A Digital Public Square?

Did we ever have a real public square? I’ve certainly used that phrase as shorthand for the sorts of public policy debates Americans conduct–debates that used to occur on newspaper editorial pages, and later by dueling television personalities. But the phrase itself calls up images of Greeks interacting in the Agora.

A column by Ezra Klein several months ago made me consider the realities of America’s approach to public argument, and our lack of anything that might be considered a replacement of that Greek Agora. As Elon Musk continues to destroy the utility of X (formerly Twitter) I’ve continued to mull over Klein’s observations.

As he began:

For what feels like ages, we’ve been told that Twitter is, or needs to be, the world’s town square. That was Dick Costolo’s line in 2013, when he was Twitter’s chief executive (“We think of it as the global town square”), and Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders, used it, too, in 2018 (“People use Twitter as a digital public square”). Now the line comes from the “chief twit,” Elon Musk (“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square”).

Klein points out that the metaphor is inaccurate in at least three important ways: for one, there is not–and cannot be–  a “global town square.”  Public spaces are rooted in the communities and contexts in which they exist. (As Klein. notes,  “What Twitter is for activists in Zimbabwe is not what it is for gamers in Britain.”)

Second, what makes a town square a public square is that it is governed by a public.  It isn’t just a square in town, and it isn’t the playthings of a “whimsical billionaire.” It lacks a profit motive. As Klein says, “A town square controlled by one man isn’t a town square. It’s a storefront, an art project or possibly a game preserve.”


What matters for a polity isn’t the mere existence of a town square but the condition the townspeople are in when they arrive. Town squares can host debates. They can host craft fairs. They can host brawls. They can host lynchings. Civilization does not depend on a place to gather. It depends on what happens when people gather.

Klein reminds readers of the rosy predictions that accompanied the introduction of our digital communication systems. More democracy, better inter-group relations, broader understandings…I will readily admit to subscribing to rosy predictions that–as Klein reminds us–have utterly failed to materialize.

Instead, the cost of our enhanced connection and information “has been the deterioration of our capacity for attention and reflection. And it is the quality of our attention and reflection that matters most.”

In a recent paper, Benjamin Farrer, a political scientist at Knox College in Illinois, argues that we have mistaken the key resource upon which democracy, and perhaps civilization, depends. That resource is attention. But not your attention or my attention. Our attention. Attention, in this sense, is a collective resource; it is the depth of thought and consideration a society can bring to bear on its most pressing problems. And as with so many collective resources, from fresh air to clean water, it can be polluted or exhausted….

Our collective attention is like a public pasture: It is valuable, it is limited, and it is being depleted. Everyone from advertisers to politicians to newspapers to social media giants wants our attention. The competition is fierce, and it has led to more sensationalism, more outrageous or infuriating content, more algorithmic tricks, more of anything that might give a brand or a platform or a politician an edge, even as it leaves us harried, irritable and distracted.

Twitter and Facebook and a multitude of other digital platforms make it easy to talk–but incredibly hard to listen and reflect.

We do not make our best decisions, as individuals or as a collective, when our minds are most active and fretful. And yet “active and fretful” is about as precise a description as I can imagine of the Twitter mind. And having put us in an active, fretful mental state, Twitter then encourages us to fire off declarative statements on the most divisive possible issues, always with one eye to how quickly they will rack up likes and retweets and thus viral power. It’s insane.

It’s one of the thorniest issues we face: how do we create a viable we from so many diverse I’s…without imposing on the fundamental rights of those diverse  individuals?

Klein’s essay–which I encourage you to read in its entirety–reinforced my belief that our current problems are exacerbated by the information environment we inhabit.

How do we fix that environment?


Ezra Klein Read DeSantis’ Book So We Don’t Have To

As horrifying as I find the prospect of TFG (aka Donald Trump) retaking the Presidency, the idea of Ron DeSantis in the Oval Office makes me even more nauseous.

At a gloomy brunch a couple of days after the 2016 election, a friend opined that the only thing that would save the country was TFG’s obvious incompetence. She was right–so many of the administration’s efforts failed because TFG’s ragtag group of “captains of industry” had absolutely no idea how government operated (or, in many instances, what governments are for.)

Ron DeSantis poses a significantly greater threat. He’s smart. And as Ezra Klein has recently written, he thinks Trump didn’t go far enough toward the dark side.

Klein says it’s a mistake to dismiss campaign books written by politicians. He thinks we  “can learn a lot about people by paying close attention to how they want to be seen.” And he notes that Ron DeSantis’s “The Courage to be Free”–while not a good book– is a revealing one.

