Is this the sunset of the human race?

As I put my thoughts together on a number of different trends, I am reminded every day how rapidly science and technology are changing. You know when you read an article  on how to build your own robot (a lot like LEGO) on a general public website like MarketWatch or the latest in surveillance tech, things are indeed rapidly changing.  The robot article reminds me of the early days of computer kits, but in this case, way more sophisticated, reflecting the progress we have already made.

I discussed automation and artificial intelligence (AI) briefly in my last post.  I say “briefly” because any one of the many topics and trends I am raising in this short series could be the basis of a book, at the very least.  Detailed information can be found easily on the Internet and it is not my purpose to try and cover it all here.

Here come the engineers

Today I would like to talk about genetic engineering and the field of genomics, the study of the entire human genome (DNA, RNA, and much, much more)  and its interaction with its environment.  I am very fortunate to be able to provide you with a link to someone who can do a far better job than I can of describing the situation from a balanced perspective, with technical authority, and with a concern for both the “mechanical” and moral issues involved.

Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine for the MIT Technology Review, published such a report, titled Engineering the Perfect Baby, a few weeks ago.  If there is one link of those I provide in this series that I think is most useful, this is it.  It is not an academic paper.  It is in clear English, very up-to-date, and demonstrates that the field is also struggling with the implications of their work, as is artificial intelligence.  So take a few minutes and get ahead of 99.9% of the general public on this very important topic, painlessly.

If you have now read the article, you know there is one group within genomics that wants the field to “go slow”. I appreciate their concern, but I think they have the wrong approach. In my mind, it is not a question of speed, but a question of what we do with what we have. It is not a question of how quickly we move in a given direction, but what direction we are taking. Whatever direction is chosen, it will move quickly. No one wants to be left behind in that field or, for that matter, all the other fields that will be impacted by genetic engineering.

Even if progress in this field was to be “slowed down” in one nation or a dozen, there would still be plenty of nations moving along as quickly as possible.  Even if the slowdown was accepted globally in the research and development community open to public review, don’t count on that happening with the “private” work carried out by government agencies and their contractors.

No one, government or business or scientist, wants to wake up one morning only to discover that they are a generation behind others in genetic research and design by virtue of slowing down their own work.  Folks, it is not going to happen that way, whether we are aware of it or not.  Simple human behavior and thousands of years of human history provide plenty of evidence to support that.  We can have our various opinions, but let’s be realistic.

So what is the problem?

We fear genetic engineering.  We are uncomfortable with the thought that we can be “engineered”. Why?  Because it sounds as if we are machines.  Again, as that article I linked to earlier makes so clear, we are not pleased to think that someone can change our DNA and, in the process, change who we are, what we do, what we think, and more.

Throughout human history, we have wanted to know why things happen.  What caused the forest fire that destroyed my village?  Why are we suffering a multi-year famine?  What or who caused that earthquake, volcanic eruption, or other natural disaster?  Why did my child get sick and die?

Questions like these have gnawed at humans for thousands of years, but each of those questions has, effectively, a “mechanical” explanation that most of us accept immediately today.  We expect the weatherman to provide a forecast that is not based on throwing dice, reading tea leaves, or today’s astrology column, but on an understanding of how things work, just like a machine.

Our answers may not always be perfect or complete, but we accept that they flow from an understanding of the mechanics of weather, of forest fires, of droughts, and certainly of health.  Modern medicine has convinced us that we are made up of “parts” that can break down and require replacements, and if there is no replacement, someone is working on one.  We understand that germs are “tiny animals” that we cannot see with the naked eye, but which can kill the strongest among us.  That (the germ theory of disease) was not an easy sell.  It took centuries to fully establish it and finally convince the many skeptics.

Think of global climate change.  Regardless of what position you take on this controversy, it becomes quickly clear that nearly all the debate centers on mechanical (machine) behavior.  What causes it?  Is it a threat?  If so, we can we do about it, if anything?  What will be the effects of what we choose to do or not to do?  It is a very serious debate, but it basically a debate about a “climate machine” and what, if anything, should be done to change how it is working.

Throughout this period well into the last century, we learned to accept comfortably that pretty much everything around us was “machine-like” and could be manipulated, but with one exception.  Us.  We are humans, not machines.  But things began to change.  Let me tell you a true story about Don, not his real name, and his most amazing mother.

Meeting Don’s Mother

Don lived in Alexandria, Virginia across the river from Washington DC.  I lived further out in Maryland, renting a beautiful home deep in the woods surrounded by nature.  Don called me one day and told me his mother was coming to visit for a week.  He didn’t know what to do.  She wasn’t really interested in anything and would be just as happy to sit in his apartment for the whole week, but he didn’t want that.  So I said, bring her out on Saturday.  I’ll make a nice lunch and we can sit out on the deck and enjoy the surroundings.  He said, fine, and sounded relieved that he had at least one thing to do with her.

Saturday arrived and I looked out the window as Don parked his car and they got out.  The older woman with him looked angry.  I thought, oh boy, they must have had an argument.  Well, so be it.  I’m sure they will drop it now.

I have never met anyone as ugly as this woman.  I don’t mean physically, although her face was twisted into an angry look that did not disappear for a single moment during the more than four hours of their visit.  It was her attitude that slapped me across the face.   I had prepared a great lunch and had the house ready for company.  During the entire time, she never said one word to me or even looked at me for more than a second or two.  Once, she did grunt and that was all she had to say.

Don said nothing, as if this was normal, so I said nothing.  I didn’t want to embarrass him or make a bad situation worse, but it was agony.  Don and I talked throughout while she sat, scowling and looking away from us the whole time.  Lunch made no difference.  Trying to find something to talk about really became a challenge.  A couple hours into this fiasco and I was hating every minute of it.  As I finally watched them leave, the relief was huge.  The kindest thing I could think at the time was how sorry I felt for Don, but I really never wanted to see her again.  That’s not like me at all, but that was the way it was.  Don never talked about it and I had no interest in pushing it.  She was gone.  Fine.

Meeting Don’s Other Mother

Months went by and one day I got a call from Don.  I absolutely had to come to dinner at his place on Saturday evening.  No excuse was acceptable!  So I said, okay, but why?  He said, my mother is here and she wants to see you.  Oh good god, no, I thought.  It’s the last thing I wanted to hear, but I sucked it up and said, okay, I’ll be there, but I was not a happy man at all.

As I walked up to Don’s door, I reminded myself that if things were even half as bad as before, I at least could leave early based on some fake excuse.  I didn’t have to wait for them to leave this time.  I knocked, Don opened the door, and I saw his mother a few feet away.

She rushed up to me, grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and apologized for her unforgivably rude behavior at my house.  She told me that she had felt locked up in a jail cell in her head, unable to get out.  She knew what she was doing was terrible, but she couldn’t control it.  That was past now and she finally had the chance to ask forgiveness, which of course she got immediately.  This gracious, smiling, lovely older lady was not the woman I met before.  If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn she was someone else, but she wasn’t.

