Saturday, March 24, 2018

American Adults Just Keep Getting Fatter

By Matt Richtel and Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times, March 23, 2018

image from article

American adults continue to put on the pounds. New data shows that nearly 40 percent of them were obese in 2015 and 2016, a sharp increase from a decade earlier, federal health officials reported Friday.

The prevalence of severe obesity in American adults is also rising, heightening their risks of developing heart disease, diabetes and various cancers. According to the latest data, published Friday in JAMA, 7.7 percent of American adults were severely obese in the same period.

The data — gathered in a large-scale federal survey that is considered the gold standard for health data — measured trends in obesity from 2015 and 2016 back to 2007 and 2008, when 5.7 percent of American adults were severely obese and 33.7 percent were obese. The survey counted people with a body mass index of 30 or more as obese, and those with a B.M.I. of 40 or more as severely obese.

Public health experts said that they were alarmed by the continuing rise in obesity among adults and by the fact that efforts to educate people about the health risks of a poor diet do not seem to be working.

“Most people know that being overweight or obese is unhealthy, and if you eat too much that contributes to being overweight,” said Dr. James Krieger, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington and executive director of Healthy Food America, an advocacy group. “But just telling people there’s a problem doesn’t solve it.”

The latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey comes at a time when the food industry is pushing back against stronger public health measures aimed at combating obesity.

In recent NAFTA negotiations, the Trump administration has proposed rules favored by major food companies that would limit the ability of the United States, Mexico and Canada to require prominent labels on packaged foods warning about the health risks of foods high in sugar and fat.

While the latest survey data doesn’t explain why Americans continue to get heavier, nutritionists and other experts cite lifestyle, genetics, and, most importantly, a poor diet as factors. Fast food sales in the United States rose 22.7 percent from 2012 to 2017, according to Euromonitor, while packaged food sales rose 8.8 percent.

The latest survey data found that American youth are faring somewhat better than adults. Among Americans ages 2 to 19, 18.5 percent were obese in the 2015 and 2016, while 5.6 percent were severely obese. (A severely obese youth is defined as being 120 percent above the 95th percentile of body-mass-index for age and gender.)

The study found that the percentage of youths who are obese and severely obese rose slightly from the 2007-2008 time frame, but not enough to be statistically significant.

Dr. Craig Hales, co-author of the survey research, said the small increase in childhood obesity “could be due to sampling error,” and that the upshot was “no increasing or decreasing trends over the last 10 years.”

“Something different is happening with adults and youth,” he said, adding that he wasn’t able to explain the reasons.

One group of youths that has seen statistically significant weight gain are the youngest children, ages 2 to 5. Obesity rates in this group rose to 13.9 percent in 2015 and 2016 from 10.1 percent in 2007 and 2008.

Scholars who study childhood obesity disagree about whether childhood obesity has plateaued or is increasing.

“We haven’t turned the tide. If anything, rates are continuing to climb upwards.” said Dr. David Ludwig, a nutrition professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The 18.5 percent youth obesity rate in 2015-2016 marked an uptick following earlier years dating back to 2007 and 2008 when it had held steady at about 17 percent.

Dr. William Dietz, director of the Stop Obesity Alliance at George Washington University, said that it is premature to reach any conclusions about the trend in childhood obesity.

“I’m worried about it for sure, but we need two more years of data,” he said. Still, he called the overall report “dismal,” given that the high rates of obesity mean high rates of disease and premature death.

Friday, March 23, 2018

How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’ - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

Gray Matter


Angie Wang image from artice

In 1942, the anthropologist Ashley Montagu published “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race,” an influential book that argued that race is a social concept with no genetic basis. A classic example often cited is the inconsistent definition of “black.” In the United States, historically, a person is “black” if he has any sub-Saharan African ancestry; in Brazil, a person is not “black” if he is known to have any European ancestry. If “black” refers to different people in different contexts, how can there be any genetic basis to it?

Beginning in 1972, genetic findings began to be incorporated into this argument. That year, the geneticist Richard Lewontin published an important study of variation in protein types in blood. He grouped the human populations he analyzed into seven “races” — West Eurasians, Africans, East Asians, South Asians, Native Americans, Oceanians and Australians — and found that around 85 percent of variation in the protein types could be accounted for by variation within populations and “races,” and only 15 percent by variation across them. To the extent that there was variation among humans, he concluded, most of it was because of “differences between individuals.”

In this way, a consensus was established that among human populations there are no differences large enough to support the concept of “biological race.” Instead, it was argued, race is a “social construct,” a way of categorizing people that changes over time and across countries.

It is true that race is a social construct. It is also true, as Dr. Lewontin wrote, that human populations “are remarkably similar to each other” from a genetic point of view.

But over the years this consensus has morphed, seemingly without questioning, into an orthodoxy. The orthodoxy maintains that the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.

The orthodoxy goes further, holding that we should be anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations. The concern is that such research, no matter how well-intentioned, is located on a slippery slope that leads to the kinds of pseudoscientific arguments about biological difference that were used in the past to try to justify the slave trade, the eugenics movement and the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews.

