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October 2018 posts


By Jonathan B. Wight

I haven’t finished it, but am enjoying Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper 2015). 

One idea that caught my eye is the notion that what distinguishes the Homo sapiens version of the human animal from other versions like Homo neanderthalis and Homo erectus is that we developed the ability to tell stories.

The author uses the word fiction, but not pejoratively.  The fiction (and lies) he refers to are the stories and myths that human cultures create to bond people and make them willing to unite for common purposes.  These are stores about God, creation, the afterlife, the nation, and so on, and they allow for infinite variety and innovation:  

“Thanks to the appearance of fiction, even people with same genetic makeup, who lived under similar ecological conditions, were able to create very different imagined realities, which manifested themselves in different norms and values.”

Rather than being bound by our genetic makeup, human societies can create cultures that act as levers of greater power.  What we cannot do alone we might better do together, as long as we can trust and cooperate.  

Common fictions (think of electronic "money") allow Homo sapiens to organize economically, politically, and militarily in much larger groups than other human forms.  A “normal” effective tribal size is limited to about 150 people, because this is the maximum limit of gossip to deter deleterious behaviors.  According to Noah, Homo sapiens can supersede this limit through the effective use of stories and myths. The economies of scale (and economies of scope) story turns out to be quite important to the success of Homo sapiens.

If Harari is correct, literature and the arts, along with religion, history, and other humanities, play an important role in economic development.

Unfortunately, Harari gets his Adam Smith all wrong, arguing that Smith supported the greed is good mantra along with laissez faire.  There is much work left to do getting scholars on board!

Zadig, by Voltaire

By Jonathan B. Wight

Sabbaticals are wondrous times for rejuvenation.  And what better to rekindle one’s mind and heart than to read great literature? 

I’ve read a variety of things this semester, including Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, Cervantes’, Don Quixote de la Mancha, and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.  Each of these offers wonderful insights into life and ethics.  I hope to blog on each of these if time permits.

My most recent foray was to read Voltaire’s Zadig, The Book of Fate (1747). I came to know of this novella because I’d read Poe, and scholars say that Poe’s invention of the detective story genre owes in part to Voltaire’s character, Zadig, the philosopher, who amazes all with his powers of observation and deduction.

Zadig is set in ancient Babylonia and other nearby regions. It is a romp quite reminiscent of Don Quixote, in that both protagonists are highly ethical men who rush in to save damsels and fight duels for the benefit of others. Fate deals terrible blows to both, and only through perseverance and faith do both rise to overcome their circumstances. 

As one would expect from Voltaire, the writing is enlivening and the philosophy enriching. Here are some quotes from the Project Guttenberg edition:

Opening quote: “Wherever the fates may lead us, let us follow them.” – Virgil

“He had learned from the first Book of Zoroaster, that Self-love is like a Bladder full blown, which when once prick’d, discharges a kind of petty Tempest.”(p. 2)

“Zadig, in particular, never boasted of his Contempt of the Fair Sex, or of his Facility to make Conquests amongst them.” (p. 2)

“Zadig found, by Experience, that the first thirty Days of Matrimony …  is Honey-Moon; but the second is all Wormwood.” (p. 20)

“Zadig ... was fully convinc’d, that it was very dangerous to be over-wise; and was determin’d to set a Watch before the Door of his Lips for the future.” (p. 31)

On justice: “’tis much more Prudence to acquit two Persons, tho’ actually guilty, than to pass Sentence of Condemnation in one that is virtuous and innocent.” (p. 53)

On diminishing marginal utility:  “One continued Scene of Pleasure, is no Pleasure at all.” (61)

On trying to change other people:  “Flints will never soften; and Creatures, that are by Nature venemous, forever retain their Poison.”(70)

“All the Acts of Benevolence which I have shewn, have been the Foundation of my Sorrows, and I have been only rais’d to the highest Spoke of Fortune’s Wheel, for no other Purpose than to be tumbled down with the greater Force.” (p. 76)

“He then reflected on the whole Race of Mankind, and look’d upon them, as they are in Fact, a Parcel of Insects, or Reptiles, devouring one another on a small Atom of Clay. This just Idea of them greatly alleviated his Misfortunes, recollecting the Nothingness, if we may be allow’d the Expression, of his own Being, and even of Babylon itself.” (p. 78-79).