She explained that Don and his brothers had intervened and insisted that she go to a psychiatrist.  She finally agreed to go.  As a result, she was given a prescription for a “cocktail” of psychoactive drugs.  Her life immediately improved and with a couple changes, she was finally out of jail and free to be the woman and mother she wanted to be.  Her happiness was infectious.  We had a wonderful dinner and I was blown away by her behavior, but this time for all the right reasons.

I left that evening and as I drove home, I thought to myself, that was amazing!  I had been critical of over-prescription of psychoactive drugs, but I had just met someone whose life had dramatically changed for the better as a result of psychoactive drugs.  I still worried about over-prescription, especially for children, but I no longer could ignore their value to those who needed them.  Don’s mother had taught me a lesson that I still remember.

We’re happy for Don’s mother.  So what?

Another thought that came to my mind that night was, who is the “real” mother?  Mother #1 or Mother #2?  Was the woman I just had dinner with Mother #1 returned?  Or really Mother #3?  And if her “cocktail” changed, would she be Mother #4?

In the years following, I would ask Don how his mother was doing and he would often say, her cocktail had to be changed.  Her brain chemistry kept changing and the old cocktail had less and less impact.  Eventually, he told me she was sliding back into a bad state again.  As they changed the cocktail, I wondered how many “mothers” there had been.

So what does this have to do with genetic engineering?  If you can successfully “engineer” the genome, it is forever.  Of course, you might go back and re-engineer it in the future, but the point is simple.  The effects of genetic engineering will not fade over time.  They are now a part of “you”.

I suspect the use of psychoactive drugs will eventually fall as genetic engineering takes their place.  When will that come?  The very first step in that direction has already been taken.

A few days ago, Popular Science introduced me to the BabySeq project where newborn babies will be checked for any of 30 genetic diseases.  They will not change the baby’s DNA, only alert the parents and their physician to the need to prepare.

How long will it be before parents demand that they not simply be told this genetic disease will strike their child, but demand that something be done about it before it strikes.  That something will be genetic engineering.  I see nothing extreme in a forecast like that.  This is simply the first of many steps to come.

I could go on for pages, but I will not.  There is enough up there, links included, to more than make my point.  Genetic engineering is controversial for good reasons, but it has too much potential for good and evil to be ignored.   It is not going away.

The Challenge

Let me summarize some of the concerns of this and my three prior posts.

1) Our physical bodies are organic machines.  Parts break down and require replacements, if they are available.  Systems malfunction and require repair or enhancement.  The recent 3D printing of a hip replacement is just one of many examples.  This understanding of our bodies as organic machines is close enough to universal that exceptions are few and far between.

2) Our brains are who we are.  No brain activity, no “us”.  We accept that the chemistry of our brain dramatically impacts our behavior and that the use of psychoactive (psychotropic) drugs can have an equally dramatic impact and can reverse unwanted behavior or, at the very least, reduce it substantially.  As of 2010, one in five American adults was using a psychoactive drug, and that does not include the 6.3% of adolescents 12-19 also using these drugs in 2010.

3) As I have discussed here before, AI or artificial intelligence is rapidly developing and improving.  AI is the source of controversy among those who fear it may destroy the human race, but I believe it is more likely to augment human intelligence, not destroy it.  But one thing is clear.  It is intent on demonstrating that intelligence, human or artificial, is a mechanical process…the work of a machine, be it organic or inorganic.

4) And then there is genomics, particularly genetic engineering.  In short, we are programmed at the point of conception.  We are the product of code, just like a web page.  We are coded differently than any web page, but unlike a web page, we can change our code.

5) As an added thought derived in part from my 2009 article at Barron’s, Next, the Retirement Bubble, along with all the above and as a result of much of it, our life spans are lengthening and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to grow during our lifetimes, but most of us continue to act as if we were our parents or grandparents, refusing to alter our dreams of traditional retirement and our “golden years”.  Those golden years may well be made of lead.

6) For decades now, or centuries if you prefer, humans have slowly come to think of themselves as “machines”.  At every step in that process, there was fear and opposition.  Today, this shift has accelerated and given every sign of continuing to accelerate even more.  If it happens quickly without taking the 99% of us who are only dimly aware of what is happening, if at all, then the potential for an explosive negative emotional reaction grows.

7) Finally, my earlier posts emphasized the changes in the traditional “class system”. The combination of the trends above may leave us with two classes – a global upper class and everyone else. Or it may destroy all the traditional classes. I would choose the latter. A new class system may develop, but the old one will no longer be useful, if we get this transition done right.

Enough gloom and doom, what needs to be done now?

We need leadership.  This is not a local or national issue, it is global.  I hope you understand why I have absolutely no faith at all in politicians providing leadership in this arena.  Leadership must come from those who are responsible for the trends.  They know what can go wrong.  Some talk about killer robots (Elon Musk), others warn of the extinction of the human race (Stephen Hawking), and others tell us our jobs will disappear (Bill Gates).  Those gentlemen mentioned, plus many others, are people with the knowledge and the resources to do something very constructive.  If I had the opportunity to talk to them, I would begin with two serious recommendations.

1) Guys, I have nothing but respect for all you have done and are doing.  Each of you is a “genius” in his own right.  The world is a better place because you are part of it.  But you have to stop telling us that we are going to be killed, our race is going to be destroyed, our jobs are going to disappear, and other very unpleasant outcomes of the work that you are partially responsible for, and leave it at that.  That is totally irresponsible and a stain on your reputations.  And no, tossing a few million dollars to a group to monitor the transition ahead is lame, at best.

You have a responsibility to all of us.  If you don’t act on that now, you will live to regret it, and so will we.  At the very least, you should call on those others you know in the various fields you work in to at least create a Code of Conduct, a Code of Ethics, new versions for each field of the Hippocratic Oath or whatever you want to call it.  The purpose would not be to stop research.  That is not going to happen.  And it is not to slow research down.  That might happen in some places, but it won’t in others.

Consider what I said earlier in this post, “it is not a question of speed, but a question of what we do with what we have”.  The Hippocratic Oath did not interfere with medical research, but it was and still is taken seriously by physicians, a reminder to do no harm.  It has been modified here and there, but it has served a good purpose.  It is evidence that the people responsible for the research understand their responsibilities to humanity and it requires them to swear allegiance to its principles before being allowed to practice.  No, it won’t stop someone determined to do harm, but taken seriously, it is an important step.  You, of all people, should be at the forefront of the creation of the code or the oath or whatever you choose to call it.  You have told us what can go wrong, show us how to do it right.

2) Then there are the XPRIZEs sponsored by Google and others, and ranging from ocean health to a permanent return to the Moon.  Tens of millions of dollars in prizes are offered to teams all over the world to come up with solutions to many of the world’s leading problems.  So why not a few XPRIZEs for teams to come up with ways to deal with some of the potential problems that come with automation and AI eliminating millions of jobs, for one example?  Do I have to tell you that it is better to do this before the jobs are eliminated, not afterwards?  If so, you are not as smart as I think you are.  But I could be wrong.

Gentlemen, here it is in as brief a form as possible:

  • Get moving on this and move now, not a year from now.
  • Do it right and we all stand to gain.
  • Ignore it and we all stand to lose.
  • So do it now and do it right!

