Book Review: The Wealth Paradox by Frank Mols and Jolanda Jetten

The Wealth Paradox: Economic Prosperity and the Hardening of Attitudes [Goodreads] is the right book at the right time. Short, succinct, and with hard data to prove their central thesis, The Wealth Paradox is worthy of a thoughtful read by policy makers, political operatives, academics, and in these troubled times, the general public.

The last few years have seen what Mols and Jetten declare in their preface to be a “perfect storm” in both Western liberal democracies and other countries that pretend to the democratic mantel. A combination of deep economic recessions and global crises have seen 21 million people earn the legal title of refugee and an estimated 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. A bit of political turmoil was bound to occur.

Readers might immediately think of Donald Trump’s populist rise in the United States in the frantic few months following the British choice to Brexit. Mols was one of very few political scientists to foresee the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. His rationale forms the central thesis of The Wealth Paradox: The rise of far-right parties and political movements are not simply attributable to the poor and dispossessed but also to middle class voters with some modest degree of wealth to protect.

There are others. News watchers could not have missed the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s grab for dictatorial powers after transitioning from prime minister to president of that country. In the Philippines, strongman Rodrigo Duterte grabbed the presidency with his promises to murder drug dealers, street children, and, purely as a form of collateral damage, political opponents. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, like Erdoğan a former prime minister of his country and now president, went several times better by being prime minister, then president, then prime minister, and now president again. One must give him points for consistency.

All of these leaders were democratically elected. Something to notice is how close these decisions have been. Trump became the second Republican president in a row to lose the popular vote on his way to the White House. Putin won his first presidential bid in 2000 with 53% of the vote. Erdoğan won his presidential bid with in 2014 with 51.79%. Duterte won with a minority 39.1%. The referendum deciding that Britain should leave the European Union was passed with 51.89% voting to leave. In all of these cases and many more, a populist platform was adopted with nearly half of the electorates voting for the opposite.

Invoking [Godwin’s Law], it seems an excellent time to recall that at the time Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, he was head of a political party that had garnered a third of the seats in the German parliament by democratic means.

Why should people elect leaders who so often pursue unarguably unpopular policies, or who hold unpopular ideas? Mols and Jetten argue that enough middle class voters, those with above average incomes, do so in order to protect their own narrow interests. It is this point, and the data behind it, that makes The Wealth Paradox worth reading.

Recent votes in the Netherlands and France rejecting populist parties have left little time to celebrate. The combination of Byzantine political systems and continued strong showings by populist parties clearly show that history is not over. We may yet see a spread of their simplistic mixture of xenophobia and protectionism.

The authors of The Wealth Paradox are not, of course, the first scholars to note the connection between the middle class and populism, nor the odd (to the settled mind) desire to rip and replace an imperfect system with a new one.

The British historian George Dangerfield, writing in the 1930s about the pre-World War I actions of the Tory party then in opposition, made Mols’ and Jetten’s case for them. Dangerfield’s crisis resulted in the partition of Ireland and the mutiny of a portion of the British Army:

The Tory Rebellion was not merely a brutal attack upon an enfeebled opponent – that is to say, political; it was not merely the impassioned defence of impossible privileges – that is to say, economic; it was also, and more profoundly, the unconscious rejection of an established security. For nearly a century men had discovered in the cautious phrase, in the respectable gesture, in the considered display of reasonable emotions, a haven against those irrational storms which threatened to sweep through them, And gradually the haven lost its charms; worst still, it lost it peace. Its waters, no longer unruffled by the wind, ceased to reflect, with complacent ease, the settled skies, the untangled stars of accepted behaviour and sensible conviction; and men, with a defiance they not hope to understand, began to put forth upon little excursions into the vast, the dark, the driven seas beyond.

(George Dangerfield. The Strange Death of Liberal England. Stanford University Press, 1997, pp. 122-3.)

Dangerfield could have been writing about today’s political challenges. We find ourselves coming off of an unprecedented post-war period of established security that, when buffeted by the “perfect storm”, resulted in rejection. It is little wonder that his book became the archetypal modern history.

