Nearly one quarter of US children in poverty

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By Andre Damon
23 July 2014

Nearly one in four children in the United States lives in a family below the federal poverty line, according to figures presented in a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A total of 16.3 million children live in poverty, and 45 percent of children in the US live in households whose incomes fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

The annual report, titled the Kids Count Data Book, compiles data on children’s economic well-being, education, health, and family support. It concludes that, “inequities among children remain deep and stubbornly persistent.”

The report is an indictment of the state of American society nearly six years after the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. While the Obama administration and the media have proclaimed an economic “recovery,” conditions of life for the vast majority of the population continue to deteriorate.

The report notes that the percentage of children in poverty hit 23 percent in 2012, up sharply from 16 percent in 2000. Some states are much worse. For almost the entire American South, the share of children in poverty is higher than 25 percent.

These conditions are the product of a ruthless class policy pursued at all levels of government. While trillions of dollars have been made available to Wall Street, sending both the stock markets and corporate profits to record highs, economic growth has stagnated, social programs have been slashed, and public services decimated, while prices of many basic items are on the rise. Jobs that have been “created” are overwhelmingly part-time or low-wage.

“We’ve yet to see the recovery from the economic recession,” said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who helped produce the report. “The child poverty rate is connected to parents’ employment and how much they are getting paid,” added Ms. Speer in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“The jobs that are being created in this economy, including temporary and low-wage jobs, are not good enough to keep children out of poverty,” she added.

The Kids Count report notes, “Declining economic opportunity for parents without a college degree in the context of growing inequality has meant that children’s life chances are increasingly constrained by the socioeconomic status of their parents.” The percentage of children who live in high-poverty communities has likewise increased significantly, with 13 percent of children growing up in communities where more than 30 percent of residents are poor, up from 9 percent in 2000.

Speer added that, given the significant run-up in home prices over the previous two decades, “the housing cost burden has gotten worse.” She noted that the share of children who live in households that spend more than one third of their annual income on housing has hit 38 percent, up from 28 percent in 1990. In states such as California, these figures are significantly higher.

“In many cases families are living doubled up and sleeping on couches to afford very expensive places like New York City,” she added. “Paying such a large share of your income for rent means that parents have to decide between whether or not to pay the rent or to pay the utility bills. It’s not a matter of making choices over things that are luxuries, it’s choosing between necessities.”

The report concludes, “As both poverty and wealth have become more concentrated residentially, evidence suggests that school districts and individual schools are becoming increasingly segregated by socioeconomic status.”

In most of the United States, K-12 education is funded through property taxes, and there are significant differences in education funding based on local income levels. “Kids who grow up in low-income neighborhoods have much less access to education: that’s only been exacerbated over the last 25 years,” Speer said.

The Kids Count survey follows the publication in April of Feeding America’s annual report, which showed that one in five children live in households that do not regularly get enough to eat. The percentage of households that are “food insecure” rose from 11.1 percent in 2007 to 16.0 percent in 2012. Sixteen million children, or 21.6 percent, do not get enough to eat. The rate of food insecurity in the United States is nearly twice that of the European Union.

According to the US government’s supplemental poverty measure, 16.1 percent of the US population—nearly 50 million people—is in poverty, up from 12.2 percent of the population in 2000.

The Kids Count report notes that the ability of single mothers to get a job is particularly sensitive to the state of the economy, and that the employment rate of single mothers with children under 6 years old has fallen from 69 percent in 2000 to 60 percent ten years later. This has taken place even as anti-poverty measures such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have been made conditional on parents finding work.

The report noted that enrollment in the federal Head Start program, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds dropped off when the “recession decimated state budgets and halted progress.” It added that cutbacks to federal and state anti-poverty programs, as well as health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, are contributing to the growth of poverty and inequality.

With the “sequester” budget cuts signed by the Obama administration in early 2013, most federal anti-poverty programs are being slashed by five percent each year for a decade. “Programs like head start, LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program], and other federal programs are really a lifeline in a lot of families,” Speer said.

Since the implementation of the sequester cuts, Congress and the Obama administration have slashed food stamp spending on two separate occasions and put an end to federal extended jobless benefits for more than three million long-term unemployed people and their families. These measures can be expected to throw hundreds of thousands more children into poverty.

The rise of data and the death of politics

Tech pioneers in the US are advocating a new data-based approach to governance – ‘algorithmic regulation’. But if technology provides the answers to society’s problems, what happens to governments?

US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Government by social network? US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On 24 August 1965 Gloria Placente, a 34-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was driving to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Clad in shorts and sunglasses, the housewife was looking forward to quiet time at the beach. But the moment she crossed the Willis Avenue bridge in her Chevrolet Corvair, Placente was surrounded by a dozen patrolmen. There were also 125 reporters, eager to witness the launch of New York police department’s Operation Corral – an acronym for Computer Oriented Retrieval of Auto Larcenists.

Fifteen months earlier, Placente had driven through a red light and neglected to answer the summons, an offence that Corral was going to punish with a heavy dose of techno-Kafkaesque. It worked as follows: a police car stationed at one end of the bridge radioed the licence plates of oncoming cars to a teletypist miles away, who fed them to a Univac 490 computer, an expensive $500,000 toy ($3.5m in today’s dollars) on loan from the Sperry Rand Corporation. The computer checked the numbers against a database of 110,000 cars that were either stolen or belonged to known offenders. In case of a match the teletypist would alert a second patrol car at the bridge’s other exit. It took, on average, just seven seconds.

Compared with the impressive police gear of today – automatic number plate recognition, CCTV cameras, GPS trackers – Operation Corral looks quaint. And the possibilities for control will only expand. European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

The car is emblematic of transformations in many other domains, from smart environments for “ambient assisted living” where carpets and walls detect that someone has fallen, to various masterplans for the smart city, where municipal services dispatch resources only to those areas that need them. Thanks to sensors and internet connectivity, the most banal everyday objects have acquired tremendous power to regulate behaviour. Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimisation: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.

In this context, Google’s latest plan to push its Android operating system on to smart watches, smart cars, smart thermostats and, one suspects, smart everything, looks rather ominous. In the near future, Google will be the middleman standing between you and your fridge, you and your car, you and your rubbish bin, allowing the National Security Agency to satisfy its data addiction in bulk and via a single window.

This “smartification” of everyday life follows a familiar pattern: there’s primary data – a list of what’s in your smart fridge and your bin – and metadata – a log of how often you open either of these things or when they communicate with one another. Both produce interesting insights: cue smart mattresses – one recent model promises to track respiration and heart rates and how much you move during the night – and smart utensils that provide nutritional advice.

In addition to making our lives more efficient, this smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms? If policy interventions are to be – to use the buzzwords of the day – “evidence-based” and “results-oriented,” technology is here to help.

This new type of governance has a name: algorithmic regulation. In as much as Silicon Valley has a political programme, this is it. Tim O’Reilly, an influential technology publisher, venture capitalist and ideas man (he is to blame for popularising the term “web 2.0″) has been its most enthusiastic promoter. In a recent essay that lays out his reasoning, O’Reilly makes an intriguing case for the virtues of algorithmic regulation – a case that deserves close scrutiny both for what it promises policymakers and the simplistic assumptions it makes about politics, democracy and power.

To see algorithmic regulation at work, look no further than the spam filter in your email. Instead of confining itself to a narrow definition of spam, the email filter has its users teach it. Even Google can’t write rules to cover all the ingenious innovations of professional spammers. What it can do, though, is teach the system what makes a good rule and spot when it’s time to find another rule for finding a good rule – and so on. An algorithm can do this, but it’s the constant real-time feedback from its users that allows the system to counter threats never envisioned by its designers. And it’s not just spam: your bank uses similar methods to spot credit-card fraud.

In his essay, O’Reilly draws broader philosophical lessons from such technologies, arguing that they work because they rely on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome” (spam is bad!) and periodically check if the algorithms are actually working as expected (are too many legitimate emails ending up marked as spam?).

O’Reilly presents such technologies as novel and unique – we are living through a digital revolution after all – but the principle behind “algorithmic regulation” would be familiar to the founders of cybernetics – a discipline that, even in its name (it means “the science of governance”) hints at its great regulatory ambitions. This principle, which allows the system to maintain its stability by constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing circumstances, is what the British psychiatrist Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, called “ultrastability”.

To illustrate it, Ashby designed the homeostat. This clever device consisted of four interconnected RAF bomb control units – mysterious looking black boxes with lots of knobs and switches – that were sensitive to voltage fluctuations. If one unit stopped working properly – say, because of an unexpected external disturbance – the other three would rewire and regroup themselves, compensating for its malfunction and keeping the system’s overall output stable.

Ashby’s homeostat achieved “ultrastability” by always monitoring its internal state and cleverly redeploying its spare resources.

Like the spam filter, it didn’t have to specify all the possible disturbances – only the conditions for how and when it must be updated and redesigned. This is no trivial departure from how the usual technical systems, with their rigid, if-then rules, operate: suddenly, there’s no need to develop procedures for governing every contingency, for – or so one hopes – algorithms and real-time, immediate feedback can do a better job than inflexible rules out of touch with reality.

Algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient. If it can fight credit-card fraud, why not tax fraud? Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.

Such systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

With his belief that algorithmic regulation is based on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome”, O’Reilly cunningly disconnects the means of doing politics from its ends. But the how of politics is as important as the what of politics – in fact, the former often shapes the latter. Everybody agrees that education, health, and security are all “desired outcomes”, but how do we achieve them? In the past, when we faced the stark political choice of delivering them through the market or the state, the lines of the ideological debate were clear. Today, when the presumed choice is between the digital and the analog or between the dynamic feedback and the static law, that ideological clarity is gone – as if the very choice of how to achieve those “desired outcomes” was apolitical and didn’t force us to choose between different and often incompatible visions of communal living.