This has been an incredibly difficult series to write.  So many trends, so much potential to benefit the human race, so much potential to damage the human race, trying to summarize it is a nightmare.  And every day, I read something new, another step forward in one or more trends.  Trying to “freeze” it long enough to discuss it intelligently is a constant challenge.

But I will tell you this.  I do not hate any of these trends.  I do not fear any of these trends.  What I hate and fear is that we mess it up and bring on a damaging conflict that must be avoided.  I insist on seeing all of this as a “sunrise”, not a “sunset”, of the human race.  But it isn’t going to happen because you or I or anyone else wants it to, but because we make it happen.

In the future, I will be discussing pieces of the puzzle facing us, not the whole puzzle, and how we can prepare for it in our own lives.  The journey has only begun.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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From Caste to Class to Channel

My last two posts have focused on social class, the death of the American upper class and the collapse of the middle class.  I think the “class” approach to defining society is in decline and will eventually be abandoned. This post and my next one will explain why.

As I have written before, speaking of “social classes” was useful to some extent in the past based on the assumption that most members, if not all, of a “class” shared so much in common that it was reasonable to lump them together.  As I also have noted, this is not the case for more and more people in more and more nations today than ever before.  You just cannot toss everyone in an income range into a “class” and assume anything is true of all or even most of them.  This is especially the case with the “middle class”.

I feel silly stating what should be obvious, but I have met too many intelligent, competent, innovative people of middle income and too many upper income people who demonstrate less of all those qualities to accept any sense of “superiority” of the upper class.  If all you care about is money, fine.  Then I guess the upper class is cool, but five decades of working all over the world has not demonstrated that to me at all.  They are not cool.  They just have more money.

More importantly, the difference in educational level and the ability to do something productive with it between those called upper class and those called middle class these days is minimal, when it exists at all.  For the sake of this post, let me change the terminology.  Instead of talking about “class” based on income level, I choose to think in terms of “channel”.

It may be a channel called education, management, information technology, home economics, finance, sports, or a hundred other titles, depending on how you want to break it down.  Within each channel, we can find many different income levels.  What makes each part of a channel is not what they earn, but what they do.  That unpaid teenage hacker sitting on one side of the room may be every bit as bright or brighter than that high-paid Microsoft engineer sitting on the other side.   That educator from Thailand may be every bit as competent or more so than that educator from Germany, despite earning only a fifth of her income.  What they have in common with each other is the path each has chosen that, when seen together, form a commonality that cannot be expressed in dollars, yen or any other currency, a channel based on what they do, not what they earn.

When income level (call it class, if you  must) is allowed to separate us from each other rather than our self-chosen profession (channel), we all suffer.  But that happens, too much, too often.  If we stop and think about it, we understand it is just an old habit that needs to be broken.

However, keep in mind that if you do not earn a lot of income, this does not mean that moving from a class to a channel makes your life easier.  It is now based on what you do and excelling at what you do can a lot more difficult than getting paid more money than someone else.

My purpose in this post is not to discuss “channels”.  That will come in future posts.  I introduce the term in the hopes that it will help all of us begin to break out of the income/class straitjacket that can keep us from moving forward successfully into a very rapidly changing future.

Instead, my purpose is to briefly discuss two important trends among those that will crush the “social class” system.

Automation and Artificial intelligence

If you are unaware of the rapidly approaching revolution represented by automation, you are behind, way behind.  If you are not one of the 4 million+ people who have already seen it, taking the time to view the YouTube video, Humans Need Not Apply,  is definitely worth it.  It is a well-designed, fast-moving video that provides a lot of information as painlessly as possible.  The “threat” of automation is clearly described.  Tens of millions of jobs could disappear and not only for another one of those old classes, the “working class”, but for everyone, including “professionals” and those seen as “creative”.  Forgive me for all the quotation marks, but I learned a very long time ago that we all need to work, be professional, and be creative if we are to be successful and feel fulfilled by our work.  To say each is the responsibility of one or another “class” based on income is ridiculous.

Automation has been of great value to humans for a very long time.  It has freed us to be more productive, made our lives easier, opened new doors, and expanded our frontiers.  Good grief, it has given us a weekend to use as we like.  At various times, it has caused severe disruption.  It is again disrupting and not in the near future, but now and continuing into the future at an ever-increasing pace.

But this time, automation’s impact will be far greater due to one new factor – AI or artificial intelligence (also called MI or machine intelligence by some).  We were able to adapt to “dumb machines” because nearly all required our presence to be useful.  Now we have “smart machines” that need minimal human support to do massive amounts of highly demanding work on a 24/7 basis, less maintenance. Some can even learn without our help. That is truly disruptive.  That will cost jobs.

There is another perspective that is important in judging the effects of all this on our lives.  We are not going to wake up one morning to find that  AI-enhanced automation has eliminated tens of millions of jobs.  This is not an event, it is a process and it will unfold over time.  Initially, this may help to mitigate some of the problem.

As a simple example, many nations with relatively high labor costs have seen their businesses pack up and move to nations with relatively low labor costs for the simple reason that they cannot compete globally when labor costs are such a large portion of their total costs, but not their global competitors’ total costs.

But let’s say that driverless trucks are first put to use in high-income nations that can afford them, the very nations that have been losing jobs in the search for lower labor costs.  The machines “labor costs” are pretty much the same wherever they are used.  Today, it may be cheaper to make products in a low-labor-cost nation and transport them 8,000 miles or kilometers to higher-cost nations.  But remove labor costs as the primary challenge to a business and they are likely to find that it is now transportation costs that are their biggest headache, requiring them to move their operations to several different locations to best serve their clients and still compete on cost.

In the process, old jobs are lost while new jobs are created.  And those jobs at both ends can easily be lost or gained by lower, middle, and upper income groups.  This should not create some kind of  “class warfare”.  These are people of different incomes, but all of them are found in one professional channel.  They need to work together to deal with challenges, not spend their time shouting insults and blaming each other.

Now, does the above somehow mean that the total of jobs is going to be unaffected, so we have nothing to worry about?  No, of course not.  I cannot predict the future with accuracy any better than anyone else.  I look back at 2005 and wonder how anyone then could have predicted the 2015 of today.

However, I think a general forecast that a lot of jobs are going to be lost is a safe assumption.  We may well be talking about the loss of hundreds of millions of jobs over time, not just tens of millions.  If so, in years to come (but perhaps not as many as we think) billions of people could be impacted negatively, if indirectly, through a substantial drop in family income.

AI-enhanced automation is a huge and inescapable challenge.  It will not be stopped.  Of course, there will be those who insist that AI-enhanced automation must be stopped.  Uh huh.  Forget it.  As the video linked to earlier argues, if AI-enhanced automation can do a job more efficiently, with a higher level of quality, and far less expensively than a human, AI-enhanced automation wins.  Even if it can be successfully banned in one nation, others will adopt it and profit from it, leaving the first nation with the same result it is trying to avoid – unemployment.

This is a global challenge, not national.  There is no “one size fits all” solution that comes to mind.  But to look at it as a “class” problem is a big mistake.  It will be a problem with many variations, depending on what profession you are considering.  That profession (that channel) needs to be the source of solutions.  They have to work together, regardless of income level or nationality.

