Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Why Nations Fail

The most depressing book I’ve read in years is Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. 

The bleakness of Why Nations Fail was particularly stark because I read it shortly after finishing Steven Pinker’s relentlessly optimistic book Enlightenment Now:  the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. According to Pinker, self-perpetuating intellectual and social forces were set in motion during the seventeenth century. Since then, Enlightment values brought dramatic improvements to every meaningful human measure:  life expectancy, health, nourishment, wealth, equality, freedom, happiness….

Click here for the rest of the explanatory slides

In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson outline a powerful and much more pessimistic Theory to explain why some nations succeed and most nations fail. Despite the Enlightenment.

For hundreds of thousands of years, long before any nations rose, Homo sapiens lived as hunter-gatherers. While our ancestors were eating nuts and berries, the process of natural selection optimized our huge brains and puny bodies for life in small egalitarian nomadic bands. Our predecessors couldn’t carry around much stuff, but they were healthy and enjoyed lots of leisure. 

Then a mere 10,000 years ago, someone had the ostensibly bright idea to settle down and farm. The Agricultural Revolution radically changed society, allowing much larger populations to live together. Humans acquired lots of stuff. Suddenly there was a huge difference between being rich or poor. For the first time, most people were poor and oppressed. And a tiny sliver of humanity was rich and powerful. 

Acemoglu and Robinson argue that each subsequent society’s political and economic arrangements can be characterized as either “inclusive” or “extractive.” Mostly the latter.

With inclusive societies, many people participate in political and economic decision-making. Pluralistic nations sustain the rule of law. They create incentives that reward creativity and hard work. The pie gets bigger, and the rich aren’t the only ones who get richer. Rich and poor can even trade places.

In contrast, in an extractive society a small elite controls political and economic power. Elites exploit the remaining population and the nation’s resources. When new leaders come into power, they simply seize the opportunity to become exploiters themselves. Meanwhile, growth occurs at a glacial pace. Even when those in power permit some opening of economic markets, extractive regimes can’t take full advantage of the “creative destruction” that drives robust growth – because the exploiters are too afraid of losing power themselves.

Creating and sustaining an inclusive nation takes hard work. Inertia and greed both have a tendency to push societies into the extractive camp, and then to keep them there. Meanwhile, the virtuous cycle sustaining inclusive nations begins to wind down as resources are diverted from the many to the few.

You can see the result today: an outbreak of hand-wringing thought pieces drawing comparisons between America today and the degeneration of the Roman Republic into imperial tyranny two thousand years ago.

As an English Major, I was particularly interested in Acemoglu and Robinson's theory that the pivotal moment in the development of our modern array of inclusive nations was a historical event most people haven’t even heard of  the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.  

Like the rest of the human world, society in Britain changed very slowly for millennia. The Norman Conquest in A.D. 1066 put new rulers in charge, but it didn’t alter the fundamentals of the nation’s extractive politics and economics. The only excitement came from intrafamily wars for the throne between branches of the Anglo-Norman dynasty, with occasional breaks to focus on fighting with the French over chunks of France. Then for a couple of centuries English civil wars were mostly about religion, culminating in the beheading of Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s puritan dictatorship, and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.

After the Catholic James II succeed his popular brother Charles in 1685, the new king quickly alienated many of his subjects. At this point the British landowners, Parliament, clergy, merchants, and other key stakeholders all decided they’d had enough of the absolutist Tudor-Stuart dynasty. They invited James’ son-in-law William III of Orange and his wife Mary II to rule as Protestant constitutional monarchs. 

According to Acemoglu and Robinson, the key to the Glorious Revolution was that it brought together such a disparate group of stakeholders. Each group was motivated by its own selfish interest. But no group was powerful enough to simply seize power for itself. Instead, they had a collective interest in restructuring society to weaken the role of the absolute monarch, and to replace the regime with an inclusive, pluralistic society.