By assuming that the utopian world of infinite feedback loops is so efficient that it transcends politics, the proponents of algorithmic regulation fall into the same trap as the technocrats of the past. Yes, these systems are terrifyingly efficient – in the same way that Singapore is terrifyingly efficient (O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, praises Singapore for its embrace of algorithmic regulation). And while Singapore’s leaders might believe that they, too, have transcended politics, it doesn’t mean that their regime cannot be assessed outside the linguistic swamp of efficiency and innovation – by using political, not economic benchmarks.

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened. Silicon Valley’s default answer to the how of politics is what I call solutionism: problems are to be dealt with via apps, sensors, and feedback loops – all provided by startups. Earlier this year Google’s Eric Schmidt even promised that startups would provide the solution to the problem of economic inequality: the latter, it seems, can also be “disrupted”. And where the innovators and the disruptors lead, the bureaucrats follow.

The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies. Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance. They urged citizens to accept that instability is part of the game, that its root causes are neither traceable nor reparable, that the threat can only be pre-empted by out-innovating and out-surveilling the enemy with better communications.

Speaking in Athens last November, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discussed an epochal transformation in the idea of government, “whereby the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects is inverted, so that, instead of governing the causes – a difficult and expensive undertaking – governments simply try to govern the effects”.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman

Governments’ current favourite pyschologist, Daniel Kahneman. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
For Agamben, this shift is emblematic of modernity. It also explains why the liberalisation of the economy can co-exist with the growing proliferation of control – by means of soap dispensers and remotely managed cars – into everyday life. “If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.” Algorithmic regulation is an enactment of this political programme in technological form.The true politics of algorithmic regulation become visible once its logic is applied to the social nets of the welfare state. There are no calls to dismantle them, but citizens are nonetheless encouraged to take responsibility for their own health. Consider how Fred Wilson, an influential US venture capitalist, frames the subject. “Health… is the opposite side of healthcare,” he said at a conference in Paris last December. “It’s what keeps you out of the healthcare system in the first place.” Thus, we are invited to start using self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms and monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies on our own.This goes nicely with recent policy proposals to save troubled public services by encouraging healthier lifestyles. Consider a 2013 report by Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank, calling for the linking of housing and council benefits to claimants’ visits to the gym – with the help of smartcards. They might not be needed: many smartphones are already tracking how many steps we take every day (Google Now, the company’s virtual assistant, keeps score of such data automatically and periodically presents it to users, nudging them to walk more).

The numerous possibilities that tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries are not lost on O’Reilly. “You know the way that advertising turned out to be the native business model for the internet?” he wondered at a recent conference. “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.” Things do seem to be heading that way: in June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.

An insurance company would gladly subsidise the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?

Or consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It’s certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one’s poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn’t wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

And while the nudgers have already captured the state by making behavioural psychology the favourite idiom of government bureaucracy –Daniel Kahneman is in, Machiavelli is out – the algorithmic regulation lobby advances in more clandestine ways. They create innocuous non-profit organisations like Code for America which then co-opt the state – under the guise of encouraging talented hackers to tackle civic problems.

Airbnb's homepage.

Airbnb: part of the reputation-driven economy.
Such initiatives aim to reprogramme the state and make it feedback-friendly, crowding out other means of doing politics. For all those tracking apps, algorithms and sensors to work, databases need interoperability – which is what such pseudo-humanitarian organisations, with their ardent belief in open data, demand. And when the government is too slow to move at Silicon Valley’s speed, they simply move inside the government. Thus, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a protege of O’Reilly, became the deputy chief technology officer of the US government – while pursuing a one-year “innovation fellowship” from the White House.Cash-strapped governments welcome such colonisation by technologists – especially if it helps to identify and clean up datasets that can be profitably sold to companies who need such data for advertising purposes. Recent clashes over the sale of student and health data in the UK are just a precursor of battles to come: after all state assets have been privatised, data is the next target. For O’Reilly, open data is “a key enabler of the measurement revolution”.This “measurement revolution” seeks to quantify the efficiency of various social programmes, as if the rationale behind the social nets that some of them provide was to achieve perfection of delivery. The actual rationale, of course, was to enable a fulfilling life by suppressing certain anxieties, so that citizens can pursue their life projects relatively undisturbed. This vision did spawn a vast bureaucratic apparatus and the critics of the welfare state from the left – most prominently Michel Foucault – were right to question its disciplining inclinations. Nonetheless, neither perfection nor efficiency were the “desired outcome” of this system. Thus, to compare the welfare state with the algorithmic state on those grounds is misleading.

But we can compare their respective visions for human fulfilment – and the role they assign to markets and the state. Silicon Valley’s offer is clear: thanks to ubiquitous feedback loops, we can all become entrepreneurs and take care of our own affairs! As Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, told the Atlantic last year, “What happens when everybody is a brand? When everybody has a reputation? Every person can become an entrepreneur.”

Under this vision, we will all code (for America!) in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and rent out our kitchens as restaurants – courtesy of Airbnb – in the evening. As O’Reilly writes of Uber and similar companies, “these services ask every passenger to rate their driver (and drivers to rate their passenger). Drivers who provide poor service are eliminated. Reputation does a better job of ensuring a superb customer experience than any amount of government regulation.”

The state behind the “sharing economy” does not wither away; it might be needed to ensure that the reputation accumulated on Uber, Airbnb and other platforms of the “sharing economy” is fully liquid and transferable, creating a world where our every social interaction is recorded and assessed, erasing whatever differences exist between social domains. Someone, somewhere will eventually rate you as a passenger, a house guest, a student, a patient, a customer. Whether this ranking infrastructure will be decentralised, provided by a giant like Google or rest with the state is not yet clear but the overarching objective is: to make reputation into a feedback-friendly social net that could protect the truly responsible citizens from the vicissitudes of deregulation.

Admiring the reputation models of Uber and Airbnb, O’Reilly wants governments to be “adopting them where there are no demonstrable ill effects”. But what counts as an “ill effect” and how to demonstrate it is a key question that belongs to the how of politics that algorithmic regulation wants to suppress. It’s easy to demonstrate “ill effects” if the goal of regulation is efficiency but what if it is something else? Surely, there are some benefits – fewer visits to the psychoanalyst, perhaps – in not having your every social interaction ranked?

The imperative to evaluate and demonstrate “results” and “effects” already presupposes that the goal of policy is the optimisation of efficiency. However, as long as democracy is irreducible to a formula, its composite values will always lose this battle: they are much harder to quantify.

For Silicon Valley, though, the reputation-obsessed algorithmic state of the sharing economy is the new welfare state. If you are honest and hardworking, your online reputation would reflect this, producing a highly personalised social net. It is “ultrastable” in Ashby’s sense: while the welfare state assumes the existence of specific social evils it tries to fight, the algorithmic state makes no such assumptions. The future threats can remain fully unknowable and fully addressable – on the individual level.

Silicon Valley, of course, is not alone in touting such ultrastable individual solutions. Nassim Taleb, in his best-selling 2012 book Antifragile, makes a similar, if more philosophical, plea for maximising our individual resourcefulness and resilience: don’t get one job but many, don’t take on debt, count on your own expertise. It’s all about resilience, risk-taking and, as Taleb puts it, “having skin in the game”. As Julian Reid and Brad Evans write in their new book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, this growing cult of resilience masks a tacit acknowledgement that no collective project could even aspire to tame the proliferating threats to human existence – we can only hope to equip ourselves to tackle them individually. “When policy-makers engage in the discourse of resilience,” write Reid and Evans, “they do so in terms which aim explicitly at preventing humans from conceiving of danger as a phenomenon from which they might seek freedom and even, in contrast, as that to which they must now expose themselves.”

What, then, is the progressive alternative? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t work here: just because Silicon Valley is attacking the welfare state doesn’t mean that progressives should defend it to the very last bullet (or tweet). First, even leftist governments have limited space for fiscal manoeuvres, as the kind of discretionary spending required to modernise the welfare state would never be approved by the global financial markets. And it’s the ratings agencies and bond markets – not the voters – who are in charge today.

Second, the leftist critique of the welfare state has become only more relevant today when the exact borderlines between welfare and security are so blurry. When Google’s Android powers so much of our everyday life, the government’s temptation to govern us through remotely controlled cars and alarm-operated soap dispensers will be all too great. This will expand government’s hold over areas of life previously free from regulation.

With so much data, the government’s favourite argument in fighting terror – if only the citizens knew as much as we do, they too would impose all these legal exceptions – easily extends to other domains, from health to climate change. Consider a recent academic paper that used Google search data to study obesity patterns in the US, finding significant correlation between search keywords and body mass index levels. “Results suggest great promise of the idea of obesity monitoring through real-time Google Trends data”, note the authors, which would be “particularly attractive for government health institutions and private businesses such as insurance companies.”

If Google senses a flu epidemic somewhere, it’s hard to challenge its hunch – we simply lack the infrastructure to process so much data at this scale. Google can be proven wrong after the fact – as has recently been the case with its flu trends data, which was shown to overestimate the number of infections, possibly because of its failure to account for the intense media coverage of flu – but so is the case with most terrorist alerts. It’s the immediate, real-time nature of computer systems that makes them perfect allies of an infinitely expanding and pre-emption‑obsessed state.

Perhaps, the case of Gloria Placente and her failed trip to the beach was not just a historical oddity but an early omen of how real-time computing, combined with ubiquitous communication technologies, would transform the state. One of the few people to have heeded that omen was a little-known American advertising executive called Robert MacBride, who pushed the logic behind Operation Corral to its ultimate conclusions in his unjustly neglected 1967 book, The Automated State.

At the time, America was debating the merits of establishing a national data centre to aggregate various national statistics and make it available to government agencies. MacBride attacked his contemporaries’ inability to see how the state would exploit the metadata accrued as everything was being computerised. Instead of “a large scale, up-to-date Austro-Hungarian empire”, modern computer systems would produce “a bureaucracy of almost celestial capacity” that can “discern and define relationships in a manner which no human bureaucracy could ever hope to do”.