I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.”

Groundbreaking advances in DNA sequencing technology have been made over the last two decades. These advances enable us to measure with exquisite accuracy what fraction of an individual’s genetic ancestry traces back to, say, West Africa 500 years ago — before the mixing in the Americas of the West African and European gene pools that were almost completely isolated for the last 70,000 years. With the help of these tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.

Recent genetic studies have demonstrated differences across populations not just in the genetic determinants of simple traits such as skin color, but also in more complex traits like bodily dimensions and susceptibility to diseases. For example, we now know that genetic factors help explain why northern Europeans are taller on average than southern Europeans, why multiple sclerosis is more common in European-Americans than in African-Americans, and why the reverse is true for end-stage kidney disease.

I am worried that well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science. I am also worried that whatever discoveries are made — and we truly have no idea yet what they will be — will be cited as “scientific proof” that racist prejudices and agendas have been correct all along, and that those well-meaning people will not understand the science well enough to push back against these claims.

This is why it is important, even urgent, that we develop a candid and scientifically up-to-date way of discussing any such differences, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and being caught  unprepared when they are found.

To get a sense of what modern genetic research into average biological differences across populations looks like, consider an example from my own work. Beginning around 2003, I began exploring whether the population mixture that has occurred in the last few hundred years in the Americas could be leveraged to find risk factors for prostate cancer, a disease that occurs 1.7 times more often in self-identified African-Americans than in self-identified European-Americans. This disparity had not been possible to explain based on dietary and environmental differences, suggesting that genetic factors might play a role.

Self-identified African-Americans turn out to derive, on average, about 80 percent of their genetic ancestry from enslaved Africans brought to America between the 16th and 19th centuries. My colleagues and I searched, in 1,597 African-American men with prostate cancer, for locations in the genome where the fraction of genes contributed by West African ancestors was larger than it was elsewhere in the genome. In 2006, we found exactly what we were looking for: a location in the genome with about 2.8 percent more African ancestry than the average.

When we looked in more detail, we found that this region contained at least seven independent risk factors for prostate cancer, all more common in West Africans. Our findings could fully account for the higher rate of prostate cancer in African-Americans than in European-Americans. We could conclude this because African-Americans who happen to have entirely European ancestry in this small section of their genomes had about the same risk for prostate cancer as random Europeans.

Did this research rely on terms like “African-American” and “European-American” that are socially constructed, and did it label segments of the genome as being probably “West African” or  European” in origin? Yes. Did this research identify real risk factors for disease that differ in frequency across those populations, leading to discoveries with the potential to improve health and save lives? Yes.

While most people will agree that finding a genetic explanation for an elevated rate of disease is important, they often draw the line there. Finding genetic influences on a propensity for disease is one thing, they argue, but looking for such influences on behavior and cognition is another.

But whether we like it or not, that line has already been crossed. A recent study led by the economist Daniel Benjamin compiled information on the number of years of education from more than 400,000 people, almost all of whom were of European ancestry. After controlling for differences in socioeconomic background, he and his colleagues identified 74 genetic variations that are over-represented in genes known to be important in neurological development, each of which is incontrovertibly more common in Europeans with more years of education than in Europeans with fewer years of education.

It is not yet clear how these genetic variations operate. A follow-up study of Icelanders led by the geneticist Augustine Kong showed that these genetic variations also nudge people who carry them to delay having children. So these variations may be explaining longer times at school by affecting a behavior that has nothing to do with intelligence.

This study has been joined by others finding genetic predictors of behavior. One of these, led by the geneticist Danielle Posthuma, studied more than 70,000 people and found genetic variations in more than 20 genes that were predictive of performance on intelligence tests.

Is performance on an intelligence test or the number of years of school a person attends shaped by the way a person is brought up? Of course. But does it measure something having to do with some aspect of behavior or cognition? Almost certainly. And since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same  across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.

You will sometimes hear that any biological differences among populations are likely to be small, because humans have diverged too recently from common ancestors for substantial differences to have arisen under the pressure of natural selection. This is not true. The ancestors of East Asians, Europeans, West Africans and Australians were, until recently, almost completely isolated from one another for 40,000 years or longer, which is more than sufficient time for the forces of evolution to work. Indeed, the study led by Dr. Kong showed that in Iceland, there has been measurable genetic selection against the genetic variations that predict more years of education in that population just within the last century.

To understand why it is so dangerous for geneticists and anthropologists to simply repeat the old consensus about human population differences, consider what kinds of voices are filling the void that our silence is creating. Nicholas Wade, a longtime science journalist for The New York Times, rightly notes in his 2014 book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,” that modern research is challenging our thinking about the nature of human population differences. But he goes on to make the unfounded and irresponsible claim that this research is suggesting that genetic factors explain traditional stereotypes.

