The Evolution of the American Dream

Remember the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and their sloganeering? In the beginning of the story, when they overthrow the humans, they lead with the chant, “four legs good, two legs bad!” By the end, they’ve  become human-corrupt, and lead the chant, “four legs good, two legs better!”

Just one word changed, and the new and old words both begin with b, bolstering the illusion of continuity and natural evolution.

Let’s call such a slowly shifting narrative, simple enough to be captured in a slogan, and designed to help a small predatory class dominate a larger prey class, a Pig Narrative.  The American Dream is a Pig Narrative. For the record, in case you are immediately curious about my politics, I think this Pigs-and-Prey structure of the world is the natural order of things. You can mitigate its effects, but not change it in any fundamental way. If I had to pick, I’d side with the pigs.  Moving on.

You can compare Pig Narratives on the basis of the degree of prey liberty (or conversely, predator control) they represent, allowing you to plot the evolution over time. If you plot the course of the American Dream through its many rewrites (9 so far by my count, each associated with a major coming-of-age event that defined a generation), you get something like the picture above.

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Three Deep Videos and a Roundup

I am not normally a big consumer of online video content, but in the last couple of months, I’ve watched three very significant videos that together have turned my mind into silly putty. They are incredibly fertile, thought-provoking and demanding without being merely stimulating in an infotainment/mindcandy sense. This is protein, not sugar.

They total about 6 hours, but if you choose to invest a clear-brained morning or afternoon, you will not be disappointed. You should find that you’ve leveled-up your thinking about a lot of stuff that we talk about frequently.

I am also posting a roundup of the last couple of months, since I am now blogging on enough different venues to justify some periodic aggregation.

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The August Reading List Freeze

August is always a bitch of a month for me, to the point that I agree with David Plotz of Slate that we should get rid of it entirely. It seems to be my de facto annual planning month, though I have no reason anymore to be on an annual planning cycle. In August, I always seem to have far too many things in early stages of development, and too few leaving at the other end. I am currently in the early stages of several rather ambitious blog posts, a couple of new consulting projects and a couple of new personal projects. This year, thanks to my summer travels (I am back in Las Vegas now), I also have piles of unprocessed raw material from stuff I researched on the road, to write about.

So that’s a long, whiny excuse for rather sparse output over the last several weeks. I think I’ve hit my August trough though, so I can only build up momentum from here. But in the meantime, I assume many of you are on vacation, or planning to go on vacation, so I thought I’d share my current reading list, if any of you want to read along. Some of this will show up on the blog, some will not. My reading list piles up so fast that I’ve decided to be brutal. This list is it for the rest of the year. I will not be adding more books to the queue until I am done with these.

  1. Titan by Ron Chernow: Multiple people have recommended this Rockefeller biography to me.
  2. Tycoons by Charles Morris: Seems like a good overview of the Robber Barons
  3. The First Tycoon by T. J. Stiles: A biography of Vanderbilt, probably the founding father of the Robber Baron era.
  4. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama: Don’t let the vague neocon associations dissuade you. There’s a reason this guy is so famous. If he writes a history of political order, you need to read it.
  5. World 3.0 by Pankaj Ghemawat: As meaty as Friedman’s The World is Flat is not. I suspect it’s going to become the definitive textbook introduction to globalization for those who actually care about getting the details and numbers right. The title is unfortunately rather uninspired, but the contents are solid gold.
  6. Fixing the Game by Roger L. Martin: Haven’t yet started it, but seems like a really intriguing premise: applying the lessons of the NFL to figuring out how capitalism should be fixed to avoid the kinds of messes we seem to keep getting into.
  7. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson: I rarely read fiction these days, but everybody keeps telling me to read Stephenson, so I finally caved, especially since it seemed to go well with the rest of this list.  This is the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. If I have time, I may attempt to finish all three volumes this year.
  8. Debt: the first 5000 Years by David Graeber: I like ambitious reframings of everything from a new perspective, and this certainly qualifies. An attempt to rethink all of civilization and society as a manifestation of debt. If you want to sample before you decide, Julio Rodriguez at Wild Intent has attempted a valiant assault on this Mt. Everest scale book (ambition, not raw size).

Yes. There’s a definite theme here. No, the theme won’t take over the blog. I may even decide not to pursue it at all.

Mostly I am trying to flesh out the thinking around this year’s summer blockbuster hit, A Brief History of the Corporation to figure out just how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Though I hate to admit it, that piece did share some rather unpleasant characteristics with Michael Bay’s movies, so I am trying to think through some Oscar-season type follow ups.

Here’s to all of us seeing this beast of a month through. I’ll be in Hawaii over Labor Day weekend, so there is that to look forward to.

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

On 8 June, a Scottish banker named Alexander Fordyce shorted the collapsing Company’s shares in the London markets. But a momentary bounce-back in the stock ruined his plans, and he skipped town leaving £550,000 in debt. Much of this was owed to the Ayr Bank, which imploded. In less than three weeks, another 30 banks collapsed across Europe, bringing trade to a standstill. On July 15, the directors of the Company applied to the Bank of England for a £400,000 loan. Two weeks later, they wanted another £300,000. By August, the directors wanted a £1 million bailout.  The news began leaking out and seemingly contrite executives, running from angry shareholders, faced furious Parliament members. By January, the terms of a comprehensive bailout were worked out, and the British government inserted its czars into the Company’s management to ensure compliance with its terms.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it shouldn’t. The year was 1772, exactly 239 years ago today, the apogee of power for the corporation as a business construct. The company was the British East India company (EIC). The bubble that burst was the East India Bubble. Between the founding of the EIC in 1600 and the post-subprime world of 2011, the idea of the corporation was born, matured, over-extended, reined-in, refined, patched, updated, over-extended again, propped-up and finally widely declared to be obsolete. Between 2011 and 2100, it will decline — hopefully gracefully — into a well-behaved retiree on the economic scene.