“Whether one bowls on a Sunday or visits a library instead is [of] no consequence since no one checks those things,” he wrote. Not so when computer systems can aggregate data from different domains and spot correlations. “Our individual behaviour in buying and selling an automobile, a house, or a security, in paying our debts and acquiring new ones, and in earning money and being paid, will be noted meticulously and studied exhaustively,” warned MacBride. Thus, a citizen will soon discover that “his choice of magazine subscriptions… can be found to indicate accurately the probability of his maintaining his property or his interest in the education of his children.” This sounds eerily similar to the recent case of a hapless father who found that his daughter was pregnant from a coupon that Target, a retailer, sent to their house. Target’s hunch was based on its analysis of products – for example, unscented lotion – usually bought by other pregnant women.

For MacBride the conclusion was obvious. “Political rights won’t be violated but will resemble those of a small stockholder in a giant enterprise,” he wrote. “The mark of sophistication and savoir-faire in this future will be the grace and flexibility with which one accepts one’s role and makes the most of what it offers.” In other words, since we are all entrepreneurs first – and citizens second, we might as well make the most of it.

What, then, is to be done? Technophobia is no solution. Progressives need technologies that would stick with the spirit, if not the institutional form, of the welfare state, preserving its commitment to creating ideal conditions for human flourishing. Even some ultrastability is welcome. Stability was a laudable goal of the welfare state before it had encountered a trap: in specifying the exact protections that the state was to offer against the excesses of capitalism, it could not easily deflect new, previously unspecified forms of exploitation.

How do we build welfarism that is both decentralised and ultrastable? A form of guaranteed basic income – whereby some welfare services are replaced by direct cash transfers to citizens – fits the two criteria.

Creating the right conditions for the emergence of political communities around causes and issues they deem relevant would be another good step. Full compliance with the principle of ultrastability dictates that such issues cannot be anticipated or dictated from above – by political parties or trade unions – and must be left unspecified.

What can be specified is the kind of communications infrastructure needed to abet this cause: it should be free to use, hard to track, and open to new, subversive uses. Silicon Valley’s existing infrastructure is great for fulfilling the needs of the state, not of self-organising citizens. It can, of course, be redeployed for activist causes – and it often is – but there’s no reason to accept the status quo as either ideal or inevitable.

Why, after all, appropriate what should belong to the people in the first place? While many of the creators of the internet bemoan how low their creature has fallen, their anger is misdirected. The fault is not with that amorphous entity but, first of all, with the absence of robust technology policy on the left – a policy that can counter the pro-innovation, pro-disruption, pro-privatisation agenda of Silicon Valley. In its absence, all these emerging political communities will operate with their wings clipped. Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.

To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modelled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximise user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.

Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”

 

THE BULLSHIT MACHINE

Here’s a tiny confession. I’m bored.

Yes; I know. I’m a sinner. Go ahead. Burn me at the stake of your puritanical Calvinism; the righteously, thoroughly, well, boring idea that boredom itself is a moral defect; that a restless mind is the Devil’s sweatshop.

There’s nothing more boring than that; and I’ll return to that very idea at the end of this essay; which I hope is the beginning.

What am I bored of? Everything. Blogs books music art business ideas politics tweets movies science math technology…but more than that: the spirit of the age; the atmosphere of the time; the tendency of the now; the disposition of the here.

Sorry; but it’s true. It’s boring me numb and dumb.

A culture that prizes narcissism above individualism. A politics that places “tolerance” above acceptance. A spirit that encourages cynicism over reverence. A public sphere that places irony over sincerity. A technosophy that elevates “data” over understanding. A society that puts “opportunity” before decency. An economy that…you know. Works us harder to make us poorer at “jobs” we hate where we make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from our souls to sell to everyone else who’s working harder to get poorer at “jobs” they hate where they make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from their souls.

To be bored isn’t to be indifferent. It is to be fatigued. Because one is exhausted. And that is precisely where—and only where—the values above lead us. To exhaustion; with the ceaseless, endless, meaningless work of maintaining the fiction. Of pretending that who we truly want to be is what everyone believes everyone else wants to be. Liked, not loved; “attractive”, not beautiful; clever, not wise; snarky, not happy; advantaged, not prosperous.

It exhausts us; literally; this game of parasitically craving everyone’s cravings. It makes us adversaries not of one another; but of ourselves. Until there is nothing left. Not of us as we are; but of the people we might have been. The values above shrink and reduce and diminish our potential; as individuals, as people, societies. And so I have grown fatigued by them.

Ah, you say. But when hasn’t humanity always suffered all the above? Please. Let’s not mince ideas. Unless you think the middle class didn’t actually thrive once; unless you think that the gentleman that’s made forty seven Saw flicks (so far) is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock; unless you believe that this era has a John Lennon; unless you think that Jeff Koons is Picasso…perhaps you see my point.

I’m bored, in short, of what I’d call a cycle of perpetual bullshit. A bullshit machine. The bullshit machine turns life into waste.

The bullshit machine looks something like this. Narcissism about who you are leads to cynicism about who you could be leads to mediocrity in what you do…leads to narcissism about who you are. Narcissism leads to cynicism leads to mediocrity…leads to narcissism.

Let me simplify that tiny model of the stalemate the human heart can reach with life.

The bullshit machine is the work we do only to live lives we don’t want, need, love, or deserve.

Everything’s work now. Relationships; hobbies; exercise. Even love. Gruelling; tedious; unrelenting; formulaic; passionless; calculated; repetitive; predictable; analysed; mined; timed; performed.

Work is bullshit. You know it, I know it; mankind has always known it. Sure; you have to work at what you want to accomplish. But that’s not the point. It is the flash of genius; the glimmer of intuition; the afterglow of achievement; the savoring of experience; the incandescence of meaning; all these make life worthwhile, pregnant, impossible, aching with purpose. These are the ends. Work is merely the means.

Our lives are confused like that. They are means without ends; model homes; acts which we perform, but do not fully experience.

Remember when I mentioned puritanical Calvinism? The idea that being bored is itself a sign of a lack of virtue—and that is, itself, the most boring idea in the world?

That’s the battery that powers the bullshit machine. We’re not allowed to admit it: that we’re bored. We’ve always got to be doing something. Always always always. Tapping, clicking, meeting, partying, exercising, networking, “friending”. Work hard, play hard, live hard. Improve. Gain. Benefit. Realize.

Hold on. Let me turn on crotchety Grandpa mode. Click.

Remember when cafes used to be full of people…thinking? Now I defy you to find one not full of people Tinder—Twitter—Facebook—App-of-the-nanosecond-ing; furiously. Like true believers hunched over the glow of a spiritualized Eden they can never truly enter; which is precisely why they’re mesmerized by it. The chance at a perfect life; full of pleasure; the perfect partner, relationship, audience, job, secret, home, career; it’s a tap away. It’s something like a slot-machine of the human soul, this culture we’re building. The jackpot’s just another coin away…forever. Who wouldn’t be seduced by that?

Winners of a million followers, fans, friends, lovers, dollars…after all, a billion people tweeting, updating, flicking, swiping, tapping into the void a thousand times a minute can’t be wrong. Can they?

And therein is the paradox of the bullshit machine. We do more than humans have ever done before. But we are not accomplishing much; and we are, it seems to me, becoming even less than that.

The more we do, the more passive we seem to become. Compliant. Complaisant. As if we are merely going through the motions.

Why? We are something like apparitions today; juggling a multiplicity of selves through the noise; the “you” you are on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Tinder…wherever…at your day job, your night job, your hobby, your primary relationship, your friend-with-benefits, your incredibly astonishing range of extracurricular activities. But this hyperfragmentation of self gives rise to a kind of schizophrenia; conflicts, dissocations, tensions, dislocations, anxieties, paranoias, delusions. Our social wombs do not give birth to our true selves; the selves explosive with capability, possibility, wonder.

Tap tap tap. And yet. We are barely there, at all; in our own lives; in the moments which we will one day look back on and ask ourselves…what were we thinking wasting our lives on things that didn’t matter at all?

The answer, of course, is that we weren’t thinking. Or feeling. We don’t have time to think anymore. Thinking is a superluxury. Feeling is an even bigger superluxury. In an era where decent food, water, education, and healthcare are luxuries; thinking and feeling are activities to costly for society to allow. They are a drag on “growth”; a burden on “productivity”; they slow down the furious acceleration of the bullshit machine.

And so. Here we are. Going through the motions. The bullshit machine says the small is the great; the absence is the presence; the vicious is the noble; the lie is the truth. We believe it; and, greedily, it feeds on our belief. The more we feed it, the more insatiable it becomes. Until, at last, we are exhausted. By pretending to want the lives we think we should; instead of daring to live the lives we know we could.

Fuck it. Just admit it. You’re probably just as bored as I am.

Good for you.

Welcome to the world beyond the Bullshit Machine.

“Alive Inside”: Music may be the best medicine for dementia

A heartbreaking new film explores the breakthrough that can help severely disabled seniors: It’s called the iPod VIDEO

"Alive Inside": Music may be the best medicine for dementia

One physician who works with the elderly tells Michael Rossato-Bennett’s camera, in the documentary “Alive Inside,” that he can write prescriptions for $1,000 a month in medications for older people under his care, without anyone in the healthcare bureaucracy batting an eye. Somebody will pay for it (ultimately that somebody is you and me, I suppose) even though the powerful pharmaceutical cocktails served up in nursing homes do little or nothing for people with dementia, except keep them docile and manageable. But if he wants to give those older folks $40 iPods loaded up with music they remember – which both research and empirical evidence suggest will improve their lives immensely — well, you can hardly imagine the dense fog of bureaucratic hostility that descends upon the whole enterprise.

“Alive Inside” is straightforward advocacy cinema, but it won the audience award at Sundance this year because it will completely slay you, and it has the greatest advantages any such movie can have: Its cause is easy to understand, and requires no massive social change or investment. Furthermore, once you see the electrifying evidence, it becomes nearly impossible to oppose. This isn’t fracking or climate change or drones; I see no possible way for conservatives to turn the question of music therapy for senior citizens into some kind of sinister left-wing plot. (“Next up on Fox News: Will Elton John turn our seniors gay?”) All the same, social worker Dan Cohen’s crusade to bring music into nursing homes could be the leading edge of a monumental change in the way we approach the care and treatment of older people, especially the 5 million or so Americans living with dementia disorders.

