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Life Outside the Overton Window

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For those of us who live outside the Overton Window, political discourse in this country is nonsense, a running joke for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It’s the sheer boredom of hearing the same stupid ideas repeated over and over that keeps me from paying attention to TV and Cable news. At least with the internet and the newspaper you can skip through the blather quickly looking for a spark of creativity or insight, and pick up any new factual information you might find interesting or useful.

And it isn’t like we have any sign of intelligent life in our corporate sector, either. The best minds of a generation are devoting themselves to figuring out the perfect snack food: addictive empty calories, and who cares if diabetes is rampant. Or dreaming up the next investment bubble. Student loan ABS? You betcha. You can still find insight and inquiry in science and some parts of academia, but by Gog and Magog, that won’t include economics, a land inhabited by Zombie ideas and lies, lorded over by failures standing on the wreckage they’ve created and screaming that it proves they were right all along.

An article in this month’s Scientific American discusses the emergence of creativity in humans. It places the big leap about 100,000 years ago, when two elements converged. First, the size of the brain had increased dramatically, and people began to harness that size. Second, the number of people living in close quarters increased to a sustainable level. The first part comes from studies of creative people showing that when confronted by a problem, they free-associate the issues they see, looking for related ideas and memories. As they settle in on a possible solution, they switch to a more analytic form of thinking. Liane Gabora, a cognitive scientist at the University of British Columbia, speculates that this transition becomes more natural with use and practice, and has done experiments to show how it might work.

The second comes from living in a large enough group that new ideas are more likely. Your own group may not be big enough, but if you run across a group with a new technology, you can learn it easily, and teach it to members of your group and other groups.

But why would you try new ideas? Don’t you suppose that there were plenty of our ancestors saying that the old way of knapping stones was fine for their parents so it’s great for you and your children? They were the people cowering in the corner of the Abri when the lightening flashed, while the daring sat at the edge enjoying the light show. I think one reason is that it’s fun to think up new stuff. It gives you a little thrill to learn something new, to master some new skill, to see a something new in an art gallery or to hear a cool new piece of music. Well, that was fun, but it’s just speculation.

What’s real is that you could listen to the political class forever without hearing anything that would make a difference to the average American. For a real blast of that kind of stupid, take a look at this from some @FixTheDebt guy in The Hill. The Republicans have been arguing the same thing for 30 years: cut taxes and cut government. It never changes. Ever. Evidence of failure, completely new circumstances, nothing changes. From the Scientific American article:

Chimpanzees are highly adept at using a wide range of tools – cracking open nuts with stones, sponging up water from tree hollows with leaves and unearthing nutritious plant roots with digging sticks. But they seem unable to build on this knowledge or to craft ever more advanced technology. “Chimps can show other chimps how to hunt termites,” [archaeologist Christopher] Henshilwood says, “ but they don’t improve on it, they don’t say ‘let’s do it with a different kind of probe’ – they just do the same thing over and over”.

On the other side of the aisle, there is little sign of life. Democrats might or might not see the utter failure of the policies they supported, but they don’t have the stomach to change anything. They don’t lead. They don’t pick up new ideas and try to teach them to people. They don’t listen to the people who got it right, but to a slightly different crowd of rich people who also want government to hammer the middle class and give the proceeds to them. Chicken Chimps.

Meanwhile, in the world outside this tiny window of acceptable discourse, there are new ideas and new ways forward. They don’t get any discussion except in the blog world or among friends or in tiny academic circles, or, of course, in Europe, where even economics is getting a blast of new ideas. See this and this and this and this.

The great value of democracy could be that we can use all of our people to get the spark of creativity going, to try new things and get results that benefit all of us. But that doesn’t happen. The same stupid ideas hang around long after their grotesque failure ruins millions of lives. And the only ones who benefit are the dull and brutal hyper-rich, the Alpha-Chimps.

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I read a lot of books.