one up or paying the GP off to scribble out a stack of notes for his use). The low-skilled worker who is nonetheless classy at heart never raises this suspicion from his supervisors and would probably find the exercise offensive and detrimental to the trust he has in his managers.

This idea of a spectrum of supervision is an interesting one. We can see the self-made entrepreneur at one end of the band and the on-the-job-transient at the other. Curiously, major corporate executives probably belong close to the transient, being supervised closely by the regulatory-legal apparatus and, nominally, by a board of directors and shareholders… some “kings of the world” they are! Elite politicians are clearly upper class in this sense, inhabiting a space close to the entrepreneur, but perhaps even further for those who have truly made it– the Clintons, Roosevelts and Al Sauds and others who are beyond scrutiny and control.

At the bottom of the working class, the low prole is identifiable by the gross uncertainty of his employment.

What I think Fussell is referring to here are people like construction workers, whose only hope of holding steady work is that the bubble of the day keep on inflating. When it pops, these types usually experience grave setbacks and may even take up or return to a life of petty crime to get by.

But what I think many (middle class? high proles?) would think of here is the crude characterization of the cold workings of a competitive market place, where the poor working stiff minds his own business and then loses his job in a sudden, mass layoff. Or where the boss just doesn’t like you, because you talk back or look at him funny or remind him of someone he hated in high school, so he fires you.

This doesn’t really happen in real life. Assuming a company is a viable going concern and not a fraud or otherwise mismanaged (in which case ALL staff jobs are at risk, prole and management alike), most prole occupations are secure with good behavior and dedication to the cause. While the bogeyman of job security is trotted out now and again, implicitly or explicitly, either in the case of a significant behavioral breach or as a means of putting the piss into the team and reminding them who is in charge, it’s all in “good fun.” Most employers aren’t that capricious because competition goes both ways and they can quickly lose much more than a staff member if they treat people like crap all the time.

a cheap way to achieve a kind of distinction is to be thin… flaunting obesity is a prole sign, as if the object were to offer maximum aesthetic offense to the higher classes and thus exact a form of revenge.

One flight across the country nowadays is all you need to remind you what class you’re in. If you can comfortably sit in an economy airline seat for 5 hours, there’s an excellent chance you are middle class at least.

legibility of their dress is another sign… T-shirts or caps with messages on them you’re supposed to read and admire… When proles assemble to enjoy leisure, they seldom appear in clothing without words on it.

Another example is the way proles turn unhealthy lifestyles into faux-pride brands, such as “Big Dog”. And the penultimate in legible clothing is the wearing of sports jerseys in public, conspicuously and most frequently outside of sporting events and arenas or as a form of semi-formal dress wear. In fact, I was rather dismayed to see Fussell miss this one, but then a correspondent reminded me: “Sports jerseys as casual wear were unthinkable at  the time of ‘Class’. If there were to be a new edition, one would have to assess virtually the entire country as prole.”

So true.

On baseball caps:

The little strap at the rear is the significant prole feature because it demeans the buyer and the user, making him do the work formerly thought the obligation of the seller, who used to have to stock numerous sizes.

This was such a quaint observation looking back. Gone are the days of the plastic adjusto-strap. “Lids” nowadays are characterized by a bowl cut with a sewn in elastic band thus making them all “one-size-fits-all” which looks as believable as a one-size-fits-all dress shirt would. The funny thing is that some proles have adopted the perpetual wearing of the merchandising stickers as a sign of pride, as if to suggest this “lid” just came off the shelf (or better– was just sneakily removed from it without the vendors notice). Many other proles have graduated on to capless attire, headwear having degenerated so much amongst the lower classes that you can now spot a prole by his lack of cranial adornment (typically with an odd, early-balding molting pattern on the dome signifying poor diet and careless lifestyle choices) and similarly you can spot an ambitious member of the lower middle class by his decision to wear a simple, out-dated hat for the look and thrill of wearing it rather than because it is considered respectable or polite to cover one’s bird’s nest.