“’Tis an old saying, that a Person is less unhappy when he sees himself not singular in Misfortune.”  (149)

Zadig has a variety of mental techniques for dealing with misfortune.  Unlike the “coddled” youth of today (according to Jonathan Haidt), Zadig keeps his mind and heart positive despite all the negativity that befalls him.  He is resilient

Hurricanes and Common Sense

By Jonathan B. Wight

As another hurricane beats down the East Coast, Nickolas Kristof in today’s New York Times urges common sense in policymaking.  What a refreshing idea in economics and ethics! 

While climate change is not certain, at what point do we say the risk of climate change is high enough that action is required? 

One major political party is still in total denial, and has a good reason for this, given the squads of money thrown at candidates who deny, deny, deny.  They have no reason to say that the emperor has no clothes.  Where are the heroes in this story?

Kristof notes that our moral sentiments are led astray by media coverage of hurricanes, which emphasizes the immediate and the obvious issues over the difficult and long term ones: 

“I worry that television coverage in the coming days will be dominated by heroes on boats rescuing widows on rooftops. Yes, that human drama is riveting — but it doesn’t address the larger problem.

“The way to tackle lung cancer wasn’t to celebrate heroic doctors treating patients in the cancer ward, while ignoring cigarette smoking, but rather to reduce cigarette use.”

The first time I voted for a Republican was in 1980 for John Anderson as President.  After losing the primary, Anderson campaigned as an Independent on a platform supporting higher taxes on gasoline, as a way to encourage conservation and production.  Given the widespread externalities in energy markets that skew resource allocations in the wrong directions, let’s use market forces to nudge prices to incentivize behavior that would be in our long term national interest

William Nordhaus, mentioned in yesterday’s blog, has thus championed the idea of a carbon tax.  This may not be the best solution, but remember the dictum to “not let the best be the enemy of the good.”  As we wait for the “perfect” solution, our climate adjustments may get much more expensive.

Kristof notes the absurdity of the National Flood Insurance Program, which makes the economic costs of storms much larger by encouraging development in areas prone to water inundation.

And Congress continues to mandate ethanol fuel, despite its environmental and economic costs. Ethanol from corn didn’t make economic sense in the 1970s during energy crises, and it makes even less sense with today’s energy bounty (historically, Brazil’s program of ethanol from sugarcane made much better sense economically). 

Common sense or pragmatism does not imply that principles and virtues no longer matter.  Virtue is in part the balancing act of all the virtues, including prudence. 

Ecotherapy and the Nature Deficit Disorder

By Jonathan B. Wight

If you believe in evolution, it makes sense that humans would acquire and feel a deep symbiosis with nature.  After all, our ancestors somewhat similar to us have roamed for perhaps 2.5 million years. 

For 99.9999% of that time there was little light except what came from the sun. Our senses were honed to mesh with nature, and to pick up disruptions to it and changes in it.  In short, we became one with the natural environment.

Today we are separated from nature by machines that extend our eyes and hands with power.  We are disconnected by economic theory that regards nature as useful only as an aid to output productivity.  It takes effort to regain a feeling of symbiotic balance. 

I’ve admired Zen Buddhist gardens, with their conscious attention to meditation in harmony with the rhythms of rocks and other natural elements.  

I just ran across an organization, The Earthbody Institute, that seeks to provide opportunities for people to reconnect with nature.  According to the website, “Ecotherapy explores how our relationship with nature is an essential and therapeutic part of our humanity.” Without it, some may experience a “nature deficit disorder”!

The statement seems obvious.  Yet some of us may need a medical diagnosis before we can justify going out to enjoy nature.  Yes, you have permission!

Economic Growth, Technological Change, and Climate Change

By Jonathan B. Wight

The Nobel Committee selected two Americans this year for the economics prize, William Nordhaus (environment) and Paul Romer (growth theory). 

The Committee report notes that  

“Romer’s and Nordhaus’s findings regarding the possibilities for, and restrictions on, future long-run welfare each put the spotlight on a specific market failure.

“Both laureates thus point to fundamental externalities that – absent well-designed government intervention – will lead to sub-optimal outcomes.

“In Romer’s work these externalities are predominately positive through knowledge spillovers. New ideas can be used by others to produce new goods and other ideas.

