Maybe America is too Dumb for Democracy: A Review of Nichols’s The Death of Expertise

For today’s Cathedral Round-Up, I finally kept my commitment to review Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. It was better than I expected, (though that isn’t saying much.)

Make no mistake: Nichols is annoyingly arrogant. He draws a rather stark line between “experts” (who know things) and everyone else (who should humbly limit themselves to voting between options defined for them by the experts.) He implores people to better educate themselves in order to be better voters, but has little patience for autodidacts and bloggers like myself who are actually trying.

But arrogance alone doesn’t make someone wrong.

Nichols’s first thesis is simple: most people are too stupid or ignorant to second-guess experts or even contribute meaningfully to modern policy discussions. How can people who can’t find Ukraine on a map or think we should bomb the fictional city of Agrabah contribute in any meaningful way to a discussion of international policy?

It was one thing, in 1776, to think the average American could vote meaningfully on the issues of the day–a right they took by force, by shooting anyone who told them they couldn’t. Life was less complicated in 1776, and the average person could master most of the skills they needed to survive (indeed, pioneers on the edge of the frontier had to be mostly self-sufficient in order to survive.) Life was hard–most people engaged in long hours of heavy labor plowing fields, chopping wood, harvesting crops, and hauling necessities–but could be mastered by people who hadn’t graduated from elementary school.

But the modern industrial (or post-industrial) world is much more complicated than the one our ancestors grew up in. Today we have cars (maybe even self-driving cars), electrical grids and sewer systems, atomic bombs and fast food. The speed of communication and transportation have made it possible to chat with people on the other side of the earth and show up on their doorstep a day later. The amount if specialized, technical knowledge necessary to keep modern society running would astonish the average caveman–even with 15+ years of schooling, the average person can no longer build a house, nor even produce basic necessities like clothes or food. Most of us can’t even make a pencil.

Even experts who are actually knowledgeable about their particular area may be completely ignorant of fields outside of their expertise. Nichols speaks Russian, which makes him an expert in certain Russian-related matters, but he probably knows nothing about optimal high-speed rail networks. And herein lies the problem:

The American attachment to intellectual self-reliance described by Tocqueville survived for nearly a century before falling under a series of assaults from both within and without. Technology, universal secondary education, the proliferation of specialized expertise, and the emergence of the United States a a global power in the mid-twentieth century all undermined the idea… that the average American was adequately equipped either for the challenges of daily life or for running the affairs of a large country.

… the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the complexity of modern life has steadily whittled away the functions the ordinary citizen can intelligently and competently perform for himself.”

… Somin wrote in 2015 that the “size and complexity of government” have mad it “more difficult for voters with limited knowledge to monitor and evaluate the government’s many activities. The result is a polity in which the people often cannot exercise their sovereignty responsibly and effectively.”

In other words, society is now too complex and people too stupid for democracy.

Nichols’s second thesis is that people used to trust experts, which let democracy function, but to day they are less trusting. He offers no evidence other than his general conviction that this change has happened.

He does, however, detail the way he thinks that 1. People have been given inflated egos about their own intelligence, and 2. How our information-delivery system has degenerated into misinformational goo, resulting in the trust-problems he believes we are having These are interesting arguments and worth examining.

A bit of summary:

Indeed, maybe the death of expertise is a sign of progress. Educated professionals, after all, no longer have a stranglehold on knowledge. The secrets of life are no longer hidden in giant marble mausoleums… in the past, there was less tress between experts and laypeople, but only because citizen were simply unable to challenge experts in any substantive way. …

Participation in political, intellectual, and scientific life until the early twentieth century was far more circumscribed, with debates about science, philosophy, and public policy all conducted by a small circle of educated males with pen and ink. Those were not exactly the Good Old Days, and they weren’t that long ago. The time when most people didn’t finish highschool, when very few went to college, and only a tiny fraction of the population entered professions is still within living memory of many Americans.

Aside from Nichols’s insistence that he believes modern American notions about gender and racial equality, I get the impression that he wouldn’t mind the Good Old Days of genteel pen-and-ink discussions between intellectuals. However, I question his claim that participation in political life was far more circumscribed–after all, people voted, and politicians liked getting people to vote for them. People anywhere, even illiterate peasants on the frontier or up in the mountains like to gather and debate about God, politics, and the meaning of life. The question is less “Did they discuss it?” and more “Did their discussions have any effect on politics?” Certainly we can point to abolition, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and the Revolution itself as heavily grass-roots movements.

But continuing with Nichols’s argument:

Social changes only in the past half century finally broke down old barriers of race, class, and sex not only between Americans and general but also between uneducated citizens and elite expert in particular. A wide circle of debate meant more knowledge but more social friction. Universal education, the greater empowerment of women and minorities, the growth of a middle class, and increased social mobility all threw a minority of expert and the majority of citizens into direct contact, after nearly two centuries in which they rarely had to interact with each other.

And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.

Nichols is distracting himself with the reflexive racial argument; the important change he is highlighting isn’t social but technical.