And for the she-prole, there is nothing that shouts “I am sexy and interesting” at a party or while walking a yippie, twerp man-repellent dog around the neighborhood like the fluorescent trucker hat which could only be complete, of course, with the throwback old-school plastic prole adjusto-strap.

you could probably draw a trustworthy class line based wholly on the amount of sugar consumed by the family

And thus, one of the most important and yet overlooked motivations of the “paleo diet” movement beyond health. In a society experiencing high prole drift, it seems only natural that those with class would take a stand anywhere they can in drawing clear class boundaries.

This is such a great book with so many things to quote and comment on, I simply don’t have the time. Maybe I will follow this post up eventually with another round of “Class” wits but for now the media above should suffice.

Review – Citizens

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

by Simon Schama, published 1990

An attempt at an analytical reading

I’ve been reading as many books as ever lately, but I haven’t had the time or the interest to review much of what I have read perhaps in part because my reading has felt rather “aimless”. It isn’t that I am reading a random assortment of books willy-nilly with no unifying logic to why I take them off the shelf, it is more about not having a particular purpose as I read, failing to annotate and highlight and thus make the book my own and therefore ending up with the feeling of “What did I take away from this?”

Luckily for me, I read a book several years ago called “How To Read A Book” and posted what I think was a rather excellent summary of its main ideas. I went back to this post a few days ago as I became acutely aware of my perception of my recent reading experiences and looked it over and in so doing gained resolve.

As I work through this review, I aim to discuss the following:

  1. Classification of the book according to kind and subject matter
  2. State the “unity” of the book with utmost brevity
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation
  4. Define the problem the author is trying to solve
  5. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with its most important sentences
  6. Know the author’s arguments by a sequence of sentences
  7. Determine which problems were solved and which were not
  8. Do not criticize until you can say “I understand”
  9. Do not disagree disputatiously (arguing to argue) or contentiously (being controversial for the sake of controversy)
  10. Demonstrate the difference between knowledge and opinion by presenting reasons for criticism
  11. If criticizing, demonstrate where the author is misinformed, uninformed, illogical or incomplete

Now, #5 is going to be tough because as I mentioned, I didn’t bother annotating or underlining anything in this book. I really don’t have an easy way to reference key ideas or moments where the author built his argument. Similarly, #6 is a challenge. Instead, I am working with my general impression of the text having completed it.

I also want to avoid criticism of the author and his treatment and focus on my own understanding of the subject as gleaned from the book. Although I’ve studied the events in detail at other times in my academic history and through other books (The Days of the French Revolution) I am by no means an expert on the period and I certainly haven’t read or investigated it enough to spot errors in the author’s knowledge or specific arguments. Instead, my desire is to explore what I took away from the reading and what about my own cognitive abilities or knowledge hindered me from getting more.

In that vein, one of the things HTRAB recommends is to read with the following question in mind: “What problem was the author trying to solve in writing this book?”

Related to this is the personal question: “Why am I reading this book? What question do I hope to answer by reading it?”

Origins

So why did I read “Citizens”? I’ve been exploring the cause of political revolutions for several years and over time my perspective is coalescing around the idea that there is no such thing as a popular revolution– that all political change occurs at the top and is pushed down rather than occurring at the bottom and destabilizing the top. My view is that a political system always has a set of elites at the top who control it (the “in elites”) and a set of elites who can be grouped as those without power but aiming to influence power or agitating to get it themselves (the “out elites”). These two groups are always in conflict with one another and while they may use non-elite social groups as a tool in the struggle, these non-elite groups never act autonomously or without the express authority and direction of one of the elite groups.

In ancient monarchic regimes, this view can be clearly exemplified by “intrigues of court” in which the monarch, his friends and his family are constantly fighting to maintain power against antagonized aristocratic groups and other claimants to the throne (internally) and foreign powers seeking domination or control (externally), with the frequent circumstance that foreign intrigues come to dominate internal politics and vice versa.