As a result, a small island nation built an empire. More importantly, Great Britain successfully incubated, expanded, and exported its inclusive society. Along with its English-speaking colonial progeny and eventually its European peers, Britain was able to take advantage of the quantum leaps in technology that make modern life possible. 

Interestingly, Pinker also traces the development of key modern institutions and values to the same Enlightenment period in English history. Similarly, In Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, the more pessimistic Yuval Noah Harari acknowledges that the Scientific Revolution was the most important development for the species since the Agricultural Revolution.

Acemoglu and Robinson’s thesis in Why Nations Fail is that only inclusive societies can harness the full benefits of revolutionary technology. In an extractive society, the elites can’t afford to risk a revolution of any kind. And the rest of the population is trapped in the status quo.

Since the publication of Why Nations Fail a few years ago, the list of inclusive societies has shrunk. It can happen anywhere. In the United States, our broad-based postwar boom ended four decades ago, when the rich started getting much richer. Ronald Reagan managed to put a smiling face on extractive policies. Trump (and the horrors he’s done to/revealed about the modern Republican Party) are the inevitable result.

For example, how’s the rule of law doing these days? Trump and Mitch McConnell have polluted the federal judiciary by giving lifetime appointments to unqualified and unrepresentative judges. Regardless of jurisdiction, many judges don’t bother trying to get it right, because they’re under too much pressure to get it done. Bureaucrats feather their own nests. Lawyers lie more than ever, and it costs too much to expose their dishonesty. There’s a dearth of legal resources for ordinary people. The massive imbalance is obvious whenever a little guy shows up in court alone to face one of the corporate “citizens” favored by Chief Justice Roberts and the other Bush-Trump appointees to the Supreme Court.  

My little legal corner of the world offers just one example of how extractive pressures are quietly altering important aspects of civil society. One of my former law partners recently posted David Rothkopf’s wake up call/call to arms. I’ve included the entire text below because the cacophony of alarm bells is itself one of the warnings signs we may already have crossed from Decline to Fall:

It's the racism. But it's not just the racism. It's sex crimes. But it's not just the sex crimes. It's the concentration camps. But it's not just the concentration camps. It's the corruption. But it's not just the corruption. 

It's being a traitor. But it's not just being a traitor. It's the obstruction of justice but it’s not just the obstruction of justice. It's the attacks on rule of law. But it's not just the attacks on the rule of law. It's the assault on freedom of the press.

But it's not just the assault on freedom of the press. It's the pathological lying. But it's not just the pathological lying. It's the unfitness for office. But it's not just the unfitness for office. It's the incompetence. But it's not just the incompetence.

It's the attacks on our most important allies and alliances. But it's not just the attacks on most important allies and alliances. It's the systematic destruction of our environment. But it's not just the systematic destruction of our environment.

It's the violation of international treaties and agreements. But it is not just the violation of international treaties and agreements. It's the embrace of our enemies. But it is not just the embrace of our enemies.

It's the defense of murdering dictators but it is not just the defense of murdering dictators. It is the serial undermining of our national security. But it is not just the serial undermining of our national security. It is the nepotism. But it's not just the nepotism.

It's the attacks on our federal law enforcement and intelligence communities. But it is not just the attacks on our federal law enforcement and intelligence communities. It's the fiscal recklessness. But it's not just the fiscal recklessness.

It's the degradation of the office and of public discourse in America. But it's not just the degradation of the office and of public discourse in America. It's the support of Nazis and white supremacists. But it's not just the support of Nazis and white supremacists.

It's the dead in Puerto Rico and the at the border. But it's not just the dead in Puerto Rico and at the border. It's turning the US government into a criminal conspiracy to empower and enrich the president and his supporters.

But it's not just the turning the US government into a criminal conspiracy to empower and enrich the president and his supporters. It's weaponization of politics in America to attack the weak. But it's not just the weaponization of American politics to attack the weak.