In its 400+ year history, the corporation has achieved extraordinary things, cutting around-the-world travel time from years to less than a day, putting a computer on every desk, a toilet in every home (nearly) and a cellphone within reach of every human.  It even put a man on the Moon and kinda-sorta cured AIDS.

So it is a sort of grim privilege for the generations living today to watch the slow demise of such a spectacularly effective intellectual construct. The Age of Corporations is coming to an end. The traditional corporation won’t vanish, but it will cease to be the center of gravity of economic life in another generation or two.  They will live on as religious institutions do today, as weakened ghosts of more vital institutions from centuries ago.

It is not yet time for the obituary (and that time may never come), but the sun is certainly setting on the Golden Age of corporations. It is time to review the memoirs of the corporation as an idea, and contemplate a post-corporate future framed by its gradual withdrawal from the center stage of the world’s economic affairs.

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Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia

This is a guest post by Stefan King.

In 1990, the art historian Camille Paglia provoked feminists and post-modernists with her controversial book Sexual Personae.  Paglia’s goal was to show the pagan patterns of continuity in western culture, and to expose feminist ideals as misguided wishful thinking. Now, two decades later, it is time to dig Sexual Personae out of the cultural compost heap and see if something interesting has grown there. Paglia has a highly sensitive intuition about great works of art, and she is a talented psychoanalyst of artists. The value of the book lies in those intuitions, which we can now study with the benefit of hindsight.

The Venus of Willendorf

The grand narrative of western archetypes, or “sexual personae” as Paglia calls them, starts with the Venus of Willendorf, a small statuette from the Stone Age. It is a faceless lump of feminine flesh, possibly a fertility talisman. It contrasts perfectly with anything civilized: there is no line, no shape, no stillness, and no Apollonian light. In those times, nature’s domination of humanity was total.

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The Russian Fox and the Evolution of Intelligence

This is a guest post by Brian Potter of  Coarse Grained. It explores a different aspect of some of the ideas in my post, The Return of the Barbarian, and Paula Hay’s guest post, Cognitive Archeology of the West. If you are interested in guest-posting, email me.

Consider the following experiment (the Wason selection task):

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?

The correct answer is “8” and “brown”, but very few people get the correct answer – between 10-25% depending on the exact formulation of the problem. Even when its expressed in more familiar terms, such as “If a person goes to New York, then he takes the subway”, success rates remain extremely low.

However, consider the exact same problem, rephrased slightly:

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a statement on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 16, 25, ‘drinking beer’ and ‘drinking coke’. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if “If you are drinking alcohol, then you must be over 21”?

Phrased like this, success rates shoot up to around 75%. But what makes this form different than a question about riding the subway?

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Cognitive Archeology of the West

This is a guest post by Paula Hay 

Venkat’s recent post The Disruption of Bronze touched on a subject I’ve been pursuing fervently for the better part of a decade now: the time frame in which psychologically modern humans evolved. More than that, however, my interest is in why and how human psychology shifted to cause the sudden, radical changes that ultimately resulted in civilization.

My view is that without an understanding of this shift, there can be no evolution beyond the devouring, predatory virus that is civilized culture. In a mere 10,000 years, civilization has all but wrecked the planet — a truly impressive horror.

Collapse (of either the slow or sudden variety, take your pick) is a certainty, in my opinion; what I needed, for my own sanity, was a context in which to fit this state of affairs. Does the story really begin and end with American avarice? Are humans condemned to repeat the rise-and-fall of civilizations until we wipe ourselves out for the last time? Is there no greater narrative arc here?

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The Return of the Barbarian

Our cartoon view of history goes straight from the Flintstones to Jetsons without developmental stages of any consequence in between. Hunter-gatherers and settled modern civilizations loom large, as bookends, in our study of history. The more I study history though, the more I realize that hunter-gatherer lifestyles are mostly of importance in evolutionary prehistory, not in history proper. If you think about history proper, a different lifestyle, pastoral nomadism, starts to loom large, and its influence on the course of human history is grossly underestimated. This is partly because civilizations and pastoral nomad cultures have a figure-ground relationship. You need to understand both to understand the gestalt of world history.

Modern hunter-gatherer lifestyles are cul-de-sacs in cultural evolution terms. They stopped mattering by around 4000 BC, and haven’t significantly affected world events since. Pastoral nomads though, played a crucial role until at least World War I. Until about 1405 (the year Timur died), they actually played the starring role. And in reconstructed form, the lifestyle may again start to dominate world affairs within the next few decades. Their eclipse over the last 5oo or so years, I am going to argue, was an accident of history that is finally being corrected.

The barbarians are about to return to their proper place at the helm of the world’s affairs, and the story revolves around this picture:

I am about to zoom from about 15,000 BC to 2011 AD in less than 4000 words, so you may want to fasten your seat belts and grab a few pinches of salt.

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