Breakthrough Journal

Nov 03

Andrew Sullivan’s Leftward Shift on Inequality

As a conservative, Andrew Sullivan’s says his perspective on inequality has typically been on of indifference. But now, he explains, inequality in the United States may have reached, and even surpassed, the point at which it is destabilizing to society. Here is Sullivan’s “Ask Me Anything" clip on how his view on inequality has shifted leftward, practically speaking, in light of the current economic situation.

Nov 01

The Seven Billionth Human

Supposedly, the seven billionth human was born yesterday. It’s the sort of milestone that’s abstract and difficult to be exact about, but somewhat like a birthday, it just feels important. So in honor of this astounding milestone, here’s a collection of pieces explaining what seven billion humans (or more) might actually mean:

The Washington Post ran a thought-provoking collection of stories, raising all kinds of questions about Earth’s growing population, from the abstract, like what would eight billion humans be like, to the very practical, like how do census takers count all of us? You can access all of the stories here.

The Atlantic Cities site told the story with graphs from the UN. The most notable one (below) depicts urban growth between 1950 and 2010. If you were wondering where seven billion people will live, the answer will, in large part, be cities.

Urban Growth 1950-2010.png And finally, the BBC has a calculator that gives you an idea of just how many people seven billion actually is in relation to the arc of human history, and a dizzying sense of how many people have ever walked our humble planet (I was the 79,943,237,493rd (ish) person born in the history of Earth).

Now that we did it, "next stop eight billion!”

Oct 26

Rethinking College Majors, Cont’d

500px-Liberal_Arts_Building,_Weatherford,_TX,_College_IMG_6488.JPG

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Kenneth Anderson suggests another way to restructure college education so that humanities majors have the technical skills they need to be competitive in today’s market:

"My proposal would be that the selective universities need to offer a set of technical minors, aimed at liberal arts, humanities, and social science majors…: There’s something weird about inducing a nearly complete disconnect between the technical students and the humanities students, when they are all pretty smart. But what the humanities and liberal arts students need is a Yale history education — and a state polytechnic education in one or another technical field. It is not the case that there is no value in a mid-tier technical education; we have whole ranges of schools that teach at those ranges — the problem is, those departments are not accessible to students at Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Duke, Rice, etc. We are absolutely not socially well-served by brilliant students who have carefully, rationally, and prudently not studied anything other than history, English, politics and government, international relations, etc., for fear of getting less than an A-. They are brilliant and will probably do well in law or business school — and we would be better off if they had some undergraduate training that told them in a real way about petroleum geology or computer programming languages.”

Photo Credit: Billy Hathorn

Oct 25

Rethinking College Majors

Libri_books2.jpg

I made a joke to my friend the other day that the lesson to take away from articles like this recent Economix blog (“The Rising Value of a Science Degree”) and Noreen Malone’s piece in New York mag is that no one should be allowed to be an English major anymore. It was a joke, so obviously this proposition is preposterous on a whole variety of levels. But apparently the English major gods heard me because yesterday I saw an article in the Cornell Daily Sun (my alma mater) describing a recent info session focused on what to do with an English degree after college.

Unfortunately for many English majors, professors broke the news that there isn’t even a guaranteed path to academia anymore, so their prospects are even more devastatingly grim. But one professor recommended that students double major — as much to gain a competitive edge as to ensure an escape route. The Economix post suggests a double major for exactly the opposite reason — science majors could use a second major to give them a little more interpersonal savvy.

This “opposite sides of the same coin” situation has me thinking: maybe universities should move away from the idea of majors and minors, as they are traditionally conceived. After all, the system only seems to be working well for a relatively small and specific subset of college graduates with highly specialized degrees. Students who go down the liberal arts road often find themselves on the fast rack to a u-turn: a first class degree and nowhere to use it.

One alternative that would speak to both the malaise of the English major and the social limits of the STEM student would be for universities to move toward a course structure that allows, say, 3-5 areas of serious focus — a multi-major, if you will. Instead of trying to achieve some vague ideal of well-roundedness through general education requirements, students would choose 2-3 focus areas in the humanities and 2-3 in STEM. The ratio should be up to the student, allowing her to become a top-notch engineer, if that’s her goal, but also instilling the writing and critical thinking skills that will allow her to communicate effectively or switch careers, if that’s what she ends up wanting to do.

