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Monday, June 03, 2013

The Crash of Socialism 2.0

In the digital pages of the New York Times, Ezekiel Emanuel, Obamacare whiz kid and brother of Rahm, has a modest proposal to lower suicide rates by ending the sale of Tylenol in bottles. From now on there will be just be small packages of Tylenol blister packs as a kind of seven day waiting period for committing suicide.

Emanuel is no great humanitarian looking to save lives by making it slightly harder for Pete, who has been laid off work because his company found it easier to do business in China than spend an extra twenty million a year dealing with the regulations endorsed by people like Emanuel, to commit suicide. The truth is he doesn't care about Pete at all. He isn't looking to save Pete's life. He's looking to lower suicide rates.

The two might seem like they are one and the same. And it's an easy mistake to make. Politicians make it all the time. If there is any single great error at the heart of Obamacare, it's that conflation of saving individuals and tinkering with statistics.

In support of his proposal to ban Tylenol bottles, Emanuel cites a British ban in 1998 that he claims significantly lowered Tylenol overdoses. But while Pete, the British edition, may have become slightly less likely to down a bottle of Tylenol in Blighty, overall suicides remained fairly steady, and male suicides have spiked significantly with the economic downturn.

Treating Pete like a child and taking away his Tylenol didn't stop him from committing suicide. And perhaps treating him like an overgrown infant under the care of an idiot nanny state that can figure out how to ban Tylenol from pharmacies, but not how to keep Somali drug dealers from overrunning London, made him feel more helpless and more determined to assert what control he could over his life.

Not that it would matter to Emanuel. The sorts of people who dig through medical journals to find some ingenious nanny state micro solution from the UK, Japan or South Africa that increased or decreased some petty statistic by some petty percentage don't think in terms of people. They think in terms of statistics. They see people the way that Intel engineers see computer chips and they're just trying to engineer them to get the best and most efficient performance out of them.

The modern nanny state is a diseased bastard child of Sociology, Marketing and the efficiency experts who used to roam the halls of GM and IBM back when companies still had company songs. It may be stuck with a mechanical understanding of actual people, but is an incredible whiz with statistics.

If the original Muckrakers that started the machine of urban reform (that turned into national reform) seemed to occasionally care about actual people, their ideological descendants are leftist autistics, in love with statistics and devoid of empathy. They can't tell you why Pete wants to kill himself, but they can tell you that taking away his Tylenol will reduce his chances of a Tylenol overdose.

The "Nudge" school of Cass Sunstein attempts to paste a human face on an inhuman system by tinkering with people at a microscopic level. Instead of passing big laws, there will be lots of small laws. The old totalitarians would have outlawed suicide. The new totalitarians outlaw Tylenol.

Nudgery has found its apotheosis in New York City's Mayor Bloomberg, a billionaire with all the people skills of a cold fish. It's dead certain that Bloomberg already has a copy of Emanuel's latest piece and has forwarded it to one of the numerous overpaid experts who populate his administration and his political organizations. It's not that Bloomberg really cares whether people kill themselves, but like the old efficiency experts, he likes those incremental improvements.

Tylenol overdoses down 13 percent looks good. It doesn't tell us whether suicides as a whole have gone down. It doesn't tell us what those people are doing instead of committing suicide. But those are all holistic questions. They deal with the whole human being instead of a sectioned off statistic, like one of Damien Hirst's dead cows in a box. And the nudgers and nanny staters are incapable of that.  They like the idea of micromanaging people because they can't actually relate to people.

Worse still, they don't care.

The old efficiency experts looked for minute gains that often failed to improve actual productivity, but made managers feel better about how much more efficiently their employees were working. But the country doesn't do work anymore. Not of the efficient kind. The new efficiency is social efficiency. It's figuring out how to get as many unemployed patients into and out of a doctor's office in as short a span as possible while paying the doctor as little possible. And then locking up all the Tylenol so the patients don't kill themselves. And then the social efficiency experts get a big bonus.

Once upon a time we used to make things. Now we make people miserable.

Nudges gamify progressive impulses. Score enough minor statistical improvements and you level up from a non-profit to an advisory board to a White House cabinet position. The big picture may be as bad as before, but that's not your department. You're acting locally and thinking globally and doing everything but actually helping people. And you get to feel good about helping to change the world.