Worrying, too, is the lesson learned by unrepentant socialist Christopher Hitchens. Visiting his literary superhero Jorge Luis Borges in his unhappy home in Buenos Aires, Hitchens read at Borges’ request Rudyard Kipling’s “Harp Song of the Dane Women” whose opening verse:

What is a woman that you forsake her
And the hearth fire and the home acre
To go with that old grey widow-maker?

so beautifully gets to the beating heart of the human male’s yearning for adventure, and the the acceptance of the accompanying risk. Hitchens was dismayed that his idol “heartily preferred” the “gentlemen” of the brutal and populist regime of Juan Perón who abused both his family and himself. Borges, for all his stunning illumination of human foibles, himself fell in his old age into a sort of populist Stockholm Syndrome.

Herodotus noted millennia ago how to react to those protective of their wealth. “Great wealth can make a man no happier than moderate means, unless he has the luck to continue in prosperity to the end… Now if a man thus favoured died as he has lived, he will be just the one you are looking for: the only sort of person who deserves to be called happy. But mark this: until he is dead, keep the word ‘happy’ in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, but only lucky.” Those voting for populist leaders should carefully note the warning. Pursuit of short term interests must be carefully weighed with longer term consequences.

No, the The Wealth Paradox is not entirely new. It is up to date, well researched, and particularly timely.

The 191 pages of main matter make The Wealth Paradox a respectable size for an audience uncomfortable with lengthy prose. Forget War and Peace: One sometimes wonders how many years will pass before the last undergraduate slogs to the end of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis at 55 pages, or the 64 pages of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. No time have we in these days of Internet-connected pocket supercomputers for the massive 4,736 pages of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War. Even our academics must adjust to doling out words short enough to absorb during a commute or a visit to the toilet. But perhaps I simply suffer from last century’s skills. As Kurt Vonnegut so ironically juxtaposed his writing with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in his geriatric romp A Man Without a Country, “I am windy”.

The Sorry State of Browser Privacy

Every one of the estimated 3.7 billion Internet users should be concerned that the vast majority of their searches, the contents of their shopping baskets both on and off line,  often their location, and, by careful statistical analysis, their associates are exposed to the corporate desires of the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. This information, once collected, is available to law enforcement agencies in many international jurisdictions. Some governments additionally collect information directly to spy on their citizens. One might also consider that logs of private information are also ripe for hackers, paid by organized crime or governments, who break into notionally “secure” systems.

Our mobile devices are also directly inspectable by customs agents when we cross international borders, and in some jurisdictions by police on the street.

Those who say that they have no care for privacy on the Internet have seemingly no idea of the abuse to which such information may be put. The Holocaust was perpetrated by a vicious regime primarily on the basis of household religious indications from a century of national census collection. No government of the past has ever had access to the amount of information available about the location and habits of individual citizens.

How can we possibly protect ourselves from a technically savvy authoritarian government that is willing to abuse this treasure trove of data?

Our browsers, those critical tools for our daily lives, are not currently our friends. They are the portal by which our personal information flees to corporate and government interests.

There are two fundamental approaches to securing our personal information in browsers. The first and easiest is to avoid recording your history from your local device. This is the primary tool behind browsers’ privacy modes such as Firefox’s private mode or Safari’s incognito mode. No having local data will provide some level of protection if your phone or computer is seized.

Removing or avoiding local data storage does nothing to protect you from Web analytics companies who use data your browser happily sends to them during an online session. Advertising companies install trackers into their ads that are implemented in the JavaScript language understood by each browser. That computer code can and does read as much information as it can find, and combine it into a full picture of your individual browser through a process known as browser fingerprinting. It is this fingerprint, good perhaps to identify one person in tens of millions, that your browser happily passes back to the companies that asked for it.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has made a useful tool called Panopticlick to test browsers vulnerability to online tracking. The odd but fitting name is a reference to the Panopticon, a type of jail designed in 1787 by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. A single jailer could see a large number of prisoners in the Panopticon.

