Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Betrayal of the Smart Sons

Having recently read a dyspeptic and grouchy, but eye-opening, look at the fix we’re in - 15 Signs American Society Is Coming Apart at the Seams, by David DeGraw - it occurred to me that there are all sorts of possible theories to explain what's happened to American Civilization... its astonishing plummet from the richest, most confident and progressive nation in history to an irascible bunch of bickerers, trapped in perpetual a cycle of Culture War. 

Why, especially, have Americans been losing their knack at creating new and better goods and services and winning at the agile game of market capitalism?  This is a matter of no small import to the world as a whole, since it is precisely the engine of U.S. economic success that has - thereupon - driven the development of most of the rest of the world. (See: How Americans Spent themselves into Ruin…But Saved the World.) While that engine has to learn to run leaner, more efficiently and more sustainably, its actual vigor and innovation are just as important, if the world is to see better days.

Alas, the engine is sputtering.  Furthermore, none of the diagnoses that I've seen publicly bruited, so far, has seemed convincing. Most are either superficial ("we were led by fools!"), or myopic ("MY side is always right and so is every item on our wish list!"), or dreamy ("we should wake up and face the future again, as a nation of ambitious problem-solvers!")  (All right, that last example is the favorite wish-whine of yours truly.)

Time for a fair warning.  I was raised, trained and apprenticed in the art of "what-if" generating... the craft of offering unusual outlooks. New-Perspectives-R-Us.  Even knowing full well that most of them will be flawed at some level, people still pay me -- sometimes a lot -- to do this. To be interesting, even if I don't turn out to be right.

Hence, some of my hypotheses, to explain America's current funk, are iconoclastic. For example, I think that a big part of our problem may be rooted in a simplistic, insipid, illogical... and French... metaphor, the so-called "left-right political axis," a dismally lobotomizing meme that some of the smartest people I know actually buy into, without ever being able to define it.
Spinning around in a different direction, last month I offered a relatively sunny theory about the rise and gentle decline of Pax Americana -- suggesting that everything we've seen, including our trade and budget deficits, may have been intentionally mapped out by the greatest genius of the 20th Century, George Marshall, whose innovative counter-mercantilist trade patterns wound up propelling two-thirds of the people on this planet toward peaceful prosperity through one simple method -- Americans buying trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed. 

Sound cheery?  I can also do dark. (See Republicans and Democrats: Two Very Different Kinds of Internal Party Struggle. )

But let's put aside all the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios, for now.  This time, I want to get strange and cynical with a new theory that's simple, creepy, and chillingly plausible. I don't expect any modern person will agree that this is the real, underlying cause for all that’s been happening to our economy, across the last few decades. 
 Yet, I'll bet any of the top thinkers from other centuries and civilizations would take a glance at America today and totally agree with the hypothesis!

"Yep, that's it," they would say. "Any nation that allowed such a thing to happen would deserve what it got."

It is a theory about the sons and daughters of the rich.

Who’s Minding The Aristocracy?  A Crackpot Explanation for the Decline of American Capitalism
Now and then, during my time at Caltech and JPL and across careers in science and the arts, I used to notice something that struck me as strange. While interacting in these endeavors with bright men and women who were colleagues and/or peer-competitors, all of us eagerly pursuing truth, I would every now and then pick up on something odd and unexpected. Through all the normal give and take, amid fascinating conversations that plumbed ideas at the fringe of the known, a hint would slip out revealing that... hey... this guy or that gal, in addition to being a skilled worker and dynamic innovator, also happened also to be rich! 

Now let's be clear; I’m not talking about the self-made billionaires I know -- guys who started in the middle class before developing some cool concept that gave millions of people added value. Exemplifying Free Enterprise at its best, those fellows are proudly “first generation” self-made men. Indeed, several have declared that they will join Warren Buffett in leaving most of it to causes, making a better world.  But we’re putting them aside. They’re not relevant here.