Earlier generations managed to fundamentally change the world, without planning to do it. They just made things because they were worth doing. Later generations grew up being told that it was their duty to change the world and spent all their time doing nothing of worth and feeling good about it. And now the great revolution in data, the only actual revolution in generations, is being put to the service of social microsurgery, laser scalpel precision operations to tune society into a machine for manipulating people. But the people running the machine don't really understand people.

That doesn't mean they don't get results. Your average marketing expert has less understanding of human beings than an alien from another planet. That doesn't stop the machine that he's part of from getting results through sheer power and pressure. Likewise, the media is mostly wrong and not trusted, but still gets results because it has the biggest megaphone.

The Pavlovian shortcuts to manipulating people that are such a big part of convincing you to try a new soft drink or selling voters on Obama 2012 worked, but getting people to buy your hairspray or vote for your candidate is fundamentally different than changing how they live. The nudges and the data streams may seem sophisticated, but they rely on a Pavlovian view of human beings reacting to impulses in predictable ways. It's good enough for making a dog salivate when a bell is rung or a coed's eyes fill with stars at a Hopey poster, but it doesn't account for anything deeper than that.

A deeper view of human nature takes into accounts paradoxes and complexities. It understands that every act will have positive and negative consequences. And that people can be manipulated into acting against their interests and drives, but not into giving up on pursuing those interests and drives. That is where the Yugos and the Ladas of Communism ran into a ditch by assuming that the ability to control people at the macro level was the same as controlling them at the micro level.

The planned economy always runs into the paradox that the benevolent plan for the benefit of the People, even when it is endorsed and supported by the People, is torn to pieces by the individual interests and drives of the people, no capital letter. The collective is definitive in propaganda, but it is the personal that triumphs over the political. The unconscious drives of the individual triumph over the collective.

The People may be endlessly malleable, but the people are not. The People are defeated by the people.

The modern engineers of societies think that they are wiser because their nanny states take into account the micro. They tinker with the size of Tylenol containers and think that this means that they are better prepared for the challenges of a rigidly controlled totalitarian state than Lenin and Mao were. They aren't. If anything they are less prepared. Lenin and Mao had the cruel cynical contempt for people so common to Communist dictators. Their idiot stepchildren, part IBM, part George Herbert Mead, all Google, treat people with contempt, but don't even pay enough attention to people to be aware of the contempt that they have for them. Their contempt is as autistically mechanistic as their solutions.

The old progressive way was to model the state on a factory full of big machines, ruthless managers and experts overseeing the entire operation while the workers scurry underfoot. The new way is to model the state on a dot com that collects information on you in order to assign you to a category that will determine how it will automatically manipulate you. It's the sort of thing that seems like genius on a TED video or in the pages of the New York Times, but is even uglier and more doomed.

Swapping out the factory for the data center and patriarchy for matriarchy doesn't fix the soulless hole at the heart of the problem. A perfect society built by trying to turn people into machines will always fail. It will fail whether the logo on the box reads IBM or Google, whether the engineers wear three piece suits or neckbeards and whether the poster on the wall is Big Brother or Elizabeth Warren.
Failure can't be engineered out of the system. Failure is the system.

The social engineers are trying to stamp out bugs. They're proposing to lower the Tylenol overdose rate while the national debt approaches 17 trillion, the average student graduates with $30,000 worth of student loan debt and the suicide rate for men continues to rise. But the bugs aren't isolated faults, they are symptoms of the unworkability of the program. The programmers are trying to program people without understanding them and repressing people in favor of systems in order to achieve their target goals.

The social programs have failed. Socialism 2.0 is already as much of a social and economic disaster as Socialism 1.0. The future isn't progressive social improvements micromanaged by experts, but electric poverty, tax dodging dot coms and online black markets. The modern Neros are still fiddling with their people manipulation software while everything around them burns.

17 comments:

Naresh Krishnamoorti said...

Wow. One of your best essays yet.

It answers three questions that have always bugged me:

1. Why there are so many evident sociopaths in Silicon Valley, where I live;

2. Why so-called humanitarians have the greatest contempt for individual human beings (but Paul Johnson explained this phenomenon in his book, "Intellectuals"); and

3. Why the sudden plague of irrational overreactions to kids with anything that even remotely looks like a gun. They are treating kids as if they were Pavlov's dogs -- associating extreme stress with the thought of a gun.

NO BS said...

