Monthly Archives: February 2010

Experiencing the 8.8 Earthquake in Chile

Chilequake

This is a blow-by-blow dispatch of my Saturday. In subsequent posts I will offer a more analytical take on everything. Photos are from this incredible set of images on Boston.com of devastation in Chile.

At 1:45 AM on Saturday, February 27th, I slunk into bed. It had been a loud night. My neighbors had hosted a raucous birthday party which called for several renditions of Feliz Cumpleaños and various dance songs. Despite the noise, I actually enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Before turning out the light I read Isabel Allende's latest book, My Invented Country, a memoir about her growing up in Chile and eventually re-settling in California. She discusses the similarities of the two places. I read until 2:20 AM and then turned off the light and fell fast asleep with my windows open and the summer Santiago air breezing over me.

At 3:34 AM I awoke to my entire apartment shaking violently. My bed creaked and I heard a vase of flowers in my kitchen fall over. I did not mentally process or consciously think of anything, not even "earthquake," but I had an instinct to walk over to my desk and grab my laptop. [I'm not what it says that my first thought was to protect my laptop, but there you go.] Propped up on a stand I feared it would fall over the desk and break, and indeed it was going to do so shortly had I not grabbed it. I stood clutching my laptop. A sliding French style door that separates my living room / desk area from bedroom moved and hit me, so I backed up and leaned against the wall for support. The shaking continued for a bit more time and then stopped and everything was silent and dark. The power had gone out in my building so all white noise and power lights: gone. I heard no screams or sounds or anything. Just total black silence.

Quake3
I put my laptop on the floor and got back into bed. The utter silence and stillness made it easy to fall asleep, and I suspect I was snoring away by 4 AM. Not long after, I awoke to shaking. This time it felt even more intense though technically reports show it was *only* a 6.3 size quake. My bed really rocked and seconds later I heard sirens outside. My power was still out. This is when I started getting scared.

After the second major aftershock ended, there was a joyous albeit brief stretch of stillness, and I heard my neighbor say, Gracias por Dios, Gracias por Dios. Then it started again. My bed gently rolled back and forth seemingly without stop, like I was in a boat on an ocean. I convinced myself my mind was playing tricks on me. Seriously. I pulled the sheets over me and tried to go back to sleep. But the sirens were non-stop.

I gave up on sleep and waited for my power to come back on. By 8 AM my power was on but internet down. I watched the local news reports about the earthquake. CNN was broadcasting exclusively Chile quake coverage. I realized this was going to be an international news story and that I needed to communicate my status to friends and family.

At 9 AM I walked out of my building in Providencia with my laptop searching for a free wi-fi signal. There was rubble and broken glass on every street but I did not see any major building damage. In an alleyway behind my street I found a free "dlink" network with a weak but working signal. My inbox showed a dozen "Are you OK?" notes — I would receive about 200 of those emails throughout the course of the day. I fired off some "Yes I'm fine" emails and then posted my first tweet of the day: "Friends, thanks for all your notes. I am safe in Santiago. It was a terrifying night. I am happy to be alive. More updates later."

Throughout the day I used Twitter to post updates. There are few English language people in Chile posting updates, including official journalists. The BBC has always been understaffed in Latin America. The New York Times' coverage was and continues to be astonishingly bad (they're still filing from Rio de Janeiro). LA Times is filing from Bogota. As a result, my tweets got picked up by lots of media outlets who asked if I could comment on the on-the-ground situation. I did interviews with the AP, BBC, and a live video interview with CNN in the afternoon. My main goal in the interviews was to dilute some of the usual media hysteria over natural disasters: most of the country has power, I said, most of the telecom is working, there is no looting, etc.

In the late afternoon, I walked around my neighborhood a bit more. The sky was a gray haze from a supposed chemical fire that had started downtown. Nevertheless, I was amazed at the tranquility of Santiago. Public buses full of people passed by. Cars drove calmly. People chatting on the streets. I ate dinner at my favorite local restaurant and it was full of people. Much of the rubble and glass I had seen earlier had already been picked up. The scene was such a contrast from the images on TV. I know what I saw was a million times better than what the scene is like more north in Santiago, or especially in Concepción and along the coast. Still it's a reminder that it's hard to generalize about a situation in an entire country, let alone in one city.

I went to bed at 9 PM having not slept since 4 AM. I wondered whether my bed would start to shake. It didn't. All was calm. I fell into a dreamless sleep.