The two major countervailing examples of this theory are the American and French Revolutions, both of which were supposed to be popular uprisings against corrupt central authorities which results in a wholesale transformation of the political landscape. The more I studied the American Revolution, the more it became obvious that, for example, the Continental Congress was a group of colonial elites claiming representation of “the people” who were conspiring not for more liberty but to have and to create the power of the colonial government themselves in opposition to the British king and parliament. The French Revolution, then, seemed to stand alone as a popular affair.

The question: “Was the French Revolution an example of a spontaneous popular uprising or does it conform to the theory of elite conflict?”

I chose “Citizens” to explore this question because Simon Schama’s thesis is an explicit answer to that question: the French Revolution was not a popular uprising but an example of an elite-driven reform movement getting out of hand, and the end result of the event was not to put in place an entirely new governing structure but rather to exchange captains and confederates from one regime to another, with the means of governance and central social problems largely unchanged.

Structure

Schama divides “Citizens” into three parts:

  1. Alterations
  2. Expectations
  3. Choices

Although the text largely moves chronologically, there is some jumping ahead (often in the form of acknowledgements of a particular person’s eventual fate, or the irony of their present behavior given a later position they adopt) and back. Each chapter attempts to explore a specific theme from multiple angles and people’s perspectives. The three parts of the book chronologically explore the ancien regime of Louis XVI, the events of the French Revolution leading up to the end of the monarchy and the formation of the revolutionary Republic and finally the implosion of the Republic into the Directory and the Terror.

As the title of the book suggests, another way to think of these parts is the changing conception of the French public (elites and commoners) from the subjects of a monarchy, to the citizens of a republic and finally, to un-personhood during the paranoia of the Terror in which everyone was suspect and might be tried and executed as a threat at any time. A final thematic overlay are the ideas and periods of reform, revolution and repression and retrogression.

The argument, outlined

In the first part, Schama explores the idea that rather than being a squalid, repressive and backward political entity, the French Monarchy of the late 1700’s was progressive-minded (even for its time) and was already engaged in various reforms up to the eve of the events which came to be known as the French Revolution. While the French state consisted of a large and growing bureaucracy and a complicated and at times oppressive tax authority, the monarch and his ministers were civic-minded and future-oriented and saw themselves as having a duty to improving the lives and welfare of the common public. From supporting internal trade freedoms to celebrating technological achievements (hot air balloons were an exciting development of the times), the French monarchy was engaged in a process of self-criticism and analysis and attempting to implement the “state of the art” in a variety of fields.

One major challenge to this effort was the financial overhang of the Seven Years’ War and French sponsorship of the American War of Independence which resulted in repeated strains and logjams as the monarchy tried to fund current expenditures. Another was the sense amongst many out elites, including a rising professional class of bureaucrats who had purchased or gained their office through personal qualification, that the reform movement wasn’t going fast enough and left too many undue privileges in the hands of hereditary nobles and entitled clergy.

This reform movement occurred against a backdrop of philosophical debate. While some elites held on to ancient notions of nobility, gentility and class, and new class of professional elites were held in thrall to the naturalism and humanism of Rousseau, who “Citizens” portrays as a peerless thought-leader amongst the aggrieved counter-elite. Rousseau held up a notion of primitive equality, simplicity and “sensibilite” as the hallmarks of an enlightened society in contrast to the ranks and obligations, splendor and sentimentality of the monarchy and aristocratic society.

Transitions

The Revolution itself began as series of largely disconnected challenges to the power of the king and his ministers which initially aimed at testing their resolve and forcing their hand with regards to particular reforms. Over a short period of time, however, the various agitators united around a common theme– first, opposition to the monarchy itself and promotion of the establishment of competing institutions of social power (the Legislative Assembly) and later, the wholesale destruction of the monarchy and nobility as a threat to the revolutionary movement.