I’d like to quote a short exchange from Our Southern Highlanders, an anthropologic-style text written about Appalachia about a century ago:

The mountain clergy, as a general rule, are hostile to “book larnin’,” for “there ain’t no Holy Ghost in it.” One of them who had spent three months at a theological school told President Frost, “Yes, the seminary is a good place ter go and git rested up, but ’tain’t worth while fer me ter go thar no more ’s long as I’ve got good wind.”

It used to amuse me to explain how I knew that the earth was a sphere; but one day, when I was busy, a tiresome old preacher put the everlasting question to me: “Do you believe the earth is round?” An impish perversity seized me and I answered, “No—all blamed humbug!” “Amen!” cried my delighted catechist, “I knowed in reason you had more sense.”

But back to Nichols, who really likes the concept of expertise:

One reason claims of expertise grate on people in a democracy is that specialization is necessarily exclusive. WHen we study a certain area of knowledge or spend oulives in a particular occupation, we not only forego expertise in othe jobs or subjects, but also trust that other pople in the community know what they’re doing in thei area as surely as we do in our own. As much as we might want to go up to the cockpit afte the engine flames out to give the pilots osme helpful tips, we assume–in part, ebcause wehave to–that tye’re better able to cope with the problem than we are. Othewise, our highly evovled society breaks down int island sof incoherence, where we spend our time in poorly infomed second-guessing instead of trusting each other.

This would be a good point to look at data on overall trust levels, friendship, civic engagement, etc (It’s down. It’s all down.) and maybe some explanations for these changes.

Nichols talks briefly about the accreditation and verification process for producing “experts,” which he rather likes. There is an interesting discussion in the economics literature on things like the economics of trust and information (how do websites signal that they are trustworthy enough that you will give them your credit card number and expect to receive items you ordered a few days later?) which could apply here, too.

Nichols then explores a variety of cognitive biases, such a superstitions, phobias, and conspiracy theories:

Conspiracy theories are also a way for people to give meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible thing happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurence as nothing more than the random cruelty either of an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity. …

The only way out of this dilemma is to imagine a world in which our troubles are the fault of powerful people who had it within their power to avert such misery. …

Just as individual facing grief and confusion look for reasons where none may exist, so, too, will entire societies gravitate toward outlandish theories when collectively subjected to a terrible national experience. Conspiracy theories and flawed reasoning behind them …become especially seductive “in any society that has suffered an epic, collectively felt trauma. In the aftermath, millions of people find themselves casting about for an answer to the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people.” …

Today, conspiracy theories are reaction mostly to the economic and social dislocations of globalization…This is not a trivial obstacle when it comes to the problems of expert engagement with the public: nearly 30 percent of Americans, for example, think “a secretive elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world” …

Obviously stupid. A not-secret elite with a globalist agenda already rules the world.

and 15 percent think media or government add secret mind controlling technology to TV broadcasts. (Another 15 percent aren’t sure about the TV issue.)

It’s called “advertising” and it wants you to buy a Ford.

Anyway, the problem with conspiracy theories is they are unfalsifiable; no amount of evidence will ever convince a conspiracy theorist that he is wrong, for all evidence is just further proof of how nefariously “they” are constructing the conspiracy.

Then Nichols gets into some interesting matter on the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, which segues nicely into a tangent I’d like to discuss, but it probably deserves its own post. To summarize:

Sometimes experts know things that contradict other people’s political (or religious) beliefs… If an “expert” finding or field accords with established liberal values, EG, the implicit association test found that “everyone is a little bit racist,” which liberals already believed, then there is an easy mesh between what the academics believe and the rest of their social class.

If their findings contradict conservative/low-class values, EG, when professors assert that evolution is true and “those low-class Bible-thumpers in Oklahoma are wrong,” sure, they might have a lot of people who disagree with them, but those people aren’t part of their own social class/the upper class, and so not a problem. If anything, high class folks love such finding, because it gives them a chance to talk about how much better they are than those low-class people (though such class conflict is obviously poisonous in a democracy where those low-class people can still vote to Fuck You and Your Global Warming, Too.)

But if the findings contradict high-class/liberal politics, then the experts have a real problem. EG, if that same evolution professor turns around and says, “By the way, race is definitely biologically real, and there are statistical differences in average IQ between the races,” now he’s contradicting the political values of his own class/the upper class, and that becomes a social issue and he is likely to get Watsoned.

For years folks at Fox News (and talk radio) have lambasted “the media” even though they are part of the media; SSC recently discussed “can something be both popular and silenced?

Jordan Peterson isn’t unpopular or “silenced” so much as he is disliked by upper class folks and liked by “losers” and low class folks, despite the fact that he is basically an intellectual guy and isn’t peddling a low-class product. Likewise, Fox News is just as much part of The Media as NPR, (if anything, it’s much more of the Media) but NPR is higher class than Fox, and Fox doesn’t like feeling like its opinions are being judged along this class axis.

For better or for worse (mostly worse) class politics and political/religious beliefs strongly affect our opinions of “experts,” especially those who say things we disagree with.

But back to Nichols: Dunning-Kruger effect, fake cultural literacy, and too many people at college. Nichols is a professor and has seen college students up close and personal, and has a low opinion of most of them. The massive expansion of upper education has not resulted in a better-educated, smarter populace, he argues, but a populace armed with expensive certificates that show the sat around a college for 4 years without learning much of anything. Unfortunately, beyond a certain level, there isn’t a lot that more school can do to increase people’s basic aptitudes.