I was woken at around 8:25 AM Sunday morning to another vigorous aftershock. According to one count, the 67th aftershock since the first nearly 24 hours earlier.

Quake2

Culture Matters to Entrepreneurship

Culture Matters

All through childhood and adolescence you are a sponge absorbing cultural stimuli. From local billboard advertisements, to school curriculum stylized to your country; from conversations with your parents about the ways of the world to the thousands of local customs that dictate proper behavior in restaurants, queues, airports, homes, and driving on the road.

Culture matters. That’s the title of a compelling set of essays on whether some cultures are better at creating freedom, prosperity, and justice. It is politically incorrect to chalk up massive societal failures in places like Africa to culture — besides, the situation is always more complex than a single factor — but it seems safe to assert that the culture you come up in affects how you think.

In Robin Hanson’s post in praise of international travel, he writes:

our beliefs are severely distorted by our culture and training… We all know that we would have been inclined toward different beliefs had we been raised in different cultures or disciplines. We see consistent differences between folks trained in West vs. East, science vs. humanities, economics vs. sociology, and in different schools of thought of most any discipline.

By the time you’re 18 years-old, I believe a certain vision about how the world works glows in your head. You carry many assumptions. It’s possible to change these assumptions in adulthood — easier now thanks to the knows-no-physical-boundaries internet — but it is still hard, and most people would rather not expend the energy to develop a set of values about the world that are independent from their milieu defaults.

Governments Trying to Promote Entrepreneurship

Now pivot to this: virtually every county’s government is trying to promote entrepreneurship, create a mini-Silicon Valley, “become an IT island,” become a hub for innovation, etc. It makes sense: the data are clear that entrepreneurship is the engine of economic growth.

How should a government do it? As Amar Bhide says in From Poverty to Prosperity, the most important thing is for the basic government functions to work: property rights, provision of roads, water, electricity, etc.

The most common next step is for government to make starting a business as easy as possible, minimize tax and regulatory burdens on business, offer tax incentives, etc. These are all good things and are well within a government’s purview.

Chile has done both these things. By taking care of basic government functions, no small task, it has become a better place to be an entrepreneur than most other developing countries. You need only look at its dysfunctional, corrupt neighbor of Argentina to understand that when a government can’t take care of its own basic functions, nothing else matters. And by offering various tax breaks and incentives and helping VCs get new early-stage funds off the ground, Chile’s government carrots have made many entrepreneurs I know take a careful look.

Chile is 100x better place than Argentina to be an entrepreneur. But it’s still far away from rivaling the U.S. as an environment for entrepreneurs. Because here’s what it lacks more than anything: entrepreneurial culture. And no government program or law can change this overnight.

Lack of Entrepreneurial Culture

Here’s a seemingly trivial example but I think it’s telling: In Chile as in many parts of Europe and Latin America (and maybe elsewhere), kids usually live with their parents until into their late 20’s or until they are married. Think about the attitude that probably accompanies this custom: greater dependence and deference to the central authority figure you’ve had in your life. More significantly, in Chile as in almost everywhere except young America, they have a long history, and with history comes psychological burdens. Being conquered and then re-conquering. Living through a military dictator. This stuff seems to affect everything from a person’s propensity to trust strangers to their willingness to challenge the status quo. It’s harder to invent the future if you’re still debating and processing the past.

In Northern Cyprus government officials told me about the various incentives they were going to roll out to attract entrepreneurs and how they were going to have conferences to encourage young people to think about a career in IT. And I’m sitting there sipping my tea thinking, “How the fuck are you going to get people to want to be entrepreneurs when half your citizens work for the government and get off work at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the other half feel like they deserve more handouts from Turkey?” It’s not an incentive problem; it’s a mindset problem.

I get emails from Koreans who have read the Korean translation of my book and they tell me that they want to start a company but if they do their family will think they are a failure.

This is the story in so many parts of the world. (China, as always, is complicated — they certainly today have a culture of hustling. Beyond that I can’t say.)

Why I’m Bullish on the U.S.

The single best reason to be long on the future of the U.S. is it has a culture of entrepreneurship. It was born this way. Contra Umair Haque — who thinks “it was the American way of life that ate America. And America’s real bankruptcy is a bankruptcy of the soul” — in fact it’s the American way of life and the American soul that are one of the redeeming and enduring attributes of the country’s DNA in this time of uncertainty. The free wheeling spirit, the self-reliance, the fearlessness, the celebration of youth, the permanent fresh start: these things remain, independent of the meltdown of our governance system.

