The fear is real

When I was in graduate school, my friends and I would jokingly classify the utility of research in terms of the order the researcher would be killed after the revolution. So, for physics, if you were working on say galaxy formation in the early universe you would be killed before someone working on the properties of hydrogen at low temperatures, who would be killed before someone working on building a fusion reactor. This was during the cold war and thus the prospect of Stalin and Mao still loomed large. We did not joke this way with fear or disdain but rather with a somewhat bemused acknowledgment that we were afforded the luxury to work on esoteric topics, while much of the world still did not have running water. In those days, the left-right divide was between the small government neoliberals (conservatives in those days who advocated for freer and more deregulated markets) and the bigger government New Deal liberals (those for more government action to address economic inequities). We certainly had fierce debates but they were always rather abstract. We never thought our lives would really change that much.

By the time I had finished and started my academic career, it was clear that the neoliberals had prevailed. The Soviet Union had collapsed, AT&T was broken up, and the Democratic president proclaimed the era of big government was over. Francis Fukuyama wrote “The End of History and the Last Man” arguing that western liberal democracy had triumphed over communism and would be the last form of government. I was skeptical then because I thought we could do better but I really didn’t consider that it could get worse.

But things got worse. We had the bursting of the dot com bubble, 9/11, the endless wars, the great recession, and now perhaps the twilight of democracy as Anne Applebaum laments in her most recent book. We can find blame everywhere – globalization, automation, the rise of China, out of touch elites, the greedy 1%, cynical politicians, the internet, social media, and so forth. Whatever the reason, this is an era where no one is happy and everyone is fearful.

The current divide in the United States is very real and there is fear on both sides. On one side, there is fear that an entire way of life is being taken away – a life of a good secure job, a nuclear family with well defined roles, a nice house, neighbors who share your values and beliefs, a government that mostly stays out of the way but helps when you are in need, the liberty to own a firearm, and a sense of community and shared sacrifice. On the other side, there is the fear that progress is being halted, that a minority will forever suppress a majority, that social, racial, and economic justice will never be achieved, that democracy itself is in peril, and that a better future will always be just out of reach.

What is most frustrating to me is that these points of view are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I don’t know how we can reconcile these differences but my biases and priors incline me to believe that we could alleviate some of the animosity and fear if we addressed income insecurity. While I think income inequality is a real problem, I think a more pressing concern is that a large segment of the population on both sides of the the divide lives continuously on a precipice of economic ruin, which has been made unavoidably apparent by our current predicament. I really think we need to consider a universal basic income. I also think it has to be universal because suspicion of fraud and resentment is a real issue. Everyone gets the check and those with sufficient incomes and wealth simply pay it back in taxes.

3 thoughts on “The fear is real


    1. I tend to be a pessimist –or as S Hsu puts it ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. But fortunatley I am blessed with not having any intellect or will power, so I am actually not afflicted by common conditions like pessimism, depression, will to power, or free will. Nothing (0) is in my control , so there is nothing I can do, and I fully take 0 responsibility.

    (I once learned a trick on how to ‘shift sums’ so I can set the 0 —origin or ultimate cause —anywhere i want. For example time started 14 billion or 4000 years ago, yesterday or tomorrow. Assign all the blame for bad things, and accept all the credit for good things.) It seems the theorem that 1+2 +3+…= -1/12 and the ‘wine/water paradox’ and even the speed of light fall in this class. There are many final and good causes. And a good cause can turn into a bad one by shifting the origin. (I think Mosca termed this the ‘circulation elites’. Today’s freedom fighter is tomorrow’s dictator–‘ if tomorrow ever shows up’–Talib Kwali).

    2. I sort of respect Chu’s skills and analyses—his physics is way ‘above my pay grade’ to judge, but I dont share his views on behavioral genetics –I think the data and analyses are correct but are descriptive, but ‘correlations are not causes’.
    (eg some people may be ‘poor’, but they may not be born that way. I think Riousseau wrote that ‘everywhere men are in chains, but they were born free’—eg to make chains). .

    Or actually, in this age of BLM and stereotyping, ‘me23’, numerous fertility clinics, women in India who are paid to carry to term eggs fertilized in USA, the ability to pay someone to get you good test scores and an elite degree, I sometimes say ‘correlations are causes’.