You may already have seen a clip from “Alive Inside,” which became a YouTube hit not long ago: An African-American man in his 90s named Henry, who spends his waking hours in a semi-dormant state, curled inward like a fetus with his eyes closed, is given an iPod loaded with the gospel music he grew up with. The effect seems almost impossible and literally miraculous: Within seconds his eyes are open, he’s singing and humming along, and he’s fully present in the room, talking to the people around him. It turns out Henry prefers the scat-singing of Cab Calloway to gospel, and a brief Calloway imitation leads him into memories of a job delivering groceries on his bicycle, sometime in the 1930s.



Of course Henry is still an elderly and infirm person who is near the end of his life. But the key word in that sentence is “person”; we become startlingly and heartbreakingly aware that an entire person’s life experience is still in there, locked inside Henry’s dementia and isolation and overmedication. As Oliver Sacks put it, drawing on a word from the King James Bible, Henry has been “quickened,” or returned to life, without the intervention of supernatural forces. It’s not like there’s just one such moment of tear-jerking revelation in “Alive Inside.” There might be a dozen. I’m telling you, one of those little pocket packs of tissue is not gonna cut it. Bring the box.

There’s the apologetic old lady who claims to remember nothing about her girlhood, until Louis Armstrong singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” brings back a flood of specific memories. (Her mom was religious, and Armstrong’s profane music was taboo. She had to sneak off to someone else’s house to hear his records.) There’s the woman with multiple psychiatric disorders and a late-stage cancer diagnosis, who ditches the wheelchair and the walker and starts salsa dancing. There’s the Army veteran who lost all his hair in the Los Alamos A-bomb test and has difficulty recognizing a picture of his younger self, abruptly busting out his striking baritone to sing along with big-band numbers. “It makes me feel like I got a girl,” he says. “I’m gonna hold her tight.” There’s the sweet, angular lady in late middle age, a boomer grandma who can’t reliably find the elevator in her building, or tell the up button from the down, boogieing around the room to the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around,” as if transformed into someone 20 years younger. The music cannot get away from her, she says, as so much else has done.

There’s a bit of hard science in “Alive Inside” (supplied by Sacks in fascinating detail) and also the beginnings of an immensely important social and cultural debate about the tragic failures of our elder-care system and how the Western world will deal with its rapidly aging population. As Sacks makes clear, music is a cultural invention that appears to access areas of the brain that evolved for other reasons, and those areas remain relatively unaffected by the cognitive decline that goes with Alzheimer’s and other dementia disorders. While the “quickening” effect observed in someone like Henry is not well understood, it appears that stimulating those undamaged areas of the brain with beloved and familiar signals – and what will we ever love more than the hit songs of our youth? — can unlock other things at least temporarily, including memory, verbal ability, and emotion. Sacks doesn’t address this, but the effects appear physical as well: Everyone we see in the film becomes visibly more active, even the man with late-stage multiple sclerosis and the semi-comatose woman who never speaks.

Dementia is a genuine medical phenomenon, as anyone who has spent time around older people can attest, and one that’s likely to exert growing psychic and economic stress on our society as the population of people over 65 continues to grow. But you can’t help wondering whether our social practice of isolating so many old people in anonymous, characterless facilities that are entirely separated from the rhythms of ordinary social life has made the problem considerably worse. As one physician observes in the film, the modern-day Medicare-funded nursing home is like a toxic combination of the poorhouse and the hospital, and the social stigma attached to those places is as strong as the smell of disinfectant and overcooked Salisbury steak. Our culture is devoted to the glamour of youth and the consumption power of adulthood; we want to think about old age as little as possible, even though many of us will live one-quarter to one-third of our lives as senior citizens.

Rossato-Bennett keeps the focus of “Alive Inside” on Dan Cohen’s iPod crusade (run through a nonprofit called Music & Memory), which is simple, effective and has achievable goals. The two of them tread more lightly on the bigger philosophical questions, but those are definitely here. Restoring Schubert or Motown to people with dementia or severe disabilities can be a life-changing moment, but it’s also something of a metaphor, and the lives that really need changing are our own. Instead of treating older people as a medical and financial problem to be managed and contained, could we have a society that valued, nurtured and revered them, as most societies did before the coming of industrial modernism? Oh, and if you’re planning to visit me in 30 or 40 years, with whatever invisible gadget then exists, please take note: No matter how far gone I am, you’ll get me back with “Some Girls,” Roxy Music’s “Siren” and Otto Klemperer’s 1964 recording of “The Magic Flute.”

“Alive Inside” opens this week at the Sunshine Cinema in New York. It opens July 25 in Huntington, N.Y., Toronto and Washington; Aug. 1 in Asbury Park, N.J., Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia; Aug. 8 in Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Palm Springs, Calif., San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Vancouver, Canada; Aug. 15 in Denver, Minneapolis and Phoenix; and Aug. 22 in Atlanta, Dallas, Harrisburg, Pa., Portland, Ore., Santa Fe, N.M., Seattle and Spokane, Wash., with more cities and home video to follow.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/15/alive_inside_music_may_be_the_best_medicine_for_dementia/?source=newsletter

Could you “free” yourself of Facebook?

A 99-day challenge offers a new kind of social media experiment

Could you "free" yourself of Facebook?
(Credit: LoloStock via Shutterstock)

Let’s try a new experiment now, Facebook. And this time, you’re the subject.

Remember just last month, when the monolithic social network revealed that it had been messing with its users’ minds as part of an experiment? Writing in PNAS, Facebook researchers disclosed the results of a study that showed it had tinkered with the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users, highlighting either more positive or more negative content, to learn if “emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people.” What they found was that “When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” More significantly, after the news of the study broke, they discovered that people get pretty creeped out when they feel like their personal online space is being screwed with, and that their reading and posting activity is being silently monitored and collected – even when the terms of service they agreed to grant permission to do just that. And they learned that lawmakers in the U.S. and around the world question the ethics of Facebook’s intrusion.

Now, a new campaign out of Europe is aiming to do another experiment involving Facebook, its users and their feelings. But this time Facebook users aren’t unwitting participants but willing volunteers. And the first step involves quitting Facebook. The 99 Days of Freedom campaign started as an office joke at Just, a creative agency in the Netherlands. But the company’s art director Merijn Straathof says it quickly evolved into a bona fide cause. “As we discussed it internally, we noted an interesting tendency: Everyone had at least a ‘complicated’ relationship with Facebook. Whether it was being tagged in unflattering photos, getting into arguments with other users or simply regretting time lost through excessive use, there was a surprising degree of negative sentiment.” When the staff learned that Facebook’s 1.2 billion users “spend an average of 17 minutes per day on the site, reading updates, following links or browsing photos,” they began to wonder what that time might be differently applied to – and whether users would find it “more emotionally fulfilling.”



The challenge – one that close to 9,000 people have already taken – is simple. Change your FB avatar to the “99 Days of Freedom” one to let friends know you’re not checking in for the next few months. Create a countdown. Opt in, if you wish, to be contacted after 33, 66 and 99 days to report on your satisfaction with life without Facebook. Straathof says everyone at Just is also participating, to “test that one firsthand.”

Straathof and company say the goal isn’t to knock Facebook, but to show users the “obvious emotional benefits to moderation.” And, he adds, “Our prediction is that the experiment will yield a lot of positive personal experiences and, 99 days from now, we’ll know whether that theory has legs.” The anecdotal data certainly seems to support it. Seductive as FB, with its constant flow of news and pet photos, may be, you’d be hard-pressed to find a story about quitting it that doesn’t make getting away from it sound pretty great. It’s true that grand experiments, especially of a permanent nature, have never gotten off the ground. Four years ago, a group of disgruntled users tried to gather momentum for a Quit Facebook Day that quietly went nowhere. But individual tales certainly make a compelling case for, if not going cold turkey, at least scaling back. Elizabeth Lopatto recently wrote in Forbes of spending the past eight years Facebook free and learning that “If you really are interested in catching up with your friends, catch up with your friends. You don’t need Facebook to do it.” And writing on EliteDaily this past winter, Rudolpho Sanchez questioned why “We allow our successes to be measured in little blue thumbs” and declared, “I won’t relapse; I’ve been liberated. It’s nice not knowing what my fake friends are up to.” Writing a few weeks later in Business Insider, Dylan Love, who’d been on FB since he was an incoming college student 10 years ago, gave it up and reported his life, if not improved, remarkably unchanged, “except I’m no longer devoting mental energy to reading about acquaintances from high school getting married or scrolling through lots of pictures of friends’ vacation meals.” And if you want a truly persuasive argument, try this: My teenager has not only never joined Facebook, she dismissively asserts that she doesn’t want to because “It’s for old people.”

Facebook, of course, doesn’t want you to consider that you might be able to maintain your relationships or your sense of delight in the world without it. When my mate and I went away for a full week recently, we didn’t check in on social media once the whole time. Every day, with increasing urgency, we received emails from Facebook alerting us to activity in our feeds that we surely wanted to check. And since I recently gutted my friend list, I’ve been receiving a bevy of suggested people I might know. Why so few friends, lonely lady? Why so few check-ins? Don’t you want more, more, more?

I don’t know if I need to abandon Facebook entirely – I like seeing what people I know personally and care about are up to, especially those I don’t get to see in the real world that often. That connection has often been valuable, especially through our shared adventures in love, illness and grief, and I will always be glad for it. But a few months ago I deleted the FB app, which makes avoiding Facebook when I’m not at my desk a no-brainer. No more stealth checking my feed from the ladies’ room. No more spending time expressing my “like” of someone’s recent baking success when I’m walking down the street. No more “one more status update before bed” time sucks. And definitely no more exasperation when FB insistently twiddles with my news feed to show “top stories” when I prefer “most recent.” It was never a huge part of my life, but it’s an even smaller part of it now, and yeah, it does feel good. I recommend it. Take Just’s 99-day challenge or just a tech Sabbath or just scale back a little. Consider it an experiment. One in which the user, this time, is the winner.