This post reports on a series of Panopticlick tests on a variety of browsers. Desktop browsers were tested on a MacBook Pro. Mobile browsers were tested on an Apple iPhone 6 and a Sony tablet running Android Marshmallow.

Panopticlick asks four questions of browsers:

  • Is your browser blocking tracking ads?
  • Is your browser blocking invisible trackers?
  • Does your browser unblock 3rd parties that promise to honor Do Not Track?
  • Does your browser protect from fingerprinting?

A perfect browser would respond in the affirmative to each question, and a report might look like this:

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
My good browser yes yes yes yes

A browser that failed all four tests would have a negative report. The last question would be answered by noting that a unique fingerprint could be calculated:

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
A terrible browser no no no unique

It is naturally possible for some browsers to provide partial implementations to block tracking ads or other trackers. Partial implementations are marked in yellow.

Desktop Browser Tests

Tests were performed on an Apple MacBook Pro, running MacOS Sierra version 10.12.4.

Safari version 10.1 (12603.

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Safari (Mac, default) partial partial no unique
Safari (Mac, private browsing, default) partial partial no unique
Safari (Mac, private browsing, block cookies and website data) partial partial no unique

Chrome version 57.0.2987.133 (64-bit)

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Chrome (Mac, default) yes no no unique
Chrome (Mac, EFF Privacy Badger installed) yes yes no unique
Chrome (Mac, incognito mode, default) partial partial no unique
Chrome (Mac, incognito mode, block cookies and website data) yes yes no unique

Blocking all sites entirely using manual control of Privacy Badger yielded the same results as having Privacy Badger installed.

Safari’s incognito mode blocks plugins including Privacy Badger, so using plugins is ineffective to increase privacy on Safari.

Firefox version 52.0.2

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Firefox (Mac, default) no no no unique
Firefox (Mac, EFF Privacy Badger installed) yes yes yes unique
Firefox (Mac, NoScript installed) yes yes yes yes
Firefox (Mac, private mode, EFF Privacy Badger installed) yes yes yes unique
Firefox (Mac, private mode, NoScript installed) yes yes yes yes

Firefox’s private mode does not block plugins, so Privacy Badger could be used with private mode.

NB: JavaScript was disallowed for with NoScript; disabling JavaScript is a key way to avoid trackers. Unfortunately, it is also a key way to break modern Web pages.

NoScript maintains a white list of common sites to minimize the breakage of legitimate JavaScript functionality. It blocks all others, but gives a useful user interface to allow exceptions. As shown in Figure 1 below, most sites are analytics trackers such as Google Analytics, Facebook, and Doubleclick.

Figure 1. NoScript’s list of recently blocked sites

Mobile Browser Tests on iOS

Tests on iOS were performed on an Apple iPhone 6, running iOS version 10.3.1.

Safari iOS version 10.3.1

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Safari (iOS, default) partial partial no unique
Safari (iOS, private browsing, default) partial partial no unique
Safari (iOS, private browsing, block cookies and website data) partial partial no unique
Safari (iOS, Disconnect Privacy Pro installed and VPN active) yes yes no unique

Firefox iOS version 7.1 (2565)

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Firefox (iOS, default) no no no unique
Firefox (iOS, private mode, default) partial partial no unique
Firefox (iOS, Disconnect Privacy Pro installed and VPN active) yes yes no unique

Firefox Focus iOS version (current as of 17 April 2017)

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Firefox Focus (iOS, default) yes yes no unique
Firefox Focus (iOS, “Block other content trackers” option on) yes yes no unique
Firefox Focus (iOS, Disconnect Privacy Pro installed and VPN active) yes yes no unique

The motto for Firefox Focus is “Browse, erase, repeat”, which shows its focus on erasing local history.

Chrome iOS version 57.0.2987.137

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Chrome (iOS, default) no no no unique
Chrome (iOS, incognito mode, default) no no no unique
Chrome (iOS, Disconnect Privacy Pro installed and VPN active) yes yes no unique

Opera Mini iOS version

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Opera Mini (iOS, default) no no no unique
Opera Mini (iOS, “Accept Cookies” turned off and “Block Pop-ups” turned on) no no no unique

EFF suggests rather concerningly, “switching to another browser or OS that offers better protections.”