One of Mr. Wade’s key sources, for example, is the anthropologist Henry Harpending, who has asserted that people of sub-Saharan African ancestry have no propensity to work when they don’t have to because, he claims, they did not go through the type of natural selection for hard work in the last thousands of years that some Eurasians did. There is simply no scientific evidence to support this statement. Indeed, as 139 geneticists (including myself) pointed out in a letter to The New York Times about Mr. Wade’s book, there is no genetic evidence to back up any of the racist stereotypes he promotes.

Another high-profile example is James Watson, the scientist who in 1953 co-discovered the structure of DNA, and who was forced to retire as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in 2007 after he stated in an interview — without any scientific evidence — that research has suggested that genetic factors contribute to lower intelligence in Africans than in Europeans.

At a meeting a few years later, Dr. Watson said to me and my fellow geneticist Beth Shapiro something to the effect of “When are you guys going to figure out why it is that you Jews are so much smarter than everyone else?” He asserted that Jews were high achievers because of genetic advantages conferred by thousands of years of natural selection to be scholars, and that East Asian students tended to be conformist because of selection for conformity in ancient Chinese society. (Contacted recently, Dr. Watson denied having made these statements, maintaining that they do not represent his views; Dr. Shapiro said that her recollection matched mine.)

What makes Dr. Watson’s and Mr. Wade’s statements so insidious is that they start with the accurate observation that many academics are implausibly denying the possibility of average genetic differences among human populations, and then end with a claim — backed by no evidence — that they know what those differences are and that they correspond to racist stereotypes. They use the reluctance of the academic community to openly discuss these fraught issues to provide rhetorical cover for hateful ideas and old racist canards.

This is why knowledgeable scientists must speak out. If we abstain from laying out a rational framework for discussing differences among populations, we risk losing the trust of the public and we actively contribute to the distrust of expertise that is now so prevalent. We leave a vacuum that gets filled by pseudoscience, an outcome that is far worse than anything we could achieve by talking openly.

If scientists can be confident of anything, it is that whatever we currently believe about the genetic nature of differences among populations is most likely wrong. For example, my laboratory discovered in 2016, based on our sequencing of ancient human genomes, that “whites” are not derived from a population that existed from time immemorial, as some people believe. Instead, “whites” represent a mixture of four ancient populations that lived 10,000 years ago and were each as different from one another as Europeans and East Asians are today.

So how should we prepare for the likelihood that in the coming years, genetic studies will show that many traits are influenced by genetic variations, and that these traits will differ on average across human populations? It will be impossible — indeed, anti-scientific, foolish and absurd — to deny those differences.

For me, a natural response to the challenge is to learn from the example of the biological differences that exist between males and females. The differences between the sexes are far more profound than those that exist among human populations, reflecting more than 100 million years of evolution  and adaptation. Males and females differ by huge tracts of genetic material — a Y chromosome that males have and that females don’t, and a second X chromosome that females have and males don’t.

Most everyone accepts that the biological differences between males and females are profound. In addition to anatomical differences, men and women exhibit average differences in size and physical strength. (There are also average differences in temperament and behavior, though there are important unresolved questions about the extent to which these differences are influenced by social expectations and upbringing.)

How do we accommodate the biological differences between men and women? I think the answer is obvious: We should both recognize that genetic differences between males and females exist and we should accord each sex the same freedoms and opportunities regardless of those differences.

It is clear from the inequities that persist between women and men in our society that fulfilling these aspirations in practice is a challenge. Yet conceptually it is straightforward. And if this is the case with men and women, then it is surely the case with whatever differences we may find among human populations, the great majority of which will be far less profound.

An abiding challenge for our civilization is to treat each human being as an individual and to empower all people, regardless of what hand they are dealt from the deck of life. Compared with the enormous differences that exist among individuals, differences among populations are on average many times smaller, so it should be only a modest challenge to accommodate a reality in which the average genetic contributions to human traits differ.

It is important to face whatever science will reveal without prejudging the outcome and with the confidence that we can be mature enough to handle any findings. Arguing that no substantial differences among human populations are possible will only invite the racist misuse of genetics that we wish to avoid.

David Reich is a professor of genetics at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming
book “Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the
Human Past [see],” from which this article is adapted.

‘Class Matters’ Review: The American Dream as Nightmare - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

The Wall Street Journal

A class warrior’s dilemma: “To have a horror of the bourgeois,” Jules Renard wrote, “is bourgeois.”

‘Class Matters’ Review: The American Dream as Nightmare
As Churchill said that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others,” so one might say that capitalism is the worst form of economic organization except for all the others. Steve Fraser, author of “Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion,” would heartily, adamantly, profoundly disagree. Primitive capitalism, mercantile capitalism, extractive capitalism, industrial capitalism, Keynesian capitalism, corporate capitalism, global capitalism, Mr. Fraser has yet to come upon a capitalism he doesn’t despise, or to discover a sin, from disruption of the ecological balance in nature to the destruction of Native American culture to tooth decay, that cannot be lain at its door. “Capitalism: A Disaster for All Seasons,” the title of an article he wrote for the Nation in 2013, nicely encapsulates his view of the matter.
Steve Fraser is a radical to the manner—if not quite the manor—born. He grew up in a middle-class family on Long Island in a plush suburb he doesn’t name. His parents, he reports in one of the autobiographical segments dotted throughout his book, were formed by the Depression and became left-wing activists. He himself, as a kid of 18, went off to work as an activist during the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, helping to register black voters, an act that required courage and which he recounts, alas, too briefly in his new book.


