Archive for January, 2013

How To Solve All Societal Problems

January 28, 2013

The theme of Rebecca Costa’s 2010 book The Watchman’s Rattle* is that the complexity of modern life is itself the key to the complex problems we face. imagesOur brains did evolve to handle complexity, especially that of social relations. But the resulting cultural evolution outruns our brains’ biological evolution, and thus our cognitive abilities.

Early on, Costa discusses the Mayans, who she believes succumbed mainly to drought. Their end game degenerated into religious mysticism. Why, Costa asks, didn’t they instead continue pursuing rational solutions? – more wells, reservoirs, cisterns, etc.? In fact, she had earlier called the Mayan hydraulic systems “masterpieces of design and engineering.” But she thinks they hit what she labels a “cognitive threshold.” Actually, however, it seems that rational solutions reached their limit – there was nothing the Mayans could have done to overcome their water deficit.

Unknown-1Yet Costa draws a parallel with California’s water shortage problem. Here too, all current efforts seem doomed to eventual inadequacy. A frustrated Costa declares: “We need to manufacture more water.” (Her italics) What she means is desalination (making seawater usable). What’s stopping us? Not technology; unlike the Mayans, we could do it. Our problem, Costa says, is attitudinal.

To explain, she invokes the concept of the meme (coined by scientist Richard Dawkins), the cultural equivalent of genes. Memes are ideas that propagate, and can pre-empt other forms of thought. Like religion, a powerful set of memes that certainly obstruct other, incompatible kinds of thinking.

Costa uses the term “supermeme,” and focuses on several. One she calls “irrational opposition.” While I think this misapplies the meme concept, Costa is certainly on to something: a culturally rooted thinking pattern of “rejecting, criticizing, suppressing, ignoring, misrepresenting, [and] marginalizing rational solutions.”

Unknown-2Being against something can be far more emotionally satisfying than supporting it; criticizing a lot easier than defending. But, Costa says, people in opposition mode rarely have any positive solutions to offer. Desalination is a case in point – lots of vocal opposition but, typical of nimbyism, no answers to the problem. Similarly (not in the book), anti-fracking hysteria exemplifies Costa’s point – people need the energy, but obsess over largely hypothetical dangers, while ignoring the far worse ill-effects of familiar energy production modes we already use.

Climate change is a problem where a “cognitive threshold” does seem to be a stumbling block. Interestingly, it’s the environmentalists Costa faults here, for turning their beliefs into a kind of religion rather than a fact-based program for rational action. She’s talking about their insistence solely upon reducing carbon emissions. This does have earmarks of religious belief, both in its moralistic manichaeanism – casting humanity as a pack of sinners who need to don hair shirts in penance – and its disregard for factual reality. Indeed, it’s not just the climate denialists with their heads in the sand – the believers are wedded to a plan that cannot possibly work. Even if carbon emissions went to zero, global temperatures would still continue to rise significantly.

Costa instead advocates geo-engineering solutions – for example, replicating the effect of volcanoes by putting sulfate particles in the upper atmosphere to cool the planet – a vastly more efficacious and vastly less costly approach (as I’ve discussed). Yet all such proposals the McKibbenite climate zealots demonize as heresy.

Costa also applies her analysis to politics, where again inciting opposition is far easier than enlisting support for anything positive. That explains negative campaigning. All you need do is give voters one reason to reject an opponent. Thus we get Willie Horton and foofaws over “legitimate rape.” And while everyone says politicians should compromise, the actual elements of any policy compromise typically engender far more vehement opposition than support.

Though much of the book is great, unfortunately some is utter nonsense. While Costa pokes fun at the old wives’ tale about not swimming for an hour after eating, she falls for the equally false myth of needing eight glasses of water daily.

Worse, Costa doesn’t much hold with personal responsibility. One person’s obesity might be his own fault; but the obesity of millions rises to being systemic. She mocks personal efforts like recycling trash, explaining what little difference it actually makes (household trash being a small fraction of our industrial total). The problems at issue are societal, true enough. But who is society but us? On Costa’s logic, voting too is pointless because one vote can’t make any difference; but obviously, collectively it can be momentous. There is no sense in talking about what “society” can or must do, divorced from what its individual constituent members do.

images-2And while one of Costa’s supermemes is labeled “extreme economics,” I wish she had instead addressed economic irrationality — her own chapter being a prime exemplar. It’s the familiar trope that everything today is reduced to money and profit. Thus she laments that we can’t deploy a device invented by Dean Kamen to produce clean water with minimal electricity because, at two grand a pop, nobody can figure out how to profit. But who again is this “we”? If the economics don’t work, then someone must get stuck with the bill. Costa similarly bemoans things that used to be “free” but now incur charges. But nothing is ever really free. There’s no manna from Heaven. Economics is all about how non-free resources get allocated (and who pays). Failure to understand this can only impede solving the kinds of problems Costa addresses.