Mary Elizabeth Williams Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/11/could_you_free_yourself_of_facebook/?source=newsletter

Commonly Used Drug Can Make Men Stop Enjoying Sex—Irreversibly


Some of the symptoms reported include impotence and thoughts of suicide and depression.

No one should have to choose between their hairline and their health. But increasingly, men who use finasteride, commonly known as Propecia, to treat their male pattern baldness are making that choice, often unwittingly. In the 17 years since Propecia was approved to treat hair loss from male pattern baldness, many disturbing side effects have emerged, the term post-finasteride syndrome (PFS) has been coined and hundreds of lawsuits have been brought.

Finasteride inhibits a steroid responsible for converting testosterone into 5α-dihydrotestosterone (DHT) the hormone that tells hair follicles on the scalp to stop producing hair. Years before Propecia was approved to grow hair, finasteride was being used in drugs like Proscar, Avodart and Jalyn to treat an enlarged prostate gland (benign prostatic hyperplasia). Like Viagra, which began as a blood pressure med, or the eyelash-growing drug Latisse, which began as a glaucoma drug, finasteride’s hair restoration abilities were a fortuitous side effect.

Since Propecia was approved for sale in 1997, its label has warned about sexual side effects. “A small number of men experienced certain sexual side effects, such as less desire for sex, difficulty in achieving an erection, or a decrease in the amount of semen,” it read. “Each of these side effects occurred in less than 2% of men and went away in men who stopped taking Propecia because of them.” (The label also warned about gynecomastia, the enlargement of male breast tissue.)

But increasingly, users and some doctors are saying the symptoms sometimes do not go away when men stop taking Propecia and that their lives can be changed permanently. They report impotence, lack of sexual desire, depression and suicidal thoughts and even a reduction in thesize of penises ortesticles after using the drug, which does not go away after discontinuation.

According to surgeon Andrew Rynne, former head of the Irish Family Planning Association, Merck, which makes Propecia and Proscar, knows that the disturbing symptoms do not always vanish. “They know it is not true because I and hundreds of other doctors and thousands of patients have told them that these side effects do not always go away when you stop taking Propecia. We continue to be ignored, of course.”

In some cases, says Rynne, men who have used finasteride for even a few months “have unwittingly condemned themselves to a lifetime of sexual anhedonia” [condition in which an individual feels no sexual pleasure], the most horrible and cruel of all sexual dysfunctions.”

“I have spoken to several young men in my clinic in Kildare who continue to suffer from sexual anaesthesia and for whom all sexual pleasure and feelings have been obliterated for all time. I have felt their suffering and shared their devastation,” he wrote on a Propecia help site.

Sarah Temori, who launched a petition to have finasteride taken off the market on Change.org, agrees. “Many who have taken Propecia have lost their marriages, jobs and some have committed suicide due to the damage this drug has done to their bodies,” she writes. “One of my loved ones is a victim of this drug. It’s painful to see how much he has to struggle just to make it through each day and do all the daily things that we take for granted. No doctors have been able to help him and he is struggling to pay for medical bills. He is only 23.”

Stories about Propecia’s disturbing and underreported side effects have run onCNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and on Italian and English TV news.

The medical literature has also investigated finasteride effects. A study last year in Journal of Sexual Medicine noted “changes related to the urogenital system in terms of semen quality and decreased ejaculate volume, reduction in penis size, penile curvature or reduced sensation, fewer spontaneous erections, decreased testicular size, testicular pain, and prostatitis.” Many subjects also noted a “disconnection between the mental and physical aspects of sexual function,” and changes in mental abilities, sleeping patterns, and/or depressive symptoms.

A study this year in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology finds that “altered levels of neuroactive steroids, associated with depression symptoms, are present in androgenic alopecia patients even after discontinuation of the finasteride treatment.”

Approved in Haste, Regretted in Leisure

The rise and fall of Propecia parallels other drugs like Vioxx or hormone replacement therapy that were marketed to wide demographics even as safety questions nipped at their heels. Two-thirds of American men have some hair loss by age 35, and 85 percent of men have some hair loss by age 50, so Propecia had the promise of a blockbuster like Lipitor or Viagra.

Early ads likened men’s thinning scalps to crop circles. Later, ads likened saving scalp hair to saving the whalesand won awards. Many Propecia ads tried to take away the stigma of hair loss and its treatment. “You’d be surprised who’s treated their hair loss,” said one print ad depicting athletic, 20-something men. In 1999 alone, Merck spent $100 million marketing Propecia directly to consumers, when direct-to-consumer advertising was just beginning on TV.

Nor was Propecia sold only in the U.S. Overseas ads compared twins who did and did not use the product. In the U.K., the drugstore chain Boots aggressively marketed Propecia at its 300 stores and still does. One estimates says Propecia was marketed in 120 countries.

Many have heard of “indication creep,” when a drug, after its original FDA approval, goes on to be approved for myriad other uses. Seroquel, originally approved for schizophrenia, is now approved as an add-on drug for depression and even for use in children. Cymbalta, originally approval as an antidepressant, went on to be approved for chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Less publicized is “warning creep,” when a drug that seemed safe enough for the FDA to approve, collects warning after warning once the public is using it. The poster child for warning creep is the bone drug Fosamax. After it was approved and in wide use, warnings began to surface about heart problems, intractable pain, jawbone death, esophageal cancer and even the bone fractures it was supposed to prevent. Oops.

But finasteride may do Fosamax proud. In 2003, it gained a warning for patients to promptly report any “changes in their breasts, such as lumps, pain or nipple discharge, to their physician.” Soon, “male breast cancer” was added under “postmarketing experience.” In 2010 depression was added as a side effect and patients were warned that finasteride could have an effect on prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests. In 2011, the label conceded that sexual dysfunction could continue “after stopping the medication” and that finasteride could pose a “risk of high-grade prostate cancer.” In 2012, a warning was added that “other urological conditions” should be considered before taking finasteride. In 2013, the side effect of angioedema was added.

A quick look at Propecia approval documents does not inspire confidence. Finasteride induces such harm in the fetuses of lab animals, it is contraindicated in women when they are or may potentially be pregnant and women should not even “handle crushed or broken Propecia tablets when they are pregnant.”

Clinical trials were of short duration and some only had 15 participants. While subjects were asked aesthetic questions about their hairline during and after clinical trials, conspicuously absent on the data set were questions about depression, mental health and shrinking sexual organs.

In one report an FDA reviewer notes that Merck did not name or include other drugs used by subjects during trials, such as antidepressants or GERD meds, suggesting that depression could have been a known side effect of Propecia. Elsewhere an FDA reviewer cautions that “low figures” in the safety update are not necessarily reliable because the time period was “relatively short” and subjects with sexual adverse events may have already “exited from the study.” An FDA reviewer also wrote that “long-term cancer effects are unknown.” Breast cancer was noted as an adverse event seen in the trials.

Propecia Users Speak Out

There are many Propecia horror stories on sites founded to help people with side effects and those involved in litigation. In 2011, a mother told CBS news she blamed her 22-year-old son’s suicide on Propecia and Men’s Journal ran a report called “The (Not So Hard) Truth About Hair Loss Drugs.”

In a database of more than 13,000 finasteride adverse effects reported to the FDA, there were 619 reports of depression and 580 reports of anxiety. Sixty-eight users of finasteride reported a “penis disorder” and small numbers reported “penis deviation,” “penis fracture” and “micropenis.”

On the patient drug review site Askapatient.com, the 435 reviews of Propecia cite many examples of depression, sexual dysfunction and shrunken penises.

One of the most visible faces for post-finasteride syndrome is 36-year-old UK resident Paul Innes. Previously healthy and a soccer player, Innes was so debilitated by his use of Propecia, prescribed by his doctor, he founded a web siteand has gone public. Appearing on This Morning last month, Innes describes how using Propecia for only three months on one occasion and three weeks on another produced a suicidal depression requiring hospitalization, sexual dysfunction and a reduction of the size of his reproductive anatomy, none of which went away when he ceased the drug. He and his former girlfriend, Hayley Waudby, described how the physical and emotional changes cost them their relationship, even though she was pregnant with his child.

In an email I asked Paul Innes if his health had improved after the ordeal. He wrote back, “My health is just the same if not worse since 2013. I am still impotent with a shrunken penis and still have very dark thoughts and currently having to take antidepressants just to get through every day. Prior to Propecia I was a very healthy guy but now I’m a shadow of my former self. I have only just managed to return to work in my role as a police officer since taking Propecia in March 2013.”

Facebook Is Studying You

 …Your Mom, Your Makeout Buddy, and Your 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 6:00 AM ED

Facebook users and privacy advocates erupted in anger recently after New Scientist drew attention to a 2012 study in which Facebook researchers had attempted to manipulate users’ moods. “The company purposefully messed with people’s minds,” one privacy group complained to the Federal Trade Commission.

But the mood study is far from the only example of Facebook scrutinizing its users—the company has been doing that for years, examining users’ ethnicities, political views, romantic partners, and even how they talk to their children. (Unlike the mood study, the Facebook studies listed below are observational; they don’t attempt to change users’ behavior.) Although it’s unlikely Facebook users have heard about most of these studies, they’ve consented to them; the social network’s Data Use Policy states: “We may use the information we receive about you…for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

Below are five things Facebook researchers have been studying about Facebook users in recent years. (Note that in each of these studies, data was analyzed in aggregate and steps were taken to hide personally identifiable information.)

1. Your significant others (and whether the relationship will last): In October 2013, Facebook published a study in which researchers tried to guess who users were in a relationship with by looking at the users’ Facebook friends. For the study, Facebook researchers randomly chose 1.3 million users who had between 50 and 2,000 friends, were older than 20, and described themselves as married, engaged, or in a relationship. To guess whom these users were dating, the researchers analyzed which of the users’ friends knew each other—and which ones didn’t. You might share a ton of college friends with your old college roommate on Facebook, for example. But your boyfriend might be Facebook friends with your college friends, your coworkers, and your mom—people who definitely don’t know each other. Hence, he’s special.

