About four to five years ago, the idea of starting an independent press that focused on humanity’s biggest challenges took hold of me. It was an intoxicating vision. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but publishing thought-provoking books on such challenges was just the kind of work I wanted to do.
I had no idea what I was getting into.
Back at the outset of the project, I reached out to Jonathan Cohn–someone whose judgment I hold in high regard–to discuss the idea. I told him how I wanted to gather a diverse crowd of thinkers and attack these big issues collectively, not via agreement, but rather through sharing a series of lenses that would each cast a different light on the beast. Lenses that would help the reader update their own perspective. Jonathan gave it a thumbs up and offered to help with editing. (I’m forever grateful for both.)
I started the project by reaching out to people I hoped to work with. I was fortunate to find a number of sharp people with unique perspectives who were willing to take part.
It was exhilarating and terrifying.
I now had to find a way to pull it all together. Fortunately, Jonathan had the copy editing piece well in hand, and he provided great help with refining the ideas as well. We worked together with the contributors for about a year and we managed to produce a book that I’m very proud of. (The original artwork I came up with was extremely bad, but we eventually got past that…)
As the book neared completion, I set a publication date. It was a little ambitious, but I felt I needed to push myself to get it done. (I’m a procrastinator by nature, so a deadline can help keep me on task.) When I set the deadline, I was mostly thinking of the tasks that I needed complete to get the book published. I gave little thought to the things I needed to do to drum up interest. To be fair, I didn’t have much of a clue what those things were (and still barely do).
Publication day came and the book was ready, but I had done little else. And I didn’t have any reviews. That was a huge, rookie mistake. At that point, I did everything I could think of to raise interest in the book, writing posts and creating various social media campaigns that my co-authors went above and beyond to support. But after an initial burst, the book’s sales quickly dropped off and then flatlined. It was devastating. I felt the book was a solid contribution to the ongoing discussion on inequality, but readers weren’t buying it.
I started reaching out to reviewers, and I learned that many of them don’t take books after publication. (Oh crap.) So, I worked with the ones I could. We received positive feedback from everyone who responded, and some of those were from respected review houses. But there’s a quantity bar for reviews that the book has not come close to reaching. With that in mind, I’ve decided to cut the price of the Kindle version of the book from $9.99 to $.99 for a while. I’m doing so in the hope of reaching a broader audience that might help move the book towards the volume of reviews that’s “necessary” in today’s bookselling environment. I want to go on to book 2 in this series, which will look to answer the question, “What do we do with democracy?” (a question I feel compelled to pursue), but first I need to correct my mistakes with the first book as best I can. I owe that much to my contributors.
“What do we do about inequality?” features the work of a diverse group of accomplished thinkers. The ToC probably features some names you’re familiar with, and some others you might do well to get to know. They’ve all helped advance my thinking.
This has already gone a bit long, so I’ll cut it off here. Below the line, I’ve included the Preface from “What do we do about inequality?” It’s a short read that encapsulates my thinking around the need for viewing complex matters from different perspectives. If it piques your interest, please consider picking up a copy. The Kindle version is marked down to $.99 in the interest of earning the aforementioned reviews. So, if you read our book, please consider leaving us an honest review. And if you could share this post on FB, Twitter, or wherever it is that it might find interested parties, I’d be much obliged.
We tend to get caught up in the minutiae, putting things under glass and poring over them looking for flaws, rarely taking the time to step back and view things through a wider lens.
Ah, yes. Here’s an errant brush stroke in the grand master’s work. It’s rubbish. Throw it out.
But when we do take a step back, the flaws melt away, and so do all the associated problems that cause us difficulty. Well, they’re there, but distance can help provide perspective.
Among humans, astronauts have enjoyed one of the most extraordinary perspectives. All of us can gaze up at the heavenly bodies and try to imagine them up close, but most of us are stuck here on Earth using simple tools and our imagination. Those who have visited space have had the opportunity to watch our planet Earth shrink and fade into a pale blue dot.
It’s lonely out in space.
Our problems seem insurmountable because we are mired in them. But if we could momentarily step outside (like the astronauts), what would those problems look like? Would we experience the cognitive shift many of them have felt while staring at our planet from afar?