It's all these things together and the threat of worse to come. It is the damage that cannot be undone. It is pathology that has overtaken our politics and our society, the revelation that 40 percent of the population and an entire political party are profoundly immoral.

It is a disease that has infected our system and is killing it. At the moment, we still have the wherewithal to fight back. But even those who recognize the dangers of this litany of crimes are proving too complacent, too inert in the face of this threat.

It is one of those moments in the history of a country when there is a choice to be made, a choice between having a future and not, between growth and decay, between democracy and oligarchy, between what we dreamt of being and what even our founders feared we might become. The litany of crises and crimes is so long that we are becoming numb. You have heard of the fog of war. This is the fog of Trump. The volume of wrongs becomes its own defense. Is the president accused of being a rapist? Well, then remind them he is a racist and they'll forget.

This is a moment for leaders to step up. To challenge each of these abuses via every legal means available. To organize and draw attention to them. To blow the whistle if you are in government and you are being asked to violate your oath. To resist and refuse to be complicit.

If you can't do those things that make your voice heard and join a movement, support a political candidate, donate money, register voters, fight voter suppression. But whatever you do, resist becoming numb. Resist the temptation to let the recitation of old crimes and new become a deadening drone. 

Everyone matters in times like these. Everyone must stand up for what is right. In their homes. In their schools. In the workplace. In their churches and synagogues and mosques.

We are approaching a great national decision about whether the American experiment will succeed or fail, whether this moment does what two world wars, a civil war and countless past misjudgments and missteps could not.

We will make it together, resist, offer a better alternative, embrace that alternative and the best leaders we can find...or succumb, let the inertia of some among us mark the end of what for two and half centuries was an idea so compelling it inspired the world.

As a parent and a human being, I’m thoroughly depressed about our prospects. Reading Why Nations Fail made it even worse. Still, I haven’t completely given up hope, or concluded we're doomed – not until we see what happens in the next couple of years.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Oliver's Greatest Hits

We met Oliver at a daycare in Marysville before he was two years old, when he was still in the foster system. From the very beginning he was "Papa's Little Boy." I fought for him when his adoption fell through, and when life seemed to be falling apart around us. So far Oliver has taught me about video games, cars, sports, and horror movies. I can't wait to see what middle school will bring next week....

"Shazam" (4/21/19)

"Our Family" (1/16/19)

"Adoption Stories: How Oliver Got His Name" (3/3/18)

"Shooting Hoops with Oliver" (5/13/18)

"Oliver on School" (3/16/18)

"Sure of You" (10/28/17)

"Love is Not a Fallacy" (11/12/17)

Happy Birthday
Love Papa

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Personality and Character

The Myers-Briggs personality type indicator uses neutral, nonjudgmental survey questions to map each individual along four temperament dimensions. The process sorts the population into a total of sixteen personality types, from ENFP to ISTJ.

As I wrote last year in “Astrology for Nerds,” every time I take a personality test it confirms my Myers-Briggs type is INFP. I’m an “Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiver.” Whatever that means. (Click here for pictures illustrating what INFPs are like, and here for pictures applying the Myers-Briggs personality types to everything from Star Wars and Game of Thrones characters to desserts and Disney Princesses.)

According to this Mormon blogger, Jesus Christ was also an INFP. However, the martyred founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, Jr., was an ESFP. Like Ronald Reagan and Miley Cyrus.

Recently I borrowed my mother’s copy of Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman’s magisterial biography of Joseph Smith. Bushman is a distinguished Columbia University professor who writes both as a faithful historian and as a faithful Mormon. Bushman exhaustively gathered and authenticated nineteenth century records regarding the church’s founding generation. His book elegantly presents the evidence in chronological order. Wherever possible he lets historical figures and their observers speak for themselves. Along the way, Bushman is candid about the thematic connections he perceives. 

Originally, I grabbed the book for the purpose of examining Bushman’s account of Joseph Smith's 1839 revelation about leaders who exercise “unrighteous dominion." Then I got sucked into the story. 