Using this method, researchers were able to determine a person’s romantic partner with “high accuracy”—they were able to guess married users’ spouses 60 percent of the time by just looking at users’ friend networks. The researchers also looked at a subset of same-sex couples, to see whether that changed the results. (It didn’t.)

Facebook then decided to see whether it could use this method to predict whether a relationship is likely to last. For this part of the experiment, researchers looked at about 400,000 users who said that they were “in a relationship” and watched to see whether those users said they were single 60 days later. The researchers concluded that relationships in which Facebook’s model correctly identified the partner were less likely to break up, noting that the results were especially accurate when the two people had been together less than a year. (So basically, if you’re only introducing your boyfriend to your friends, and not your mom, your relationship might be less likely to last.)

2. How your mom talks to you: For this study, Facebook looked at how parents and their kids talk to each other Facebook. (Fun fact: On average, parent-child pairs wait 371 days after joining Facebook before becoming “friends.” Tell your little sister to stop ignoring your mom’s friend request.) The researchers examined three months of communication data pulled from September 2012. This data included comments, posts, and links shared on other users’ timelines, but not chat messages. According to the researchers, that wasn’t a privacy decision—chats are simply “too short and noisy for substantive language analysis.” Here are some of the top phrases that researchers noticed parents using in messages to their young children:

And here’s what parents are writing to their adult children, after they’ve developed filthy minds and drinking problems:

Facebook also noted that “what parents say when they’re not talking to their children is just as revealing; they use higher levels of ideology (agree but, obama, our government, policies, people need to, ethics), swearing and slang (ctfu, lmao, fucker, idk), and alcohol and sex terms (tequila, glass of wine, that ass, sexy). Ew.

3. Your ethnicity: In this older study, from 2010, researchers wrote that “the ethnicity of a user base is an important demographic indicator that can be used for marketing, compliance, and analytics as well as a scientific tool for understanding social behavior,” but lamented that “unfortunately, ethnic information is often unavailable for practical, legal, or political reasons.” So researchers came up with a solution: They determined the ethnic breakdown of US Facebook users by using people’s names and data provided by the Census. Tested on Facebook, the researchers’ proposed model “learned” that Latoya is more likely to be a black name and Barb is more likely to be white name. “Using both first and last names further improves estimates, largely by making better distinctions between White and Black,” the researchers wrote.

Once researchers had that data set, they started doing other studies. For example, the researchers examined pairs of people in romantic relationships on Facebook, as broken down by ethnicity. They also noted that their research suggested that “individuals’ ethnicity can be predicted through their social ties” and tried to predict users’ ethnicity based on the average ethnicity of their friends. (You should definitely not play this game at your next dinner party.) The researchers also compared users’ self-identified political views with their ethnicities, noting that “whites are more frequent in the Libertarian, Conservative, and Very Conservative categories.” The researchers did note that their research method comes with a caveat, “While ethnicity is an important factor in understanding user behavior, it is often only a proxy for other variables, such as socioeconomic status, or education. A complete analysis should control for all such factors.”

4. How you respond to conspiracy theories: In the spring of 2014, Facebook published a study on how rumors spread on the social network. The researchers looked at rumors identified by the rumor-debunking website Snopes.com that fall into a number of different categories, including politics, medicine, horror, “glurge” (i.e., sentimental stories that usually aren’t true), and 9/11. Then, the researchers found rumors posted on Facebook as photos, and gathered 249,035 comments in which people commented on the rumor with a valid link to Snopes.Ultimately, the researchers found reshared posts that received a comment that linked to Snopes were more likely to be deleted. So, feel free to keep telling your friends that the Russian sleep experiment story is BS.

5. If you’re deleting posts before you publish them: For this 2013 study, Facebook looked at how often users start typing a post or comment, and then at the last minute, decide not to publish it, which they called “self-censorship.” The researchers collected data from 3.9 million users over 17 days. They noted when someone started typing more than five characters in status update or comment box. The researchers recorded only whether text was entered, not the keystrokes or content. (This is the same way Gmail automatically saves drafts of your email, except that Facebook logs the presence of text, not actual content.) If the user didn’t share the post within 10 minutes, it was marked as self-censored. Researchers found that 71 percent of all users censored content at least once. The researchers also noted that women were less likely to self-censor, as were people with a more politically diverse set of friends.

The hard truth about getting old

Sixty isn’t the new 40, and 80 isn’t the new 60. I know it. You know it. So why do we buy into it?

The hard truth about getting old
The author as a young woman and as she appears now

I don’t know about you, but the chirpy tales that dominate the public discussion about aging — you know, the ones that tell us that age is just a state of mind, that “60 is the new 40″ and “80 the new 60″ — irritate me. What’s next: 100 as the new middle age?

Sure, aging is different than it was a generation or two ago and there are more possibilities now than ever before, if only because we live so much longer. it just seems to me that, whether at 60 or 80, the good news is only half the story. For it’s also true that old age — even now when old age often isn’t what it used to be — is a time of loss, decline and stigma.

Yes, I said stigma. A harsh word, I know, but one that speaks to a truth that’s affirmed by social researchers who have consistently found that racial and ethnic stereotypes are likely to give way over time and with contact, but not those about age. And where there are stereotypes, there are prejudice and discrimination — feelings and behavior that are deeply rooted in our social world and, consequently, make themselves felt in our inner psychological world as well.

I felt the sting of that discrimination recently when a large and reputable company offered me an auto insurance policy that cost significantly less than I’d been paying. After I signed up, the woman at the other end of the phone suggested that I consider their umbrella policy as well, which was not only cheaper than the one I had, but would, in addition, create what she called “a package” that would decrease my auto insurance premium by another hundred dollars. How could I pass up that kind of deal?

Well … not so fast. After a moment or two on her computer, she turned her attention back to me with an apology: “I’m sorry, but I can’t offer the umbrella policy because our records show that you had an accident in the last five years.” Puzzled, I explained that it was just a fender bender in a parking lot and reminded her that she had just sold me an insurance policy. Why that and not the umbrella policy?

She went silent, clearly flustered, and finally said, “It’s different.” Not satisfied, I persisted, until she became impatient and burst out, “It’s company policy: If you’re over 80 and had an accident in the last five years, we can’t offer you an umbrella policy.” Surprised, I was rendered mute for a moment. After what seemed like a long time, she spoke into the silence, “I’m really sorry. It’s just policy.”



Frustrated, we ended the conversation.

After I fussed and fumed for a while, I called back and asked to speak with someone in authority. A soothing male voice came on the line. I told him my story, and finished with, “Do I have to remind you that there’s a law against age discrimination?”

“Would you mind if I put you on hold for a few moments?” he asked. (Don’t you love the way they ask you that, as if you have a choice?) When he came back on the line, he told me he’d checked the file and talked to the agent who couldn’t recall saying anything about age, nor was there anything about it in the record.

“OK,” I said, “then sell me the umbrella policy.”

“No,” he was very, very sorry for the misunderstanding, but they never sell an umbrella policy to anyone who’s had an accident in the last five years, and their policy is “absolutely age-neutral.”

And if you believe that, I know a bridge in Brooklyn that’s for sale.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it: Where are all those sources of personal power and self-esteem we keep hearing about as the media celebrate the glories of the “new old age”?

That’s one from my file of personal stories about ageism, but there are other older and bigger ones: discrimination against older workers in the job market among the most important. True, the law now offers a possible remedy in the form of an age-discrimination lawsuit, but who’s going to pay the legal and household bills during the years it will take to work its way through the courts? Who’s going to help those workers deal with the psychic wounds that come from being so easily expendable, so devalued just because of their age?

In her groundbreaking book “The Coming of Age,” published in the early 1970s, Simone de Beauvoir spoke passionately about the stigma of old age — about the loss of a valued identity, our fear that the self we knew is gone, replaced by what she called “a loathsome stranger” we can’t recognize, who can’t possibly be the person we’ve known until now.

Her words give life to a core maxim of social psychology that says: What we think about a person influences how we see him, how we see him affects how we behave toward him, how we behave toward him ultimately shapes how he feels about himself, if not actually who he is. It’s in this interaction between self and society that we can see most clearly how social attitudes toward the old give form and definition to how we feel about ourselves. For what we see in the faces of others will eventually mark our own.

As a sociologist, I have been a student of aging for four decades; as a psychotherapist during this same period, I saw more than a few patients who were struggling with the issues aging brings; as a writer I’ve written about the various stages of life, including a memoir about aging daughters and mothers. Yet until I undertook the research for my recent book, “60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in America” — until I began to read more deeply and to interview people more systematically — I didn’t fully realize how much ageism had become one of the signature marks of stigma and oppression in our society.

Nor did I really get how much the cultural abhorrence of old age had affected my own inner life. So it was something of a surprise when, as I listened to the stories of the women and men I met, I found myself forced back on myself, on my own prejudices about old people, even though I am also one of them.

Even now, even after all I’ve learned about myself, those words — I am one of them — bring a small shock. And something inside resists. I want to take the words back, to shout, “No, it’s not true, I’m really not like them,” and explain all the ways I’m different from the old woman I saw pushing her walker down the street as she struggled to put one foot in front of the other, or the frail shuffling man I looked away from with a slight sense of discomfort.

I know enough not to be surprised that I feel this way, but I can’t help being somewhat shamed by it. How could it be otherwise when we live in a society that worships youth, that pitches it, packages it, and sells it so relentlessly that the anti-aging industry is the hottest growth ticket in town: the plastic surgeons who exist to serve our illusion that if we don’t look old, we won’t be or feel old; the multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry whose creams and potions promise to wipe out our wrinkles and massage away our cellulite; the fashion designers who have turned yesterday’s size 10 into today’s size 6 so that 50-year-old women can delude themselves into believing they still wear the same size they wore in college — all in the vain hope that we can fool ourselves, our bodies and the clock.