Anyway, after going through a litany of those problems, and all our mental obstacles for tackling them, Costa finally comes down with a single catch-all answer: insight. images-3Our brains have this fantastic capability for “Eureka!” moments – like when Newton “discovered gravity” (sic). So we just have to do more of that.

If I sound sarcastic, it’s only partly true. Costa argues that we can improve brain function through mental exercise, and there’s much supporting evidence. Indeed, it appears that fairly modest bouts of brain exercise can have long-lasting cognitive benefits. Why don’t our schools include this? I’ve written (“The Marshmallow Test”) about how inculcating some kinds of character discipline can have big effects, improving kids’ ability to thrive in school and life; and without this, conventional “3Rs” teaching may be largely futile for many students. The same applies to mental exercise to sharpen cognitive functioning. Oddly, Costa doesn’t say this, but our society’s failure to utilize these beneficial techniques is a perfect example of the problem, and changing this could be an important part of the solution.

Meantime, in fact, humans have been thinking smarter and better. This, as I’ve noted, is a key reason Pinker fingered for declining violence in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. And, yes, it is declining (read the damn book). Of course we haven’t attained perfection but we’re getting there. And while Costa stresses that our lives’ complexity is outrunning our brain evolution, that only applies to our individual brains. But our mental power is collective. No single person today completely understands any advanced technology, but we don’t need that, when we can combine and coordinate the understandings of the many.

Unknown-3Further, the more of us there are, the more ideas are created; and modernity puts ever more of us in contact with other people and their ideas, so we get ideas bouncing off each other, flowering like branches off a tree, metastasizing. This is why progress happens, and in fact accelerates; it’s the very thing that produces all the complexity Costa talks about. So in the end it’s wrong to see complexity as the problem. It’s why I am an optimist about humankind.

* This title is intended to evoke old-time watchmen who used rattles to signal danger.

Dear Abby

January 23, 2013

images-1Pauline Esther Phillips died last week at 94. She was better known by her pseudonym, “Abigail Van Buren,” originator of the “Dear Abby” column (which, for decades, has actually been written by her daughter).

Many scientific studies of identical twins have sought to tease out the role of genes. Now here is a powerful piece of evidence for the importance of genetics: Dear Abby’s chief rival in the realm of newspaper advice columns was “Ann Landers,” written by Eppie (Esther Pauline) Lederer – Pauline Phillips’s identical twin!

I have always been a reader of Dear Abby. The problems and foibles discussed are a window into the human condition. And, to be honest, it often makes me feel fortunate that I don’t have the kinds of problems and personality defects described there. I like to ponder my own answers before reading Abby’s. And I often disagree with hers. Here’s a recent example (verbatim):

DEAR ABBY: A longtime friend of mine, “Blanche,” was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several years ago. She let me know that once she reached a certain point in the disease she did not want to be paraded around for others to gawk at. That time came about a year ago, but I still pick her up every Sunday and take her to church. It’s the only time she gets to leave the nursing home, and she loves it. The people at church give her hugs and go out of their way to treat her well and she feels it. My question is, am I wrong in going against her earlier wishes? — FRIEND IN ARIZONA

DEAR FRIEND: I think you are. Your friend clearly stated when she was in her right mind that she did not want to be an object of pity. By going against her wishes, you have taken away her right to be remembered with dignity. And while it was done in a well-meaning way, I don’t agree with it.

imagesDEAR ABBY (says me): I disagree. Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, shows how people’s wishes and choices regarding the future often fail to correctly anticipate how they’ll feel when the future arrives. Blanche may indeed have been in her right mind when making her request, but obviously couldn’t know how she’d feel about it when the time came. Her friend says she loves the outings and the warmth extended by fellow congregants. This enhances Blanche’s quality of life. Who is harmed? Not yesterday’s Blanche, who no longer exists. Her “right to be remembered with dignity” is irrelevant to today’s Blanche. Life is for the living.

