Acting White

Back in the days before “Black Lives Matter” there was a phenomenon called “acting white” that applied to black kids who tried to study and do well in school. Quite a few succeeded in spite of it. It has been replaced by a new theme of “White Supremacy” that attributes certain behavior to “Whiteness.” An example is “Whiteness as a problem.” This is actually a college course.

A class to be taught next semester at the University of Wisconsin Madison called “The Problem of Whiteness” aims to “understand how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced in order to help dismantle white supremacy,” the course description states.

“Whites rarely or never questioned what it is to be white,” Assistant Professor Damon Sajnani, who will teach the course, told The College Fix in a telephone interview last week. “So you go through life taking it for granted without ever questioning or critically interrogating it.”

For Sajnani, one way to solve this is to offer “The Problem of Whiteness,” an analysis of what it means to be white and how to deal with it as a “problem.”

Now, what is the problem of “Whiteness?”

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The Johnstown Flood

Pennsylvania borrowed more money to build infrastructure supporting canals than any other state to take advantage of the trade opportunities of the Erie Canal. Construction started on the South Fork Dam in 1838 with scheduled completion within a year, but by the time it was finished in 1852 the railroads had made it obsolete. The state wrote it off and it eventually provided a fishing lake for Pittsburgh’s elite. When it burst in 1889, causing the Johnstown flood, the total loss in life and property was probably 100 times the initial construction cost. Pennsylvania, having long since declared bankruptcy in 1841, blamed the rich.

Most every year the Congress metaphorically dances on top of the earthen South Fork Dam looming over Johnstown with the water lapping at their feet. Their solution is always the same: Let’s throw some more dirt on top this year. We’ll drain it when we drain the swamp, after we eliminate the air pollution in Johnstown, the price paid for the industrial revolution raising American living standards in the late 1800s.

The primary issue facing America during the post WW II era was whether its consumerist economy could continue to produce rising living standards for all, the cornerstone of political legitimacy. The leader of America’s competitor Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union put the issue crudely six decades ago: “we will bury you” with a savings and investment rate several multiples of yours. America’s intelligence community and economic elite were shocked by the sudden collapse of the Soviet economy – like a dam bursting – less than three decades later.

Khrushchev, like most of America’s development economists, understood the role of saving and investment but not how important the private capital markets were to the allocation of capital to its highest and best use, politically directed credit being the main cause of their collapse. In Johnstown everyone knew that the valves to lower the water level in the lake had been removed during the last amateurish reconstruction, but fixing or removing it was opposed by rich land owners. The debt ceiling has similarly proven an ineffective mechanism to control America’s flood of debt, with the central bank standing ready to buy it all to the benefit of the wealthy. American politicians, feeling unbound by constitutional constraints, are addicted to issuing debt, the birthing person’s milk of politics. The Biden Build Back Better Plan promises to strengthen the dam, but like the amateurish repairs to the South Fork will weaken the dam’s foundation while causing water levels to rise, possibly to a critical level.

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Hiring, Algorithms, and Criteria

A lot of businesses are pretty desperate to fill open positions.  Pay rates are being increased, and hiring bonuses are being offered.  Yet at the same time, the software that frequently intermediates between candidate and company is often structured and configured in a way that does nobody any favors. (except, perhaps, the vendors of such software)

Over-specification of job requirements is a  frequent problem…some hospitals, for example,  have scanned the resumes of nurses for ‘computer programming’ skills when what they really wanted was someone with data entry experience.  Years ago, the WSJ ran an article on overspecification, featuring the quote “Companies are looking for a five-pound butterfly. Not finding them doesn’t mean there is a shortage of butterflies.”  As an example, it mentioned a company that makes automobile bumper parts and was looking for a factory shift supervisor. They eliminated all candidates who didn’t have a BS degree, even though many had relevant experience, and also insisted on experience with the specific manufacturing software that was in use at the plant. It took six months to fill this job (during which time the position was being filled by someone who wouldn’t ultimately be chosen for it.) Another company, Wabtec, which makes components for railcars and buses, insisted on knowledge of a specific version of the computer-aided design system it uses, even though the differences between that version and the earlier version were not all that great.

It’s a basic reality of life that you can’t optimize everything at once. So, if you insist on a perfect fit for certain things, you are probably getting less of some other attributes–and these may be ones that matter more. I’d personally rather have a salesman who has demonstrated (for example) skill at managing the customer politics in a large and complex sale than one who has specific experience with the Snarkolator CRM system. It’s a lot easier to train for the second than for the first.

Similarly, if a newly-hired mechanical engineer doesn’t work out, the cause will probably not be his lack of experience with the latest version of a CAD system. More likely, it will be a lack of good design intuition…or poor interpersonal skills…or an inability to integrate mechanical design with electrical and electronics aspects of the same product…or fit with the cultural style of the organization. Maybe he comes from an environment where he was closely supervised, and the new environment is more open and requires more self-starting…or vice versa. These things are not easily represented in “checklist” form, as is knowledge of a specific software package and version, but they matter a lot.

But…in addition to the overspecification problem…I think it’s a fallacy to believe that an algorithm, at the current state of the art, can reliably look at someone’s resume to decide whether or not  they have a good shot at meeting the needs of the job. (Some programs are even looking at the applicant’s photograph, which opens the door to all kinds of problems.)  It’s hard enough for a sharp HR person (some of them do exist) to understand the needs of the hiring manager well enough to screen resumes appropriately, let alone expecting an algorithm to do so.