What is fascinating about this period is observing who the revolutionaries were. Not the members of the lynch mobs and other mass movements, but the members of the Legislative Assembly and other successive political bodies. These people were mostly current minor and major nobility, clergy, and many legal professionals and provincial politicians. The king’s own cousin, the Duc d’Orleans, was one of the leading revolutionaries (until he was guillotined in the ensuing hysteria of the Revolution) whose residence in Paris was a hotbed of anti-monarchic intellectualism and activity.

Although Paris fishwives drove the cannon to Versaille, none sat in the Legislative Assembly. Though artisans and other manual laborers helped tear down the Bastille, none spoke in the National Convention. And while peasants were recruited for the revolutionary militias to fight counter-revolutionaries foreign and domestic, no peasant’s son was a member of the Directory.

The revolution lost

The murder of Louis XVI, his wife and many of his ministers marked the physical end of the monarchy and the dawn of an elite civil war which culminated in the submission of the Republic at the feet of an even more powerful central authority, the military dictator and self-styled emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. With the legitimacy of power itself questioned by the revolution, it seems only natural that the logical outcome would be a series of murderous battles for power ending in the dominance of a military figure.

As I read the book and watched one “patriot” after another turn on each other and seek the shedding of blood as a solution to all crises and recriminations I wondered how much of the paranoia was sincere versus concocted to serve a short-term political purpose. Although launched by out elites originally, the Revolution created no stable platform for the in elites to control and thus the political competition intensified dramatically. The constant accusations of foreign plots and emigres counter-revolutionary schemes at times seemed constructed and artificial, yet the universalist tone of the French Revolution and the intermarriage of European political elites across national boundaries meant there were good reasons why foreign outsides wanted “in”, too.

Closing remarks

One of my biggest challenges with this book is my inability to pronounce French words and names, and my limited understanding of many of the French terms and locations introduced, many of which I was unsure if they were properly defined before being relied upon in the narrative. For example, the term “ci-devant” was used in nearly every chapter, sometimes multiple times, but when I looked it up in the index for its first instance I saw no way to define the term other than a better reading of context than I had. I realize I should’ve looked it up right away, it refers to a “reactionary” political person and in the context of the French Revolution connoted an elite who resisted the changes brought about. This is a good example of the value of HTRAB’s suggestions of focusing on key language an author uses to make his arguments and studying the usage itself!

Relatedly, I struggled to keep track of all the major figures of the period, and there were many in part because this period convulsed much of French society but also partly because so many met grisly ends and had their responsibilities taken up by another who in turn became prominent in the proceedings.

Something I really enjoyed about Schama’s writing was its referencing of artistic works of the period which illustrated the events. It’s not so much that I am a simpleton who prefers words to pictures but rather, I felt the selection and abundance of imagery served to capture the mood and subtleties of various moments that are hard to appreciate in just reading about them. Especially interesting from this standpoint are the various “ideal imagery” commissioned by the revolutionary government to celebrate fallen heroes. The way these people are depicted, the details emphasized, the details left out and the obvious attempt to actively control the moral tone of events demonstrated the important role forms of propaganda played in elevating one faction and lowering another as the civil war raged on. The fetishism of the Roman Republic and its heroes and martyrs was also telling and very Rousseauian in the sense of idealizing noble savagery.

Is it not obvious that a revolution is betrayed by obsessing about the establishment of norms and structures which belong to the past?

I believe Simon Schama wanted to demonstrate that the Revolution was not spontaneous and grassroots, but an elite phenomenon, thus satisfying my curiosity. I think he also was concerned with highlighting the violence of the Revolution as a necessary part and logically-connected to its ideals, rather than something that was a minor theme or an unsightly outlier aspect. In both of these efforts, I believe he succeeded. I think I would’ve gotten much more out of this book if I had done more to “make it my own” as I read it. That being said, I enjoyed the read overall and found it truly terrifying contemplating how violent things can become when the out elites give up on working within the system. This was a strange observation for me to make because I don’t think of myself as a defender of the status quo or anxious to see a measured pace for reform and political change– just the opposite. I found myself wondering “which side” I would’ve taken, and what I might have done to ensure I survived to the end!