AI-enhanced automation doesn’t threaten the “class system”.  It stands outside the class system.  It is something very new and different and our discussion of solutions has to reflect that or we end up doing what we are already doing – fighting with each other and everyone losing, one way or another, in the process.

But there is more, much more…

I have only touched on issues today that deserve much more discussion and that day will come.  The subject of Artificial Intelligence is certainly one of them.  This is not a really new topic.  For some years, Elon Musk (among others like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates recently) has raised the issue of what he so charmingly refers to as killer robots!

However, I am not all that concerned about killer robots terminating the human race.  I think there is a much more important, much more profound issue that needs to be confronted, but is rarely mentioned in the public media.

If there is anyone who thinks there is a rule against discussing AI in this respect, than I intend to break that rule.  It will be the subject of my next post.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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The Collapse of the Middle Class

In my last post, I spoke of the dying American upper class.  It is being replaced by a global upper class. As readers discovered, it is not the word “upper” that is no longer useful; it is the word “American”.  The same could be said of national upper classes around the world.  At the end, I asked “Is there evidence of the birth of a global middle class?”

Slowly, painfully, agonizingly, something that looks like a global middle class is beginning to develop. But there is a substantial difference between the global upper class and this “global middle class”.

The problem is understanding that the term “class” is no longer very useful. And “middle income group” provides us with nothing but a numerical range. It tells us nothing about the people included in that range.

Upper class people, by current definition, have the money to meet their peers anywhere, become friends, do business together, and so forth.  Middle class people, again by current definition, do not have that kind of money and typically live without much face-to-face interaction with their peers globally.  That’s a big difference indeed.

I think my fundamental problem with a term like “class” is that it doesn’t really tell us much. In decades past, as I worked in nations all over the world, a word like class was a useful generalization.  You could usually go into a developing nation for example or even a so-called “developed nation” and you could understand why that generalization was being used.  It made sense.  People in the upper and middle classes did share a great deal in common from favorite sports to the food they ate, each according to his or her class.  That kind of generalization is more and more irrelevant for those in the “middle”.

Two Factors

There are many factors that contribute to the collapse of the “middle class” globally. The two that I consider to be the most important, in my experience, have been 1) disposable income and 2) access.  Let’s take a look at the first one.

Disposable Income

Let’s say a poor family in a traditionally poor nation has a monthly income equivalent to $200.  Their daughter gets her high school degree and lands a job at a hotel and brings home another $200, so the family’s monthly income is $400.

You may sit there and thing, “So what? No big deal.  What can you do with that little extra income?”

But when you and your family have spent their lives living on the equivalent of $200, what do you say?  “Wow!  What are we going to do with all this extra money!”  Do they go out and waste it on booze and parties?  A few do, just like everywhere else, but these are people who know how to get by on very little money.  They have a lifetime of experience being thrifty.  Most will save up for the washing machine, the television, or more and more commonly these days, the computer their kids need for school.

Okay, fair enough.  But let’s move it up a little, realistically given what has been happening in many nations over the last couple decades.  Suppose the family monthly income has gone from $2,000 to $4,000?   Now we’re closer to talking “real money” for people in many traditionally wealthy nations (the ones up to their ears in debt and not sure what to do about it).

A recent infographic produced by MoveHub, a global shipping service, helps demonstrate this.  The difference is that they count all income after taxes as “disposable” while I also deduct housing, food, and other basic expenses.  That is not entirely inappropriate though.  Many North Americans and Europeans will be surprised to know that most homes in formerly “poor” nations were built without mortgages, so housing costs are minimal.  Many people in those same nations continue to purchase their food at low-cost markets and directly from farmers as they have for generations.

That is changing, but they are still far from reaching the levels common in the “wealthy” nations.  As I say, they had to be thrifty before and most see no reason to change old habits now.  But I can assure you of one thing.  Twenty years ago, that map would have looked very different.  It would have been far more “red” than it is today.

It makes no difference.  The simple fact is that incomes have risen dramatically in nations as diverse as China and Ghana.  With it, “disposable income” has risen sharply too.

Enough on disposable income, what do I mean by access?


Let me dispose of the first obvious access route that is now open to billions of people – the Internet.  I do not have to tell you how important this has been the people all over the world already. You probably remember when you first went on the Internet.

Recently, I received a report from the Boston Consulting Group on one aspect of the Internet that has had particular impact on the poorest region of the world, sub-Saharan Africa.   If you take two minutes to read the first few paragraphs, you will get my point faster than I can explain it here.  Take a look at Africa Blazes a Trail in Mobile Money,  Based on software, much of it originally developed in Africa, the Net is more than just a way to make or spend money, it is a way to manage money.

But there is another form of access that can be equally important. More than just the Information Revolution, there is the Transportation Revolution and it has nothing to do with speed.

To have any substantial adult memories of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the opening of China to the outside world, you pretty much have to be 50 or older today.  Suddenly (or so it seemed) a third of the planet opened to the rest of us.  Visiting Moscow or Beijing, or a thousand other places in that part of the world,  was no longer a nightmare of bureaucracy and “guided” tours that took you where they wanted you to go, not you.  And that was if you could get in at all.  If you were middle-income, forget it.

If you are 20, 30, or 40 years old today, you probably know that, but you don’t care.  You still need to buy a ticket, probably get a visa, and drag your bags around with you, but the world is open to you as never before in human history.  Access to places is every bit as important as access to information.

Why does this mean the middle class is collapsing?

In my experience when both disposable income and access increase substantially in a nation, the first phase is that, after people have purchased the items they have long wanted, they look for interesting things to do.  They tend to move together.  Unused to having disposable income and access, they don’t want to waste it, so it’s important to know whether something is worth the money before paying it.  The social media, Facebook, Twitter and all the others, play a major role too, especially with young adults.  So if they hear that something is “worth it”, they do it too.  It makes sense.

But once they have done that for awhile, they change their approach without really thinking about it.  They look for what interests them, not someone else, and take a chance.   This new “middle class” begins to slowly crumble.  People go on generalizing about them, but they begin to specialize.  They begin to choose their own direction, sometimes in surprising ways.

Here in Panama, Cesar Melendez is a good example of what can happen.  From the rural area far from Panama City, Carlos got his university degree and a job as a computer programmer (a Panamanian with disposable income).  But he wanted to be back home, so he took a job there and met an expatriate who lived there (a Canadian with access to places) and introduced him to a sport Carlos had never heard of before – rock climbing.  That was the beginning of this young man’s shift from a “safe” job to becoming Panama’s first professional rock climber and entrepreneur, very nicely shown in this video (access to information).

Carlos’ story has been and is being repeated millions of times all over the world.  It is an “old story” to many of us from North America, most of Europe, and the wealthier nations of Asia, but a new and expanding story everywhere today.

Is Carlos middle class?  Are you?  There is a reasonably probability that Carlos, you, and I could all agree that we are middle class.

But what does that really mean?  Nothing.

The upper class just changed its adjective from American, Canadian, French, Japanese, Brazilian, Indonesian, and so on  to “global”.  They now have so much in common with each other, even language, and they have the opportunities to meet and get to know each other well that form the basis for future cooperation that they really are a “class”.