After reading the entire biography, I have a new respect for Joseph’s unique American genius. You don’t have to believe angels visited Joseph or that God told him to marry other men's wives in order to believe Joseph himself was convinced by his story. Similarly, Bushman didn't persuade me the Book of Mormon was translated from an ancient Semitic-American record, or that the Mormon prophet is God's sole authorized spokesman on Earth today. Nevertheless, many of Joseph’s revelations distill the same universal truths and come from the same corners of the human brain that inspired other visionaries.

Katherine Briggs was born in 1875. Her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers was born in 1897. Their personality typology and assessment tools grew out of amateur research and unscientific observations of child development, as well as from the exciting psychological ideas that were swirling around in the first half of the twentieth century: Darwin, Marx, Freud, behaviorism, eugenics, you name it. 

Katherine was particularly infatuated with Freud’s contemporary and rival Carl Jung – both with Jung’s psychology of archetypes as well as with the Man himself. The four personality dimensions revealed by the Myers-Briggs type indicator are loosely based on patterns described by Jung. Eventually Katherine met her idol when Jung was lecturing in the States. She was suitably impressed. Isabel was more meh.

Observing from the perspective of a century later, I’d argue that Myers and Briggs backed a winner. Freud’s enduring contributions are limited to his historical significance and the very broadest strokes of his psychology of the unconscious; the details of Freud’s sexual development stuff all turned out to be bunk. Similarly, behaviorism offers a poor model of the human mind and brain. 

Jung himself was undisciplined, and a creepy sexual harasser. But Jung’s insights about archetypes and the deep structure of human thinking still provide useful tools for analyzing psychology and philosophy. 

For what it’s worth, Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers both were INFPs. Like Jesus, Mr. Rogers, and me.

Last month I read Merve Emre’s The Personality Brokers: the Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing. Unlike Professor Bushman, Emre is openly skeptical of her biographical subjects. In fact, Emre begins her book by describing how she spent thousands of dollars to attend an official Myers-Briggs seminar in order to convince the keepers of Katherine and Isabel’s legacy that Emre could be trusted to see their private papers. It didn't work. 

As I confessed last year in “Astrology for Nerds,” I’m already familiar with the many criticisms of Myers-Briggs typology. Some individuals find they’re assigned to wildly different personality types each time they take the test, which undercuts Myers-Briggs’ claim to reveal permanent characteristics. The test also tends to amplify minor differences. According to Jungian theory, there should be a double-humped “bipolar” distribution for each of the four personality dimensions, for example with individuals clustering as either Extroverts or Introverts. Instead, statisticians generally observe a single bell-curve distribution. As a result, individuals with similar test answers may be assigned to very different personality types. Meanwhile, the sixteen Myers-Briggs boxes themselves only begin to capture the diversity of human thinking. On some level, describing INFPs as idealistic perfectionists is like saying all Tauruses are stubborn. 

And yet. 

While reading Emre’s skeptical biography of Katherine Myers and Isabel Myers Briggs, I had the opposite experience from my reaction to Bushman’s faithful book about Joseph Smith: I became less dubious about Myers and Briggs' claims for their personality typology. Meanwhile, I developed an increased appreciation for Carl Jung’s legacy, including the role of archetypes, synchronicity, and other connections. And I recognized how the Myers-Briggs prism can help illuminate our contemporary models of brain function, including the nature versus nature debate, as well as the mystery of individual personality.   

It’s only a model. Duh. As always, the question is whether this particular model is useful to us here in the real world. 

In describing the 20th century culture that produced Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, Emre observes the English language of their contemporaries distinguished between character and personality. “Character” referred to an individual’s permanent attributes, while “personality” referred to the carefully-crafted persona each individual presents to the world.