Mobile Browser Tests on Android

Tests on Android were performed on a Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet SGP511, Android version 6.0.1 (Marshmallow), kernel 3.4.0-perf-gc14c2d5

Chrome Android version 57.0.2987.132

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Chrome (Android, default) no no no unique
Chrome (Android, incognito mode, default) no no no unique

Firefox Android version 52.2

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Firefox (Android, default) no no no unique
Firefox (Android, private mode, default) yes yes no unique

Opera Mini Android version 24.0.2254.115784

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Opera Mini (Android, default) yes yes no unique
Opera Mini (Android, private tab, default) yes yes no unique

NB: Opera Mini tested “no” in all categories last week, but Opera seems to be adding an effective ad blocking technology, which seems to have come to Android before iOS.

Disconnect free edition for Android (no version number, as of 23 April 2017)

Ads Trackers DNT Fingerprints
Disconnect in-app browser(Android, default) partial partial no unique

NB: Disconnect Pro/Premium versions were not tested on Android because I was borrowing the device and didn’t want to buy my friend a $50 subscription.


One clearly needs to shop around to find a browser that will protect your privacy. That is easier on a computer than on a mobile device.
The combination of Firefox and the NoScript plugin was the only way discovered to pass all EFF tests, and that combination is only available on desktop and laptop computers. That is a shame given the power performance of Safari, or the Google app integration with Chrome.
There is no apparent way to avoid browser fingerprinting on iOS or Android.
Apple users seem to have a choice between the new Firefox Focus and installing (and using!) Disconnect Privacy Pro. It is easy to forget to turn on Disconnect’s VPN. There is a cost, of course, but that should be nothing new to Apple users. Better privacy is part of what we pay for with Apple. It is surprising that Apple hasn’t done with browser privacy what they have done with server-side encryption of user data.
Android users fare reasonably well using either Firefox’s private mode or (surprise!) the new Opera Mini. Both browsers have decent blockers for ad trackers and other online trackers. Unfortunately, neither option does a thing to stop browser fingerprinting. In 2017 and beyond, blocking direct tracking is just not good enough. One cannot help but wonder why one needs to use Firefox’s private mode to access apparently built-in functionality.
In summary, be careful. Practice safe computing to avoid infections of one form or another. It might be wise to both use a browser with good privacy support and also to check the status of updates once in a while.
We remain with poor tradeoffs. Should we increase privacy and suffer inconvenience, or opt for convenience? Unfortunately, I am sure I know what most people will do. Browser vendors, especially the Mozilla Foundation, should ensure that privacy protection is enabled by default. Action against browser fingerprinting is urgently needed.
Your privacy is in your hands.

Chapters 5-7 Now Available for Humanity: An Unauthorized Biography

Chapters 5-7 are now available in PDF for Humanity: An Unauthorized Biography!

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 have been added in this update.

Chapter 5 (“The Invention of Rationality”) traces the history of rational thought – and shows why it is a rather unnatural basis for human culture.

Chapter 6 (“Accidental Progress”) reviews the history of civilization’s Golden Ages, from the ancient Greek to our own.

Chapter 7 (“Return of the Shaman”) illustrates why our age is different from all the others, and why we are left with such challenges as a result.

Comments are welcome and sincerely appreciated!


Chapters 1-7 Now Available for Humanity: An Unauthorized Biography

Chapters 1-7 are now available in PDF for Humanity: An Unauthorized Biography!

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 have been added in this update.

Chapter 5 (“The Invention of Rationality”) traces the history of rational thought – and shows why it is a rather unnatural basis for human culture.

Chapter 6 (“Accidental Progress”) reviews the history of civilization’s Golden Ages, from the ancient Greek to our own.

Chapter 7 (“Return of the Shaman”) illustrates why our age is different from all the others, and why we are left with such challenges as a result.

Comments are welcome and sincerely appreciated!