Someone I know recently applied for a job for which she seems to be an excellent fit.  The hiring software used by the organization sucked in her resume, formatted it to meet that software’s standards, and displayed the result.  It didn’t really communicate what she wanted communicated…she had published several articles that were very relevant to the potential employer, but whoever wrote the software had apparently never thought about ‘published articles’ as a potential hiring factor, and she had to wrestle with the software for some time to get them included.

Once a resume passes initial screening, there are also some malign trends related to the interview process itself.  In an seemingly-increasing number of cases, companies are requiring candidates to be interviewed by an unreasonable number of people…as many as 8 or 10, apparently.  Still worse, there are companies which will reject a candidate if any of the interviewers disapproves of them.  This is a guaranteed way to enshrine mediocrity and groupthink.

Employers do indeed have a real problem in dealing with the absolute flood of resumes that they get for just about any position–but need to be careful not to throw the babies out with the bathwater.  Hiring decisions are absolutely critical in any organization–‘personnel is policy’–and have huge impacts on productivity, innovation, and growth.

9/11 + 20

Only a few years after 9/11, I visited an old industrial facility that had been restored to operating condition.  One of the machines there is an attrition mill, which consists of two steel disks, rotating at high speed in opposite directions and crushing the substance to be milled between them. It struck me then that America…indeed, western civilization as a whole…is caught in a gigantic attrition mill, with one rotating disk being the Islamic Terrorist enemy and the other disk representing certain tendencies within our own societies…most notably, the focus on group identities, the growing hostility toward free speech, and the sharp decline of civilizational-self confidence.  The combination of the upper and lower disks of the metaphorical Attrition Mill is far more dangerous than either by itself would be.

It is now increasingly clear how much the ‘woke’ American Left has in common, at a deep level, with movements such as the Taliban–the suppression of free expression, the insistence that all aspects of life be subjected to an over-arcing ideological or religious framework, the hostility toward history and historical objects (remember the Bamiyan Buddhas?).

I have seen numerous articles and blog posts from people who are generally Left or “liberal”, who now express concern about the excesses of the Left and who blame these excesses on a reaction to Trump.  This is nonsense.  For anyone who has been paying attention, the increasing irrationality, illiberalism (‘illiberalism’ in the older sense of the word ‘liberal’), and outright hysteria of the American Left has been clear for a long time before Trump ever came on the political scene.

Within days of the collapse of the Towers, the true face of the modern American Left made itself fully visible. “Progressive” demonstrators brought out the stilt-walkers, the Uncle Sam costumes, and the giant puppets of George Bush. They carried signs accusing America of planning “genocide” against the people of Afghanistan.  Professors and journalists preached about the sins of Western civilization, asserting that we had brought it all on ourselves. A well-known writer wrote of her unease when her daughter chose to buy and display an American flag. Some universities and K-12 schools banned the display of American flags in dormitories, claiming that such display was “provocative.”  There were preemptive scoldings of Americans for the ‘Islamophobia’ that we were expected to demonstrate toward Muslim neighbors.

Attitudes such as those outlined above are no longer a niche thing; they have gone pretty much completely mainstream.  And we have a President the bizarreness of whose thought processes are illuminated by his proposal, immediately after 9/11 to send a check for $200 million to Iran with no strings attached.

And, while in 2001 the only serious external threat we needed to be concerned about was Islamic terrorism, today we need as well to be concerned about the pressures from China.  And, here again, there are behavior patterns internal to America that mirror their reactions to the external threat from the terrorists…see for example my 2018 post, So, Really Want to Talk About Foreign Intervention?    Just the other day, I saw a story about an American high school in Colorado which applied for some students to attend a meeting of a United Nations group (the Commission on the Status of Women).  The UN committee that accredits such groups emailed the school and said there was a problem: the school’s website used ‘incorrect’ terminology for Taiwan. The committee suggested modifying it to “Taiwan, Province of China.”  The school gave in to the request.

China has cited ‘improper’ Taiwan terminology to stall applications from at least six other groups, including the World Bicycle Industry Association and a French nature society called the Association of 3 Hedgehogs.  The tentacles of the Chinese regime now extent to all locations in the world and to activities of all kinds.  More here.

I can’t come up with a good visual metaphor for the three-way threat that now threatens  America’s continuance as a free and independent society, but that threat is very real.

There are a few signs of hope. As noted above, some publications that have been aligned with the Establishment Left are now starting to push back somewhat against aggressive ‘wokeism’.  The catastrophe of the Afghan withdrawal has educated some people, especially college-age people, about the fact that America is not the worst nation and the source of all evil in the world; that, indeed, hideous things can be perpetrated by people who are not Americans and also who are not considered White.  The supply-chain chaos of the past year and a half has educated many businesses about the dangers of excessive dependency on China.

And, somewhat remarkably, since 9/11 there have been no large-scale terrorist attacks remotely comparable to that one in scale.  Though how long this situation will persist, given the Taliban’s newly-established full control of Afghanistan, is an open question.

Things are not hopeless, but the hour is late and the situation is very serious.