In a society where a more technical skill set has become important even in many of the most left-brained jobs, where more and more people switch careers, and where fewer and fewer have illusions that college is sufficient preparation for the “real world,” perhaps this sort of multi-focus structure would be better suited to developing students who can meet the demands — both present and future — of a complex economy.

Let me just say that I’m the first person to sign up for classes like Literature of the Outlaw, 19th century English Literature, and Creative Writing (yeah, I took all of those), but my job and this current economic situation has really forced me to confront the fact that, as much as I or anyone else might want to, no one can hide from math and science these days. Maybe it’s a little authoritarian of me, but institutions dedicated to higher learning and higher tuition(!), have the ability and the responsibilty to confront students with the realities of the job market they will enter while they are still in school, not after. A new way of structuring college education could be the solution.

Photo Credit: Twice25

Oct 24

Thoughts on the Future of the Creative Class

Journalist_desk.jpgIn 2002, it was easy to imagine that America’s bright future could be realized in the minds of the so-called creative class, a term Richard Florida popularized to denote a class of people who, “add economic value through their creativity.” There was plenty of reason to be optimistic that a new class of working creatives could harness the possibilities of computing technology to drive an increasingly postindustrial American economy.

But then the 2008 financial crisis struck. Since then, the long, torturous unemployment spiral that is its legacy has many, including hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protestors (and now, Occupy Writers!), questioning whether the creative class ever had as much economic firepower as Florida and others expected.

Scott Timberg is one such skeptic of the creative class, arguing that computing technology was supposed to help create more jobs in the swelling ranks of the creative class, but instead it supplanted many jobs and wreaked havoc on the very industries that should be at the forefront of the creative revolution.

Timberg writes:

But for those who deal with ideas, culture and creativity at street level — the working- or middle-classes within the creative class — things are less cheery. Book editors, journalists, video store clerks, musicians, novelists without tenure — they’re among the many groups struggling through the dreary combination of economic slump and Internet reset. The creative class is melting, and the story is largely untold… [E]ducation, talent and experience — criteria that help define Florida’s creative class, making these supposedly valued workers the equivalent of testosterone injections for cities — does not guarantee that a “knowledge worker” can make a real living these days.

Florida responded to Timberg’s contention that the creative class is getting pummeled by the recession, arguing that although the creative class has taken a hit, in general, its workers are better off than those in the working class. And, according to Florida, the prospects for a creative class recovery are better in the near-term as “blue collar jobs are projected to decline by another 1.2 million over the next five or six years, while the creative class is expected to add another 6.8 million new jobs, with employment in arts, design, and media rising by 12 percent, according to projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics covering the period 2008 to 2018.”

But neither Florida nor Timberg adequately address the nuances implied by Timberg’s more provocative allegation — that “the creative class is a lie” because the web has displaced high-level creative class jobs.

On one level, Timberg’s assessment is accurate. Print publishing has suffered the rise of web-based media. There are expertly skilled members of the creative class whose high-wage jobs have been obviated by technologies that make it far more difficult for publications to monetize their content.

On the other hand, Timberg is being a bit myopic. Despite fears of a rogue citizen-blogger takeover, Matt Yglesias writes that paid blogging jobs seem to be on the rise, according to BLS data. That’s not to say that the increase in paid blogging jobs in any way makes up for the mass high-level editorial layoffs Timberg is talking about, but it does suggest that this segment of the creative class is still actively adapting.

Of course, much of that adaptation is contingent on the monetization question, which Florida never really deals with in his response. Technology forces us to confront the challenge of redefining our expectations for the creative class in an economy where it is far easier to be a creative, but far harder to base your livelihood on your creative pursuits. The music industry is another telling example. It’s much easier for a lot of musicians to make a record, build an online platform, and make a little bit of money creating their music. It’s not so easy to make a lot of money, even at the highest levels of the industry.

Thus, what follows from blaming the web for killing the old ways of being creative, is not the conclusion that the creative class is dead, but that adapting has been and will probably continue to be painful as the web, like other highly disruptive technologies, increasingly spawns other opportunities for creatives to repurpose their skills in the new media environment.