By Steve Fraser
Yale, 287 pages, $25
Born in 1945, Mr. Fraser was a university student just at the right time for the student rebellion, which he joined and which conferred upon him a ’60s worldview that, I think it fair to say, he has not since essentially abandoned. During his college days he was, he tells us with some pride, arrested for protest activities more than once. He recounts with especial relish how, on one occasion, an apartment he shared with other student activists was raided by the officers of Frank Rizzo, then chief of police and later mayor of Philadelphia and a man prominent in the rogues’ gallery of all right- (that is, left-) thinking people. The apartment was raided for harboring bomb-making materials—planted there, Mr. Fraser claims—ostensibly to blow up the Liberty Bell. But why blow up the Liberty Bell, as some friends said at the time, when it was already cracked?
In “Class Matters,” Mr. Fraser continues his lifelong mission to establish that the world is unfair, and nowhere more so than in permitting those who have acquired power to exert it in their own self-interest. The book sets out to debunk what its author thinks to be some of the enduring myths about American democracy. Mr. Fraser describes the commercial interests that commingled with the desire for liberty felt by early American settlers at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown; the capitalist bias implicit in the composition of the U.S. Constitution; and even the sad truth about the hard life of the American cowboy, who turns out, in Mr. Fraser’s reading, to have been a proletarian in the saddle.
Mr. Fraser has earlier written books on “The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America[JB emphasis] (2016) and “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power” (2015) as well as two books on Wall Street and a book on the labor leader Sidney Hillman. Behind all these works has been their author’s attempt to alert his countrymen to the role big-money capitalism plays in betraying the American dream. The main theme of “Class Matters” is anticipated in Mr. Fraser’s “Limousine Liberal,” in which he writes that “here in the homeland we don’t easily resort to the language of class struggle,” and that Americans “think of class warfare, if they think of it at all, as alien, something they have in Europe or had in Russia—but not here certainly, not in the New World, where classes were providentially banned from the beginning.” 
As a title “Class Matters” is, I believe, a misnomer. Social class is of course a subtle social construct, with implications and ramifications that have kept sociologists busy for more than a century and given Balzac, Thackeray, Henry James, Edith Wharton and other novelists rich literary material for years before that. Yet the intricate calibrations of class—upper-middle, lower-middle and the rest—are not of the least of interest to Mr. Fraser. Class, for him, is a synonym for power, or want of power, and, in his view, there are two classes, and two classes only: those who have power and those who don’t. “Power Matters” would have been a more accurate if less enticing title for his book. But, then, who doesn’t believe that power matters? Steve Fraser thinks his fellow Americans grossly deluded on the subject, and has written his book to straighten us out.
Mr. Fraser notes that many of the original American settlers at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, were, disappointingly, main chancers, out to clear their old-world debts and make a serious financial score in the new world. Much the same, he holds, can be said about some among the authors and signers of the Constitution at Philadelphia: George Washington was a heavy land speculator, members of the Adams family were bondholders, and others had such extensive financial investments that the Constitution’s system of checks and balances also, in Mr. Fraser’s words, “afforded checks by the powerful against the powerless.” The Constitution, he argues, favored “capital’s liberty to do as it desired,” adding: “The new nation . . . was definitely open for business.”
“Class Matters” argues that the intentions of the French creators of the Statue of Liberty were utterly bourgeois. (“To have a horror of the bourgeois,” wrote Jules Renard, “is bourgeois.”) Among Americans the much despised (by Mr. Fraser) robber barons—notably J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Russell Sage, Jay Gould —were reluctant about ponying up for the full cost of the statue. When it finally went up in 1886, Mark Twain thought Lady Liberty looked “too hearty and well-fed.” A century or so later, the musician Lou Reed, mocking as empty words the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on a bronze plaque at its pedestal—“. . . give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .” —called it “the Statue of Bigotry.”
In a reversal of McCarthyism, Steve Fraser finds not Communists but the power of capitalism everywhere, making life hell for those without power. Early on, he states his dark case: “Everyday life in every way bears the stigmata of class. Who lives longest and who dies soonest, who goes to jail and who is free, who is healthy and who sickly, who learns and who lives in ignorance, who gets bailed out and who goes under, who pursues happiness and who goes off to fight and die, who lives with rooms to spare and who six to a room, who breathes clean air and drinks clean water and who is poisoned, whose children thrive and whose barely survive, who looks to the future and who lives moment to moment, who is secure and who in peril, who rules and who obeys? Answers to these and other life-and-death questions depend to a very considerable degree on just which niche in the class hierarchy you inhabit. Reports and research studies periodically remind us of these stark realities.”
Stark they are, but are they also realities? Is the America so deeply divided between the powerful and the powerless as throughout his book Mr. Fraser avers? Where others find progress, he sees subterfuge. The increased number of African-Americans who over the years have attained to high positions in government bureaucracies or won elective office disappoints him because these individuals “identified with, enjoyed innumerable ties to, and shared the ideological outlook with the state-managed capitalism run by the Democratic Party . . .”
Productive in so many ways, America has let Mr. Fraser down by failing to produce a true proletariat, one that would carry on the class struggle that is the true name of his desire. Everywhere the denial of the reality of class, he finds, causes the nation’s oppressed to shy away from such a struggle. What is ultimately needed, he believes, is “dismantling the prevailing hierarchies of power and wealth” and “a major overhaul of the distribution of wealth and power.” He does not describe how this is to come about, but a staunch opposition to the controlling hand of capitalist power would clearly be a beginning.
Reading Mr. Fraser, with his confidence in the need for a class struggle and a radical realignment of the distribution of power, I was reminded of my own days in the middle 1960s, when my politics were closer to his now and I was the director of the anti-poverty program in Little Rock, Ark. There I helped to set up legal aid for the poor, hoping they would use it to sue the city, the state, the federal government—the powers that were, wherever they were. I was later saddened to learn the poor used it, instead, chiefly to sue one another: for divorce, the collection of personal debts, spousal support and other distinctly apolitical matters. As Brecht said “First grub, then ethics,” so the poor of Little Rock felt “First settle personal problems, then political empowerment.” Human nature is generally not the revolutionary’s most reliable friend.
Now in his mid-70s, Mr. Fraser most likely looks back upon his life as one led in service to the ideal of the emancipation of the underclass. All his days he has been true to the vision of his youth, a vision at whose center has been a loathing of injustice and a longing for equality. If his thus far seems a lost cause, he doubtless is self-assured that it has been a noble one. If the utopia that was meant to be America by its early settlers has failed, my guess is that Mr. Fraser would argue this is no reason to eschew the dream of utopianism generally.
And pretty it would be to think so, but for the fact that so many utopias—in modern times notably the Russian and the Chinese and, on a lower level of human slaughter, the Cuban—have failed so disastrously. In the rubble of the tower of Babel, the first of humankind’s utopias, with its architectural plan to reach heaven from earth, the following two-line poem is said to have survived: “Those who in Elysian fields would dwell, / Do but extend the boundaries of hell.”
Mr. Fraser might wish to consider having those lines framed and set on a wall in his living room, there for him to contemplate daily.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Dead End of Identity Politics - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