Chapters 1-4 Now Available for Humanity: An Unauthorized Biography

Chapters 1-4 are now available in PDF for Humanity: An Unauthorized Biography!

Chapters 3 and 4 have been added in this update.

Chapter 3 (“Power Shift”) explains the failure, and recovery, of the Neolithic Revolution.

Chapter 4 (“Thinking for Cities”) delves into Bronze Age thought to uncover how our earliest city-dwelling ancestors thought about themselves and their world.

Comments are welcome and sincerely appreciated!


Chapters 1-2 Now Available for Humanity: An Unauthorized Biography

Chapters 1 & 2 are now available in PDF for Humanity: An Unauthorized Biography!

Chapter 2 is entitled “Planting and Prayer”. It covers the transition of hunter-gatherers in the Near East to full-time agriculture, and the switch from shamanistic religions to religions of “big gods”.

Comments are welcome and sincerely appreciated!


Defining Culture

Culture is a slippery concept to define. Many social scientists today refer to a formulation by the nineteenth century English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, who said “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” At least two things jump out at me when I read that quotation. Firstly, that Tylor equated culture with civilization, and secondly that he considered nearly anything people do to be “culture”.

All extant hunter-gatherer groups have some “capabilities and habits” that allow people to fit in as members of those societies. Archaeological evidence gives us no reason to believe that earlier hunter-gatherer tribes failed to have them as well. Quite to the contrary, archaeology has provided plenty of evidence to suggest that Stone Age people spent a lot of time identifying with their groups. We see this evidence in both the similarities and differences that exist in burials, artwork, and artifacts around the world, and in the echoes of languages that still exist. It seems contrary to modern scientific understanding to suggest that hunter-gatherer groups don’t have their own cultures. But that was not what Tylor intended. Tylor was the first person to insist that hunter-gatherers had their own cultures, and their own forms of “civilization”, based on what he called the “uniformity” of human thought. It was a remarkably enlightened attitude for a person living at the height of the xenogamous British Empire.

Tylor’s concept of civilization differs from the one used elsewhere in this book. Elsewhere we will talk about civilization beginning with settled agriculture. Tylor, by contrast, rightly understood human development as a continuous searching for successful strategies. Agriculture was just one possible approach to survival. It just happened to be one that allowed its practitioners to outbreed those hunter-gatherers who stayed with the old ways. It was natural for Tylor to suggest from his perspective that civilization and culture are the same thing. Tylor’s civilization is nothing more (or less) than the cultural tools used by any particular group.

It is interesting that Tylor included laws in his definition of culture. Laws are now the primary tools of secular, Western governments today to encourage large-scale cooperation. It would be illegal for someone at my coffee shop to assault me, either physically or verbally. A policeman would readily intervene in an altercation if called. That fact deters most people, most of the time, from taking advantage of strangers.

There are other tools in our cultural toolbox. Most modern religions teach the benefit of cooperation, as do the customs passed down from parents to children, and reinforced in schools. Surprisingly, the combination of laws, beliefs, and custom can do a pretty good job at creating peaceful large-scale societies.

The successes of law do not come as cheaply as we might imagine. Although we have successfully used laws to mostly keep strangers from abusing each other, we need to have a lot of them. It no longer seems possible for anyone to determine exactly how many laws, or government regulations, exist in the United States today. We have federal laws, binding court decisions, and regulations. We have more at the state, territory, Native American tribe, and local levels. This is of course not to mention corporate regulations, or family rules. One estimate claims some millions of federal laws alone, with as many as forty thousand changes each year. A reference librarian at the US Library of Congress claimed in 2013, “We are frequently asked to estimate the number of federal laws in force. However, trying to tally this number is nearly impossible.”

Determining the laws appropriate to a given situation is often a first step in determining a course of action. One might consult a lawyer, or an accountant, or a policeman, or a county clerk. The scale of our societies demand such binding rules. We have accepted their complication as the price for living relatively peacefully with many others. Where they fail, the state uses fines, imprisonment, or forced service to punish offenders, all in an attempt keep individuals from carrying out their own justice.