There is nothing wrong with that.  If we had those opportunities, we would almost certainly do the same.  But we do not.  This is not the result of some kind of conspiracy.  We simply do not have the resources that allow us to do what the global upper class does.

So while the various national upper classes are melding into one global upper class, the various national middle classes are breaking up into many different groups with goals very different from each other.   The term, “middle class”, has become a box into which we are all packed.

For the media, the politicians, and the global upper class, this is convenient.  They can talk about us without knowing us.  We are “the commoners” – good people, but not that bright.  We can be discussed ad nauseum, as if we were off to one side, waiting for someone to help us live our lives, too simple-minded to be directly involved in their “debate” as to our futures.

But in reality, the box is empty!  We don’t live in that box.  We are just told we live in that box.  Our mistake is to believe it, accept it, and let it shape our lives.

If you want to use “middle class” as a synonym for “middle income” on some scale you create, fine, but we are not a global class of people, interconnected and working together as is true of the global upper class, but simply people with disposable income, but typically different goals and aspirations.  Perhaps it would be better just to call us The Middle, between the rich and poor, and be done with it.

We of The Middle make this world work.  We supply the money for the upper class and the hope for the poor that there is something more than poverty in their futures.  We build homes, we teach students, we manage businesses, we do a wide variety of things and have a wide variety of skills, but we should not allow ourselves to be trapped in a box or class that treats us as if we were all alike.  We are not defined only by our incomes.

There are many people I have met and known who have incomes far higher than mine, but we are all part of The Middle.  When I talk about the global upper class, I am not talking about income levels alone.  Yes, those people have money, lots of it commonly, and that has allowed them to become so involved with each other that they have lost contact with the rest of us, as I explained in my last post.  Someone with a lot of money does not have to do this, but it is easy to get sucked into it.  We could find ourselves doing exactly the same thing if our income level rose high enough to allow us this gilded isolation.

Attacking people on the basis of their income level is no more useful than attacking them on the basis of their race, gender, nationality, sexual preference, body type or any other single factor.  It is thoughtless and eventually dangerous to their own well-being.  We need to do more thinking and less attacking.  But those who are isolating themselves need to hear clearly that the rest of us are losing patience.  It really is for their own good, as well as ours.

People sometimes ask me for an example of the isolation of the global upper class and the negative results that can come from that.  It is so easy to respond.  For 70 years, the “elites” of Europe have built a house of cards called the European Union and, more recently, a second even more fragile house, the eurozone.  We can watch and see what happens when The Middle decides, enough is enough.  Unfortunately, when emotions run as high as they do in much of Europe now, the result of an angry Middle can be just as damaging as the arrogance on their part of the global upper class.  Watch…and learn.

The ultimate question remains the same.  So what?

In the last post and this one, I have attempted to provide a perspective on the growing global upper class that goes beyond income alone.  In this post, I have introduced the idea that the “middle class” is not a class, but a box or a label that trivializes us to everyone’s detriment.

The answer to “So what?” will become too obvious in the next ten to fifteen years.  There are trends so strong that they will not be stopped, but if they are not understood, accepted, and dealt with intelligently now, we will not have to watch our brothers and sisters in Europe.  We will have more than enough to watch in our own nations, all of them.  The whole “class” system will collapse.  It will be an interesting time.

And that will be our focus in the next post.  Until then, thank you for joining me on this journey.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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The Death of the American Upper Class

The American upper class is rapidly disappearing and in a generation will probably be too small to concern us anyway or have died out. How can this be true? It’s obvious from all the income and wealth figures that we see that the upper class is alive and well in the United States of America.  It is a major source of socio-political controversy.

Call it a play on words if you like, but I think of a “social class” as a specific type of group traditionally found in the United States and elsewhere. Certainly, there is a very large upper income group in the United States as there are in other nations, but they are no longer a class in my mind.

The old American upper class typically lived in the same cities in the United States, spoke the same language, went to the same universities, created businesses in the US, cooperated with each other professionally in the US, and otherwise functioned as a real class. Indeed, they often intermarried. Here is your trivia question for today. When future four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt married Eleanor, what was Eleanor’s maiden name? Trust me, you know it well. Bonus trivia question: since Eleanor’s father was dead at the time of her marriage, who took her place to “give her away” at the wedding? I will leave it to you to find the answers. It will not be difficult, but it will help make my point.

Yesterday’s American upper class is becoming part of a new global upper class. The upper income group in the United States still exists, of course, but they are no longer really an American social class. They have been thoroughly globalized.

Given the collapse of the Soviet Union, the opening of China, the rise of new emerging markets, and other changes, the wealth-creation opportunities available to them greatly increased. However, the same was true for the upper classes in other nations as well. So you could not do it from the US alone, you had to hit the road. And they did!

In five decades of working in economic development, both as an employee and as a consultant, I have personally witnessed the dramatic growth of the new global upper class.  They are citizens of one nation or another, but they live everywhere, travel everywhere, do business everywhere, and profit (or not) everywhere.  They have a shared language now, English, and its impact is undeniable.  These days, seemingly no matter where you go if it’s a major city, there are modern airports, major hotel chains, a variety of upper-end restaurants, big shopping malls, and a whole raft of services and products available that twenty years ago, even ten, were not available.  Many of the nations I worked in barely had anything recognizable as an “upper class”, beyond a tiny number of families.  In most of the world, that is now history.

If you are not familiar with the growth of the global upper class, I could supply plenty of personal experiences, but that takes too much space.  For an idea of how things have gone, I recommend you download the latest annual report from Knight Frank, a large global real estate firm that focuses on “high net worth individuals”.  Reading through the report, even scanning, will give you an idea of the truly “global” nature of this new upper class.  You can download The Wealth Report here.   Their numbers will include all qualifying people who reside in a given city, foreign residents as well as citizens.  The fact that they have identified 11 individuals with wealth ranging from $100 million to a billion, plus another 103 between $30M and $100M, and an estimated 4,700 between a million and $30M (nearly double what it was in 2007) in my current city of residence, Panama City, Panama, comes as no surprise at all.  The link to the complete report is found near the bottom of that page.

So the upper class is now global, so what?

This is not something amenable to statistics, charts and graphs, but it is something I have seen happening in my work all over the world, especially in the last two decades.  The nature of consulting in economic development typically requires working with members of national upper classes, among others.  They are the ones who either make the decisions because they are also the leadership, or whose influence directly impacts their leadership’s decisions.

For the first three decades of my work, I found that the upper classes of nations other than the wealthiest were very isolated and knew it.  Not only were they wealthier, they were much better-educated, much better-informed globally, and much more traveled.  They often sought me out for informal dinners or conversations, if only to have the opportunity to speak with someone who, despite being middle class in his own society, shared enough in common with them to make for good conversation, the kind of conversation they simply could not have with 99% or more of the people surrounding them at home.  For all their money, there was something often a little pathetic in their sense of isolation and, although a few were not the finest people I have met, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for them.  It has been years since that last happened.