The Wall Street Journal

To expand the base is almost inevitably to shrink it equally.

The Dead End of Identity Politics
Suppose there are two political parties, the Blues and the Reds, each pursuing a demographic strategy to maximize its vote: “targeting” voters exclusively by race and sex. To make it simple, there are two racial categories, “white” and “minority.” Imagine that no other demographic features are relevant, 100% of the electorate turns out, and everyone votes as the parties want them to: The Blues get all the female and minority votes; the Reds get all the white and all the male votes.
Your imagination runs out right there. All the white men will vote for the Reds, all the minority women for the Blues. But are white women and minority men supposed to vote their sex or their race? Unless we can split individual voters into fragments of themselves, the scenario is impossible. Both parties are pursuing an impossible result.
Yet our actual political parties are pursuing something close to these strategies. Democrats have argued for years that demographic shifts would give them an enduring majority any minute now. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was obsessed with demographics, formulated explicitly as an appeal to “women and minorities.” The Trump campaign ran on a barely masked appeal to white people and men, under the auspices of advisers like Steve Bannon.
When both parties are dedicated to maximizing race and gender gaps, they are stuck in a paradox. To expand their electorate is almost inevitably to shrink it in equal measure. In the long run these strategies can only produce a standoff.
Why not expand the universe of demographic categories? After the Democrats won big in November 2017, a story in the New York Times took that approach: “If the 2016 presidential election reflected a primal roar from disaffected white working class voters that delivered for President Trump and Republicans, Tuesday’s results showed the potential of a rising coalition of women, minorities, and gay and transgender people who are solidly aligning with Democrats.”
Such a coalition is impossible. It would include fractions of many divided persons, such as one-fourth of each working-class, white, gay man. It’s a good thing we have only two viable political parties; otherwise, you’d be called upon to distribute slices of your selfhood as though you were dealing hands of poker.
The goal of both sides, meanwhile, is to pull groups of Americans apart and set them against each other, and to pull each of us apart internally [JB emphasis]. The logical failure of the political parties is driven by their ethical failure.
Mr. Sartwell, an associate professor of philosophy at Dickinson College, is author of “Entanglements: A System of Philosophy” (State University of New York, 2017).

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything Is Just Zucky - Note for a discusion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

David Streitfeld, New York Times, March 21, 2018; original article contains links and additional illustrations.