If you still need to be convinced about the ubiquity of the assault on our sensibilities by the anti-aging crusade, try plugging the term “anti-aging” into Google. Last time I checked, it came up with 22,600,000 hits, among them the website of the recently spawned American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine with a membership of tens of thousands of doctors whose business is selling the idea that aging is “a curable disease.” Never mind that the American Medical Association doesn’t accord legitimacy to this organization or its stated mission, it continues to laugh all the way to the bank.

There, also, you’ll find the latest boon to the American entrepreneurial spirit: a growing array of “brain health” programs featuring brain gyms, workshops, fitness camps and “brain healthy” food. And let’s not forget the Nintendo video game that, the instructions say, will “give your prefrontal cortex a workout.”

Will any of this help us remember where we left our glasses, why we walked into the bedroom, or the story line in a film we saw a few days ago? Not likely, as recent scientific evidence tells us.

Surely no one can live in a society that instructs us so relentlessly about all the ways we can overcome aging, without wanting to do something about it. I know I can’t. Why else do I go to the trouble and expense of dying away my gray hair when I hate to sit in the beauty shop? Why else does my heart swell with pleasure when someone responds with surprise when I say that I’m 87 years old? Why else do I know with such certainty that the minute they stop looking surprised is the minute I’ll stop saying it.

As I read, listen, talk, write, it seems to me we’re living in a weird combination of the public idealization of aging that lies alongside the devaluation of the old. And it isn’t good for anybody. Not the 60-year-olds who know they can’t do what they did at 40 but keep trying, not the 80-year-olds who, when their body and mind remind them that they’re not 60, feel somehow inadequate, as if they’ve done something wrong, failed a test.

We live in the uncharted territory of a greatly expanded life span where, for the first time in history, if we retire at 65, we can expect to live somewhere between 15-20 years more. But the story of this new longevity is both positive and negative — a story in which every “yes” is followed by a “but.” Yes, the fact that we live longer, healthier lives, is something to celebrate. But it’s not without its costs, both public and private. Yes, the definition of old has been pushed back. But no matter where we place it, our social attitudes and behavior meet our private angst about getting old, and the combination of the two all too often distorts our self-image and undermines our spirit.

Yet too few political figures, policy experts or media stories are asking the important questions: What are the real possibilities for our aging population now? How will we live them; what will we do with them? Who will we become? How will we see ourselves; how will we be seen? What will sustain us — emotionally, economically, physically, spiritually? These, not just whether the old will break the Social Security bank or bankrupt Medicare, are the central questions about aging in our time.

Lillian B. Rubin is an internationally recognized author and social scientist who was, until recently, a practicing psychotherapist. Her most recent work is “60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in America.” She lives in San Francisco. 

http://www.salon.com/2011/08/04/lillian_rubin_on_ageism/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

School shootings, hatred, capitalism run amok: This 4th of July, we are in the midst of a tragic public derangement

We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day

We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn,” 1837

For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ’round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts, heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises never before held and shared as widely as they were in America.

The creation of the United States really was a Novus ordo seclorum, a New Order of the Ages, a society’s first self-aware, if fumbling and compromised, effort to live by the liberal expectation that autonomous individuals could govern themselves together without having to impose religious doctrines or mystical narratives of tribal blood or soil. With barely a decorous nod to The Creator, the founders of the American republic conferred on one another the right to have rights, a distinguished group of them constituting the others as “We, the people.”

That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers, or we’ve sleepwalked ourselves and others into the cage and have locked ourselves in. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ’round the world from 74 American schools, colleges and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December 2012.

These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.



They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises and practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders. And we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

Many Americans are adapting to living with variants of force and fraud that erupt in road rage; lethal stampedes by shoppers on sale days; security precautions in their homes against the prospect of armed invasion; gladiatorialization and corruption in sports; nihilism in entertainment that fetishizes violence without context and sex without attachment ; the casino-like financing of utterly unproductive economic activities such as the entertainment I’ve just mentioned and the predatory lending that has tricked millions out of their homes; the commercial groping and goosing of private lives and public spaces, even in the marketing of ordinary consumer goods; and the huge, new prison industry that Americans have created to deter or punish broken, violent men, most of them non-white, only to find schools in even the whitest, “safest” neighborhoods imprisoned by fear of white gunmen who’ve often been students themselves.

Abroad, meanwhile, thousands more shots, fiendish and celebratory, are being fired into the corpses of American national-security and nation-building projects by terrorists and fanatics we were told had been decimated. These projects cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, limbs, homes and hopes, including those of American soldiers, contractors and idealists. Their sacrifices can’t justify retroactively what shouldn’t have been undertaken in the first place.

Stressed by all this republican derangement, millions are spending billions on palliatives, medications, addictions and even surveillance designed to protect them from themselves. All those vials, syringes, security systems and shootings reflect the insinuation of what Gibbon called “a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire…” until Roman citizens “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honour, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army.” Only a few late-Roman republicans, recalling their old freedoms, concluded, with Livy, that “We have become too ill to bear our sickness or their cures.”

What went wrong?

You might argue, and quite rightly, that “We, the people” have always subverted the truths we’d held to be self-evident, beginning with slavery and continuing with plutocracy. Yet somehow the republic kept experiencing what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,” thanks only partly to the fortuitous confluence of two oceans’ protection, a vast continent’s ever-alluring frontier and unending streams of aspiring immigrants:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land,
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates will stand
A mighty woman with a torch
Whose flame is the imprisoned lightning,
And her name: Mother of Exiles

True enough, the republic thus limned by Emma Lazarus in “The New Colossus,” her poem for the Statue of Liberty, needed those exiles for its labor market. And it still had a guiding aristocracy of sorts, but supposedly only “an aristocracy of talent and virtue,” as Jefferson put it, and not one of blood and ill-gotten wealth. True, too, certain lingering Puritan beliefs had nourished in the embattled farmers (and, even long before 1775, in some of the Puritans themselves) a conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. That injunction to defy worldly power sometimes in the name of a Higher Power legitimated individual conscience and autonomy right up through the nonviolent defiance of the best of the civil-rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society.

A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve.

The moral silence and often bankruptcy of states and markets leaves citizen-leaders to be nourished and trained all the more intensively in institutions that stand somewhat apart from the state and markets. The Puritan founders of America’s oldest colleges understood this, but they expected that those colleges’ graduates would serve a theocratic state that would control markets and everything else. We’re right to dismiss the Puritans’ theocracy because it was repressive and hypocritical. But we’re wrong to have lost a side of its animating spirit that would have kept markets from controlling and devouring republican government and even our bodies and ourselves.

Symptoms and scapegoats hide the disease

Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.

They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.

Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.

Even our war-makers’ and -mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us.

But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.

I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.

Our cure would also require reweaving a fabric of public candor and comity strong enough to resist the rise of ressentiment, a public psychopathology, once associated with the rise of fascism, in which insecurities, envy and hatreds that many have been nursing in private converge in scary public eruptions that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big. Ressentiment’s “little-big man” seeks easy targets for frustrations borne of exploitation by powers that he’s afraid to face and reckon with head-on. Blaming scapegoats warps his assessment of his hardships and options and drives him to wreak vengeance on them as soon as there are enough little-big men (and women, of course) to do so en masse under a Glenn Beck or a Sarah Palin.

Whether ressentiment erupts in racist violence, sectarian fanaticism, anti-Communist witch hunts, totalitarian show trials, politically correct cultural revolutions or sadistic escapism, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. Under the ministrations of gifted demagogues, its grievances and pain assume a fleeting brilliance that soon collapses, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on its own cowardice and lies.

Its targets often shift. The 9/11 attacks brought a reprieve of sorts to African-Americans, the republic’s most enduring scapegoats, when the burden of white censure pivoted toward Muslims. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam lost credibility, but so did whites such as the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, who kept on insisting years after 9/11 that the first black president was a Muslim and a friend of terrorists.

The slipperiness of scapegoating became clear to me in 1993, as I wrote about a deranged black gunman, Colin Ferguson, who’d opened fire in a Long Island Rail Road car, killing six passengers. Even while holding him responsible, I saw him bearing symptoms far more widespread than his private demons. Noting Ferguson’s enthusiasm for a politics of rage, paranoia and death threats then prominent on a black radio station and in demagogic street politics, I warned that even deranged loners are sometimes better attuned to our subconscious hatreds and fears than we care to admit. That was true, too, of Jared Loughner, >the white paranoid-schizophrenic and anti-government fantasist who killed a U.S. District Court judge and six other people while trying to kill but severely wounding U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others in 2011.

While apocalyptic religious and racist ranting can provoke emotionally disturbed people, so can journalism and entertainment that massage hatreds too diffuse to be called racist, religious or ideological. Some school shooters nursed the depictions of violence and lust that are pumped incessantly into young Americans’ horizons with the help of new technologies and investment strategies that ride reckless misreadings of the First Amendment. This hasn’t been done with malevolent intent as often as it’s been done in a kind of civic mindlessness by media corporations incentivized and indeed forced by market pressures to bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets by exaggerating fears of armed home invasion, government takeover and vengeful victory by gunplay.

The invisible disease

Even though relatively few young Americans follow these siren songs into acts of destruction, the public fetishizing of sex and violence without context or caring dampens many others’ faith in society during their formative years. You don’t need to know a lot of developmental psychology or anthropology to know that children crave culturally coherent tests of prowess and loyalty in symbolic rites of passage that ratify their communal belonging. When such rites and symbols fail, some flail about, seeking order in private delusions, Dartmouth College fraternities and public orchestrations of ressentiment.

In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine could urge readers to take their recent experiences of monarchy “to the touchstones of nature” and decide whether they would abide the empire’s abuses. Today, those “touchstones of nature” — and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society — have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications and even intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord. This time, we’re all in bed with the enemy. In “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” 40 years ago, Daniel Bell — no anti-capitalist, but prophetic enough about the worship of Golden Calves — argued that free markets no longer make free men because “economic liberalism has become… corporate oligopoly, and, in the pursuit of private wants, a hedonism that is destructive of social needs.”

He warned that consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through nature’s rhythms and kinship traditions. It displaces those needs with ginned-up “wants” that “by their nature, are unlimited and insatiable…. [T]he rational calculation of efficiency and return” displace “the principle of the public household,” strip-mining and selling off fragments of cultural narratives.