Can You Change Culture?

Culture is really hard to change. It takes generations of time. There are a million levers you could possibly push and it takes way longer than a politician’s term to see any effects. People have pride in their habits.

So what do you do? I think you try everything, and you also try this: import people from countries who have the cultural attitudes you’re looking to cultivate in your country. Use them as implants. I know the Japanese do this with American consultants: they ship in “crazy Americans” to sit in on business meetings and blow up the enormously inefficient customs that still dominate Japanese business. For example, get right to the point instead of flattering the seniority of all the senior people in the room. Integrate the implants with the youth and hope that the power of example will cause more people to think different.

Men Are From Mars…

From Jeffrey Goldberg's Q&A advice column in the Atlantic:

Sometimes when we’re driving somewhere and silent for a while, my husband will turn to me and ask, “What are you thinking about?” What should I say?
P. D., Madison, Wis.

Dear P. D.,

Good question. Here are a few possible responses:

“I was just thinking about how great you look in sweatpants.”

“I was just wondering whether it would be possible to have sex in the car right now.”

“I was just wondering whether it would be possible to have sex while watching a football game on television.”

“I was just thinking that I’d love to see your baseball-card collection from when you were 10.”

“I was just thinking that it is totally unfair of me to expect you to be interested in my emotions.”

“I was just thinking that we should probably hire a Swedish au pair.”

On Describing a Human Being

I enjoy tracking unusually evocative ways to describe human beings. In every long profile piece the journalist sets aside a few paragraphs to capture the person’s physical essence and personality. To do this well requires finding a couple revealing nuggets / examples that speak to larger ideas.

I usually throw winning phrases onto my commonplace wiki, which is my repository of favorite words and sentences I read. Or sometimes I tag it under “writing” in delicious.

Mark Bowden wrote an 11,000 word profile of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, last year in Vanity Fair. At one point in the piece Bowden takes three paragraphs to try to size up his subject’s physical, emotional, and intellectual dimensions. Bowden being Bowden, and Vanity Fair being Vanity Fair, I read it closely:

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. is fair-skinned with small, deep-set light-brown eyes. He has a high forehead with a steepening widow’s peak, his crown topped with a buoyant crop of wavy hair, now turning to gray. He is a slight man who keeps himself fit, working out early in the morning most days of the week. He has a wide mouth that curls up at the edges, and when he grins he is slightly buck-toothed, which adds to an impression, unfortunate for a man in his position, of puerility. He is a lifelong New Yorker, but there is no trace whatsoever of region or ethnicity in his speech. When he chooses to be, Arthur is a fluent, eager, even urgent talker, someone who listens impatiently and who impulsively interrupts, often with a stab at humor. He has delicate hands with long fingers, which he uses freely and expressively in conversation. He is long-winded and, in keeping with a tendency toward affectation, is fussily articulate, like a bright freshman eager to impress, speaking in complex, carefully enunciated sentences sprinkled with expressions ordinarily found only on the page, such as “that is” and “i.e.” and “in large measure,” or archaisms like “to a fare-thee-well.” He exaggerates. He works hard, endearingly, to put others at ease, even with those who in his presence are not even slightly intimidated or uncomfortable.

His witticisms are hit-and-miss, and can be awkward and inadvertently revealing. “Some character traits are too deep in the mold to alter,” says one longtime associate. Arthur has the clever adolescent’s habit of hiding behind a barb, a stinging comment hastily disavowed as a joke. Some find him genuinely funny. Others, particularly those outside his immediate circle, read arrogance—the witty king, after all, knows that his audience feels compelled to laugh. His humor can also be clubby. He will adopt, for instance, a pet expression that becomes an in-joke, which he will then deploy repeatedly. One of these is “W.S.L.,” which stands for “We Suck Less,” a self-deprecatory boast, which Arthur will use in discussions of the industry’s woes as a reminder to those in the know that, for all its travails and failings, his newspaper remains, after all, The New York Times.