"In Nordhaus’s work they are predominately negative through greenhouse gas emissions that adversely change the climate….”

Nordhaus encountered and dealt with ethical models in thinking about the future of the planet.  One ethical issue is how to discount the outcomes of future generations relative to present generations. Should the well-being of future consumers matter, and if so, to what extent? 

Too high a discount rate (e.g., 10%) makes the fate of future peoples irrelevant to our decision-making.  Too low a discount rate (e.g., 1%) makes their fates nearly equal to ours in decision-making.  Nordhaus says we should invoke Rawls (a Kantian), whose dictum is that inequality is okay, as long as it benefits the least well off generation. 

If Romer is correct that productivity gains in the future are mainly about ideas, future generations will be richer than ours because of more people coming up with great ideas.  This implies that the present generation is poorer than future generations will be; if so, we should not impoverish ourselves today to benefit future generations.

Nordhaus thus argued against The Stern Review climate report that used a discount rate near 0%.  Nordhaus suggested a rate of about 6% would be better ethically in weighing future interests against present interests. 

The zeitgeist of our time is certainly different from the positive spin painted by Romer, whose work on endogenous growth was mainly finished by the early 1990s.  That is, many (perhaps most) Americans today feel like our children will be worse off economically than those of us in past generations.  That may be myopia, or it may be real, especially if the economic effects of globalization prove dire. 

The big issue is—how risk averse should we be when playing with the environment? My own view is that we have been far too cavalier to date, treating the earth as a trash bin. That may have been rational and even ethical at some point long ago when humanity struggled for mere survival.  It makes no sense today.

Are We Coddling Students, Destroying Our Civilization Through Excess Caring? 

By Jonathan B. Wight

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written a provocative book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018). 

Lukianoff is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which fights against schools limiting speech on campus.  Haidt is a professor of social psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and famous for his other books on the moral psychology of tribes. 

The authors make an interesting psychological claim:  Just as our physical bodies as children need to be exposed to viruses and germs (in order to grow stronger and build up their immune systems) so too do we need to be exposed to pressures, insults, and failures in order to develop a healthy emotional attitude toward the realities of life.  We have to prepare our kids to not be emotionally fragile, but to be resilient.

Of course, we’re not talking about exposing a child to a massive flu epidemic, or an abductor or rapist. Children do need protection.  It’s a question of scale and depth of risk neutralization; the authors argue that rich countries have gotten too risk averse, especially with regard to things like micro aggressions and the claim of injury and victimhood when a speaker comes to campus who argues against one’s beliefs.

The claim is that emotional fragility in college students is on the rise because of the “coddling” they received earlier and continue to receive on campus.  Students who are not prepared for failures and insults feel under greater stress, thus overwhelming the psychological services departments. 

So is it true?--that as we've gotten richer we've become more risk averse, and in the process emotionally weaker and unable to handle conflicts, less prepared to face the world?  That's very scary!  

This is an interesting thesis for the rise and fall of civilizations. 

For more, here’s a video of Lukianoff.  Here’s a video of Haidt.

Race in America

By Jonathan B. Wight

Two items about race were on my radar last week. First, in the latest American Economic Review comes an article about “Why Did the Democrats Lose the South? Bringing New Data to an Old Debate.” 

In the 1940s whites in the South identified with the Democratic Party about 80% of the time.  By 2010, that share was just above 20%.  From a graph, one sees a long-term trend decline with dramatic steep losses in the 1960s and mild stabilization and improvement in the 1970s before further losses through 2010.

Using new data sources, the authors tease out an answer that points to race as the only definitive cause.  From the abstract:

"A long-standing debate in political economy is whether voters are driven primarily by economic self-interest or by less pecuniary motives like ethnocentrism. Using newly available data, we reexamine one of the largest partisan shifts in a modern democracy: Southern whites’ exodus from the Democratic Party. We show that defection among racially conservative whites explains the entire decline from 1958 to 1980. Racial attitudes also predict whites’ earlier partisan shifts. Relative to recent work, we find a much larger role for racial views and essentially no role for income growth or (non-race-related) policy preferences in explaining why Democrats “lost” the South."

