||06-17-2011 11:45 PM
The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year
The Atlantic just released their annual list of 14 ideas that serves as:
A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations.)
Find the link to the slideshow here
and the printable format here
A couple highlights...
12. The Players Own the Game
Columnist, New York magazine
When LeBron James was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in June 2003, he was wearing a blindingly white suit and an awkward, bewildered smile. Talking to ESPN’s Michele Tafoya, seconds after being drafted, LeBron said, “[This] shows the hard work has finally paid off for me.” He was 18 years old.
Seven years later, LeBron was back on ESPN, announcing to the sports world that he would be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and taking his “talents to South Beach.” In those seven years, LeBron had won two MVP awards, four first-team all-NBA awards, and, famously, zero titles. But perhaps the most important thing he won was his freedom. LeBron joined the Miami Heat not because the move would bring him the most money, or the best chance at a championship. He went to Miami because his friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would be there. He went because it’s sunny, and the women are very attractive. He went because he wanted to.
LeBron has been derided less for the choice he made than for the way he announced it—on television, surrounded by children, hawking a flavored water. But what really scared the world of sports was that LeBron’s hubris was justified. No one cared about the Cavs or the Heat; they were interested in LeBron.
The world of sports is able to exist because it treats its labor unlike any other business on Earth. If you are an accountant, a librarian, a car salesman, whatever, when you receive an offer from anyone in the world for your services, you are able to take it. You can work anywhere, for whatever wage you’re able to grab. If this happened in sports, the result would be chaos: every team’s roster would turn over every year, and all the talent would be concentrated on two or three teams (even more than it already is). So much of a sport’s appeal is in the illusion of team history and continuity; unbridled free agency would destroy that illusion. For all the talk of supposed “rich and spoiled athletes,” few other industries can get away with labor practices that essentially amount to high-paid indentured servitude for the players.
LeBron’s example marks an evolution in athlete culture, one in which players realize their power. You’re seeing this everywhere now, from the NFL and NBA labor battles to the better understanding of concussions and athlete safety. For their part, fans are better educated than they’ve ever been (thanks to the Web) and are starting to side with the players in kerfuffles like labor disputes. Fans used to feel that owners somehow “earned” their money, while pro athletes were just fortunate winners of a genetic lottery. This is the exact opposite of the truth. (Holding on to your job is about 95 million times harder for a player than for an owner.) Sure, guys like LeBron and Carmelo Anthony are seen as mercenaries, but from a business standpoint, we understand their leverage ... and even appreciate and envy it.
Owners might not realize where this is headed, but as the players make more money than ever in outside endorsement deals, their dependence on the leagues is waning. The athletes control these businesses—it’s the players’ jerseys we’re wearing, not the owners’.
Then again, that could change. LeBron just bought a stake in Liverpool FC, one of the more popular English soccer teams. In this way, he can, at last, be like Mike: in 2010, Michael Jordan bought a majority share of the Charlotte Bobcats. The players are becoming the owners now. This is just the beginning.
11. Gay Is the New Normal
Contributing editor, The Atlantic
Perhaps this had to happen: the straight-rights movement is here. No, it does not call itself that. (Yet.) But opponents of same-sex marriage, and others who are unfriendly to the gay-rights movement, have adopted the posture of a victim group. They are, it seems ... an oppressed majority.
The backstory is this: Until recently, and for as long as pollsters at Gallup have thought to ask, a clear majority of Americans regarded homosexual relations as morally wrong. The entire superstructure of anti-gay sentiment and policy stood upon that foundation of opprobrium. In 2008, however, the lines crossed, with as many Americans (48 percent) telling Gallup that gay and lesbian relations are “morally acceptable” as said they are “morally wrong.” And in 2010, for the first time, an outright majority, 52 percent, called homosexuality morally acceptable, with only 43 percent condemning it. From here, the level of opprobrium is likely only to shrink.
This change is a watershed in gay-straight relations, and it brings a disorienting political role reversal. It is the condemnation of homosexuality, rather than homosexuality itself, that will be increasingly stigmatized as morally deviant. And it is the opponents of gay equality who will insist they are the oppressed group, the true victims of civil-rights violations. Indeed, they have already developed, and are vigorously marketing, a “gay bullies” narrative:
Confronted with a poll showing that a majority of Americans support gay marriage, Maggie Gallagher, a leading gay-marriage opponent, responds that the poll reflects not true public sentiment, but gay activists’ success at “intimidating and silencing.”
Describing a dispute involving a bakery that refused to make rainbow-colored cupcakes for a pro-gay student group, David E. Smith, the executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, writes: “Homosexual bullies and their heterosexual accomplices are now speciously attempting to turn this into an issue of ‘discrimination.’”
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, says that if California’s ban on gay marriage is not upheld, “we’ll have gone, in one generation, from 1962, when the Bible was banned in public schools, to religious beliefs being banned in America.”
In a country where evangelicals outnumber self-identified gays by at least 10 to 1, and where anti-gay bullying is endemic in schools, and where same-sex couples cannot marry in 45 states, and where countless gay Americans cannot even get their foreign partners into the country, much less into a hospital room—here, we’re supposed to believe that gays are the bullies? Get used to it. This is the script of culture wars to come.
9. The Next War Will Be Digitized
National Correspondent, The Atlantic
Sometimes America has worried primarily about external threats. Sometimes, about the enemy within. The attempts to detect and suppress internal dangers generally look bad in retrospect, because they so often come at the cost of the liberties, absorbency, and flexibility that are America’s distinctive strengths. The Alien and Sedition Acts in the new republic’s first decades, the “Red scares” after both World Wars, the propaganda office Woodrow Wilson set up during the First World War, and the Japanese American internment program FDR approved in the Second—these illustrate how much more complicated it is for a democracy to deal with unseen inside threats than to confront enemies on a battlefield. Through the past decade of the “global war on terror,” the United States has faced a new version of this old challenge of protecting itself without destroying or perverting its essential nature.
