Links and Comments: Innovation, Optimism, Conspiracy Theories, and Liberals

Four items from the New York Times, Sunday before last.

Neil Irwin: What Was the Greatest Era for Innovation? A Brief Guided Tour.

What strikes me about this is not so much which era was greatest, as how much things have changed in only a century or so. In 1870, for instance,

People lit their houses with candles and whale oil, and heated them with wood or coal-burning stoves that kept homes unevenly heated and smelling of smoke.

They ate pork. Lots and lots of pork — 131 pounds of it per person per year in 1870 (that number was half as much by 1929 and is around 55 pounds today). Unlike other meat-producing animals, pigs could live almost anywhere and could survive largely on food scraps. Their meat, easily salted or smoked, could be preserved in an era without refrigeration.

Most rural adults had two sets of work clothes, both made at home, and better-off families had a nicer set of clothing for church or social outings. There was not much in the way of consumer goods, and department stores were in their infancy, just starting to appear in large cities.

Instead of a toilet, you used a chamber pot or an open window in the city, an outhouse with an open pit underneath in the country. Modern toilets were an invention that was in its earliest phases during the decade of the 1870s. Big cities had sewers for both rainwater and human waste, but they flowed into rivers unfiltered.

The online version has a lot of huge photographs that weren’t with the print article.


Not unrelated to the previous item, here’s Gregg Easterbook: When Did Optimism Become Uncool?

Even in any kind of ‘utopia’, I imagine, people will find things to complain about, and politicians — especially the conservative ones — will feed on those complaints and stoke peoples’ fears. Sometimes you need to step back and gain a little perspective.

The country is, on the whole, in the best shape it’s ever been in. So what explains all the bad vibes?

Social media and cable news, which highlight scare stories and overstate anger, bear part of the blame. So does the long-running decline in respect for the clergy, the news media, the courts and other institutions. The Republican Party’s strange insistence on disparaging the United States doesn’t help, either.

The perspective:

Job growth has been strong for five years, with unemployment now below where it was for most of the 1990s, a period some extol as the “good old days.” The American economy is No. 1 by a huge margin, larger than Nos. 2 and 3 (China and Japan) combined. Americans are seven times as productive, per capita, as Chinese citizens. The dollar is the currency the world craves — which means other countries perceive America’s long-term prospects as very good.

Pollution, discrimination, crime and most diseases are in an extended decline; living standards, longevity and education levels continue to rise. The American military is not only the world’s strongest, it is the strongest ever. The United States leads the world in science and engineering, in business innovation, in every aspect of creativity, including the arts. Terrorism is a serious concern, but in the last 15 years, even taking into account Sept. 11, an American is five times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist.

(Conservatives are always discovering new things to panic about, and religious conservatives seem ever anxious to detect the imminent end of the world. Currently they’re alarmed by transgendered people, who, like gays, have always been with us.)


George Johnson on conspiracy theorists: Why We Keep Dreaming of Little Green Men

Prompted by Hillary Clinton’s interest in UFOs and Area 51.

It’s easy to get carried away, your reptilian brain fueling your cybernetic cerebrum, as click, click, click, you feel the pieces snapping together. The followers of Lyndon LaRouche, the world-class conspiracy theorist who runs periodically for president, propound a cracked and erudite worldview that has included conspirators like Aristotle, John Maynard Keynes, Werner Heisenberg and Timothy Leary — all linked through an internal logic that makes, for its believers, a scary kind of sense.

To me the appeal of conspiracy theories is evidence of the narrative bias of the human mind — the need to have everything, including things that are really random, make sense, in the way humans impose sense on the world.


And Neil Gross, Why Are the Highly Educated So Liberal?

I’ve discussed this topic before, but let’s just see what the writer says…

What explains the consolidation of the highly educated into a liberal bloc? The growing number of women with advanced degrees is part of it, as well-educated women tend to be especially left-leaning. Equally important is the Republican Party’s move to the right since the 1980s — at odds with the social liberalism that has long characterized the well educated — alongside the perception that conservatives are anti-intellectual, hostile to science and at war with the university.

It is probably right that something like a culture of critical discourse can be found in the workplaces and households and in the publications read by Americans who have attended graduate or professional school. The challenge for the Democrats moving forward will be to develop appeals to voters that resonate not just with this important constituency, but also with other crucial groups in the Democratic coalition. Some of the draw of Donald Trump for white working-class male voters, for example, is that he does not speak in a culture of critical discourse. Indeed, he mocks that culture, tapping into class resentments.

Gross has written a whole book on this subject… Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?

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