Image from article, with caption: "facebook, which has created a virtual community, is planning to build a new community, with parks, stores, and 1,500 apartments near its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.

In Menlo Park, Calif., Facebook is building a real community and testing the proposition: Do people love tech companies so much they will live inside them?

MENLO PARK, Calif. — John Tenanes, Facebook’s vice president for real estate, is showing off the company’s plans for expansion. It will have offices for thousands of programmers to extend Facebook’s fearsome reach. But that is not what Mr. Tenanes is excited about.

He leans over a scale model of the 59-acre site, which is named Willow Village. “There will be housing there,” he points. “There will be a retail street along here, with a grocery store and a drugstore. That round building in the corner? Maybe a cultural center.”

In just a few years, Facebook built a virtual community that linked more than two billion people, an achievement with few precedents. Now the social network is building a real community, the kind you can walk around. It is a project with many precedents in American history, quite a few of them cautionary tales about what happens when a powerful corporation takes control of civic life [JB emphasis].

Facebook, Mr. Tenanes says, has a dual mission: “We want to balance our growth with the ommunity’s needs.”c

Willow Village will be wedged between the Menlo Park neighborhood of Belle Haven and the city of East Palo Alto, both heavily Hispanic communities that are among Silicon Valley’s poorest. Facebook is planning 1,500 apartments, and has agreed with Menlo Park to offer 225 of them at below-market rates. The most likely tenants of the full-price units are Facebook employees, who already receive a five-figure bonus if they live near the office.

The community will have eight acres of parks, plazas and bike-pedestrian paths open to the public. Facebook wants to revitalize the railway running alongside the property and will finish next year a pedestrian bridge over the expressway. The bridge will provide access to the trail that rings San Francisco Bay, a boon for birders and bikers.

Mr. Tenanes contemplates the audacity of building a city.

“It’s a good thing, right?” he says.

Depends how it goes. Facebook is testing the proposition: Do people love tech companies so much they will live inside of them? When the project was announced last summer, critics dubbed it Facebookville or, in tribute to company co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Zucktown.

The company has not warmed to these names. “I owe my soul to the company store,” Tennessee Ernie Ford sang. With Facebook in the midst of an escalating crisis about its power to sway voters’ opinions and its casual approach to data privacy, this is precisely the sort of heavy-handed image it needs to avoid.

The social media colossus is not the only Big Tech company in the complicated position of dressing up its expansion as a gift to its neighbors.

A few miles down the 101 highway, another new civic-corporate partnership is underway in the city of Mountain View. Google is promising to place the public “in the very heart of Google’s vibrant community.”

The search company plans a 600,000-square-foot office building with a roof that melts up into soft peaks, kind of like a meringue. It will have stores, cafes, gardens and even a space for theatrical performances, as well as a place for consumers to test-drive new Google technology.

Google will build 5,000 homes on its property under an agreement brokered with Mountain View in December. Call it Alphabet City as a nod to Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent. The company said it was still figuring out its future as a landlord, and declined further comment.

Zucktown and Alphabet City, as well as similar projects being contemplated across Silicon Valley, could at a minimum have consequences for the start-up culture that transformed fruit orchards into the world’s greatest tech hub. Silicon Valley was built by engineers jumping from company to company. That drove the innovation that sped the rise of some firms and hastened the demise of others.

As workers begin to literally live at the office, they will inevitably be more beholden to bosses who also collect the rent. After all, it is much harder to find a place to live in Silicon Valley than a new job. Turnover may slump, and so might the turnover in ideas.

The push into the physical also has implications for the 1.2 million people in Silicon Valley who are teachers, fitness instructors, clerks, baristas — all those who hold jobs that do not come with stock options. As they inch down the clogged streets and bid money they don’t have on miserable houses, they will hear the siren call of Big Tech: We can fix broken communities by building new ones. Trust us.

“Corporations are paying for things that the city or county and state used to pay for,” said Cecilia Taylor of Belle Haven Action, a community advocacy group. “They have a lot of money. A lot of money. More than the city does. And a lot more power.”

On a wall in the Facebook division charged with the company’s growth there is a poster with a classic tech admonition: “Go Big or Go Home.” Facebook is in essence tweaking that to “Go Big at Home.” About 12,000 of its 25,000 employees work in Menlo Park. In a decade, it will have space for 35,000 — slightly more than the city’s current population.

The notion of communities run by and for companies has been a fixture in the United States almost from the beginning. Often these places were exercises in plunder.

In the textile town of Lowell, Mass., in 1846, the mill clock slowed down to lengthen shifts and then sped up at night when the workers were off, according to one contemporary reformer. U.S. Steel built Gary, Ind., but took little responsibility for its employees, many of whom lived in substandard housing in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

There were more benign examples too. Milton Hershey began building a chocolate factory in the middle of Pennsylvania in 1903 and then surrounded it with a community where, he pledged, there would be “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil.” In return for surrendering certain rights — like local elections and privacy — workers in the town of Hershey got medical coverage, a free junior college, parks and a zoo.