I first really noticed this in 1995 when I re-visited Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa where I had lived and worked in prior years.  The city had new hotels, far better than anything there before, and they were packed with businesspeople from all over the world looking for opportunities, something you never saw in the 70’s and 80’s.  In talking to Ghanaian friends, I found they were far better off now and far more likely to have had real experience outside Ghana.  In addition, they were much more comfortable talking to these foreigners who were filling the hotels.  Their sense of connection with the “outside world” had dramatically improved, but they were not yet part of a global upper class.

In the two decades since, that experience has become rare indeed.  Today, upper-income people from every nation are linked together as never before and the pace continues to accelerate, regardless of the North Atlantic and its “crises”.

As money has become available to more and more people everywhere, life has changed.  National upper classes grew in size and in wealth.  The foreign upper classes started arriving in their search for investments and the national upper class did the same in the opposite direction. They found each other.  And wherever they go, they find other people much like themselves with whom they now have more in common than they do with the great majority of the folks back home.  They mix, meet, and do business so continuously that they may have different traditions and customs, but they now understand and can deal with those whose traditions and customs are quite different. They “speak the same language” in more ways than one.

The upside of all this is that they no longer feel isolated, either in their home nations or abroad.

The downside of all this is that they are so thoroughly interconnected that they spend nearly no time with the rest of us.  They are losing contact with the middle class, even the upper-middle class.

For a very long time, I have received newsletters written by people who oversee a lot of money and who are wealthy themselves.  In decades past, they focused on their own nation or those similar to it, the so-called First World.  They talked about their national politics and their own people of all classes, understanding that these people were the source of much, if not all, of their wealth and that the decisions their fellow citizens made would directly impact on them and their wealth in a very real sense.

Today, I read the same kind of newsletter, sometimes from some of the same people, and they run along lines like this, “I had a very interesting visit at the conference in London last week when I spoke with A, B, and C (people of their global class).  I am having a great time here in Jo’burg where I spoke with two members of the National Assembly and the Minister of Economic Development and I will leave on Saturday for a conference on global economics  in Tokyo, stopping for a couple days to visit government officials in Mumbai.”  That sort of thing.

Sometimes they “lighten it up” by mentioning that they spoke to the owner of a restaurant where they had lunch or with their taxi driver on the way to the airport or with a barber who cut their hair, and will share a few comments these gentlemen made as some kind of profound insight into the feelings of the common people.

They will share a half-dozen graphs and charts of economic statistics for a given nation, and nothing from opinion polls on related topics in that nation (they all have polls, even Afghanistan) that are the only “voice” most of the rest of us have that might catch their attention.  They have lost touch with the rest of us. They are a global class now and more than sufficient in number to fully consume each other’s time and attention.

Life is not just economic.  It is, at the very least, social, economic, and political.  Their “analyses” are much too limited and short-sighted.  I can tell you this.  When I was hired to do an economic analysis in any nation, I always included sections on the social and political environment, and then weave them together to get a full picture.  I was expected to do this, by myself as well as by my clients.  It only made sense.   It still does.

You know, to be honest, when I read these flawed analyses from people who are, themselves, part of the global upper class, I can’t help but think three things.  They are too often 1) the people who created, implemented, marketed, or at least encouraged the very policies that brought on the global financial crisis that has yet to conclude and 2) did little or nothing of any substance to warn the rest of us or demand changes in policies from their fellow global upper-class friends when that was still possible, but 3) seem to have benefited from it all.  It wasn’t just the bankers who ran the crazy mortgage schemes who got off with only a reprimand and a brief period of negative publicity before getting back to making money off their own failures.  Most of these analysts got off a lot easier than that. But those who listened to them? Maybe not so much.

So, do I hate the global upper class?  No, not at all.  Their behavior was and is human behavior.  Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  However, professionally, much of it has been distinctly unimpressive, if not downright stupid, but humans are humans.  However, this doesn’t mean I appreciate their inability to see what is happening to them now and, as a result, how that is affecting their high-priced analysis of the world the rest of us live in.  If they screw up again, which is entirely possible, they better move along to other things or they may end up at least ignored or, if what comes is bad enough, hated.  If they are genuine analysts, they will figure this out for themselves.

They cannot participate in it, pontificate on it, and profit from it, without taking their share of responsibility for it.

My next commentary will attempt to answer another related question.  Is there evidence of the birth of a global middle class?


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

Posted in Global analysis, Investing | 3 Comments

Waves of the Future – Ripples of the Past

My post last week on the Third Iraq War, resulting from Stratfor’s report based on anonymous Defense Department sources, was followed by the DOD discussing the initial preparations in a little more detail. It’s a start, but hardly enough. At least the subject is beginning to get more attention. Again, I am not calling for support of, or opposition to, this Third Iraq War.  I only ask that whatever is done, is done well.  We owe that to the men and women of all nationalities and backgrounds who must put their lives on the line.

And the public deserves to be kept informed as well.  We don’t need to know the details, but we do need to know what is being done in our name.  I have no love of these Islamo-fascists at all, but this administration at least has a responsibility to provide some transparency for its efforts. The prior administration did a far better job of that.  How sad.

The Islamic State is not a wave of the future, it is a ripple of the past, the distant past.  They offer nothing constructive to the rest of us or their own people, only pain and misery.  Future Brief is focused on the future, particularly the rest of this decade and the next.  I will be looking carefully at the major global trends that will affect all of us, very likely far earlier than most of us think.

But there are at least two other “ripples of the past” that are causing damage today and threatening more in the very near future that warrant mentioning here as they take our eyes off a future we need to contemplate now.

The first is Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Leader of a nation with a declining population, a variety of foreign and domestic problems, and a struggling economy (thanks to Mr. Putin in great part; he is his own worst enemy), his attempt to create a pale imitation of the last century’s Soviet Union is nothing short of pathetic, another ripple of the past.

Lost in the present, fearful of the future, Putin is doing what we all sometimes do at times like that.  To borrow from the late Marshall McLuhan, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror.”  That is no way to drive a car, but that is a pretty good way to set up a crash.  This approach will not succeed for Putin either, but it will force us to keep an eye on him, just like the Islamic State, when we have far more important things warranting our attention.

The second is much more of a concern.  The European Union.  Past names like “Common Market” and “European Economic Community” made sense to me in general, but “European Union” never made sense to me.  The idea that any one of its 28 members is allowed to veto a foreign or security policy supported by the other 27 is ludicrous and was reason enough to reject “union” as a noun too far.

In its early stages following World War Two, this experiment was often called a “United States of Europe”.  Well, I feel sure if any single US state government had had the power to veto any federal foreign or security policy, the US would not have survived for long.

Worse yet, Europe’s idea of setting up a single currency to be overseen by a European Central Bank “cooperating” with (currently) nineteen national central banks was and remains an open invitation to fiscal and monetary chaos.  In case anyone doubted that at the time, the last half-dozen years serve as a lesson.

I will not go into this in any detail today.  That has been done elsewhere and often.  But there is a basic point that unfortunately needs to be made.  Europe’s leadership seem determined to turn their former wave of the future into a ripple of the past on their own.  As the years come and go since the financial crisis of 2009, Europe seems incapable of coming to grips with reality.