Colleges get money by attracting students, which incentivises them to hand out degrees like candy–in other words, students are being lied to about their abilities and college degrees are fast becoming the participation trophies for the not very bright.

Nichols has little sympathy for modern students:

Today, by contrast, students explode over imagined slights that are not even remotely int eh same category as fighting for civil rights or being sent to war. Students now build majestic Everests from the smallest molehills, and they descend into hysteria over pranks and hoaxes. In the midst of it all, the students are learning that emotions and volume can always defeat reason and substance, thus building about themselves fortresses that no future teacher, expert, or intellectual will ever be able to breach.

At Yale in 2015, for example, a house master’s wife had the temerity to tell minority students to ignore Halloween costumes they thought offensive. This provoked a campus wide temper tantrum that included professors being shouted down by screaming student. “In your position as master,” one student howled in a professor’s face, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students… Do you understand that?!”

Quietly, the professor said, “No, I don’t agree with that,” and the student unloaded on him:

“Then why the [expletive] did you accept the position?! Who the [expletive] hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!” [emphasis added]

Yale, instead of disciplining students in violation of their own norms of academic discourse, apologized to the tantrum throwers. The house master eventually resigned from his residential post…

To faculty everywhere, the lesson was obvious: the campus of a top university is not a place for intellectual exploration. It is a luxury home, rented for four to six years, nine months at a time, by children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion.

The incident Nichols cites (and similar ones elsewhere,) are not just matters of college students being dumb or entitled, but explicitly racial conflicts. The demand for “safe spaces” is easy to ridicule on the grounds that students are emotional babies, but this misses the point: students are carving out territory for themselves on explicitly racial lines, often by violence.

Nichols, though, either does not notice the racial aspect of modern campus conflicts or does not want to admit publicly to doing so.

Nichols moves on to blame TV, especially CNN, talk radio, and the internet for dumbing down the quality of discourse by overwhelming us with a deluge of more information than we can possibly process.

Referring back to Auerswald and The Code Economy, if automation creates a bifurcation in industries, replacing a moderately-priced, moderately available product with a stream of cheap, low-quality product on the one hand and a trickle of expensive, high-quality products on the other, good-quality journalism has been replaced with a flood of low-quality crap. The high-quality end is still working itself out.

Nichols opines:

Accessing the Internet can actually make people dumber than if they had never engaged a subject at all. The very act of searching for information makes people think they’ve learned something,when in fact they’re more likely to be immersed in yet more data they do not understand. …

When a group of experimental psychologists at Yale investigated how people use the internet, they found that “people who search for information on the Web emerge from the process with an inflated sense of how much they know–even regarding topic that are unrelated to the ones they Googled.” …

How can exposure to so much information fail to produce at least some kind of increased baseline of knowledge, if only by electronic osmosis? How can people read so much yet retain so little? The answer is simple: few people are actually reading what they find.

As a University College of London (UCL) study found, people don’t actually read the articles they encounter during a search on the Internet. Instead, they glance at the top line or the first few sentences and then move on. Internet users, the researchers noted, “Are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed, there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

The internet’s demands for instant updates, for whatever headlines generate the most clicks (and thus advertising revenue), has upset the balance of speed vs. expertise in the newsroom. No longer have reporters any incentive to spend long hours carefully writing a well-researched story when such stories pay less than clickbait headlines about racist pet costumes and celebrity tweets.

I realize it seems churlish to complain about the feast of news and information brought to us by the Information Age, but I’m going to complain anyway. Changes in journalism, like the increased access to the Internet and to college education, have unexpectedly corrosive effects on the relationship between laypeople and experts. Instead of making people better informed, much of what passes for news in the twenty-first century often leaves laypeople–and sometimes experts–even more confused and ornery.

Experts face a vexing challenge: there’s more news available, and yet people seem less informed, a trend that goes back at least a quarter century. Paradoxically, it is a problem that is worsening rather than dissipating. …

As long ago as 1990, for example, a study conducted by the Pew Trust warned that disengagement from important public questions was actually worse among people under thirty, the group that should have been most receptive to then-emerging sources of information like cable television and electronic media. This was a distinct change in American civic culture, as the Pew study noted:

“Over most of the past five decades younger members of the public have been at least as well informed as older people. In 1990, that is no longer the case. … “

Those respondents are now themselves middle-aged, and their children are faring no better.

If you were 30 in 1990, you were born in 1960, to parents who were between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, that is, born between 1920 and 1940.

Source: Audacious Epigone

Fertility for the 1920-1940 cohort was strongly dysgenic. So was the 1940-50 cohort. The 1900-1919 cohort at least had the Flynn Effect on their side, but later cohorts just look like an advertisement for idiocracy.

Nichols ends with a plea that voters respect experts (and that experts, in turn, be humble and polite to voters.) After all, modern society is too complicated for any of us to be experts on everything. If we don’t pay attention to expert advice, he warns, modern society is bound to end in ignorant goo.