I prefer to reverse the two terms. As the parent of three adopted children who are utterly different from each other, I’m more convinced than ever that personality is hard wired. Regardless of the particular trait you focus on, from introversion to resilience, each human exhibits an individual personality that draws from a familiar repertoire of potential alternatives. The core aspects of one’s personality are discrete and immutable in the same way that one’s sex, religion, or sexual orientation is. These attributes are essential to individual identity. Each only changes – if at all – under extraordinary circumstances. 

As a result, personality is a big part of the hand you’re dealt. In contrast, “character” is all about how you choose to play your hand. And about how we as a society agree on the behavioral norms that govern how we all play and work together.

One of the strengths of the Myers-Briggs approach is its emphasis on pluralism and egalitarianism. The test is intended to be neutral and nonjudgmental – mechanically sorting individuals among the various personality types, without creating any hierarchies or preferences. The fun part comes when you try to figure out how different types of people will solve a particular kind of problem, or why you shouldn’t date certain personality types. Again.

Just as importantly, each personality type makes up a small minority of society. When we adopt rules of general application, they can’t be designed to benefit only the ESTJs among us. Or even the INFPs.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Last Homely Starbucks in Vancouver

People often ask me to explain the difference between Vancouver and Seattle.

There are many similarities between the two cities. Both are nestled between mountains, forests, and the Salish Sea. Residents of both communities are outdoorsy and passive-aggressive. But the two cities are also very different. 

If you seem like a car person, this is how I would summarize the contrast between Vancouver and Seattle for you:

In Seattle, two multi-lane freeways meet downtown. I-90 completes its transcontinental journey and joins I-5 near the stadiums where the Seahawks and Mariners play. Meanwhile, I-5 crawls down the entire length of Seattle’s isthmus, brutally dividing numerous historic neighborhoods. 

In contrast, Vancouver has an impressively far-reaching light rail network, as well as many other well-planned urban amenities. However, decades ago, Vancouver’s civic fathers made a ruthless decision: no urban freeways.

So imagine you left Boston and drove west on I-90 for three thousand miles. You finally cross the imposing Mercer Island lid and the Lake Washington floating bridge – only to brake to an abrupt stop on the other side of the lake. Rather than barreling towards downtown Seattle through a final few miles of expensive tunnels and soaring freeway ramps, instead you’re forced to creep on surface streets through mysterious residential neighbourhoods. 

That’s exactly what if feels like after you cross the US border and drive north to Vancouver. As soon as you get across the Frasier River and pass the city limits, Highway 99 dumps you at a stoplight on Oak Street.

But what about Vancouver’s other freeway, you ask? The mighty Trans-Canada Highway?

Highway 1 indeed cuts across a sliver of the city’s northeast corner before crossing the Second Narrows Bridge and heading to Horseshoe Bay and Whistler. But if you’re trying to get from the Peace Arch to Stanley Park or Davie Village, you have two problems. 

First, the route of the Trans-Canada Highway doesn’t go anywhere near the US border crossings. Instead, you would have been forced to wander through miles of berry fields and suburban malls before finding the freeway.

Second, although cars approaching the Second Narrows Bridge on Highway 1 enjoy a shimmering view of downtown Vancouver in the distance, you can’t actually drive there. Seattle analogy:  it’s as if you drove south on I-5, only to discover the freeway suddenly dead ends at Northgate. Then rather than approach the city, you’re shunted to I-405, and forced to drive all the way around Lake Washington instead.

Or we could compare Vancouver and Seattle coffee shops. Here’s my current Vancouver Top 5:

1.    Melriches Coffee, on Davie. (Conveniently located, superior food and coffee, pour-your-own-hot-water Americanos, numerous power outlets)
2.     Cartem’s Donuts & Coffee, on Main. (Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, exceptional donuts.)
3.   The Drive Coffee Bar, on Commercial Drive. (Near chorus rehearsal, excellent coffee and sandwiches)
4.    Delaney’s Coffee, on Denman. (Charming location, good coffee and pastries, only one outlet.)
5.    Breka Bakery & Cafe, on 4th. (Open 24 hours, near the beaches, good coffee and pastries, harsh lighting, two outlets.)