DEAR BLOG READERS: What do you think?

Cat-Women of the Moon

January 17, 2013

Cat_Women_of_Moon.previewAfter having recently viewed the film classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, we decided to see Cat-Women of the Moon. My wife and I highly recommend this fine motion picture for your viewing pleasure. (It’s available on Netflix)

With an all-star cast including Sonny Tufts, Victor Jory and Marie Windsor, this 1953 film tells the story of our first manned Moon mission. Upon arrival, the crew explores, and finds an underground city inhabited by a small troop of cat-women, apparently the remnants of an ancient civilization, now running out of breathable air. (How they managed to keep the air within their unsealed redoubt was unexplained.) They had long ago dispensed with males, apparently having no need to reproduce, though this nuance was unexplained too. Anyhow, some of the cat-women had never seen a male, and get a taste of what they’d been missing.

But love is not really on their minds. The cat-women plot to steal the spaceship, take it back to Earth, and conquer the planet, using their telepathic powers (which only work on women). They use those powers to enlist the one female crew member, Helen, in their cause; Helen’s loyalties go back and forth, as do her declarations of love for the Tufts versus Jory characters. The cat-women need to inveigle the crew to teach them how to operate the spaceship. In furtherance of this scheme, they hide the crew’s space suits, without which they cannot leave.

UnknownThe climactic scene is a chase to the ship, with three cat-women donning space suits. It ends abruptly, with two of them simply shot by a revolver (off-camera) and the other just whacked on the head. The earthlings returns to Earth. They don’t seem to notice one missing crewman, who had earlier been lured away and murdered by a cat-woman. Also, one could quibble about the space suit count, and whether two of the suits would have been rendered useless by bullet-holes.

However, we found this film far more entertaining than the iconic Plan 9 (often considered the worst movie ever). Virtually every scene of Cat-Women was a gem of hilariousness. We particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the crew as a bunch of slacker bozos, entirely devoid of the gravitas one might expect for humanity’s premier extraterrestrial voyage. (No “One step for a man …” upon first setting foot on the Moon.) At one point, seeing three of the men in a wrestling clinch, my wife remarked, “It’s like the Three Stooges,” and I replied, “No, the Three Stooges wouldn’t act so dumb.”

imagesOne also has to admire how economical this production was. Some black tights, some eyebrow make-up, and voila, there’s an alien cat-woman!

We give it two thumbs up, five stars, and the Palme d’or.

Who was America’s Worst President?

January 12, 2013

During the holidays my sister-in-law got me into a heated discussion on how I could possibly have voted for such a flawed, problematic bumbler with weird religious beliefs, rather than the cool, cerebral, eloquent golden boy Obama.

What is remarkable about the recent “fiscal cliff” deal is that while during the earlier negotiations, President Obama offered relatively piddling spending cuts, the Republicans actually wound up getting even less – zero, in fact. And correspondingly, Obama actually wound up getting less in added tax revenue than Republicans had earlier offered.* These tax increases too are piddly – and, astoundingly, are offset by a new round of tax breaks for corporations which Obama – yes, Obama – insisted on.

I just read the local Metroland paper’s lefty columnist, wishing that liberals would “go off script” for a change and – wait for it – stop being apologetic about protecting entitlement spending and socking it to the rich on taxes!

UnknownCongressional Republicans now say the next needed debt ceiling vote is when they’ll really really, yes really, get serious on spending. Actually, that’s not when it will happen. It will be when pigs fly. Or when voters truly want it, which comes to the same thing.

Incidentally, remember how Republicans did extract some modest spending cuts in exchange for averting a government shut-down a couple of years back? Turns out they were snookered. Those spending cuts were a mirage. And what about that $700+ billion Obama was accused, during the campaign, of cutting from Medicare? He didn’t want to give the true rebuttal, which is that those cuts too were a fake – promised reductions in payment rates for hospitals and doctors. Congress keeps pretending to legislate such cuts, and then rescinds them when the powerful medical lobbies scream (and pony up campaign contributions — it’s really an extortion scam by legislators).

Unknown-1Federal debt is roughly 100% of GDP, and growing at over a trillion a year, with no let-up in sight. Medicare is the gorilla. Its cost is on track to double in a decade. In three decades, it’s set to push national debt to an impossible 250% of GDP. Tax to the max on the rich and you’ll barely nibble at the problem. No conceivable level of tax increases on everybody can close this gap.