As I read through it, I started marking down every time he told a story about using the power of his office to punish or sideline a perceived enemy or obstacle. There is his bill to make it easier to sue tech companies if you feel they’re discriminating against your politics. Here are his laws limiting what teachers can say about gender identity and imposing criminal penalties on medical providers who offer certain types of gender-affirming care. There’s his effort to punish Disney for opposing his anti-L.G.B.T.Q. laws by removing its self-governing status. Here’s his suspension of Andrew Warren, the state attorney for Hillsborough County, because Warren declined to enforce laws criminalizing abortion. There’s the bill to increase criminal penalties against rioters during Black Lives Matter protests.

Then there’s what DeSantis wants to do, but hasn’t yet done. He thinks the federal government has become too “woke” and too liberal, and Congress should “withhold funding to the offending executive branch departments until the abuses are corrected.” He is frustrated that President Donald Trump didn’t do more with an authority known as Schedule F that can reclassify around 50,000 federal employees to make them more like political appointees, enabling the president “to terminate federal employees who frustrate his policies.” He tried to make it easier to sue media outlets for defamation, though that plan got bogged down in the Florida Legislature. Outside the book, he has called for a national “reckoning” on Covid and promised to hold people like Dr. Anthony Fauci “accountable” for the damage he believes they’ve caused.

Klein hones in on the essence of DeSantis’ view of Trump–and his own approach to  governing. DeSantis argues that, despite Trump’s complaints about the “deep state,” he didn’t use the power of the Presidency to destroy what DeSantis regards as the “threatening forces of the left.” (My friend would argue–correctly–that this was due to Trump’s incompetence, rather than an absence of bile.) Whatever the reason, as Klein reports, “DeSantis is trying to show, in vignette after vignette, that he has both the will and the discipline to do what Trump did not.”

DeSantis delights in describing the methodical, relentless effort he put in to bending the state of Florida to his will. He describes winning Florida’s governorship and ordering his transition team to “amass an exhaustive list of all the constitutional, statutory, and customary powers of the governor.” Much of the rest of the book is an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, account of how he used them.

In media coverage of his campaign, DeSantis emerges as a humorless martinet, utterly unable to engage with people in retail politics.  Klein notes that he also can’t  bring himself to

“extend even a modicum of compassion to his opponents. When he describes the George Floyd protests he doesn’t spare even a word condemning or grieving Floyd’s murder. His anti-L.G.B.T.Q. agenda is unleavened by even the barest sympathy for L.G.B.T.Q. kids.”

Despite painting a truly appalling picture of Florida Man, Klein warns readers not to underestimate his chances–a warning that sends chills up and down my spine.

If American voters needed any further confirmation of the Republican Party’s U-Turn from political party to cult, DeSantis might be that U-Turn’s poster boy.

The GOP of my younger days was firmly opposed to what the party characterized as government over-reach. It was so averse to the exercise of federal authority, especially, that the party opposed many programs and regulations that were clearly warranted. Today, however, Republicans like DeSantis are enthusiastic about wielding government power– so long as government is  imposing an agenda benefitting Republican oligarchs and culture warriors, and ensconcing Republican politicians in office.

There’s a reason Neo-Nazis support DeSantis. He’s a fellow fascist.


We’re in Sci-Fi Territory…

Time on the treadmill goes faster when you listen to a podcast, but the other day, I should have listened to music. Instead, I listened to Ezra Klein and his guest discuss AI (Artificial Intelligence).

In case you’ve missed the mountain of reporting, recriminating, pooh-poohing and dark prophesying, let me share the podcast’s introduction.

OpenAI last week released its most powerful language model yet: GPT-4, which vastly outperforms its predecessor GPT-3.5 on a variety of tasks.

GPT-4 can pass the bar exam in the 90th percentile, while the previous model struggled, around the 10th percentile. GPT-4 scored in the 88th percentile on the LSAT, up from GPT-3.5’s 40th percentile. And on the advanced sommelier theory test, GPT-4 performed better than 77 percent of test takers. (GPT-3.5 hovered around 46 percent.) These are stunning results — not just what the model can do but also the rapid pace of progress. And Open AI’s ChatGPT and other chat bots are just one example of what recent A.I. systems can achieve.

Every once in a while, a commenter to this blog will say “I’m glad I’m old.” Given the enormity of change we are likely to see over the next decade, I understand the appeal of the sentiment. You really need to listen to the entire podcast to understand both the potential benefits and the huge dangers, but an observation that really took me aback was the fact that right now AI can do any job that humans can do remotely.

Think about that.

In 2018, researchers reported that nine out of ten manufacturing jobs had been lost to automation since 2000. That same year, Pew asked 1900  experts to predict the impact of emerging technologies on employment; half predicted large-scale replacement of both white- and blue-collar workers by robots and “digital agents,” and scholars at Oxford warned that half of all American jobs were at risk.

It would be easy to dismiss those findings and predictions–after all, where are those self-driving cars we were promised? But those cited warnings were issued before the accelerated development of AI, and before there was AI able to develop further AI generations without human programmers.