    Some call this ‘the social construction of reality’. New age people say ‘create your reality’—its all in your mind. I have a few papers applying Berkeley’s theory of ‘idealism’ to derive quantum theory–one is by a right wing Polish physicist . . You can create your laws of nature, empiricial biological, psychological and social
    laws –plant breeding, demographic and psychological patterns (eg occurence of PTSD), and human or legal laws (who’s a citizen and who’s illegal, who is 3/5ths versus 1/2 a citizen, etc.)

    I view this as a form of Poincare’s ‘conventionalism’. (Poincare had a different formulation of relativity that retained the ‘ether’ –Einstein’s version became more popular (Occam’s razor) but Einstein acknowledged the 2 theories were mathematically equivalent.

    3. . R Sapolsky of Stanford who studies primate hierarchies, noted there was a health gradient in these hierarchies–the alpha males versus the betas, gammas, and sigmas . . He applied this to human hierarchies and health gradients. His solution was mainly similar to Berkeley’s—‘its all in your head’. Just relabel the south pole the north pole and you are on top.

    Using the famous Slutsky-Yule theorem(‘summation of random causes’ from 1920-30’s) one can prove there was no ‘great depression’ of 1930’s by one interpretation. You can turn a semi-random statistical time series for say unemployment into a sin curve using a moving average and successive approximations of the same form.
    Some people used the Slutsky-Yule theorem to prove ‘global warming’ ‘hockey stick’ was an illusion.

    The currently popular ‘mindfulness meditation movement’ also shows its all in your head–there are no problems –just sit down, bury your head under the rug, cultivate mindlessness, and there are no problems to see. This was my view of math—e.g told ‘solve the schrodinger equation’. mky viw it was already solved—there is an = sign.

    4. UBI has sort of made it into popular concsiousness (though it has quite alot of pushback from Harvard, U Md, U C Berkeley and other economists, some unions, some socialists (eg prof emereti of NYU R Wolff), and the MMT (modern monetary theory) people–who are a self descrirbed progressive group popular among ‘leftists’ who are against higher income taxes, a UBI, and they were basicially started with help from Arhur Laffer of reagonomics.and ‘supply side economics’ and funded by a wealthy Hedge fund manager who lives in an offshore tax haven. )

    I support a UBI of some form–i think its possible COVID may be responsible for why homicides have increased 22% this year to 180 (baltimore has 296, and Phily 400). Many of these are over petty money–people lost their minimal income.

    Many UBI experient have been done in recent years (Canada, Finland and others).One problems with these is they are designed like trying to stop COVID by quarantining 1 family for 3 weeks. It works–for 1 family for 3 weeks. The ‘great society’ was a larger scale experiment (food stamps, head start affirmative action, subsidized housing, health care..) .–but it was it was like giving someone a life raft in a rising flood To really work one has to have both a life raft and also some flood control.

    I think a well designed UBI could work and actually would mostly pay for itself in reduced security (police, jails) , health and mental health or addiction costs.(The dominant line is addiction, violence, and eating disorders including obesity are mental health problems— i view them as primarily problems of income insecurity, lack (and discouragement) of education, long learned traditions and habits, and ‘meaningingless jobs’—most of the sucessfully rehabiliated drug addicts and people who have been released from jail to do socially valuable work, have jobs as addiction counselors or ‘violence interruptors’. Others get jobs cleaning up street trash on the streets they threw trash on. .Or they work in liquor stores—sell to people waiting at the door at 7am many of whom pandhandle ). Noone asks where the trash comes from or why people are violent or addicted.I know someone who was an animal lab tech at Walter Reed with almost 0 education–had dropped out of elementary school–but somehow got tha job. . He lost that job eventually because after work he fraternized with the ‘street life’. Its non commutative–you go out, you dont come back in. )


  2. I’m supportive of the proposal, but is income insecurity really the root of the problem? The phenomenon you are describing is occurring through western civilization, and yet income insecurity has objectively never afflicted a smaller fraction of people in that civilization than at any point in history.

    I think this explanation can only work if there is an awkward intermediate stage: comfortable enough to expend energy on political anger, but not comfortable enough to be pacified, a local maximum of political instability that UBI can push us out of. But I don’t see how so many countries could be having this crisis at exactly the same time if that explanation were true.


  3. @rick I don’t think it is the root of all the problems but it is one problem we could address. I think the most angry are those who see some of those around them disintegrating and fear that it will happen to them. Income insecurity is not poverty. Even a median middle class family struggles to pay for college and a health crisis could bankrupt them. I don’t even think UBI is a completely solution but I think it is a small start. Cultural and identity issues will not be solved by that.


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