No, instead I'm talking about another kind of rich people. Folks who got wealthy the old fashioned way, by inheriting it.

And yet, despite being raised in affluence, these colleagues, friends or fellow scientists were not using their silver spoons to live it up or lord over others. Sure, they had some of the finer things. But they treated money as something that one can actually get enough of. More is always nice, of course!  But one of the principal hallmarks of sanity -- satiability -- means a surfeit that's doubled, and then redoubled, drops in importance.  In its place, the central drive may even move on to other things.  Like curiosity.

(This doesn't impugn the tech billionaires. Past a certain point, is it cash that really matters to them?  Or winning, again and again, at a cutthroat, innovative game?  Most claim that money, itself, isn't the motivator, anymore.  It's being -- and doing -- the best.)

In fact, when it came to the rich scientists and artists I knew, these colleagues nearly always seemed to be at pains to downplay the whole topic. It was never polite to go there.  Often, to my puzzlement, they acted as if admitting their wealth would be like avowing to some mildly repulsive and irritating social disease.

I pondered this phenomenon over the years... I mean, beyond ratcheting up my respect for women and men who turn their back on luxury (though they often had boats or planes), in order to head for realms where the truly interesting stuff is going on.  (BTW, some of them went into science fiction, too.  I won’t tell who.)

These were people with options.  Yet, they chose to go and prove themselves in fields where ability and quality are genuinely measurable, and where esteem generally ignores the number of digits in your income. You gotta respect that.

Still, I eventually got around to wondering -- all right then, who is managing your family’s influence and power?

Who gets the treasured stock exchange seat?  The Skull & Bones membership? The golf games with Illuminati board members?  I even probed about this a couple of times, when I felt the friendship could stand it.  Clues showed up, when I would accompany a friend to some family gathering, and met relatives. Soon, I observed enough to stoke a growing suspicion.

Who got the power and influence?

Dim-witted siblings.   That’s who.  The family dullards, who are not lured by adventures in science or innovation or the arts.  The brother who, if left in charge of a restaurant or small business would run up the mortgage and leave it bankrupt, in months.  The sister for whom preening and partying with Paris Hilton actually seems important.  The kind who drift toward crony dealing, because genuine market competition might be way too challenging.  Who will clasp their (reflex-genetically-inherited-by-all-of-us) notions of born-privilege, and justify them with mantras of smug superiority.

Look, I am really, really not interested in making enemies of any of these rich/spoiled/dumbasastone fellows, so in case any of them just happen to read this obscure blog, will you accept a pre-apology? Or assume I am talking about someone else? Thanks.

Nevertheless, seriously, don’t we all know what families are like?  Typically, each one has its bright bulbs and dim ones. In fact, one of the ways that families work best is that the bright sons and daughters wind up taking care of everybody else.  If there's a shared business, they make sure the taxes get paid and the workers are happily creative and that customers remain content. They see too it that the whole thing doesn’t get leveraged too far to weather the next storm, and they refuse to let company officers vote themselves lavish bonuses, diminishing value that could be re-invested in growth.  They use their prefrontal lobes to look ahead and invest not in wild ass get-rich-fast schemes, but in things that will enhance product or service, engendering more wealth -- for everybody -- down stream.

You see this in almost any family-run business.  Sometimes, the other siblings resent it.  Often, they know what’s good for them and help the smart-bro or wise-sis, however they can. (Heck, we saw it in “The Godfather,” right?  Well, maybe that’s not such a great example, after all.)

Only here’s the point.  An awful lot of American family businesses don’t get to benefit from this process.  They lose the natural leader, for a reason that’s ultimately ironic -- because the bright siblings may get a little too bright.  Having been raised in some comfort and privilege, with all the education they could possibly want, lo and behold, they want - and get - a lot!  Moreover, they look around for where exciting stuff is happening, and they soon come to recognize the places where human endeavor is really achieving important things, pushing back the envelope.  Challenging the unknown, breaking molds, inventing the new, and unrolling the very blueprints of God.