Many others who’ve been following the trajectory  of AI progress describe the technology’s uses–and potential misuses–in dramatic terms.

In his op-eds, Tom Friedman usually conveys an “I’m on top of it” attitude (one I find somewhat off-putting), but that sense was absent from his recent essay on AI. 

I had a most remarkable but unsettling experience last week. Craig Mundie, the former chief research and strategy officer for Microsoft, was giving me a demonstration of GPT-4, the most advanced version of the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI and launched in November. Craig was preparing to brief the board of my wife’s museum, Planet Word, of which he is a member, about the effect ChatGPT will have on words, language and innovation.

“You need to understand,” Craig warned me before he started his demo, “this is going to change everything about how we do everything. I think that it represents mankind’s greatest invention to date. It is qualitatively different — and it will be transformational.”

Large language modules like ChatGPT will steadily increase in their capabilities, Craig added, and take us “toward a form of artificial general intelligence,” delivering efficiencies in operations, ideas, discoveries and insights “that have never been attainable before across every domain.”

The rest of the column described the “demo.” It was gobsmacking.

What happens if and when very few humans are required to run the world– when most jobs (not just those requiring manual labor, but jobs we haven’t previously thought of as threatened) disappear?

The economic implications are staggering enough, but a world where paid labor is rare would require a significant paradigm shift for the millions of humans who find purpose and meaning in their work. Somehow, I doubt that they will all turn to art, music or other creative pursuits to fill the void…

I lack the capacity to envision the changes that are barreling down on (unsuspecting, unprepared) us–changes that will require my grandchildren to occupy (and hopefully thrive) in a world I can’t even imagine.

If we’re entering a world previously relegated to science fiction, maybe we need to consider applying and adapting Asimov’s three laws of robotics:  1) A robot (or any AI) may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2) A robot (or any AI) must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3) A robot (or other AI) must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Or maybe it’s already too late…..


What’s The Matter With The GOP?

Remember Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank took a hard look at that state’s politics and political culture and drew some conclusions that engaged the punditry for months.

More recently, the “chattering classes” are focusing on a somewhat similar question: what is the matter with the GOP? (I know, I know–everyone reading this has multiple responses, incorporating varying degrees of hostility.) Ezra Klein recently considered that question more analytically, in an essay in the New York Times titled “Three Reasons Why the GOP Keeps Coming Apart at the Seams.”

As he began,

For decades, the cliché in politics was that “Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.” The Democratic Party was thought to be a loosely connected cluster of fractious interest groups often at war with itself. “I don’t belong to an organized political party,” Will Rogers famously said. “I’m a Democrat.” Republicans were considered the more cohesive political force.

If that was ever true, it’s not now. These days, Democrats fall in line and Republicans fall apart.

Klein considered, and dismissed, several possibilities: after all, small-donor money, social media and nationalized politics also affect Democrats , who have responded very differently.

Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2008, but rather than exiling the Clintons to the political wilderness, he named Hillary secretary of state and then supported her as his successor. In 2020, the party establishment coalesced behind Joe Biden. When Harry Reid retired from the Senate, he was replaced as leader by his deputy, Chuck Schumer. When Bernie Sanders lost in 2016, he became part of Schumer’s Senate leadership team, and when he lost in 2020, he blessed a unity task force with Biden. Nancy Pelosi led House Democrats from 2003 to 2022, and the handoff to Hakeem Jeffries and Katherine Clark was drama free.

So why has the Republican Party repeatedly turned on itself in a way the Democratic Party hasn’t?

Klein offers three possibilities–all of which are clear contributors to the present chaos.

The first is the long-standing and awkward alliance between donors and the party’s ethnonationalist grass roots. You can see the conflict playing out in attitudes toward immigration–businesses need immigrants for a wide variety of reasons, while the Christian Nationalists who dominate the party base want to keep Black, Brown and non-Christian people out. As Klein notes, the party elders who once moderated between those factions have “outsourced” most traditional party functions– fundraising to PACS and messaging to  right-wing media–and can no longer act as mediator.

So that’s one explanation for what happened to the Republican Party: It’s caught between a powerful business wing that drives its agenda and an antagonistic media that speaks for its ethnonationalist base, and it can’t reconcile the two.

The second reason is that the memberships of the parties has changed.

Republicans are increasingly the non-college party. When Mitt Romney got the nomination in 2012, the G.O.P. was basically split between college and non-college whites. That’s gone. The Republicans have just lost a huge chunk of professional, college-educated voters — what you would have thought of as the spine of the Republican Party 40 years ago has just been sloughed off.

Today’s Democratic Party is now the party of the cities and the suburbs. The GOP  has  become more rural and more non-college educated, less invested in social stability and institutions, and much more inclined to rock the boat.