In many ways, the economic viability of the creative class is a question of scale — can it really be the major driver of economic growth or is it a necessary but vulnerable player in a complex global economy? If it’s the latter, what does that mean for those in the creative class who are struggling to find any job let alone a job in their field of expertise? What does it mean for millennials who assumed that creativity would enhance their earning potential?

The answers to these questions may change as different industries adapt and evolve in all kinds of ways. By it’s very definition, the creative class seems engineered to continually reinvent itself as the technological innovations its own members produce have all kinds of unpredictable and unintended consequences.

Photo credit: Beth Rankin

Oct 17

Occupy Wall Street and the New Inequality

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Institute Blog.

By Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

If Occupy Wall Street protesters have struggled to articulate their demands beyond taxing the rich, part of their challenge is the changed nature of the economy. In a new article for The Breakthrough Journal, NYU sociologist Dalton Conley notes that while the 1929 stock market crash reduced inequality by wiping out fortunes, the 2008 crash provoked measures that sustained it. “But greater equality after the crash came at a very high price: the Great Depression. So while the response to the 2008 crisis sustained the top-heavy structure of the American economy, it also averted the free fall that threw tens of millions of Americans into unemployment and breadlines throughout the 1930s.”

Moreover, even as the gap between the “99%” and the richest one percent has grown, “the interests of workers are increasingly yoked to those of their bosses,” Conley notes. “Half of Americans today have direct or indirect investments in the stock market, largely thanks to the shift to defined contribution pension plans and the ease of Internet investing… So if the rest of us want to save our 401ks, we have to save the status quo for the robber barons of Wall Street in the process.”

Couldn’t the problem have been solved by nationalizing the banks and redistributing wealth? Such a strategy “might have distributed the costs and benefits of the bailouts more fairly,” writes Conley, and “higher income taxes on the rich, along with more strongly redistributive social programs might succeed in mitigating some degree of inequality. But there are also powerful socioeconomic forces driving inequality.” Conley points to growing global demand for elite knowledge workers (such as by the financial sector) and the widening skills gap.

How should liberalism evolve to deal with the new inequality? By shifting its focus from absolute to relative poverty. When Americans were poor, liberalism’s priorities were food and shelter. Now most Americans are overweight and own their own homes. At the same time, poor and working-class Americans, living in districts with low-performing schools, are at serious risk of being left behind. Liberalism must thus focus on to new ways to expand opportunity, and Conley lays out several.

We should decouple school funding from local property taxes — and/or allow school choice, so the poor can attend elite schools. “Yes,” writes Conley, “fund private school attendance with vouchers, but require participating schools to enroll students from across the income spectrum, thereby increasing opportunity for education and facilitating entrance into the knowledge class.”

We should “de-skill” credentialing monopolies in health care and education. “For example, health care could be provided more affordably if everyone was willing to see nurse practitioners or medical assistants in drive-through clinics and forsake the latest high-tech tests and procedures. College could be more affordable if we adopted an open courseware model and de-emphasized the need for face-to-face contact with faculty members.”

Finally, we must go beyond the fantasy that America’s problems can be fixed simply through higher taxes on the richest one percent. Liberals should embrace reform that could appeal to both reasonable liberals and reasonable conservatives. Tax all income, including capital gains, the same, but also implement a national, value-added (sales) tax, and restrict government revenue to 25 percent of GDP.

While Tea Partiers and Wall St. Occupiers offer ideological slogans to vexing problems, Conley’s ground-breaking essay points to a set of pragmatic solutions — solutions with the potential to appeal to Americans divided by ideology but united in their view that expanding opportunity is a core national value.

You can see Dalton Conley talk more about his ideas for how we might create a new social contract that expands opportunity, below:

Oct 13

Yelp, the Chain Killer

Yelp photo.pngSome interesting insight into the effects of Yelp on restaurants from Brad Plumer at WonkBlog:

However, looking more broadly, chain restaurants as a whole seem to have declined in market share as Yelp has grown in prominence. “This suggests,” [Michael] Luca writes, “that online consumer reviews substitute for more traditional forms of reputation.” In 2007, about 50 percent of all restaurant spending, some $125 billion per year, went to chain restaurants. Chains have always benefited from uniformity: No matter where you go, you always know what you’ll get at an Applebee’s or a McDonald’s. Independent restaurants, by contrast, are more of a gamble. But as online review sites like Yelp expand, that’s no longer the case.