Corporate good will, however, had a way of curdling over time. In Wisconsin, the Kohler family established a plumbing-fixtures factory in 1900 and then created a town around it. Kohler built houses for couples and dorms for single men, financed schools, had a pension plan and paid well.  When economic conditions deteriorated during the Depression, however, the employees tried to
strike. Kohler responded by arming its deputies with machine guns. In the ensuing clash, more than 40 strikers were shot and two were killed.

By the 1960s, the era of the company town in America was fading, even as countries like China picked up the notion. Zhengzhou is a remote Chinese city that was once impoverished. It now has 350,000 workers building iPhones.

Hardy Green, author of “The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy,” said that the tech companies had been reviving elements of the company town in the United States for years now.

The free meals, nap pods, concierge services, yoga classes, on-site laundry and haircuts are a perk but also a modern way of slowing down the mill clock so the workers can spend more time working. But in a society where government is increasingly ineffective, company towns are nevertheless likely to be welcomed, or at least tolerated.

“It may be the best option for many, just as a benevolent dictatorship can be
O.K. for as long as the benevolence lasts,” Mr. Green said.

No Free Wi-Fi

Only seven years ago, Silicon Valley had a very different attitude about building housing for workers, much less the community. A gaunt Steve Jobs, in what would turn out to be his last public appearance, made his case before the Cupertino City Council for a new Apple headquarters.

Mr. Jobs told council members how great the new doughnut-shaped headquarters was going to be. It would have a lot of trees, a theater, curved windows. Architecture students would come from all over to study it.

City Council member Kris Wang had a question: How could the 60,000 Cupertino residents benefit from this new campus?

“We’d like to continue to stay here and pay taxes,” Mr. Jobs said. “If we can’t, we’d have to go somewhere like Mountain View.”

Ms. Wang, a former Cupertino mayor, persisted. “Do we get free Wi-Fi or something like that?”

“I’m a simpleton,” Mr. Jobs replied. “I always had this view that we pay taxes and the city should do those things. That’s why we pay taxes. If we can get out of paying taxes I’d be glad to put up a Wi-Fi network.”

Since that June 2011 meeting, the number of hours commuters in Silicon Valley lose every day to congestion has doubled to 66,000. About 300,000 new jobs have been created, pushing the median apartment rental rate up 37 percent and the median cost of a home to $968,000.

Meanwhile, the big companies — not only Apple but Amazon, which has an increasingly large presence in Silicon Valley, as well as Facebook and Google — are much wealthier.

Apple built an office for 14,000 workers and said how they got to work and where they would live was someone else’s problem. That is no longer acceptable from a public relations point of view, and would not be smart for the companies in any case. If Silicon Valley continues choking on its traffic, the companies will find hiring not merely difficult but impossible. Even for a tech programmer, a $2 million house is a hurdle.

So the virtual companies are being forced to grapple with the most intractable physical issues.

“I don’t think Google, for instance, thought they were going to have to get into the transportation business,” said Allison Arieff, editorial director of San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, a research organization. “But they now have a giant swath of the company devoted to getting people around. Housing seems the next step. No one bats an eye if universities build housing for students, grad students and tenured professors.”

‘Money in Every Problem’

When the tech companies played a much smaller role in Silicon Valley 25 years ago, even the working class could afford to live here. So could Stanford University students. Traffic flowed naturally.

However enticing this past might seem, efforts to put the brakes on growth have
had limited success.

Measure M, a 2014 effort to restrict development in Menlo Park’s downtown, was soundly defeated by voters. Patti Fry, a former chairwoman of the Menlo Park City Planning Commission and an architect of the measure, said she is wary of Facebook’s increasing size and power.

“They’re doing more than most companies, but most of what they do serves them,” she said. “I do not expect a company to have as a priority providing community services that a real community needs. They’re in business to be in business.”

Drew Combs is a former journalist who became a member of the Menlo Park Planning Commission and then ran for City Council in 2014. He was loosely associated with Measure M and when it failed, so did his bid. He is now chairman of the planning commission, which reviews the use permits required for large projects. “I don’t think in a lot of cases this is a good-versus-evil battle,” Mr. Combs said.

“This is a negotiation between different stakeholders.”

Mr. Combs has since gotten a new job. He now works at Facebook. He recuses himself when Facebook issues come up before the commission, and also recuses himself from the question of whether Facebook is turning into a one-company town. “Local issues here are passionately and thoroughly debated,” he said. “This hasn’t waned during the six years I’ve been involved and I don’t expect that it will in the future.”

Facebook’s move toward openness and community engagement is recent. Its current campus, which it moved into in 2011, is a ring of buildings with a “street” in the middle that has restaurants, pop-up shops, a book exchange and other amenities, but only employees can go there.

Across the street, the company opened in 2015 an office designed by Frank Gehry. It is basically one enormous room — the largest open-floor plan in the world, Facebook says. On the landscaped roof is a garden, a walking loop and many trees. The neighbors cannot see any of this.