The morphing of the once “Grand Old Party’ into whatever it is today (a comprehensive label escapes me) offers us a third reason for the GOP’s internal chaos:

When I asked Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review, what the modern Republican Party was, he replied, “it’s not the Democratic Party.” His point was that not much unites the various factions of the Republican coalition, save opposition to the Democratic Party.

“The anchor of Democratic Party politics is an orientation toward certain public policy goals,” Sam Rosenfeld, author of “The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era,” told me. “The conservative movement is oriented more around anti-liberalism than positive goals, and so the issues and fights they choose to pursue are more plastic. What that ends up doing is it gives them permission to open their movement to extremist influences and makes it very difficult to police boundaries.”

Klein points out that opposition to communism once kept Republicans committed to a positive vision of the role of government.

There is an irresolvable contradiction between being a party organized around opposition to government and Democrats and being a party that has to run the government in cooperation with Democrats.

Bottom line: Today’s Republican Party is a tribe of people who are against–against Democrats, against “woke-ness” and “elitism,” against diversity, against change, against government.

No wonder it can’t govern.



As House Republicans noisily demonstrate their utter lack of interest in governing, other parts of the federal system continue to operate. The Fed, for example, continues to battle inflation.

In a lengthy October essay in the New York Times, Ezra Klein provided an overview of the causes of inflation and the choices policymakers face when trying to control it.

Inflation often begins as a mismatch of supply and demand. But if people get accustomed to prices rising, then inflation becomes about expectations. And so the task of ending it grows fuzzier: You need to use policy not just to manage the economy but also to alter psychology. The arid language of economics obscures the brutality this demands. You need to hit the economy hard enough to cow everyone who makes decisions within it.

Because that’s what prices are: decisions. Those decisions, even when mediated by algorithms, are made by people trying to predict the decisions other people will make. When people start to believe that other people are raising prices, they will raise prices. If they think other people are raising prices even faster, they will raise prices even faster than that. “How can you persuade people to expect differently?

One way is by increasing supply., but that usually can’t be done quickly. Another is by cutting demand by raising interest rates–but that makes it harder to borrow money or afford homes, and inevitably throws people out of work.

Klein reminded readers of Paul Volker’s approach  to “stagflation” in the 1970s.

Volcker forced a recession so deep that the entire psychology of the American economy changed. Today he is celebrated for his steel. Powell invokes him as inspiration. In a speech at a Fed conference in Jackson Hole this summer, he mentioned Volcker twice and said, of the intended rate hikes, “we must keep at it until the job is done,” presumably a reference to Volcker’s memoir, “Keeping At It.”

Using interest rate hikes to manage inflation operates like a sledgehammer: it reduces demand, but also cuts supply.

When people lose their jobs, they stop producing the goods and services the economy needs. When mortgage rates spike, developers build fewer houses, despite the fact that high housing costs are often caused by too few houses. When borrowing money becomes expensive, people stop borrowing it and cease to make the investments that create future productivity.

Klein documents the various ways in which interest rate hikes disproportionately harm the poor and the jobless, and says that it would be “nice to have a policy that targeted the rich rather than the poor and did so in a way that didn’t hurt long-term investment.”

He asserts that “such a policy exists.” It’s a progressive consumption tax. 

Here’s how it works. Instead of reporting your income to the I.R.S. and being taxed on that, you report your income minus your savings, and you’re taxed on that. That’s a consumption tax: Your taxable income is what you spend, not what you save. Congress can make it progressive by adding a hefty standard deduction and applying a much higher tax rate to people making much more money, just as we do now.

The economist who proposed this approach wasn’t concerned about  inflation. He thought rich people’s spending wasn’t just wasteful, but harmful. Whether one accepts his definition of “harmful” or not–I’m dubious–Klein points to a truly useful aspect of a progressive consumption tax: it can be dialed up and down to respond to different economic conditions.

In a time of recession, we could drop taxes on new spending, giving the rich and poor alike more reason to spend. In times of inflation, we could raise taxes on new spending, particularly among the wealthy, giving them a concrete reason to cut back immediately and to save and invest more at the same time.

Ideally, adjustments could also be made automatic.

Perhaps for every percentage point increase in unemployment above 5 percent, the tax rate would fall by three points, and for every percentage point increase in inflation above 3 percent, it would rise by four points. Other rules could apply for periods when unemployment and inflation moved together. The tax code would become responsive to the economy by default, rather than only through new acts of Congress.

Given the GOP’s semi-religious objection to taxes, and the current domination of the House by people who can barely spell “economic policy,” let alone leave their preoccupations with culture war issues long enough to consider the operation of the economy, I don’t hold out much hope for passage of a progressive consumption tax in the near future, but it’s an intriguing idea.

We should file it away with other good ideas that await a (hoped-for) return of political sanity and lawmaker interest in actually governing.