Oct 12

The Future of Pop Music and Youth Culture

Girl Talk
Concerns that the US economy can no longer innovate seem to be trickling into the cultural realm. According to Grant McCracken at the Harvard Business Review, some music critics are worried that “innovation in popular music is in decline,” and that, “If this is true, a big cultural change is upon us — the end of popular music as the great lab bench for our culture, as the defining innovator of our time.”

But McCracken recognizes the nostalgia that underlies such fears, and puts forth five ways in which youth culture and pop music are actually changing the boundaries of what those cultural concepts mean today:

1. Contemporary musical forms like mashups are not a “barren genre.” They are merely a new grammar, invented by cultural innovators to express a new culture.

2. Originality is not so much in decline as being revalued.

3. Young consumers are interested in music produced by previous generations, but they are using this music for their own purposes.

4. The new forms of music are expressive of new forms of self and group.
5. If music matters less to the way young consumers define themselves it’s because they have found other, more useful media to do the job. Music doesn’t have to be the innovative media it was for Reynolds’ and other generations. That it worked especially well for earlier generations is due to historical chance and happenstance. Music matters to Reynolds for the same reason books matter to Boomer academics: it just happens to be the form that ideas assumed in the world they grew up in.

McCracken’s conclusion echoes Breakthrough Journal writer Dan Krewson, who wrote of punk’s enduring, if unconventional, legacy in “Punk and Possibility”:

In many ways, punk’s legacy is such that it is now a mark of sophistication among artists to draw from a constellation of influences, just as it was once stylish for prog rockers to draw upon classical music.
Consider Top 40 rapper KiD CuDi. Born in 1984, CuDi unapologetically channels Pink Floyd over Grandmaster Flash. He rhymes about outer space instead of the ghetto and samples Lady Gaga rather than James Brown. He combines orchestral strings with turntable scratching. He references Facebook, Carl Jung, and insomnia, embracing big pop hooks that helped his record debut at number four on the Billboard 200. Asked about his wide-ranging sound and influences­­, CuDi said, “I did want to make something that would baffle the critics, as far as putting it in a certain genre; I wanted them to have a hard time doin’ it.”

Photo courtesy of Tom Purves via Wikimedia Commons

Oct 05

Honey and the Long Haul

Check out Hannah’s reflection on writing the book at the Breakthrough Journal.

lareviewofbooks:

MARLENE ZUK

on the beekeeper’s Faustian bargain.

“bee?” © Mark Hanauer http://bit.ly/mSjmaq
Hannah Nordhaus
The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America

HarperCollins, May 2011. 288 pp.

Honeybees are like starlings and chickens and thistles and wheat; they do not belong here in North America. Sure, they have been here, by way of Europe, since 1620, but their origins are African, western Asian, and southeast European — criteria by which many of us also lack native legitimacy. In The Beekeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America, Hannah Nordhaus reminds us that honeybees are not indigenous wildlife that have been gingerly tamed, or whose natural proclivities we tweak and observe. Instead, they are more like miniature cattle, which are charming in small numbers as a backyard hobby, but when used commercially can lead to stench and group exhaustion.

The Beekeeper’s Lament is not only about bees, or the people who make a living off of them, fascinating as both of these subjects are. It’s about the dying of rural America, the way we grow and sell our food, the reason people take risks, and, ultimately, about loving, as Nordhaus puts it,
something that can’t love you back, that is just as happy to hurt you, that lives without concern for its keeper or his profit margins or his pride, and that dies with astonishing indiscretion — that simply does what it was born to do.
It is a poignant and keenly observed narrative of almond orchards and a beekeeper’s Faustian bargain. And the story is particularly Californian.

Read More

(Source: lareviewofbooks)

Sep 27

Visualizing Bars: What WiFi Looks Like

This video takes the notion of signal “bars” to a whole new, totally breathtaking level. Using long-exposure photography and an incredible 4-meter light stick that measures WiFi, these filmmakers, in affiliation with the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, have “painted” a communication network we rely on everyday but can never see — an “immaterial,” as they call it.

You can find out more about the video and the concept of “immaterials” here and here. In the meantime, just watch in awe:

Immaterials: Light painting WiFi from Timo on Vimeo.

h/t: The Atlantic