The logical inconsistency is that Nichols believes in democracy at all–he thinks democracy can be saved if ignorant people vote within a range of options as defined by experts like himself, eg, “What vaccine options are best?” rather than “Should we have vaccines at all?”

The problem, then, is that whoever controls the experts (or controls which expert opinions people hear) controls the limits of policy debates. This leads to people arguing over experts, which leads right back where we are today. As long as there are politics, “expertise” will be politicized, eg:

Look at any court case in which both sides bring in their own “expert” witnesses. Both experts testify to the effect that their side is correct. Then the jury is left to vote on which side had more believable experts. This is like best case scenario voting, and the fact that the voters are dumb and don’t understand what the experts are saying and are obviously being mislead in many cases is still a huge problem.

If politics is the problem, then perhaps getting rid of politics is the solution. Just have a bunch of Singapores run by Lee Kwan Yews, let folks like Nichols advise them, and let the common people “vote with their feet” by moving to the best states.

The problem with this solution is that “exit” doesn’t exist in the modern world in any meaningful way, and there are significant reasons why ordinary people oppose open borders.

Conclusion: 3/5 stars. It’s not a terrible book, and Nichols has plenty of good points, but “Americans are dumb” isn’t exactly fresh territory and much has already been written on the subject.

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Stereotypes, Expertise, and Class

Tom Nichols’s book, The Death of Expertise, has a passage that inspired a tangent that I’d like to discuss separately from my main review:

“You can’t generalize like that!” Few expressions are more likely to arise in even a mildly controversial discussion. People resist generalizations–boys tend to be like this, girls tend to be like that–because we all want to believe we’re unique and can’t be pigeonholed that easily.

What most people usually mean when they object to “generalizing,” however, is not that we shouldn’t generalize, but that we shouldn’t stereotype, which is a different issue The problem in casual discourse is that people often don’t understand the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, and this makes conversation, especially between experts and laypeople, arduous and exhausting. –Tom Nichols

Nichols brings up a good point, but is wrong about stereotypes–to generalize, most stereotypes are true, and people object to stereotypes and generalizations for the exact same reasons. Or as Psychology Today puts it:

“Stereotypes” have a bad name, and everybody hates stereotypes. But what exactly is a stereotype?

What people call “stereotypes” are what scientists call “empirical generalizations,” and they are the foundation of scientific theory. That’s what scientists do; they make generalizations. Many stereotypes are empirical generalizations with a statistical basis and thus on average tend to be true. If they are not true, they wouldn’t be stereotypes. … 

SAT scores by race and parental income

We only call them “stereotypes” when we don’t like the information they convey. “African Americans have more melanin, on average, than non-African Americans,” is not a controversial statement; “African Americans score worse on the SAT, on average, than non-African Americans” is controversial, even though both are empirically true.

Nichols grasps for this false distinction between “generalizations” and “stereotypes” because Nichols sees himself as a Good Person, not an Evil Racist, and only Evil Racists use stereotypes. (We know that because the liberals said so.)

Except for the uncomfortable fact that most stereotypes are basically true, otherwise people wouldn’t bother to have them. This leaves Nichols in the uncomfortable position of eternally trying to explain to people why it’s okay when he, an expert, says mean things about the Russians, but totally not okay when ordinary people say mean things about the Russians.

I can almost hear Nichols objecting, “It can’t be racist if it’s true,” to which I raise the average Somali IQ:

In the US, the cutoff for “mental retardation” or “intellecutal disability” is set at an IQ of 70 or below. The averaged measured Somali IQ is in the low 70s. Almost half of Somalis would be, in the US, legally retarded.

The only way to dull the sting of this statement is to note that 1. of course the majority of Somalis aren’t retarded; 2. Somali migants are heavily selected from the smarter end of the Somalia, because they’re the folks who were clever enough to escape; 3. Somali IQ is probably being depressed by terrible local conditions. Still, if you work for Google, I don’t recommend writing any memos trying to give a nuanced version of “Somalis have low average IQs.” For that matter, I don’t recommend writing that if you work anywhere except in an explicit IQ-related job. If your coworkers are IQ-experts, they might already be familiar with Somali IQs; otherwise you will get sacked immediately for being racist.

Everything is fine for experts if they promote ideas that people already believe or want to agree with. Saying that “Fast food is bad for you,” raises few hackles. Everyone knows that.

The findings of the now-discredited Implicit Association Test were widely touted because people wanted evidence that “everyone is a little bit racist,” (or at least that whites are all subconsciously racist, even the ones who say they aren’t.) The IAT was obviously bogus from the start, but confirmation bias and wanting it to be true led people to latch onto it.

When experts and common wisdom agree, all is well.

It’s when experts and lay-people disagree that problems arises. If the matter is purely scientific–What is the atomic weight of cesium?–people will usually defer. But if the matter is personal or involves deeply held religious beliefs, people resist. (We evolutionists have been dealing with this for a long time.)

Nichols gives the example, “Russians are more corrupt than Norwegians.” It’s absolutely true, unless we’re using some strange definition of “corrupt.” And Nichols, a guy who speaks Russian and has been studying Russia for decades, has the relevant expertise to make such a judgment. But normal people who don’t know anything about Russia (or Norway) get their hackles up because the statement sounds mean and contradicts their deeply held belief that all groups of people are morally and intellectually equal.