"They like the idea of micromanaging people because they can't actually relate to people."

Spot on. I used to work with someone like that, a scottish socialist disguised as a christian took delight in manipulating situations for what he thought was the greater good, but never too the time to help anyone in person. He loved the system of help, because it fulfilled his ego without any of the personal cost. Of course he was generally disliked, which means more than it sounds in a church. But it didn't matter to him because the boxes in his head were being ticked, he was strangely like the Wizard of Oz.

It's a psychological phenomenon of our time the people in general digest abstract statistics about the general "good" while their lives remain startlingly more real, yet the picture these statistics paint in their heads still counts as real even though it would be the greatest insult to them if their lives and feelings were dismissed in such an offhand way.

The technocratic caring deluded classes who only care because they don't actually have to do anything and are relatively very rich and need never worry about material things are, in essence, like millions of psychopathic despots with the liberal media acting as their fawning advisors. Parhaps mass delusion is the new Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Robin said...

Unfortunately the Socialism 2.0 still is about to have its heyday in the insistence that all US students be taught systems thinking is an intrinsic part of the K-12 Common Core classroom implementation.

Just as history shows that collectives are always captured by an oligarchy acting in its own insterest, students who are not to be taught history (unless it is the corrupted Big History or Facing History propaganda programs). But they are to be taught that we are all interdependent and that everything they do or fail to do affects others.

What a toxic combination as your Socialism 2.0 is actually being marketed via schools as Capitalism 3.0 or distributed capitalism with a support economy or the cooperative commonwealth. Just a few names currently out there for the same data driven, administered state where the individual seems to be a bad word.

ivymikecafe said...

Spot on Daniel. Spot on.

IgorR said...

I was thinking about Sunstein (what an Orwellian name, BTW) after reading the first few sentences even before seeing it later. For those who follow economics, it's hard to overstate the importance and emphasis on behavioral economics one could observe in the last few years. Sunstein's collaborators have won Nobel prizes and published best-selling books about how flawed humans are and how their innumerable biases compel them to make "wrong" decisions all the time. I was very interested in this field at first, but quickly became suspicious when in addition to studying human nature these "experts" quickly moved into how human behavior needs to be controlled and modified.

I have never seen it stated in print that this field of behavioral economics is becoming the new Marxian theory of "scientific" behavior control and modification. As an example, a kindly Israeli-born Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman (and someone Sunstein knows really well) wrote the best-selling "Thinking Fast and Slow". Don't be misled by these people gentle words. They are the Trotskys of today. Their ideas are being soft-pedaled by their goals are serious and deadly.

Anonymous said...

Imagine a boot, nudging you forever.

Kudos Daniel. Been reading you for a while, my first comment.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Indeed, glad you commented

Edward Cline said...

Cass Sunstein developed with another, more obscure academic wannabe people-manager a social/totalitarian management program call "libertarian paternalism." This was to forestall charges of wanting to be a totalitarian and denying men freedom of choice while still advancing a totalitarian mode that would deny them freedom of choice. The government would offer you A, B, C, and D, and allow you to choose one. You would not be allowed to suggest the rest of the alphabet, because the government would have already decided the rest of the alphabet wasn't good for you. So you would choose one between the offered choices and thus couldn't complain that you were being denied your freedom of choice.

Of course, that ruse also applied to freedom of speech. You would be allowed to choose one manner of saying A, B, C, and D, but no way else. The rest of the alphabet would be verboten, and if you insisted on wanting the whole alphabet, you would be sent to a reeducation camp to get your mind straight. There you would dig holes and fill them up again, and spend many nights "in the box" until you were ready to crawl to Sunstein's feet, or his wife Samantha Powers' feet, crying that he was the greatest humanitarian who ever lived and that socialism was the finest human organization that was ever crafted.

Of course, by that time you'd be clear out of your nut and not know what you were saying, and you could be forgiven. But Sunstein et al. should never be forgiven. Nor Obama, nor Holder, nor either of the Clintons. Shall I act the docent and provide a tour of this gallery of rogues?

Anonymous said...

Interesting how Bloomberg is an "efficiency expert". I wonder if George Soros is his mentor. Soros learned from some of the best back in his youth you know. That Asbergian efficiency worked well for the national socialists during WWII...at least until they were stopped.

Elise Ronan said...