Sure, sometimes these challenges can be found right there, in the family business. Making the products and services way-better.   Terrific. Still, there is a natural human tendency for the smartest kids to wander off, away from all the privileges and assumptions, to prove they can make it on their own, perhaps even in a field where some of humanity’s top minds may acknowledge their talents and hard work with the greatest of all rewards... that nod of genuine respect.

It doesn’t have to be science, though that is where I found these refugees from the aristocracy, most often.  It might also be the arts, or starting a new company from scratch, in a completely different field.  Any way you look at it, this trend has to be viewed with admiration.

Alas, it may also be one of the principal reasons that American capitalism is going down the toilet. Because... who is left behind, minding the store?  Oh.  Yeah.  I already answered that question.

Only now, squint and envision good old Fredo, put in charge of a big investment fund.  Instead of a ma and pa grocery store, picture a prominent county bank that used to service mortgages carefully, combining intimate knowledge of local borrowers with a strong sense of community. That is, til frat-bro came back from a golf junket fizzing with excitement over hedge investments that he learned about from some sharpguy on the back nine. I mean, how else can you explain the fact that Wall Street is filled with fellows who actually think that vampiring companies with endlessly-churned commissions is doing them a favor and improving their bottom line?

Has anybody out there read The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy?  Remember the "Golgafrincham B Ark"?  If you don't, ask your nerdiest friend to lend you that passage.

Is That Really The Answer?

If you were to offer up any list of hypotheses to explain what has happened to American business and capitalistic enterprise, across the last 40 years, this one surely ranks among the most crackpotty-sounding. And I am not declaring it to be true. (I don't believe all my own strange hypotheses -- it's simply my job to come up with an endless supply!)

 Yet, doesn't it belong somewhere on the table of notions to investigate?  Note that the Standard Model -- proclaiming that we've been half-ruined by moronic, short-sighted greed -- does relate. I'm simply suggesting a process -- one that is totally consistent with the facts -- by which a large fraction of the mover-and-shaker slots in American finance might have become filled with greedy, short-sighted morons.  Moreover, there are plenty of precedent-examples one can point at, from history, where it proved devastating for a nation or enterprise to be inherited by the wrong brother.
Nor is this explanation inherently leftist. (Though Karl Marx mentioned "inherent contradictions" leading to capitalism's demise.)   Indeed, it posits something decidedly non-lefty.  Even far to the opposite direction.

It suggests that, if we are destined to return to the core human method of governance -- the one that dominated 99% of civilizations and recorded eras -- then at least aristocratism ought to be run by the BEST scions of the ruling class.  Not its worst.  They owe us that much, at least.

Consider, if this hypothesis has any validity at all, the profound awfulness of a well-intended betrayal.  In these high families, the smarter brothers and sisters want to be part of a lively, enlightenment civilization and to prove they can make it on their own. Today, these brighter siblings vanish into science, the arts, etc, leaving their bonehead bros, who shouldn't be trusted with a burnt match, holding great power.

 And hence, the bright ones have committed a crime against the very thing they love.

Okay, maybe I should have saved this one for April Fool's Day...

There. Forget all the convoluted analyses of Wall street and the Fed. The aristocracy was betrayed by its smartest scions. That's it!  Crackpotty or not, if this weird scenario does have any basis, then the cure is obvious.
Hunt down all the smart boys and girls who vanished into challenging and honest activities... science, teaching, research, the arts... and chase them BACK into the family business! Make them pick up their responsibilities to manage the inherited capital and influence well. Send the dullard brats off to sniff coke and chase models in Hollywood.

Yes, it sounds draconian, even deeply cruel.  But this measure could rank second only to closing all the undergraduate business schools, as a way to save our economy and our civilization.


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Ilithi Dragon said...


Didn't someone else do that? I thought I just saw someone else saying that same thing in a different interview the other day... It's been a long week, though, so I might be crossing memories.