While clearly smart, Arthur is not especially intellectual. For what it’s worth, he is a Star Trek fan. His mind wanders, particularly when pressed to concentrate on complicated business matters. Diane Baker, a blunt former investment banker who served for a time as the chief financial officer of the New York Times Company, has described him as having the personality of “a twenty-four-year-old geek.” She did not long survive Arthur’s ascension to the chairman’s office. His 30-year marriage has reportedly foundered over a relationship Arthur had with a woman named Helen Ward, from Aspen, Colorado, whom he met on a group excursion to Peru. Since separating from Gail, he has been living alone and has not been involved with Ward or anyone else. Perturbations on the home front are also a family tradition…. Arthur is provincial. Asked once if he had seen a story on the front page of that day’s Post, he looked confused until it was explained that the item had appeared in The Washington Post. He said, “I only read the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post.” He sometimes takes the bus or subway to work, and for many years jogged in Central Park. Recently his knees have started to bother him, so he now prefers exercising on an elliptical trainer. He also takes Pilates classes and can be evangelical about them, telling friends the practice wards off arthritis, which has begun to worry him. But he is not a complete health nut. He still enjoys unwinding with a cigar and a martini. He still goes on motorcycle treks with his cousin Dan Cohen and other friends. He is drawn to feats of personal daring, and is an avid rock climber, a vestige of his enthusiasm for Outward Bound. He has little interest in sports, particularly team sports, and dismissed as silly the effort to lure the Olympic Games to New York City, which included plans for a sports stadium in Manhattan. In a presentation at the Times building, Arthur greeted the scheme’s promoters with cutting sarcasm, even though the paper’s editorial board supported it.

The Myth of Efficiency

James Kwak's excellent post The Myth of Efficiency is rooted in the idea that for most professionals "the length of their workday isn’t set by a clock, but by their sense of when they’ve done enough for the day."

I’ve become very skeptical of the simple argument for efficiency studies….The idea is that time has a monetary value (say, the per-hour employment costs of each employee), and if you save time, you save money. One example that LeBlanc mentions is moving printers. It seems to make sense on its face. You spend time walking to and from the printer. Therefore, printers should be located to minimize the total time people spend in transit, which could mean moving the printer closer to the heavy users of printing. Then those people can spend more time at their desks being productive.

But there is a serious fallacy in this argument: the assumption that the constraint on productivity is time at your desk. Let’s leave aside the issue of whether you are productive walking to the printer. The more serious issue is that you aren’t equally productive the whole time you sit at your desk. What if you spend your extra two minutes (in reduced time picking up printouts) at I Can Has Cheezburger?

In other words, doing X may save you time, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll then fill that time with productive work. This seems simple but many efficiency-obsessed people forget it.

Here are few random, current thoughts on the topic:

1. Each morning I write down the 4-5 things I want to accomplish in the day. I try to make it realistic. The idea is to define "done." Otherwise, I will always feel like there's more work I should do before going to bed. Here's a related HBS post titled An 18 Minute Plan to Managing Your Day.

2. My guess is even talented and productive people can do only a few hours of hard, real focus work per day and a few more hours of medium-focus per day. The rest is time wasting.

3. I use Toggl to track my time. It's excellent. I turn on the virtual stopwatch when I work on certain projects and turn off the moment I do something else, so I get an accurate look at how much time I'm investing in certain projects. It also puts me in a state of mind: when the stopwatch goes on, email goes off, and so does random web browsing. Eventually, perhaps I can be like Jim Collins and carry around a real stopwatch with me. Toli Galanis uses this stopwatch.

4. I get little to no value out of RescueTime.

5. Alain de Botton is one of the best Twitterers out there, and I agree wholeheratedly with this missive: "One of the greater problems of the age: how to concentrate…"

Epic Beard Man: Another Day in Oakland

A few days ago there was a fight on an Oakland bus between a 50 year old black man and a 67 year old white man who was wearing a T-shirt that read "I AM A MOTHERFUCKER." The fight is embedded above and available on YouTube here, where it has been watched more than two million times.

Know Your Meme has an exhaustive analysis of this internet phenomenon including this summary:

The older white man in the video has been identified as Thomas Bruso, AKA Tom Slick, AKA Vietnam Tom; infamous in Oakland for his reputation of belligerence. Prior to the discovery of his identity, Anonymous had already dubbed him Epic Beard Man.

After the black man’s nose is broken, he says “bring an ambulance” which has been misheard as both “bring M&M’s” and “bring Amber Lamps” due to a combination of his dialect and facial injury. Amber Lamps has also come to be used as a pseudonym for the girl sitting next to the black man in the video.

Here is one man's video response to the fight. Here's a post-fight interview with EBM via the always-reliable KRON-4 news in which he at times he is crying and other times is bragging about knocking out the black dude for "twenty two and a half minutes" with a Mohammad Ali strike. (Totally false.) Here is Epic Beard Man getting tased by police at an Oakland A's game.