It reminds me of the victim who is offered two ways to die.  He can be slowly strangled or he can be shot in the back of the head.  The former will be very painful, but allows for the possibility that someone might come to his rescue, no matter how unlikely.  The latter is fast and as painless as possible, but eliminates the hope of rescue.  The EU has chosen strangulation and, frankly, I have no idea who they expect to come to their rescue.

But what makes this different than the victim who chooses strangulation is that the EU, including its eurozone, had and still has a third alternative.  Their leadership can sit down and recognize that the EU and euro have been hugely successful in many ways, but obviously terribly damaging in others.  They need to restructure both and fast.  Like the old English saying, “You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water”, European leaders should focus on saving the baby and getting rid of the bath water, but they just cannot do it.  And they cannot do it because the EU is not a “union” and they have no commitment to it that can overcome their commitment to themselves and their immediate political careers.

Yet this melodrama cannot go on forever.  If their leaders can’t do it, the European public will have no choice but to intervene.  The results of that could be very counter-productive.  In that event, it will not be the leadership “elite” who decide or the poor, it will be the European middle class.  They are intelligent and well-educated, but they demand leadership.  The failure of their current elite to provide it is forcing them to look elsewhere.  Therein lies the threat to both the Union and its “zone”.  The elite knows that, but they are still paralyzed.  If that continues, future historians will not look back on them kindly, and neither will we.

The Stratfor report on the plans for a Third Iraq War provided a segue to today’s discussion of Putin’s Russia and the EU/eurozone.  In turn, they provide a segue to the focus of this weblog in the weeks to come.  I will be discussing this old 20th century term, “middle class”.  It remains a useful generalization sometimes, but, more and more often, it is what I call a “glittering generality”, a term that sounds right because it is common and we think we know its definition, but a term which is in the process of quietly being redefined by the very people it pretends to describe.

The shift of “middle class” from useful generalization to glittering generality is not an event, it is a process that is already underway and will continue to unfold over time, but far less time than we might like.  It offers great potential, but that leaves us with a question – potential for what?   There is more than one possible answer to that question now, but there will be a final answer soon enough and it will have a massive impact on every one of us.  That answer, that “wave of the future”, is my focus here at Future Brief.

If you would like to join me on this journey, feel free.  I will be walking it anyhow, but congenial company is always welcome.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion.  I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses.  Rest assured, yours will be kept private.  You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite.  I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.


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Preparing for the Third Iraq War

As I work on a more comprehensive, global forecast for the next ten to fifteen years, I try to avoid spending time on matters of immediate media interest. The war in the Ukraine is an example.  I will make an exception today as the topic is simply too important to ignore – war in Iraq.

When I wrote a guest editorial on the second Iraq War for Barron’s in June of 2004, Talking the Talk – Communication is the real failure in Iraq, my first paragraph pointed the finger at the person responsible for that war.

“Who’s being blamed for failure in Iraq? The list is long. George Bush. Dick Cheney. Donald Rumsfeld. Colin Powell. Paul Bremer. An assortment of generals and diplomats. Europeans. Iraqis. Other Arab leaders. And let’s not forget Saddam Hussein, without whose lunatic regime none of this would have been possible.”

Well, the Islamic State has replaced Saddam Hussein.  Saddam used to love to pretend as if he was the innocent victim of American lies.  Fortunately, in a perverse way, the IS has left no doubt as to its real nature. They have the YouTube videos to prove it and so do we.

Okay, but what “preparations” am I talking about?  For those like myself, who follow events in Iraq on a daily basis, this is no surprise, but it will be for many people.  Making my job much easier, Stratfor provides a brief, but excellent, overview of this coming Third Iraq War.  My comments from hereon will assume you have taken the five minutes necessary to read their summary.  Please do that.  It is worth it.

Okay. Do I need to explain that this could be a genuine catastrophe if they blow it?  I don’t think so.  I can’t say I blame the anonymous source at DOD for “leaking” this info to Stratfor.  They must be beside themselves with anxiety.  After all, if it fails, they will take a hit, and the potential for failure is clear.  The “coalition” they have to work with is totally unlike the two they worked with in earlier wars.  In the past, we never had to worry about our coalition partners fighting with each other, much less killing each other.

I am not going to waste space and my time discussing the political consequences in the US.  Let it suffice to say that if this occurs prior to November of 2016, as is clearly planned, then the coming campaign season will be an interesting one indeed.

Let me be clear.  I have no doubt that, unless there is an internal break-down within the IS, there will be a war.  They want a war, as Graeme Wood explains so well in his Atlantic article, What ISIS Really Wants, and they will get it.   It’s already underway, if on a small scale compared to what we are discussing here.  And there is no question that Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, must be taken away from the Islamic State.  I do not favor war, but I do understand that it is almost a certainty at some point and that we cannot wait for two years.  But if we are going to do it, we have to win it.

My fears are simple.

First, although there hasn’t been a census in more than a decade, Mosul and the nearby cities surrounding it represent roughly 3,000,000 urbanites.  This will be an urban war and there will be plenty of civilian casualties under the best of circumstances. This will not be a pretty war in any way.

Second, and even worse, those lives may be lost in our defeat, not the defeat of IS, if we are not prepared.  I am sure you remember that one major criticism of the G.W. Bush administration was that they had not prepared a sufficiently powerful force to successfully complete what they were contemplating.  But I can barely imagine what a disaster it would have been if Bush had depended on a coalition of the Shi’a, the Kurds, disgruntled Sunnis, and the Iranians without any American “feet on the ground”.  That kind of scheme would never have gotten Senate approval at that time and for very good reason.  But make no mistake about it.  Perhaps the US could claim not to be a belligerent in this war, but it will provide the leadership, try as we may to hide that obvious fact.  None of our “coalition partners” could possibly take that role.  We will hold responsibility.

Third, failure is not an option.  Even a long, drawn-out battle for Mosul that stretches over many months is not an option.  It must succeed or the consequences will be too many and too negative to contemplate right now.  This war cannot “get out of hand”.

One thing that definitely must be dealt with is securing the support of the American people.  Thanks to the IS and its public thuggery, the foundation is in place as is shown by this list drawn from a Gallup report of two weeks ago.

That foundation may be sufficient to support current bombing raids, but its strength is very questionable for something far more dramatic and far more dangerous.

I will leave it at that for now.  There is much more to be said and to be heard on this topic.  And no doubt about it, it will be said and it will be heard. At the very least, we should be prepared.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion.  I write when time and spirit allow. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.  You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite.  I have no space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

Posted in Global analysis, Global politics, US politics | 6 Comments

Jay Ogilvy on “Mind the Gap”

I am republishing the following essay by Jay Ogilvy of Stratfor, with Stratfor’s permission. I will very rarely do this, but I will today because I think it is a very intelligent and thoughtful essay, related to much of my own thinking. By adding it here to my “notebook”, I will be able to refer to it quickly and easily as needed in the future. In addition, I hope you will find it interesting too.

Mind the Gap
By Jay Ogilvy

The Charlie Hebdo attack and its aftermath in the streets and in the press tempt one to dust off Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Despite the criticisms he provoked with that book and his earlier 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, recent events would seem to be proving him prescient.