Acacia H. said...

Someone else apparently said it a week earlier. Which just goes to show Giuliani not only is an idiot, but he can't even say anything original. ;)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

The attempted shoe bomber was under Bush. Exact same circumstances. Bush did not interrupt his vacation and took 6 days to comment. Fox hammered Obama for taking 3 days to comment on this guy.

What's more important is to diagnose the more general trend. ALL talking points from the right are stories. Anecdotes. It's always generalization from some particular. Some of the anecdotes are cogent and valid. Most are bogus. But it is that general nature of their reasoning that is infantile.

Yes, liberals and lefties fixate on some stories, too. The difference being that they also have irrefutable statistical metrics they can also point to.

Like the fact that the nation was spectacularly healthier and stronger, after Bill Clinton's reign, and is now staggeringly weaker, after republican rule. Or the fact that not a single prediction ever made by their core economic theory - supply side - has ever even remotely come true. Those are devastating, huge.

Or the absolute statistical fact that the GOP is not engaged in the political process of negotiation and deliberation that our founders set up, instead acting and voting in such perfect ideological/dogmatic lockstep perfection and utter uniformity, that the only parallel is a centralized party system such as we saw under the USSR. If any conservative can actually defend that practice, they have left the conservatism of old far behind.

This is not a matter of lefty bias. Everyone knows I can savage the left for its siboleths, and I do. No, I have chosen one side to call "far worse" because the demonstrable effects of its policies have harmed the nation and civilization that I love.

David Brin said...

See this year's FIRST Robotics Challenge!

QuantusPilate said...

Thank you, Tony Fisk, "Transition Towns" is exactly what I had in mind.

David Brin said...

"All I need to do is figure out how to transform myself from a loser who never accomplished anything worthwhile into someone who makes a difference in the world."

Dang, talk about finding a way to disarm folks and make yourself look like a great guy.... I sure feel stupid now!

The most heroic profession I can think of is Junior High School science teacher. DO it well and you are likely to create maybe 200 major problem solvers, over the course of your career, who remember you as the reason they went forth to save the world.

It also leaves you summers to work on that novel, or build houses in Hondorus alongside beautiful Swedish volunteers.....

Tacitus2 said...

Well, the next time you'all are feeling unhappy with me I will just remind you that I am in the tenth year of providing, gratis, an afterschool robotics program for our middle school. Like FIRST, but with virtually no budget and very few rules (almost all of which I encourage kids to subvert, so long as they maintain a modicum of sense and saftey).
The previous coordinator of the program was a ferocious progressive, very down on the Bush admin. We always joked that donating my time and odd talents was my penance for being a conservative.
And I must say, it has given me some insights into the whole teacher/union/work situation.

Rob Perkins said...

And I teach teenagers in the early morning and participate in a STEM mentoring program. But Conservatives around me don't think I'm much of a conservative, so maybe I don't count like Tacitus does.

But this much I know: if you want your life to include self-humility, teach teenagers. At this point I think that nothing on earth takes more personal energy. Part of the reason I can never vote "no" on a teacher pay raise or a school levy.

Acacia H. said...

Part of what talked me out of becoming a teacher was when a teenaged girl sexually harassed me when I was substitute teaching. That and the plot that was uncovered by a group of 3rd graders to torture and possibly kill their 3rd grade teacher.

I realize that the "harassment" was a power play by the teenager. She didn't like the fact I was keeping her and her friends from talking loudly. But having some girl almost half my age (then) start alluding to one of those teachers in New Hampshire who'd gotten pregnant after an affair with a student while trying to put her hands on me and... ugh.

Even though that happened many years ago... I still find myself seriously disturbed when I think of that encounter.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

You are all terrific and yes, it is difficult pushing civilization forward in tiny increments. But I am proud that most of the people who drop in to be citizens of this community do seem to be the kind who want to leave civilization a little more worthy of the name.

David Brin said...

On to next posting...

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