Besides the hilarity of it all — except the ugly racial slurs that have accompanied many of the internet postings — it is a case study in how quickly a internet meme can catch on. Thanks to the indefatigable Steve Dodson for the pointer.

Kant’s Moral Maxim of Universality Applied to Buying Drugs

There were many fascinating comments to my previous post on drugs, and are evidence for why Cal Newport has called readers of this blog "freakishly smart."

Lindsey of Crooked Lines left this comment:

… because [drugs] are illegal, drug creation and the ensuing multi-level drug distribution scheme usually involve violence, intimidation, and corruption in some form or another — especially in urban communities with fewer resources, which are often the main source of many different drugs that the more affluent people use. Many of the drugs at the University of Michigan, where I went to school, for example — especially the ever popular marijuana — made their way there from Detroit, and while the affluent drug users in Ann Arbor are, for the most part, safely insulated from the effects of the trade, the people who live in and around the earlier links of the supply chain (whether or not they are part of the trade itself) are not so privileged…

the reality is that as long as drugs are illegal and thus…must be grown/harvested/created in a way that begets violence and corruption — violence and corruption that are often endured by people who are removed from but no less affected by the people you will ultimately buy from — for me personally outweighs any of the other considerations.

Lindsey is elevating the societal impact of her behavior — the funding of narco-violence — above personal preferences in deciding not to buy drugs on ethical grounds. The tricky part is that there is essentially zero societal impact of a single person buying or not buying a drug.

Economists argue that it's irrational to vote in an election because it's essentially impossible that your vote will affect the outcome. As the old joke goes, if an economist sees another economist at the voting booth, they say, "I won't tell if you won't tell." But what if everyone adopted this mentality, people reply, then your vote would matter! Why yes, but everybody does not think this way.

What are the ethics surrounding decisions that, if universalized, would make a big difference, but which, at the margin, make essentially zero difference?

In Kant's Categorical Imperative he includes this moral maxim of universality: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction." In other words, if your action were to be the action everyone was taking, would you still do it? The implications of Kant to non-voters would be, "If everyone chose not to vote, the democracy wouldn't function. So vote!"

That seems like a fine aspirational ethic — a principled stance applied to things like democracy and drug buying — but the more realistic approach would to weigh the probability of universal adoption of the action. If it's insanely low — like in the case of non-voting or drug-buying — then ignore it. If, on the other hand, there were only five total drug buyers in the world, and if you stopped buying drugs that would drastically shrink demand and perhaps result in less drug violence, you would be right to incorporate societal implications more seriously in your decision as they much greater.

Bottom Line: In the case of buying drugs, since the personal impact (positive and negative) so vastly outweighs the societal impact, I believe solely a personal consideration of costs and benefits is an ethical way to think about it. But ethics is simply a basis for making individual decisions, and to each his own.

(thanks to Dave Jilk and Nathan Labenz for brainstorming this post)

Why Have I Not Done Drugs? And Should I?

I am an entrepreneurial, adventurous person hungry for new experiences. I enjoy experimenting. I am above-average in my appetite for risk. Why have I not done a single drug in my life? Why no weed, cocaine, LSD, cigarettes, mushrooms, etc?

I am not sure. I know a few other people who are in a similar position and they are also genuinely perplexed.

Some possible reasons:

1. Not doing drugs when young actually was the risk-taking behavior. Most people around me were smoking at least marijuana. There was a lot of social pressure to do drugs. By choosing not to, I risked social alienation while also signaling independence and free spiritedness.

2. Early on I became known as the guy who "doesn't smoke" and therefore a no-drugs attitude became part of my identity. Once an identity forms, it's hard to act in ways that contradict it.

3. My first exposure to drugs was in high school and the people who did a lot of drugs, including marijuana, tended to be the stupidest in terms of raw horsepower and work ethic. I associated weed with those people, and I did not want to be those people.

4. I am unusually health-conscious and I perhaps unfairly lump all drugs together when assuming they harm physical and/or mental health.

5. I am deferential to the law (though I often challenge the authority structure in other situations). I have never been arrested or in jail. While I drank alcohol when under-age, alcohol would soon become legal at age 21 so it seemed less-bad than smoking marijuana, which is always illegal no matter the age.

6. At this stage in life I do not know where I would buy drugs, how much to buy, how it works, how to verify purity, and so on. There is a non-trival logistical barrier.