Obamacare will not reduce health costs for one fundamental reason. Call this Robinson’s law – when government pays the bill, the price does not go down. (Just look at college tuition. The more government pays, through subsidized student loans (often defaulted), the more colleges raise tuition to milk that cow.)

Already, interest payments on the debt consume a sizeable chunk of the federal budget. But that’s with interest rates at historic lows, near zero. America can finance so cheaply today because its bonds are still seen as the world’s safest. But at some point, as our debt spirals out of control, the bond market will have second thoughts. Even interest rates returning to historically typical levels of just a few percentage points could mean a tripling or quadrupling of our interest costs – not only on new debt, but on rolling over all the old debt, all $20 trillion or whatever.

imagesGoodbye Charlie. Hello Greece.

Take your pick of worst presidents – Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Harding, even George W. Bush. But none left the nation as catastrophic a legacy as Obama’s willingness to let America slide into economic destruction.

* Note that while Democrats made a career of condemning the “Bush tax cuts for the rich,” the smallness of the revenue from repealing those cuts for the 1% shows that the bulk of the benefit actually went to the 99% — whose Bush tax cuts Congressional Democrats have now cheerfully voted to make permanent.

We have met the enemy and it’s us

January 6, 2013

UnknownRecently I got one of those virally forwarded e-mail blasts, flaying Washington politicians and demanding an array of draconian punishments for them, stopping just short, perhaps, of tumbrils.

But who elected these miscreants?

It doesn’t take a political science genius to understand politicians’ behavior. There’s but a single explanatory factor: winning elections. That means following voter wishes.

So why doesn’t the fiscal cliff deal tackle spending? Don’t voters want that? Oh, yes, absolutely they do, just so long as you don’t cut Social Security or Medicare or education or farm programs or defense or, well, anything, except of course for foreign aid. (On which the average American thinks we should spend no more than 10%. In fact it’s less than 1%.)

thRepublicans, especially Tea Partiers, really really want spending cuts. But just ask exactly what to cut, besides Big Bird (0.014% of the budget). And just whisper a suggestion and you get the campaign ads with granny shoved over a cliff. Of course Republicans don’t want to hand Democrats this nuclear weapon. What they’d like is for Democrats to disarm by joining them in the spending cuts. But any Democrat doing that would get the granny-over-the-cliff ad himself in his own next primary.

We imagined that Republicans would make a deal with President Obama, agreeing to higher taxes for the rich in exchange for spending cuts. How foolishly naïve. We forgot the nuclear weapon. We forgot that whereas soaking the rich is popular, cutting spending risks granny-over-the-cliff ads and political annihilation. So what we got was soak-the-rich and nothing on spending.

Why did Republicans agree? In the end, instead of trading off soak-the-rich taxes for spending cuts, they were forced to swallow the tax hikes merely in exchange for avoiding even bigger tax hikes.

The New York Times editorially labeled this a big payoff for Republicans, rewarding their “intransigence”! The Times fulminated that the rich aren’t being soaked enough – while saying hardly a word about spending – nor noting that under this deal, deficits will continue to balloon – or that no conceivable level of taxes on the rich could close that gap.

Devotees of this blog may recall how accurately I foresaw this outcome. The Democrats did get their Great White Whale, with Bush’s tax cuts terminated for high incomes. And the argument over spending can seemingly continue. I say “seemingly” because for all the sturm-und-drang, nothing serious will be done about spending because Republicans have now squandered their biggest bargaining chip. Any further blackmail they might attempt would be seen as just that, blackmail, politically suicidal.

I hope President Obama enjoys his whale meat. He might have exercised responsible leadership. He might have forced Democrats to accept the need for spending action, as a trade-off for the tax increases they craved. This fiscal cliff moment was actually a grand opportunity for him to achieve something meaningful – just like Simpson-Bowles – the opportunity he missed earlier. But instead of seizing the moment, the President chose the easy, expedient thing, to pocket the cheap “victory.”

History will write that Obama’s eight years mark the time when America might have saved itself, but didn’t. We may have survived this th-1recent little cliff, but we’re running straight down the track toward a far bigger one, of economic ruin, with clearly now no hand on the throttle.

And if you want to find the real culprit to blame, dear voter, look in the mirror.