A second item on my radar is the new Spike Lee movie, BlacKkKlansman (fair warning: some elements of plot are revealed below).  This is the autobiographical story of Ron Stallworth, who became the first African American cop in the Colorado Springs department in the early 1970s. He goes undercover to investigate the KKK, and pretends to be a white racist (on the telephone) in order to get in with the clan, and especially its leader, David Duke.  The Grand Wizard is taken in by Stallworth’s ruse and personally expedites his application to join the KKK.

(Here is where art imitates life.  Does anyone remember Dave Chappelle’s hilarious skit about being a blind black man who thinks he’s white and joins the KKK?  Sounds similar to this movie’s escapade, except in the movie a white police officer takes Stallworth’s place when it comes time to meet the clan in person.)

The overt attack in the movie is on President Trump, who although never mentioned in the movie mimics the “Make America Great” and “Put America First” slogans that seem to originate with the KKK of the 1970s. 

The movie ends with the violence in Charlottesville. The message is that racial animus has been a simmering issue, and Trump represents the triumph of the racist viewpoint. 

The movie was riveting in places and told an occasionally harrowing story of bravery by undercover cops attempting to thwart domestic terrorism by the KKK.  The story was important and meaningful. 

But the movie was disappointing in the way it depicts a simplistic vision of who the racists are, and by implication, who are the mass of Trump supporters.  The audience laughs at all the stereotyping, since we “know” that all racists must be slow-witted simpletons, rural bumpkins.  They are depicted in the movie as generally sinister in their one-minded focus on hatred for blacks and Jews. 

I am not arguing, a la Trump, that there are good white supremacists and good Hitlerites.  I am arguing that typecasting people with a broad brush necessarily limits what we can learn about connecting and healing. 

In reality, people are complex. We all, to some degree, have racist, sexist, ageist, classist, culturalist, jingoistic, and other blind spots in our abilities to interact with others fairly and with compassion.  It would advance the story further, it seems to me, to focus on creating a depth of character, to explore how and why we come to put on blinders to the world that support these biases.  Such a complex personage would be harder to stereotype and easier to forgive.  

To be fair, the movie also showed the sometimes stereotypical antics of those fighting racism, and the easy slide into mob mentality.  An important moment in the movie came with a speech by Kwame Ture (known previously as Stokely Carmichael), who wowed college students with his Black Power sermon preaching armed violence. The protagonist was moved, but refused to accept the notion that killing "pigs" would ever be acceptable. He was African American, and a cop, and that was the career path he had chosen.  He attests that his duty to humanity should not be directed or restricted by others, and ultimately transcends race as a barrier and a divider.  Reconciliation or redemption may follow from such personal choices, although many who watched the movie may think he copped out (so to speak). 

Hallucinating about an Alternative Universe

By Jonathan B. Wight

This last Thursday the nation was fixated on the gripping testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

I must have fallen asleep, because here’s what I heard Judge Brett Kavanaugh say in response to her testimony: 

“Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

“I have just watched Dr. Ford’s testimony before this committee. She is not at all what I expected. She was not partisan, rude, or seeking glamor and fame.  She was serious, forthright, and clear in her answers, especially indicating what she remembered and what she did not.

“Her demeanor was respectful and she appeared to be telling the truth as she remembers it.  I would welcome her as a witness in my own courtroom anytime.

“Few now can doubt that she did experience a traumatic sexual assault as a teenager.  I applaud her courage in coming forth.  She is a role model for all. 

“That said, I am profoundly confused given that her testimony and my own recollection are so deeply at odds.  

“The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of America’s economic institutions—the rules by which we engage in market exchange, define property rights (remember the Kelo case?), judge the status and role of corporations (remember Citizens United?), and decide on the political process for fair elections (remember Bush vs. Gore?). 

“It is essential that the American people have complete faith in the integrity and impartiality of this court.  I do not want my appointment to be tainted by this issue or by this process. 

“For all of these reasons I respectfully urge that the FBI conduct a thorough investigation, which I would welcome.  I ask this on my behalf, as well as Dr. Ford’s.  The American people deserve to know the truth, as best as seasoned investigators can determine it.

“Finally, let me ask the American people to refrain from attacking Dr. Ford—or myself!—as we go through this necessary and careful process. 

“Thank you for your attention.”

*          *          *

Then I woke with a jolt as the gavel pounded and the real testimony began.