If the only difference between a stereotype and a generalization is that a stereotype offends the hearer, then “Russians are more corrupt than Norwegians” is a stereotype.

Life is hard for experts if they contradict things people deeply believe, but it’s even harder if they contradict things believed by their own social class.

Scientists studying evolution face criticism and disbelief from people who believe that humans were created by God from a ball of dirt on the sixth day of creation, but evolution is a “high class” belief and creationism is “low class,” so scientists face no loss of social standing by advocating for evolution and generally don’t even associate socially with creationists.

By contrast, a geneticist like Harvard’s David Reich, who recently admitted in the New York Times that “race” is biologically, even genetically real, is contradicting the beliefs of his own social class that “race is a social construct.” Harvard is full of people who believe creationist nonsense about the biology of men, women, and racial groups, but since these are high-class religious beliefs, Reich faces a loss of social standing by contradicting them and will have to actually deal with these people in real life.

Slate Star Codex recently posed, “Can Things be Both Popular and Silenced?” a discussion of whether authors like Jordan Peterson, who has received a ton of media attention lately and sells millions of books and is doing quite well for himself, can be accurately described as “silenced” in some way.

SSC briefly touches on social class and then moves on to other important matters, but I think social class really ties matters together. Peterson is a book-writing professional with a medical degree, (I think. I haven’t read any of his work,) that is, an academic intellectual. Reich is a Harvard professor doing ground-breaking, amazing work. James Watson won a goddam Nobel prize. Bret Weinstein was a professor at Evergreen State. Etc. These are high class academics in conflict with the rest of their social class, which can cause a great deal of anxiety, the loss of friends, and outright conflict, as when students at Evergreen college literally tried to hunt Professor Weinstein down with bats and tazers for the crime of not leaving campus on “no white people on campus day.” (Relevant posts on Weinstein and Evergreen; See also the James Damore incident at Google and the Christakis incident at Yale.)

A conservative person living in a conservative part of the country probably doesn’t lose much social standing for criticizing stupid things liberals believe, but someone in a liberal profession or social environment will. Even if he is actually an expert who is actually correct, he still faces hoards of ignorant people who are socially more powerful than he is and will happily punch him silent in defense of their religious beliefs. (The same is probably also true in reverse; I wouldn’t want to be openly pro-choice in a highly conservative workplace, for example.)

A lot of what gets called “silencing” is just class insecurity or conflict. Fox News rails against “the media” even though it is the media; more people watch Fox than listen to NPR, but PR is high-class and Fox is low-class. It’s not that “the media” is liberal so much as that the upper class is liberal and the lower classes don’t like being looked down upon.

You can rail against Fox News or Infowars or whatever for being stupid, but this is a democracy, so if one side tries to be objective, correct, or have high-status experts, then the other side will rail against all of that. If one side tries to promote cute puppies, the other side will become the anti-cute-puppies party.

Experts run into troubl when their research leads them to believe things that fit with neither party, or only with the opposite social class from the one they run in. This is both very uncomfortable for the individual and hard to describe to outsiders.

Ultimately, I think class is far more important than we give it credit for.

Addendum on Fast Food and Race

Upon further reflection, I decided a discussion of the changing attitudes toward American Fast Food restaurants is incomplete without race.

Japan, as I’m sure you already know, is an extremely homogenous country. According to Wikipedia, Japan is 98.5% Japanese, with 0.5% Korean, 0.4% Chinese, and 0.6% other. I don’ t know if “other” includes the Ainu, or if they’re just numbered within the Japanese, (most of them are at least part Japanese anyway,) but even if we take the high estimate of Ainu population, they’re < 0.2% of the total. So, yes, Japan is very Japanese.

By contrast, America has a large, ethnically distinct underclass of blacks and Hispanics: 65% white, 5% Asian, 13% of black and 17% Hispanic.

By contrast, back in the 50s when McDonald’s began, America was 88% white, 10% black, and 2% Hispanic.

As a result, Japan’s underclass is still Japanese, while America’s underclass is ethnically and racially distinct from its upper classes. Japan is more homogenous, with a narrower wealth gap between its richest and poorest citizens and a much lower crime rate.

If SJWs have taught me anything, it’s that white people are always racist. Japan doesn’t have this problem, not only because it lacks white people, but also because it lacks different races for anyone to be racist against.

Just look at this family, all dressed up and having a fun time

Googling “vintage McDonalds ads” may not be the most scientific way to study historic advertizing campaigns, but we’ll do it anyway. Or here, have an article on the subject.

Around the mid-70s, McDonald’s (and Burger King and probably various other Fast Food brands) began explicitly targeting up-and-coming black customers with ads featuring happy black families, working class men getting breakfast before heading off to the construction site, black couples, etc. Interestingly, the ads aimed at white people tend to contain only one or two people, often with a closer focus on the food. (There are, of course, plenty of ads that only feature food.)

Now, far be I to disagree with the advertising decisions of the world’s most successful fast food chain–selling massive quantities of cheap food to black people has been a great strategy for McDonald’s.

But this has caused a shift in the racial composition of McDonald’s target demographic, affecting how it is perceived by the wider society.