7. The benefit of drug use is unclear and since I cannot calculate it, I would rather spend my money on other things.

8. I fear addictions. This explains, by the way, why I do not drink coffee.

9. I like to be in control of most situations and I fear relinquishing that control if high on a drug.

Note that I am pro-marijuana legalization from a policy perspective. I could be convinced that we should legalize or decriminalize other drugs. I do not think less of adult professionals who smoke pot from time-to-time though I inexplicably find pot-smoking a turn-off when pondering the sexual attractiveness of women.

Here is a long reflective piece on the experience of smoking cactus, via Nathan Labenz, and it is pieces like this which pique my curiosity.

I am already a pretty happy person with plenty of friends (I don't need them for social life) and while the temptation for new experiences exists it's not strong enough to get me to move the status quo. My main question about drugs, then, revolves around personal utility. Could they improve my relaxation habits when not on the drug? Could they help me focus or concentrate when not on the drug? I am saying "not on the drug" because I have heard that the experience on the drug opens new dimensions that stay with you. Could they improve my ability to introspect? Would being high on cactus for one day, for example, inspire me to think big thoughts while on the high that I could remember and think about post-high?

These are honest questions, and I suspect Vince Williams, among others, will have answers in the comments section.

A Human Platitude Who Radiates Blandness

In Chapter 1 of American Pastoral by Philip Roth, two gentlemen are having dinner, and one guy describes the other — who's stunningly handsome, athletic, successful — this way:

I was impressed, as the meal wore on, by how assured he seemed of everything commonplace he said, and how everything he said was suffused by his good nature. I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he has instead of a being, I thought, is blandness — the guy's radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him. Several times during the meal I didn't think I was going to make it, didn't think I'd get to dessert if he was going to keep praising his family and praising his family…until I began to wonder if it wasn't that he was incognito but that he was mad.

Something was on top of him that had called a halt to him. Something had turned him into a human platitude. Something had warned him: You must not run counter to anything.

A helluva piece of writing, and captures the emotion I have felt when listening to some over-assured guy talk over dinner about how much he loves his family. Rare outward facing comments are doused in political correctness. You want to reach across the table (even if it means knocking over a glass or two), grab his shoulders with each hand, and give him a good shake.

The description continues:

To respect everything one is supposed to respect; to protest nothing; never to be inconvenienced by self-distrust; never to be enmeshed in obsession, tortured by incapacity, poisoned by resentment, driven by anger…life just unraveling for the Swede like a fluffy ball of yarn.

Social Inequality Between Elites and Non-Elites

The elitism / populism issue is one of the richest themes right now in American politics.

1. David Brooks on Charlie Rose a few days ago touched on it, at around minute 10:14. Until 1964 college educated and non-college educated families were basically the same: voting rates were the same, divorce rates were the same, volunteer rates the same. That's changed. Now, college educated couples have half the divorce rates of high school graduate couples. College educated people trust government more. So in terms of lifestyle and social attitudes the differences are greater.

The economics differ too — educated folks make a lot more money now than before because there's a premium paid to those who can use their head over hands — but the promise of American democracy, according to Micky Kaus, was never economic equality but rather social equality. Douthat: "It's social equality, defined less by money than by manners and mores, that we're in danger of losing – social equality that's undercut both by the struggles of the working class and by the worship of success that defines too much of elite life." To be sure, the thickness of your wallet affects manners and mores.

Either way, America today can be sliced into two parts: the vast majority of citizens with high school diplomas or a little bit more, and then the 28% of the people who have bachelor's degrees. These two groups self-segregate in where they choose to live, who they choose to marry, what kind of media they consume, and how they relate to society's institutions. To enter either world from the other side is becoming an increasingly foreign experience.

2. Brooks says Obama needs to get out more and interact with "the people." (By that he means the non-coastal folks.) I'm never understood how this is supposed to happen, especially since it is a massive ordeal anytime the President physically travels somewhere. Does a two hour staged visit to a small town in South Dakota give him insight he doesn't otherwise have about their state of mind?

3. Michael Kinsley, who now writes for The Atlantic, writes a post in support of Jacob Weisberg's column blaming the country's problems on the "childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large." Kinsley says "the people" really are dumb and ignorant, and to have faith in their "bedrock of common sense" — as Charles Krauthammer would like — is actually more condescending than just calling a spade a spade. Arnold Kling analyzes the exchange.