Without civic wellsprings and narratives deep and compelling enough to strengthen a society’s adhesives and disciplines in the hearts of its young, neither free-market conservatives nor world-is-flat neoliberal cosmopolitans can reconcile their professed commitments to ordered, republican liberty with their knee-jerk obedience to riptides of destructive investment that are dissolving republican virtue and sovereignty before our eyes.

No wonder we’re losing our vision, in both senses of the word:

▪ Our foreign-policy savants across the ideological spectrum were too blind see that the Soviet Union was so much weaker than American Cold War propaganda and hysteria insisted that it imploded in 1989. The fabled “missile gap” that John F. Kennedy ran on in 1960 was as imaginary as Saddam Hussein’s WMD, but anyone who tried telling either of those truths was charged with a “failure of nerve” or worse by the blind war-mongers in our midst.

▪ Our business press was too blind to see that a tsunami of predatory lending would wreck the national economy and throw millions from their homes.

▪ Our market-addled Congressional committees and blue-ribbon commissions on national intelligence couldn’t discover, until Edward Snowden revealed it, that public surveillance had taken on an all-devouring life of its own.

▪ Neo-conservative and Vulcan conservative advocates of using American military force to spread democracy abroad couldn’t see that their strategy was doomed because democracy isn’t woven that way and because it was destroying democracy at home in ways that, if unchecked, will destroy the republic whose strengths they’ve so badly misconstrued and betrayed.

▪ Our consumer society, addicted to cheap comforts and quick fixes, can’t see its own Orwellian ensnarement by commercial censors, and it couldn’t take Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” about global warming seriously enough to offset the onrushing damage with the serious sacrifices we have yet to make.

▪ Our gilded political consultants, pollsters and campaign donors were too blind to see the boiling undercurrents that have swept away House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Nor can they see that Cantor’s political demise presages an inflammation of ressentiment so wild that the coming, specious, “Who Lost Iraq?” debate will be accompanied by the shot that some military veteran who feels betrayed will fire at a politician who’s been left holding the empty bag of our civic-republican hopes.

So we are flying almost totally blind, punched bloody by a Hand that we keep insisting is Invisible. We can see only the sickness of the gunmen and of the proliferation of their guns. Treatment of those symptoms is urgently needed, but it will be insufficient to curb the wrecking ball that global capitalism has become on our willfully blind watch, and triage won’t renew the civic fabric.

Exemplary defiance has its place

Whenever republican candor and courage have seemed about to succumb like this to tribal and theocratic delusions or to force and fraud in the past, some citizens have roused others to fend off threats to republican premises and practices:

▪ In 1776 a young schoolteacher named Nathan Hale was caught trying to track and expose the military and intelligence operations of the only established, legitimate government of his time. But just before his hanging he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” and became an incarnation of a nascent republic.

▪ Hale’s dignity in adversity, unfathomable to many of us these days, anticipated that of Martin Luther King, Jr., and black churchgoers who walked unarmed and trembling toward armed men and dogs with nothing but their faith and their long-shot strategy to delegitimate the seemingly impregnable segregationist establishment of their time by appealing to republican principles and an American civil religion whose theology was as vague as that of the founders.

▪ Hale’s dignity also anticipated that of three Yale seniors I came upon one wintry morning in 1968 as they gave university chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr., their military draft cards to announce their resistance to the U. S. Government on behalf of the American republic.

“The government says we’re criminals, but we say the government is criminal for waging this war,” said one of the seniors, struggling to find his voice. For all we knew, these guys were about to be arrested on the spot, and some of us felt arrested morally by their example because they were ready to pay the penalty of law in order to affirm their commitment to honest law itself.

Coffin, who held to a Calvinist theology that, like King’s, saw resistance to tyranny as obedience to God, was present to bless a courage that few national-security state conservatives understand, in the idiom of an American civil-religion few neoliberals and post-modern leftists understand. When he quoted Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” that civil religion seemed to awaken briefly and to walk and talk again, re-moralizing the state and the law, and the silent, wild confusion I was feeling gave way to something like awe. (I described this experience in The Washington Monthly in 2000, during the protracted “election” of George W. Bush.)

▪ Hale’s courage also anticipated Edward Snowden’s. Both young men may have been impetuous and otherwise flawed in some respects, but they showed that resistance to corrupted power requires not only prowess, means, and will, but an elusive, republican sensibility that’s cultivated in civil society and confirmed in little daily interactions long before it emerges in demonstrations of civic courage that startle and move other citizens.

With a wonderment somewhat like Hegel’s, the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas marveled at this “constitutional patriotism” in American citizens who possessed what Gibbon described as “that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command.”

When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and Internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change.

Yet republican expectations do have ways of resurfacing whenever “We, the people” begin to imagine what our lives would be like, singly and together, if we had to live without them. Not everyone can be seduced or intimidated away from them.

Still, so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive that we have to ask: Where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend?

Nourishing a new liberal order

The question should prompt a quest for a political culture that isn’t too commercial and vapid and that isn’t held together only by demagoguery and delusion. No reconfiguration of today’s capitalism will be possible without something better than that. Yet no think tank, legislature or foundation can carry that quest or that reconfiguration to a just conclusion. Nor can an Occupy Wall Street that isn’t grounded in something deeper than its own noble effort to be the change it wants us all to make.

Nor can our “illness” be cured by champions of a new foreign-policy “realism” such as Robert Kagan, who urge us to face the inevitable challenges of a world where only willpower and force can sustain the liberal order that many Americans take for granted. That’s right as far as it goes, but it begs the question of where willpower comes from and what, within the liberal order itself, is sapping that willpower.

Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Kagan speculates candidly that liberal civilization itself “runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.” Perhaps, Kagan adds, “this fragile democratic garden requires the protection of a liberal world order, with constant feeding, watering, weeding, and the fencing off of an ever-encroaching jungle.” But he can’t seem to face the challenge posed by the new shots heard ’round the world from America: The jungle and its encroachments begin not only abroad but within our own garden.

What seems our greatest weakness could be one of our greatest strengths, although it, too, won’t be enough: Even 150 years after the founding, the philosopher George Santayana wrote that Americans still heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history precisely because they’d “all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistible in a space otherwise quite empty. To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career….”

Although there’s plenty to regret and respect in the traditions we’ve lost, there’s no turning back from the “moral condition” and “career” we face as citizens. We have no choice but to keep faith with the republic and one another. If Americans have a manifest destiny now, it’s to lead in weaving a new republican fabric that markets can serve but not subvert.

In 2008, Barack Obama seemed to incarnate so brilliantly the promise of weaving our diversity into a new republican discipline — he even invoked Puritan and biblical wellsprings in some of his speeches — that many people ’round the world considered him a prophet who would satisfy their hunger for new narratives. Probably no national political leader ever can do that.

The narratives the world needs now will have to come from other prophets and leaders yet unsung. I do think that Americans will be strong among them, if only because we’ve had so much experience generating that hunger by generating the civic-republican-capitalist effort that has failed.

Jim Sleeper is the author of Liberal Racism (1997) and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (1990)

Do we control our brains? Our do our brains control us? Research sheds light on this age-old question

The truth about free will: New answers to humanity’s biggest riddle

, Scientific American

The truth about free will: New answers to humanity's biggest riddle
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanPhilosophers have debated for years whether we deliberately make each of the many decisions we make every day, or if our brain does it for us, on autopilot. Neuroscientists have shown, for example, that neurons in the brain initiate our response to various stimuli milliseconds before we’re even aware that we’re taking such an action.

This heady debate has hit a very practical road in the past decade: whether individuals who commit crimes are actually responsible for them. Lawyers have argued in court that if the brain determines the mind, then defendants may not be responsible for their transgressions.

Michael Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is at the forefront of the research into free will, and its implications in courtroom trials and in the expectations of different societies. His thoughts and proclamations are captured in an engaging video called Free Will, created by Joseph LeDoux, a well-known expert on the emotional brain at New York University. The video is the second in a series he is putting together with director Alexis Gambis called My Mind’s Eye. (The first episode featured Ned Block on the mind-body problem.) They have given Scientific American the chance to post these videos first, on our site.

The conversation between LeDoux and Gazzaniga (who is also an editorial adviser toScientific American) runs about 12 minutes, and Gambis has inserted some compelling imagery, including clips of creepy old movies in which scientists probe the brains of live people. The film then morphs into a four-minute music video of the song “How Free Is Your Will?,” performed by LeDoux’s band, the Amygdaloids. A few highlights of the interview, offered freely, by me:



2:55  Split-brain patients. Gazzaniga explains what has happened to these people, and what they can teach us about how we make decisions.

6:50  Personal responsibility. This is the crux of the argument about whether responsibility for our actions lies in the neuronal structures of the brain or in our conscious minds, and whether biological mechanisms or society’s norms are most important in defining acceptable behavior. “There’s no reason to not hold people accountable for their actions,” Gazzaniga maintains. He then discusses how society can more intelligently decide on what to do with people who violate its rules.

9:05  Criminal trials. Gazzaniga discusses problems in referring to brain scans in courtroom trials and in sentencing people who are convicted, and considers the effectiveness of capital punishment, given what we know about free will.

12:00  Music video of “How Free Is Your Will?”

Further reading, suggested by Michael Gazzaniga:

For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything. Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 359, 1775-1785; 2004.

The Law and Neuroscience, Michael S. Gazzaniga in Neuron, 60:412-415; 2009.

Who’s in Charge?  Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Michael S. Gazzaniga. Ecco, Harper Collins, New York; 2011.

Neuroscience in the Courtroom, Michael S. Gazzaniga in Scientific American, April 2011.

A Primer on Criminal Law and Neuroscience: A Contribution of the Law and Neuroscience Project. Oxford Series in Neuroscience, Law, and Philosophy; eds. Stephen J. Morse and Adina L. Roskies; 2013.

Image from this video courtesy of Imaginal Disk

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/01/the_truth_about_free_will_new_answers_to_humanitys_biggest_riddle_partner/?source=newsletter