Similarly, the demographics of people who work in fast food have changed radically since the 1950s. Most of my older (white) relatives worked at fast food restaurants in highschool or their early twenties. (Heck, I was just talking with an upper-middle-class white relative who used PICK STRAWBERRIES in the strawberry fields for money back in highschool, a job which we are now reassured that “white people won’t do.”) Unskilled jobs for young people used to be a thing in our society. It was a fine way for young people to start their lives as productive members of society, gain a bit of work experience, and save up money for college, a car, home, etc.

Today, these jobs are dominated by our massive, newly arrived population of Mexican immigrants, driving down wages and making it harder for anyone who isn’t fluent in Spanish (necessary to communicate with the other employees,) to get hired. Meanwhile, the average age of fast food employees appears to have increased, with people stuck in these jobs into middle age.

All of this has contributed, I’d wager, to America’s changing attitude toward fast food, and its poor/middle class people (of all races) in general.

 

Seriously, where would you even put more people?
Shibuya Station, Japan

You know, Americans talk a lot about how Japan needs more immigrants–generally citing the declining Japanese birthrates as an excuse. (Because what Japan really needs is higher population density + racial tension.) But despite its near total lack of racial diversity, Japan is one of the world’s most successful, technologically advanced countries. If anything, low Japanese fertility is actually fixing one of Japan’s biggest problems–density (which has long-term problems with Japan needing more food and natural resources to support its population than the archipelago can physically produce).

They actually hire people to shove passengers into the trains to make them fit.
Rush hour on the Tokyo Subway

Only an idiot could take the Tokyo subway at rush hour and think, “What this country needs is more people!” I therefore recommend that the Japanese ignore us Americans and do keep their society the way they like it.

The Death of American Equality

Obligatory Hibiki reference

I. I was recently chatting with a friend who lived for some time in Japan. I asked them what they liked best about her experience, and received a surprising answer–not the cartoons or the music, the fabulous city of Tokyo or the tasty food, neither the ancient culture nor the attractive people (though I am sure they appreciated all of these things)–but the equality.

In Japan, they said, there is much more of a sense of community harmony, of everyone being in the same boat. There is much less explicit class consciousness and people are more willing to help each other out. It’s not uncommon to see little old ladies out sweeping the street in front of their houses to keep their neighborhoods looking nice.

Remember when getting your daily nutritional needs met was considered a good thing?

II. In Where Have all the Fast-Food Playgrounds Gone, Lawrence writes:

On a Saturday afternoon at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn… The Playplace, during what should be prime Saturday afternoon birthday party hours, is empty and locked. … this McDonald’s looks like it stopped trying to attract kids in 1995. …

Today, these standard modular play structures — padded floors, platforms, polyurethane foam piping, a single plastic slide — are probably considered boring after age 9. At another McDonald’s, on Brooklyn’s Rockaway Beach, the indoor playground has been removed and replaced by more seating. At a Chuck E. Cheese’s near Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a place where playgrounds are admittedly secondary to a casino of kids’ games, the usually standard play area is gone, too. …

According to Technomic, a food-service research and consulting firm, families with kids going to McDonald’s fell from 18.6 percent in 2011 to 14.6 percent in 2014.

Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, thinks that we’re unlikely to see fast-food restaurants focusing on playgrounds again anytime soon. “I’m not sure that they’re becoming a thing of the past, but we clearly don’t see growth in the opportunity for restaurants,” Tristano says. “Brands like Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s, who have indoor play places — we’re not necessarily seeing them expanding and, in some cases, when stores are being rebuilt, they’re no longer including these play places.”

There are multiple reasons for this shift, including people having fewer kids and more kids opting to play video games at home rather than head to the playground, but one of the biggest is classism.

Back when we were kids, McDonald’s was simply seen as a tasty, affordable restaurant that catered to families with small children. I’m almost certain I attended birthday parties there.

McDonald’s still offers birthday parties, but today the idea seems… declasse. Not that the kids wouldn’t enjoy it– kids today have about the same opinion of McDonald’s as I did–but their parents would disapprove. On parenting forums you often hear moms proudly proclaim that the dreaded “fast food” has never passed her offspring’s lips. Fast food is roundly excoriated as unhealthy crap, unsuitable for children–even though a Happy Meal is probably better for you than an organic, cruelty-free Whole Foods cupcake.

"I'd rather have humans do back-breaking labor in the tropical sun to grow, harvest, and refine sugar can than steal an egg from a chicken!"
Not actually a health food.

III. The folks over at Modern Mom.com have some recommendations for “Healthy Halloween Candy Alternatives,” like:

Snack bars – Some snack bars taste so good they can be confused for candy. KIND bars, made with all natural ingredients, are not only healthy but also available in indulgently delicious flavors like KIND Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt, Dark Chocolate Cinnamon Pecan and Healthy Grains Bars in flavors like Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate and Vanilla Blueberry (which are also gluten-free!).

Guess what. If it tastes like candy and is covered in chocolate, it’s candy.

Fruit covered in caramel/chocolate – Freeze bananas and drizzle with a tad of melted dark chocolate or cover apples in homemade, low-sugar caramel.