The Asperger... what? In an otherwise interesting article you find it necessary to denigrate people with developmental issues. That somehow they are manipulative and "evil."Do you think this makes you an intellect?

As the parent of two youngmen with aspergers all this makes you is ignorant of what autism spectrum disorders, ignorant of why persons with aspergers think the way they do along with promoting intolerance towards those with invisible disabilities. My sons face prejudice on a daily basis because of ignorant people.Its supposed to be the intelligent that fight to rid the world of stereotypes, not promote them.

Print this comment or don't print this comment. i don't care. Be condescending or not in your response. Chime in with political correctness and leftwing progressive nonsense to defend your insult all you want. Nothing you say in response actually matters unless its a rewrite and an apology.

For someone who claims to be a religious man, shame on you.

Empress Trudy said...

And it skips down the path with its handmaiden - checkbox management initiatives. The belief that you can send anyone to a 4 day 'management seminar' and let them loose to follow the process through anything anywhere at any time. Just compile the right metrics and answer to the 8 different bosses a-la "Office Space" and you're good to go.

But the other crucial aspect of staff in staff bureaucracies is that they encourage slowness and failure. The way to protect your job is to insert yourself in an already meaningless process and make yourself a checkpoint, a milestone. Simply demand that you need to give your approval at some point and cobble together a regular status review group who will meet to do that. It doesn't matter what 'that' is, nor does anyone really understand it. The critical factor is that you're the critical factor now. You've added to the process by making it undergo another review. And better still if you can convince others' to make it a loop so that even if you finally approve something it can come back to you for your approval again. By the time some higher up is replaced by another higher up and sees your sham, you've already descended locust like on someone else. Inertia for inertia's sake is what socialist bureaucracies are about.

Edward Cline said...

Dear Elise Ronan: First, you are as far off base about Mr. Greenfield's political suasion as you can possibly get. He is neither politically correct nor a left wing progressive. People of those two allegiances I dare say would like to boil him in oil, or hand him over to Muslims for a crucifixion. Secondly, what you're asking for is that he adopt politically correct speech – that is, not use the term "asperger" in any but a clinical sense – to protect someone else's feelings – yours or anyone else's. On that policy, we would all be prohibited from employing the terms "idiot," "moron," qualified by "certified" or not. Mr. Greenfield chose to use the term you object to as a measure of the intelligence of our wannabe warders, controllers, and manipulators. I'm sorry you have children stricken with that form of autism, but if we followed your advice, we could no longer call slot machines "one-armed bandits" or the New York City leftist social set "upper class twits."

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Elise,

I'm sorry for the condition of your sons. The article did not mean that as a literal diagnosis, but as a way of describing the difficulty of connecting organically with other people.

I realize it's hurtful, but it's the best way I knew to describe what I was seeing. If I find a better way to say the same thing, I'll consider rewriting it, but most of the alternatives are still synonyms for the same thing.

Lars said...

Ethanol or tylenol,it doesn't matter to the dims, because the worse things get, the incentive to tinker(spend)is good for them.

Robin said...

Igor-

Have you looked into the work of the Russell Sage Foundation?

That seems to be where part of that template is located.

IgorR said...

Robin, thanks, I didn't know about them. It looks like they are creating a template, not sure it is THE template, they may not be the only source. There are just too many books and articles by very prominent people.

Anonymous said...

"A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business".. Eric Hoffer.

I was just discussing a similar observation with my husband a few days ago. My daughter and I took care of my mother in her old age, and it took most of all time, a mathematical variable (that varies with the individual). The idea that lives can be made better by organizing them (pills dispensed by one person, meals delivered by another, 911 necklace for emergencies) is dehumanizing. Mom couldn't plan to be ill on schedule, with a nice tidy diagnosis.

We are not wealthy, probably lower working class. We tried the nudges above (using third parties and necklaces) and they were barely adequate to be called care. I am not blaming the people involved, I'm sure they cared the few minutes they were there. It's all they could do. Government and large organizations have a difficult time caring at the individual level. There are rules, and the caregiver's first priority is to the employer.

Social workers do not have and never will have the amount of time they need to help anyone, no matter how much they care, or how much money is spent. In taking care of my mom, she also did things for us, intangible and valuable. I have often said that the social worker needs the clients as much or more than the clients need them, and I think that is true. It is a co dependent relationship. If all the ills and bad habits went away, what would they do? If everyone did everything exactly right, people would still die, and then what?

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