Or was he?

While I am not about to deny the importance of religion and culture as drivers of geopolitical dynamics, I will argue that, more important than the clashes among the great civilizations, there is a clash within each of the great civilizations. This is the clash between those who have “made it” (in a sense yet to be defined) and those who have been “left behind” — a phrase that is rich with ironic resonance.

Before I make my argument, I warn that the point I’m trying to make is fairly subtle. So, in the interest of clarity, let me lay out what I’m not saying before I make that point. I am not saying that Islam as a whole is somehow retrograde. I am not agreeing with author Sam Harris’ October 2014 remark on “Real Time with Bill Maher” that “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.” Nor am I saying that all religions are somehow equal, or that culture is unimportant. The essays in the book Culture Matters, which Huntington helped edit, argue that different cultures have different comparative advantages when it comes to economic competitiveness. These essays build on the foundation laid down by Max Weber’s 1905 work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is only the “sulfuric odor of race,” as Harvard historian David Landes writes on the first page of the first essay in Culture Matters, that has kept scholars from exploring the under-researched linkages between culture and economic performance.

Making It in the Modern World

The issue of the comparative advantages or disadvantages of different cultures is complicated and getting more so because with modernity and globalization, our lives are getting more complicated. We are all in each other’s faces today in a way that was simply not the case in earlier centuries. Whether through travel or telecommunications or increasingly ubiquitous and inexpensive media, each and every one of us is more aware of the cultural other than in times past. This is obvious. What is not so obvious are the social and psychological consequences of the inevitable comparisons this awareness invites us to make: How are we measuring up, as individuals and as civilizations?

In the modern world, the development of the individual human, which is tied in part to culture, has become more and more important. If you think of a single human life as a kind of footrace — as if the developmental path from infancy to maturity were spanning a certain distance — then progress over the last several millennia has moved out the goal posts of maturity. It simply takes longer to learn the skills it takes to “make it” as an adult. Surely there were skills our Stone Age ancestors had to acquire that we moderns lack, but they did not have to file income taxes or shop for insurance. Postmodern thinkers have critiqued the idea of progress and perhaps we do need a concept that is forgivingly pluralistic. Still, there have been indisputable improvements in many basic measures of human progress. This is borne out by improved demographic statistics such as birth weight, height and longevity, as well as declining poverty and illiteracy. To put it very simply, we humans have come a long way.

But these historic achievements have come at a price. It is not simple for individuals to master this elaborate structure we call modern civilization with its buildings and institutions and culture and history and science and law. A child can’t do it. Babies born into this world are biologically very similar to babies born 10,000 years ago; biological evolution is simply too slow and cannot equip us to manage this structure. And childhood has gotten ever longer. “Neoteny” is the technical term for the prolongation of the period during which an offspring remains dependent on its parent. In some species, such as fish or spiders, newborns can fend for themselves immediately. In other species — ducks, deer, dogs and cats — the young remain dependent on their mothers for a period of weeks. In humans, the period of dependency extends for years. And as the generations and centuries pass, especially recently, that period of dependency keeps getting longer.

As French historian Philippe Aries informed us in Centuries of Childhood, “in medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist.” Prior to modernity, young people were adults in miniature, trying to fit in wherever they could. But then childhood got invented. Child labor laws kept children out of the factories and truancy laws kept them in public schools. For a recent example of the statutory extension of childhood known as neoteny, consider U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement that he intends to make community college available for free to any high school graduate, thus extending studenthood by two years.

The care and feeding and training of your average human cub have become far greater than the single season that bear cubs require. And it seems to be getting ever longer as more 20-somethings and even 30-somethings find it cheaper to live with mom and dad, whether or not they are enrolled in school or college. The curriculum required to flourish as an adult seems to be getting ever longer, the goal posts of meaningful maturity ever further away from the “starting line,” which has not moved. Our biology has not changed at anywhere near the rate of our history. And this growing gap between infancy and modern maturity is true for every civilization, not just Islamic civilization.

The picture gets complicated, though, because the vexed history of the relationships among the world’s great civilizations leaves little doubt about different levels of development along any number of different scales of achievement. Christian democracies have outperformed the economies and cultures of the rest of the world. Is this an accident? Or is there something in the cultural software of the West that renders it better able to serve the needs of its people than does the cultural software called Islam?

Those Left Behind

Clearly there is a feeling among many in the Islamic world that they, as a civilization, have been “left behind” by history. Consider this passage from Snow, the novel by Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk:

“We’re poor and insignificant,” said Fazul, with a strange fury in his voice. “Our wretched lives have no place in human history. One day all of us living now in Kars will be dead and gone. No one will remember us; no one will care what happened to us. We’ll spend the rest of our days arguing about what sort of scarf women should wrap around their heads, and no one will care in the slightest because we’re eaten up by our own petty, idiotic quarrels. When I see so many people around me leading such stupid lives and then vanishing without a trace, an anger runs through me…”

Earlier I mentioned the ironic resonance of this phrase, “left behind.” I think of two other recent uses: first, the education reform legislation in the United States known as the No Child Left Behind Act; the second, the best-selling series of 13 novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in which true believers are taken up by the Rapture while the sinners are “left behind.” In both of these uses, it is clearly a bad thing to be left behind.

This growing divide between those who have made it and those who are being left behind is happening globally, in each of the great civilizations, not just Islam. To quote my fellow Stratfor columnist, Ian Morris, from just last week:

Culture is something we can change in response to circumstances rather than waiting, as other animals must, for our genes to evolve under the pressures of natural selection. As a result, though we are still basically the same animals that we were when we invented agriculture at the end of the ice age, our societies have evolved faster and faster and will continue to do so at an ever-increasing rate in the 21st century.

And because the fundamental dynamics of this divide are rooted in the mismatch between the pace of change of biological evolution on the one hand (very slow) and historical or technological change on the other (ever faster), it is hard to see how this gap can be closed. We don’t want to stop progress, and yet the more progress we make, the further out the goal posts of modern maturity recede and the more significant culture becomes.

There is a link between the “left behind” phenomenon and the rise of the ultra-right in Europe. As the number of unemployed, disaffected, hopeless youth grows, so also does the appeal of extremist rhetoric — to both sides. On the Muslim side, more talk from the Islamic State about slaying the infidels. On the ultra-right, more talk about Islamic extremists. Like a crowded restaurant, the louder the voices get, the louder the voices get.

I use this expression, those who have “made it,” because the gap in question is not simply between the rich and the poor. Accomplished intellectuals such as Pamuk feel it as well. The writer Pankaj Mishra, born in Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1969, is another rising star from the East who writes about the dilemma of Asian intellectuals, the Hobson’s choice they face between recoiling into the embrace of their ancient cultures or adopting Western ways precisely to gain the strength to resist the West. This is their paradox: Either accept the Trojan horse of Western culture to master its “secrets” — technology, organization, bureaucracy and the power that accrues to a nation-state — or accept the role of underpaid extras in a movie, a very partial “universal” history, that stars the West. In my next column, I’ll explore more of Mishra’s insights from several of his books.

Mind the Gap is republished with permission of Stratfor.


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