Again, chocolate is chocolate. It doesn’t stop being chocolate just because you throw a banana at it.

Natural fruit snacks/wraps – Trader Joe’s Organic Fruit Wraps are a perfect example of a flavorsome snack that is good for you and your kids. These wraps are 100% fruit and low in sugar.

Do you know what chemical makes fruit taste so good? Fructose. Fructose is sugar; (-ose is a suffix meaning “sugar.”) Your body metabolizes it into glucose just as easily as it metabolizes table sugar (sucrose) into glucose. These are not low in sugar; they are low in sucrose. You are not fooling your body with this verbal trickery.

Fresh fruit – Always the perfect, healthy treat to offer.

Oh, sure, because you want to be that parent. The one with the apples on Halloween. Why not hand out toothbrushes while you’re at it?

Pumpkin and yogurt parfait – Kids love parfaits, so simply layer fat-free vanilla yogurt with canned pumpkin mixed with pumpkin pie spice and a teaspoon of brown sugar. Top with a few chocolate chip morsels.

“Fat free” yogurt has as much sugar as ice cream, and this thing has a spoonful of added sugar. Guys, sugary yogurt topped with sugar doesn’t stop being sugary just because you mash in some pumpkin. (Even if you’re trying to avoid “fat” for some reason, most candy doesn’t have much fat in it.)

And don’t get me started on the notion that “kids love parfaits.” Maybe your kids love parfaits. Mine prefer foie gras topped with Cheerios.

I’m not saying you should feed your kids a bunch of candy. I’m saying don’t be classist about what is and isn’t healthy. It’s not healthy just because it comes from Whole Foods, and it isn’t unhealthy just because it comes from McDonald’s. (For goodness’s sakes, they serve salads.)

The folks who make their kids sugar-drenched organic parfaits in order to keep them away from the dreaded M&Ms in their Halloween bucket are the same folks who denigrate fast food.

This isn’t my picture and I don’t know where it came from, but wow that could totally be me and my friends.

IV. I have a certain fondness for old-fashioned playgrounds. Modern ones have their advantages (plastic slides won’t burn your legs,) but they feel incomplete without see-saws or merry-go-rounds. When it came to McDonald’s, I loved that guy with the giant hamburger head you could climb inside (mostly I tried to figure out ways to get through the bars and get on top of it.)

To tell the truth, I am not that fond of McDonald’s food–I mostly like them for their playground. In the midst of winter, I am thankful to have a warm, dry place where my kids can play and we can all get something to eat. We once celebrated and appreciated such places, just as we once celebrated the manufacturing jobs that once allowed Americans to enjoy the greatest economic boom the world has ever seen.

Today the middle class is shrinking and the working class is destined to be poor than its parents. Global poverty has plummeted, but American wealth inequality has been steadily increasing since the 70s. (Coincidentally, average wages have been stagnant ever since the beginning of mass, low-wage immigration from 3rd world countries.) And politics has become more divisive and dived as we’ve turned into a nation of snobs, turning up our noses at people once considered brothers.

V. The article on disappearing fast-food playgrounds speaks positively of efforts to pass playground-cleaning regulations:

Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, a playground sanitation vigilante and, more formally, the founder of Kids Play Safe, a research organization “committed to protecting the health, safety and well-being of children,” was banned from eight Phoenix-area McDonald’s in 2011 presumably for swabbing play areas for germs. A cross-country journey during which she tested the playgrounds of six national chains in both high and low socioeconomic, rural, and urban areas turned into a crusade. …

Surprisingly, there are no state or federal regulations for playground cleanliness or maintenance, and they’re not regulated in many counties and cities. Carr-Jordan has been working to change that, successfully doing so in her home state of Arizona. Kids Play Safe recently partnered with Chuck E. Cheese’s to, according to a press release, “collaborate on common goals to provide a safe healthy play environment for kids.” Chuck E. Cheese’s is the first major brand to work with Kids Play Safe, which could be a small step forward to improving the reputation of restaurant playgrounds.

Just look at this family, all dressed up and having a fun time

I am extremely sympathetic to the desire for clean playgrounds. Nothing ruins a lovely afternoon like vomiting all evening. But legal regulations aren’t going to get you there. Faced with a choice between risking fines if their minimum wage barely-English-speaking employees incorrectly clean the playground or just not having a playground, restaurants will opt to go without.

I propose an alternative solution: return to the simpler playgrounds of my youth. Free-standing structures exposed to the wind, rain, and sun do not harbor germs in the same way as humid, enclosed tubes and pits. The older playgrounds were probably cheaper, as well, and had more personality.

Finally, I’d like to note that I am not really trying to shill for fast food, but examining a change in the way society approaches food marketed to middle and lower-class people.

I’m Bloody Tired of the Classism Inherent in the Election

Is the darn thing over yet?

No?

Damn.

American politics are deeply, fundamentally classist.

Those who want to sound high-class (or are) adopt the rhetoric of the liberals. The working class go Republican.

You know what? Screw it, I don’t even want to pull up data on this. If you don’t believe me, go stick your head back in the sand and believe whatever you want. Tell yourself that you despise conservatives because they are Bad People and not because they are Low Class and not Good People Like You. And conservatives can tell themselves that they hate liberals because liberals are Bad People who Hate Americans.