And Seattle:

1.    Macrina’s
2.    CafĂ© Vitta
3.    Espresso Vivace
4.    Essential Bakery
5.    Cherry Street on Cherry Street

My new favourite Vancouver neighbourhood is Mount Pleasant. 

There’s a spiffy branch of the public library, with free wi-fi and comfortable computer stations. There’s a Glory Juice outlet – try Potion No. 8, which combines orange, grapefruit, and lime. Mount Pleasant is also the home of our family’s favourite sushi restaurant. The neighbourhood has ample street parking. In fact, my son and I went out for sushi last Tuesday. We parked across from Dude Chilling Park. (That’s a real Vancouver park sign, not an internet meme.)

The donuts at nearby Cartem’s are nice and puffy, with delicious glazes. Their coffee is also excellent, although the lighting is a little too harsh to linger with your book or laptop. Instead, one hangs out at Western Canada’s first Starbucks Reserve location, on Main at 14th. (Shout out to Starbucks manager / chorus stalwart Chris Lam.)

Starbucks doesn’t count as a coffee shop – it’s more like the American consulate.

J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit begins with Gandalf and a band of dwarves luring Bilbo Baggins out of his cozy hobbit hole and off on an adventure. After an introductory trek across the wilderness, they stop to enjoy Elrond’s hospitality in the hidden Elven stronghold of Rivendell – the “Last Homely House” east of the sea. In the first book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his companions make a similar pit stop at Elrond's before crossing the Misty Mountains and walking into Mordor. Rivendell is the Last Happy Place before facing a scary world of orcs and road rage.  

As you leave Vancouver, you drive south on Granville and then Oak Street. Just before the freeway begins, there’s a small strip mall in the Oakdale-Marpole neighbourhood. At its southernmost tip you’ll find the Last Starbucks before the freeway takes you straight to America.

As you would expect, this remote outpost offers reliable wi-fi, clean washrooms, Evolution™ cold-pressed orange juice, mediocre pastries, over-roasted coffee products, and friendly Starbucks staff. In the parking lot you can tidy the car to impress the border agents. Make sure to dispose of any contraband fresh produce, because a half-eaten orange pushes everyone's buttons at US Customs & Border Patrol.

You enjoy a sip of your ideal Starbucks beverage. Right now that would be a Venti Mango Dragonberry Refresher™, light ice. 

Then you sigh, and get on the freeway back to Trumpland. 

As Tolkein points out when Bilbo makes his way back to the Shire after defeating the dragon Smaug, Rivendell is also the First Homely House you run into on your way home from the wilderness. It sounds quite lovely – feather beds, elves, music, good food. Eventually Bilbo retires there. Lucky bastard.

Driving from the States to Vancouver is a heavenly pilgrimage. Your load gets lighter as you cross the border through manicured Peace Arch Park. The mountains and islands look inviting. Even the air smells fresher, once you’re past the landfill in Delta and the bottlenecked tunnel. Everything is better in Canada.

Thirty-nine kilometers from the border you cross the north arm of the Frasier River and enter the City of Vancouver. Yes, your iPhone is giving you the correct directions. The freeway really did suddenly end at that interminable red light.

It's true the West End is just a few miles further – as the crow flies. But you’re driving, not flying. If you continue going north on Oak Street, the road will eventually dead end without any warning at a creek, miles away from downtown, no left turns allowed. Did I mention the roads are filled with the children and grandparents of Chinese gangsters, all driving Lamborghinis with learners permits? Or that traffic lanes in Canada are a foot or two narrower than lanes in the States? 

It's already been a long drive. Before swearing at a semi-truck, or at the spouse who is navigating, wouldn’t this be the perfect time to get refreshed at that homey Starbucks, conveniently located in the strip mall at the next light?