That challenge is already taking on another and even more complicated form. The biggest change in human interactions in the past generation is the rising importance of “the cloud”—the electronic networks that let us witness disaster or upheaval wherever it happens, connect with friends wherever they are, get a map or see a satellite photo of virtually any point on Earth, and coordinate business, financial, scientific, and educational efforts across the globe all at once. Of course, the indispensability of these systems creates their danger. If the factories, the banks, the hospitals, and the electric and water systems must all be online to function, they are all, in principle, vulnerable to electronic attack.
With last summer’s discovery of the insidious Stuxnet virus, we know—or “know,” since neither the Israeli nor the U.S. government, nor any other, will come out and say that it developed malicious software to disable Iran’s nuclear-weapons program—that this threat is more than hypothetical. We also know that it can be posed by states, as the latest form of war, and not just by bands of scammers trying to steal your credit-card numbers or make you wire money to Nigeria. It is a potential external menace as hard to detect as an internal one, and very hard to control without limiting the fast, open connectivity that gives networks their value.
Grand-scale geostrategy has always involved locating the opponent’s choke points and vulnerabilities, where concentrated damage can produce widespread harm. That once meant harbors, railroads, ball-bearing works, airports. Now, it’s what comes through the USB connector and the Ethernet port.
3. The Rich Are Different From You and Me
Editor, Thomson Reuters Digital
The rich are always with us, as we learned from the Bette Davis film of that name, released in the teeth of the Great Depression. The most memorable part of that movie was its title—but that terrific phrase turns out not to be entirely true. In every society, some people are richer than others, but across time and geography, the gap between the rich and the rest has varied widely.
The reality today is that the rich—especially the very, very rich—are vaulting ahead of everyone else. Between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent of the population. That lopsided distribution means that today, half of the national income goes to the richest 10 percent. In 2007, the top 1 percent controlled 34.6 percent of the wealth—significantly more than the bottom 90 percent, who controlled just 26.9 percent.
That is a huge shift from the post-war decades, whose golden glow may have arisen largely from the era’s relative income equality. During the Second World War, and in the four decades that followed, the top 10 percent took home just a third of the national income. The last time the gap between the people on top and everyone else was as large as it is today was during the Roaring ’20s.
The rise of today’s super-rich is a global phenomenon. It is particularly marked in the United States, but it is also happening in other developed economies like the United Kingdom and Canada. Income inequality is also increasing in most of the go-go emerging-market economies, and is now as high in Communist China as it is in the U.S.
These global super-rich work and play together. They jet between the Four Seasons in Shanghai and the Four Seasons in New York to do business; descend on Davos, Switzerland, to network; and travel to St. Bart’s to vacation. Many are global nomads with a fistful of passports and several far-flung homes. They have more in common with one another than with the folks in the hinterland back home, and increasingly, they are forming a nation unto themselves.
This international plutocracy is emerging at a moment when globalization and the technology revolution are hollowing out the middle class in most Western industrialized nations. Many of today’s super-rich started out in the middle and make most of their money through work, not inheritance. Ninety-five years ago, the richest 1 percent of Americans received only 20 percent of their income from paid work; in 2004, that income proportion had tripled, to 60 percent.
These meritocrats are the winners in a winner-take-all world. Among the big political questions of our age are whether they will notice that everyone else is falling behind, and whether they will decide it is in their interests to do something about that.
1. The Rise of the Middle Class—Just Not Ours
U.S. managing editor and assistant editor, Financial Times
The past year has seen plenty of hand-wringing about the “squeezed middle.” Little wonder. Although the U.S. economy might now be rebounding, incomes for most Americans—if they are lucky enough to have a job at all—are not rising. On the contrary, since 2002, median household income has declined in real terms, as many middle-class jobs have been either destroyed by technological innovation or lost to competition from overseas. For many of the jobs remaining, employers can pay lower wages.
The middle class in America (and Europe) is suffering, but that’s only half the tale. In the past decade, income per capita in the so-called “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) has surged, as the middle classes in those countries have expanded at a striking clip. That is partly because jobs are shifting from the West to the emerging world (just think, for example, of all those Chinese factories and Indian call centers that have sprung up). However, education is also improving in most of these countries, along with infrastructure, as incomes rise and lifestyles improve.
To many Western workers—and politicians—this sounds scary. After all, the addition of millions of well-educated workers in places such as India, China, and Brazil means a lot more competition for Americans and Europeans. However, this cloud has a bright silver lining. Until now, politicians and economists have generally focused on the emerging markets in terms of a “supply shock,” in the sense that these countries can supply cheaper and better goods than can be produced in the West. Production, after all, is what has enabled those emerging-market economies to boom; again, think of those Chinese factories.
But now the world is on the verge of a crucial shift: precisely because the middle classes in the emerging markets are gaining clout, they are also becoming a truly formidable consumption force. The emerging markets thus no longer represent just a “supply shock”; they are creating a “demand shock” too. And that raises big questions: Who or what will meet that demand? Will those new middle-class families who are working at, say, Indian call centers or Chinese factories just buy local products? Or could American companies have an opportunity to serve them? And if so, could that opportunity eventually lead to new American jobs, as those consumers start to travel, read, download apps—and plug in to a globalized lifestyle? The full tale of the “squeezed middle” has yet to be told.