In reality, of course, most people are good people (except for the one who work in HR, who should all be shot–NAHRALT, of course.)

When people hear that I write about “politics” they tend to assume that this means that I enjoy reading/debating about electoral politics. The truth is that I basically hate electoral politics.

Most of what passes for “political debate” is really just tribal signalling. Tribal signaling need not be wise, thoughtful, or factually correct; it need only signal “my tribe is better than your tribe.” I might be able to stand this kind of inanity if I felt comfortably a member of one of the big tribes and basically hated (or had no friends in) the other tribe. Of course, I have to have friends from across the economic system.

Working class and prole whites are convinced that elite whites hate them. Elite whites are convinced that prole whites hate just about everyone. And blacks, Muslims, etc., are probably pretty concerned about proles hating them, too. Family members are voting for the people they think are on their side against those bad people on the other side. Friends are voting for different people whom they think are on their side against those bad people on the other side.

Almost no one I’ve talked to is voting for a particular side because they’ve undertaken a careful study of the particular issues under discussion and decided that one of the candidates has the best policies. How many Democratic voters agree with Hillary’s stance on the Iraq War? How many Republicans agree with Trump’s opinion on the same?

The most vocal Trump supporter I know was talking about how we need to do more for immigrant children coming from Latin America just last year, and has told me that they don’t actually want to see anyone deported. They just hate liberals, and they are voting for Trump to stick it to the liberals.

No matter how I vote, someone gets fucked.

Pasting on our Plastic Smiles

Yes, my friends, I went out and socialized this weekend.

It was awful.

Don’t get me wrong. I can socialize. I can paste on a plastic smile and make appropriate small talk. I’ve been to dinner parties with professors and hung out with hobos. I just don’t necessarily enjoy socializing.

The area I stayed in is one of the whitest in the country, an island accessible only by a ferry ride on which I saw a woman wearing a dress so ugly it could only have been horribly expensive and a Rolls Royce, the kind of place where a little cabin in the woods is worth a million dollars. The folks I stayed with commented on how nice it was that the $25 ferry boat toll “keeps the riff-raff off the island” and have framed pictures of Obama in their house.

Well, there is no $25 toll to my community, so the riff-raff comes here. The folks I visited can vote for more immigration and bussing and section 8 housing, and it has no effect on them, because they live in an all-white million dollar community accessible only by ferry. And if some poor or middle class person says, “Hey, this has bad effects on me!” they look down their noses a and call that person racist.

Rich and poor alike are barred from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges, and rich and poor alike may only avoid crime, environmental destruction, and their wages being driven into the toilet by purchasing million dollar homes on exclusive islands.

These people have no fucking shame.

Femininity as Fashion

My androgyny theory run up against the obvious complication of how you measure androgyny/dimorphism. Height? Hormones? Behavior? The latter is obviously affected by a ton of environmental factors.

Slate Star Codex has an excellent post analyzing fashion (and politics) via cellular automata. Other people have written really insightful things using this same model, so I recommend you shoving it into whatever spare theories you have lying around.

BTW, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should read Scot’s post before finishing mine.

Anyway, does the performance of femininity itself follow this model?
I propose yes.

Let’s go back to 1900 or so. Most people are farmers, and farmers have to work damn hard. The wives of farmers are not delicate wilting flowers, but extremely hard workers themselves, with very little excess time or money to spend on things like closets full of shoes. The traits we associate with femininity and gender role performance were largely luxuries available only to the wealthy, a situation that had probably been largely true for centuries.

Then came industrialization, the shift to the cities, and the rapid growth of the middle class. By the 1920s, the middle class could aspire to ape upper class behaviors, spending their new wealth on clothes and shoes and stay-at-home-motherhood. It is probably no coincidence that at the same time, fashionable women began dressing and acting like men, even aspiring to “boyish” figures.

Then came the Depression and WWII, and people went back to eating spare shoes instead of wearing them. By the fifties, femininity was once again a symbol of luxurious good living, complete with the magical wonders of modern technology like vacuums and Jello.

Of course, as soon as the middle class (and even, god forbid, proles,) started aspiring to vacuum in their pearls, such things became horribly retrograde. Poors might aspire to have enough money that one of them might be able to take off a little time to care for their children, but rich people had much better things to do with their time. No self-respecting career woman would be caught dead in public with a parcel of screaming brats; if they must breed for the sake of some horribly chauvinist husband, the actual care and upkeep of the children must be farmed out to suitably low-class (often non-white) nannies. Nor would she deign to humiliate herself by cooking meals or doing laundry. (Such work can also be done by low-class non-white women, to allow rich white women to keep up their masculine lifestyles.)

(Note: it’s not employing people that’s problematic. It’s believing that certain types of work are beneath you, but perfectly acceptable for other sorts of people. If you think women shouldn’t cook and clean, then don’t hire other women to cook and clean.)

Of course, poors and proles never quite got the message and continued buying their daughters Barbies and Bratz and whatnot, despite all of their betters’ constant harangues about the dire moral dangers of such toys.

As the economy continues to suck and the middle class shrinks, will femininity become again the domain of the super-rich?