Sir Fred Hoyle, a British Astronomer, famously prophesied, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available…a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” When reflecting two decades later, he felt justified in his prediction: “Something new has happened to create a worldwide awareness of our planet as a unique and precious place. It seems to me more than a coincidence that this awareness should have happened at exactly the moment man took his first step into space.”[i]
The words of Apollo 14’s Lunar Module pilot, Edgar D. Mitchell, seem to support this idea:
In outer space you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’[ii]
Many of the ideas we hold dear are arbitrary or historically contingent in nature. We believed that the Earth was flat until we had solid evidence to the contrary. We believed the sun revolved around the Earth. We believed that we couldn’t affect the Earth’s climate. We believed.Many of the ideas we hold dear are arbitrary or historically contingent in nature. Click To Tweet
Factually inaccurate ideas like the concept of race take hold of our collective conscious in the form of pernicious memes, and they stay there until something powerful shakes us free.[iii] The experience of seeing our planet from a distance has provoked such a paradigm shift in the way many astronauts view humanity. The distance helped them re-perceive our fragile existence. Seeing the small rock—dotted with water, enveloped in gases, and teeming with life—while surrounded by a lifeless void, engendered a profound change in many of them. They call this the “overview effect.” I can only imagine the impact of such an experience.
We have peered deep into the known universe and thus far have found ourselves to be all alone on an island, surrounded by a vast sea (as far as we can currently tell) of lifeless planets. Yet there are over seven billion of us striving against one another, against the other species on the planet, against our collective future. If we zoomed in on each human interaction, we would likely see people mostly behaving fairly rationally given the systems that govern our lives and the incentives they provide us. But what if we started backing out? What if we started looking at numerous interactions collectively? If the individual interactions were guided by sound reasoning, wouldn’t their collective effects also seem logical? Or can a mass of independently rational actions be collectively irrational?Can a mass of independently rational actions be collectively irrational? Click To Tweet
Given what we know of our current state of affairs, how far would we have to step back to see our exploits as folly? Further, at what level would things start to obscure? If people on the ground look like ants when we stand atop tall buildings, and like mere electrons, as we zoom out further (before they completely disappear), at what level should we focus in on to better understand individual, group, and collective needs, problems, and opportunities?
When we are reflecting on life’s big issues, picking a useful distance can be helpful, but it is just a starting point. If we stop there, we are basing our thinking on a single “right” perspective when, instead, we could choose to attempt to circumscribe the idea, viewing it from a vast array of vantage points. We could climb over and under it, and try to see and understand the circumstances from as many viewpoints as possible. We could give things a look from near and far (and many points in between). This is hard work, so we should take care in selecting concerns for which to afford such treatment. However, certain ones hold obvious importance for humanity. Wicked problems—the intractable ones which defy solution, or even definition—require such attention. Those are the ones that this group has been formed to confront.
Our first topic is inequality, a lever that pries civil society apart. Today’s conversations around rampant and growing disparities paradoxically tend to polarize and homogenize thought on the subject. This book was written in an effort to improve public discourse while promoting new, divergent lines of thinking. By offering a chorus of distinct voices, we hope to help the willing craft new mental models that can challenge and stretch existing views and practices. Our aim is to engender fresh interdisciplinary conversations around inequality in an effort to encourage outcomes that are more just and collectively desirable than those currently endured. The opportunity that’s on offer is a tall challenge, which we hope you will accept. But a just, civil society is a cause we should all be willing to fight for.
If you’d like to grab a copy of the book while it’s on sale, it’s available here.
[i] Vicki Goldberg, “Handle with Care,” American Photo, September/October 1991, 89.
[ii] “Edgar Mitchell’s Strange Voyage,” People Magazine, April 8, 1974, http://people.com/archive/edgar-mitchells-strange-voyage-vol-1-no-6/.
[iii] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “What We Mean When We Say ‘Race Is a Social Construct,’” The Atlantic, May 15, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/what-we-mean-when-we-say-race-is-a-social-construct/275872/.