In Zucktown, this notion of firmly separated insiders and outsiders will be deliberately blurred.

“The retail stores will not be managed by Facebook. But we have the mechanism, we are the property owner,” says Mr. Tenanes, the real estate chief, adding that he doesn’t know exactly how it will work in practice. “It is a bit new.”

Menlo Science & Technology Park, a decaying office park that will be torn down for Willow Village, is not exactly a beloved part of the city, and neither are the other sites on which Facebook has been building. They were in an industrial zone. That has helped insulate the company from criticism, which nonetheless simmers beneath the surface in Belle Haven.

The Peery Foundation, a grantmaker based nearby in Palo Alto, made a short video two years ago documenting how the area around Facebook’s headquarters was changing. It interviewed dozens of local residents, including one woman who referred to landlords who had been renting to low-income families and were now selling their properties. “Eventually,” she said, “there’s going to be nobody here but Facebook.”

Facebook, in a comment at the end of the film, acknowledges, “We still have a lot of work to do.” The company has increased its efforts in the community. So has the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability company set up by Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan for philanthropy. At the same time, Facebook has continued to expand.

Ms. Taylor grew up in Belle Haven, left, came back to run for the Menlo Park City Council in 2016, narrowly lost, and last year formed Belle Haven Action. It is an organization on a shoestring; she and two colleagues do not have offices and hold meetings at the local community center.

“Facebook is very smart,” she said. “They have money in every problem. Immigration. Housing. Transportation. Education.” For example, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative gave $3 million to an East Palo Alto legal services group that helps low-income residents with housing and immigration issues. It has given more than $7 million to create a primary school.

And it is helping fund Belle Haven Action. In January, the organization got a $75,000 grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Ms. Taylor acknowledged it is awkward for an advocacy group to be funded by the company it is confronting, but said: “When you don’t have resources, that makes your work so much harder. This is about being a disrupter but also a negotiator.” A recent accomplishment by Belle Haven Action: getting a “no right turn” sign on a busy Facebook parking lot to stop workers from heading deeper into the community in an attempt to avoid congestion. Next it would like the company to install cameras on the streets to monitor traffic and pedestrian safety.

“We need movement because nothing has been done for so long,” said Ms. Taylor. “Now Facebook comes in and they’re willing to give us a few pennies and something for the community. The trains will run. We’ll have better schools, a grocery store — although we’re going to push for a co-op.”

Modeling for Other Cities

Mr. Jobs promised Cupertino nothing — and that’s about all Cupertino got. Apple gave $6 million to an affordable housing fund and pays certain fees to the city,but the gleaming new campus is resolutely closed to the public.

Its critics, Apple says, don’t understand.

“We didn’t make Apple Park for other people,” Apple chief design officer Jonathan Ive said at a recent talk in Washington. “It wasn’t made for you.” Ms. Wang, the former Cupertino council member, has no regrets about not pushing Mr. Jobs harder. “I’m proud of Apple,” she says. “They’ve done a good job. The campus is very impressive.”

Her only wish — and it’s a small one — is that someday Apple will invite her in to actually see it.

If Apple is unapproachable, Facebook and its money are becoming inescapable. In addition to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s grants to local organizations, the social network is getting more involved with local policing.

In 2014, Facebook paid $200,000 to create a new Menlo Park police substation adjoining its campus. It pays the annual rent. It also financed the $173,146 annual salary and benefits of an officer. Last year the company proposed giving the city $11 million to pay for a six-officer unit. That plan evoked some disquiet.

“Instead of being beholden to the public, public servants will be beholden to a private company,” a local activist, J.T. Faraji, said at a City Council meeting. “Our goal is to strengthen the community,” said Juan Salazar, a Facebook public policy manager. “We want a more permeable relationship, where we engage more. The parks, the grocery store, are places to congregate together, to build a sense of

David Kirkpatrick, whose book “The Facebook Effect” is a history of the company’s early years, is ambivalent about the expansion. While he says “Facebook is a company that at least tries to have a conscience,” he also worries about so much enforced togetherness on employees.

“Facebook has the attitude that if you are really a good employee you will live, eat and sleep Facebook,” he said. “That creates insularity, which is a big problem in Silicon Valley already.”

If Silicon Valley is the laboratory for the increasingly intimate relationship between big tech, its workers and its neighbors (who are also frequently its users), seeds are being planted elsewhere as well.

In Toronto, an offshoot of Google won approval last fall to redevelop a 12-acre chunk of the waterfront. Chicago was so eager to land Amazon’s new headquarters that it proposed returning to the company half of all the state income tax its employees paid — money that would enrich the company, one of the world’s most highly valued, at the expense of the community. Chicago is now a finalist. So is Newark, where the state is offering up to $7 billion in tax credits.

As Facebook works to make Willow Village a reality, its ambitions can only grow.

The 1,500 apartments “are a starting point,” said Mr. Tenanes. “I would hope we could do more. We’re solving a problem here.”

Follow David Streitfeld on Twitter: @DavidStreitfeld.