“California,” argues Victor Davis Hanson, is “becoming pre-modern” despite ballooning government solutions. Like fictional pre-modern societies, it is becoming a two-tier society; a landscape of fantastical castles amid a sea of peasants. It is as if the technologically sophisticated components of the Golden State were creating its shadow of poor, homeless, drug-addicted and unskilled populations.
Huge global wealth in high-tech, finance, trade and academia poured into the coastal corridor, creating a new nobility with unprecedented riches. Unfortunately, the new aristocracy adopted mindsets antithetical to the general welfare of Californians living outside their coastal enclaves. The nobodies have struggled to buy high-priced , pay exorbitant power bills and deal with shoddy infrastructure — all of which resulted from the policies of the distant somebodies.
Yet in some respects, not only California but the whole global world is morphing into a similar two-tier arrangement. This may be driven by something called knowledge inequality. The processes by which a society produced its goods and governed itself were once common knowledge to a large percentage of the population. But they are not now.
Relative technological simplicity and cultural homogeneity made knowledge equality easier. This, in turn, facilitated rational governance. At the time of the American Revolution, the knowledge of what was possible and affordable was within the grasp even of a farmer or workman. However today — and California may be an extreme example — society is reliant on processes only a tiny few understand. Under these circumstances public policy and even economics become recondite.
Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic writes that “California is becoming unlivable” and suggests solving the wildfire/electricity outage problem by banning development. “One solution … is to build more dense housing in urban areas … California isn’t doing enough to discourage building in fire-prone areas.” Yet regulation is what caused the problem in the first place.
The bulk of wildfire destruction in California happens in the Wildlife Urban Interface (WUI) … Although much of the WUI is naturally vulnerable to fire, human behavior is primarily to blame for the destruction. People start more than nine in 10 fires … If building in the WUI is so dangerous, why do it? In part because building new housing is so very difficult in many urban regions in California, due to opposition from existing homeowners and strict building codes.
Knowledge inequality makes “magical” solutions inevitable because an ever-smaller fraction of the public know how things work or are paid for. Healthcare woes? Medicare for All. Housing crisis? Make affordable housing a “right.” Students choking under loans? Write it off. Graduates without literacy or numeracy? Teach Woke Math.
Fix the wildfires by tightly regulating development sounds like a solution. Following Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” many things are now solved by linguistic legerdemain. Ever since, Apollo politicians have been invoking associative magic as political spells:
“Nothing is impossible in this age of miracles. If we can put a man on the Moon, we surely are capable of seeing that our temporary surplus agricultural products are placed in many hungry stomachs of the world.” …
Nixon’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, used the phrase in his standard stump speech: “If we can put a man on the Moon, certainly we can afford to put man on his feet on Earth.”
Sending a spacecraft to the lunar surface and solving homelessness might be different problems, but with a few similes and metaphors, they can be “magically” connected and thus solved. Associative magic is especially strong in Bernie Sanders, who uses it to solve housing. “This is the richest country in the history of the world. No one in America should be homeless.” With it, he can set salaries. “In the richest country in the world, our teachers should be the best-paid, not among the worst-paid.” The same magic can pay for healthcare: “In the richest country in the world, it is obscene that millions of people are pushed into poverty and insolvency because they had the bad luck of getting sick and needing to see a doctor.”
There’s no objection to magic because many people, especially in or from the Third World, are surrounded by found marvels like cell phones, machine learning, GPS, CRISPR therapies, etc. They are used to things that simply work — though none but the sages know how. Immigrants can be forgiven for thinking, as they wander in their misery through the technological wonders of California, why the magi have simply not waved their wands and created the same level of comfort for them. In a world of magic, what’s one more spell, because that’s all it takes, right? It must be because — and the politicians never tire of telling them — the wizards are selfish and holding back.
The difference between science and magic, noted Chaz Orzell, is that in the world of sorcery some people are born with amazing powers. Wealth does not come from the application of truths external to humanity but rather from birth powers, celebrity, or beauty.
The primary distinction between these magic systems and science is that magic relies on inborn talent in a way that science doesn’t– science and the products thereof will work for anyone, but only certain special people are able to do magic … magic … is fundamentally not amenable to scientific investigation– something not bound by easily discoverable rules.
In such a world the solution to every problem is redistribution. To effect this political parties ceaselessly put up magical people as candidates whose powers derive from certain associative properties. Nobody runs anymore on the strength of competence but because they are gay, lesbian, disabled, a person of color, or imbued with some other property. Only with this talisman can they approach the tower of capitalism to demand more of who abides within.
Thus, I had so long suffer’d, in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among “The Band”—to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search address’d
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seem’d best.
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?
In 1926 the French sociologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl wrote: “The primitive mind does not differentiate the supernatural from reality, but rather uses ‘mystical participation’ to manipulate the world. According to Levy-Bruhl, moreover, the primitive mind doesn’t address contradictions.” Except for the wizards we are, most of us, primitives now.
In an ironic sort of way, the more technologically advanced a society becomes the more medieval and superstitious its governance can become. Then we will truly become pre-modern, supplanting nuclear power plants with windmills and electricity with candles. Perhaps the biggest problem of the 21st century will not be income, but knowledge inequality.
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Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Steve Coll. Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, journalist Coll recounts, for the first time, the history of the covert wars in Afghanistan that fueled Islamic militancy and sowed the seeds of the September 11 attacks. Using firsthand accounts by key government, intelligence, and military personnel, both foreign and American, he details the secret history of the CIA’s role in Afghanistan (including its covert operations against Soviet troops from 1979 to 1989), the rise of the Taliban, the emergence of bin Laden, and the failed efforts by U.S. forces to find and assassinate bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey Smith. In this book, philosopher Godfrey-Smith tells a bold new story of how subjective experience crept into being — how nature became aware of itself — a story that largely occurs in the ocean. By tracing the question of inner life back to its roots, he casts crucial new light on the octopus mind — and on our own.
The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, by Robert Kagan. An argument for America’s role as an enforcer of peace and order throughout the world — and what is likely to happen if we withdraw and focus our attention inward.
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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.