Not all modern societies are peaceful, nor safe. I would happily turn my back on strangers in most parts of Japan, Australia, or Canada. I would have no trouble in most of India. But I would not risk it in the bus station in downtown Newark, New Jersey, any more than I would in the public portions of the Philippines, Columbia, Egypt, or Italy. “Culture” is as variant as it is ill-defined. Laws intertwine deeply with those other, softer, concepts of belief, morals, customs, and religion to create a complex tapestry of possibility.

In place of Tylor’s definition, I personally tend to prefer an almost throw-away line from anthropologists Ernest Schusky and Patrick Culbert: “Culture… includes all the things that we learn from other people.” That seems to sum up the complexities that we encounter when attempting to discuss culture, and yet gets to its underlying simplicity. We are born with a series of instincts, and reflexive actions. We have biases. We will react in many predictable ways, and at the same time have deep physiological structures that ensure that our behavior varies. We constantly learn from our sensory inputs, from the environment. But culture consists of all the things we learn from other people.

It is possible to refine the definition of culture even farther by looking at the relationship between culture and evolution. It was evolution that provided us our natural relationships to one another, and adapted us to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It was culture that allowed us to adapt more rapidly than evolution ever could to the challenges posed by the end of the last ice age.

Culture and evolution share many key features. A creature competes for resources, and looks for opportunities to create offspring. The offspring aren’t perfect copies. Random changes, mutations, creep into the copying process. This is Darwin’s “descent with modification.” Similarly, cultural ideas compete to be accepted by people. At each stage they are heard, and perhaps modified by the receiver’s understanding. Cultural ideas also undergo a version of descent with modification. Cultural ideas are frequently called “memes”, a word first proposed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to indicate a unit of cultural inheritance, analogous to a gene as the unit of physical inheritance.

More importantly to our story, culture and evolution are both fundamentally search algorithms. Culture and evolution are two ways to explore a space of possibilities to search for successful strategies. The lucky ones win, and the less fortunate lose. Mutations to genes allow natural experiments; each mutation is thrown up against the wall of Nature to see if it sticks. Planting and praying were two of probably many attempts to change the game faster than evolution could. Our ancestors passed their lessons to their children, which allowed them to adapt more quickly than waiting for a successful mutation.

Evolution enabled us to have the ability to create culture. Evolution endowed us with the ability to learn and, critically, to pass down our learning to our descendants. No other species does this as well as we do. This is our species’ super power. Evolutionary biologists call the advantages that we receive from passing down learning the Baldwin Effect, named after American psychologist James Mark Baldwin. Baldwin was the first to note that the ability to pass down learning could increase the chances for survival of a species. Planting could not have occurred without many generations of accumulated knowledge. Neither could prayer. Neither idea is simplistic enough to have occurred to a single individual in its complete form.

It is the collection of all of our good ideas over generations that we call culture. Without the Baldwin Effect, we would be as stuck as any other animal that needs to rely solely upon instinct, or the collection of tricks learned in a single lifetime. Our ability to pass down information to our descendants allows culture to build up generation after generation, and to morph to fit new circumstances. We can discuss necessary changes, and take different actions. It is in this way that the first world United States culture emerged from colonial backwater, through the Industrial Revolution, to the victories of World War II, the Internet, and up to today. Few believe that our culture today is much like the early United States, when slavery was legal, native Americans were a military threat, and the height of technological development was the ability of a country to build a sailing ship.

The Baldwin Effect can help us to refine our definition of culture. Culture is what we learn from other people, and pass on to others. It is by this means that a large group can come to define itself.


  • Edward Burnett Tylor. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. 2nd ed., 2 vols., John Murray, London, 1873, pp. 1.
  • Ernest Lester Schusky and T. Patrick Culbert. Introducing Culture. Prentice Hall College Div, 1987, pp. 35.
  • J.M. Baldwin. “A new factor in evolution” in American Naturalist, vol 30, 1896, pp. 441-451.
  • Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene. 2 ed., Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 192.