Sunday, August 31, 2014

Motivated by Uncertainty

What motivates people to work harder? What causes them to strive to improve their economic circumstances, to get ahead in the world, to earn more and to be more productive?

Are people better motivated when they receive more government payouts or when they are uncertain about their economic future?

Those who believe in the welfare state see great benefits in providing economic security to everyone. In motivational terms, they believe that a secure individual, one who is not worrying about his next meal, who does not suffer the burden of quotidian concerns, will be liberated to work at what he really wants to do.

Allison Schrager has summarized the arguments of those who believe in the virtue of providing enhanced security through a guaranteed income:

A proposal in Switzerland ensures that everyone, whether through work or government handouts, is paid enough money for a comfortable lifestyle. Artist and founder of the movement Enno Schmidt explained to the magazine: ”What would you do if you had that income? What if you were taking care of a child or an elderly person?” Schmidt said that the basic income would provide some dignity and security to the poor, especially Europe’s underemployed and unemployed. It would also, he said, help unleash creativity and entrepreneurialism: Switzerland’s workers would feel empowered to work the way they wanted to, rather than the way they had to just to get by.

The question then becomes: does having a comfortable lifestyle guaranteed by the government motivate people to do what they really want to do? Or does it turn them into slackers?

Does the recipient of government largesse feel infantilized? Does he believe that he is being paid not to work? Does he feel like a decadent aristocrat, living off the labor of others?

Apparently, his comfortable condition does not provoke more initiative and more hard work. 

After consulting with psychologists and economists Schrager responds that people are not motivated by security. They are motivated by uncertainty.

In her words:

But if we define success as economic growth, security hardly holds the key. Economic growth comes from employing labor and capital more efficiently. That comes from people working hard and innovating. Each of these requires motivation. Thus, motivation is the foundation of success. What drives motivation? The need to resolve uncertainty. In other words, the opposite of guaranteed security.


Because uncertainty is inherently uncomfortable, when it crops up we’re compelled to resolve it. That’s how uncertainty motivates people. 


But if you are certain to be paid a comfortable salary, no matter how many hours you work or education you have, there’s no motivation to become more productive or educated—and that undermines growth.

So far, so good.

The problem is: just as too much security demotivates, so does too much uncertainty. Some people who are wards of the state feel that they are so far that they cannot imagine getting up. Too much uncertainty makes people feel hopeless about changing their circumstances through their own initiative.

Schrager writes:

Ideally, policy strikes the right balance it protects the most vulnerable from hardship but also exposes people to the right kind of uncertainty. This requires ensuring that low-wage workers have viable way to provide their own security, by enhancing economic mobility. 

The right degree of uncertainty must be coupled with job opportunities. Otherwise, it will produce despair.

An Era of Lost Confidence

Speaking on The McLaughlin Report, Mort Zuckerman offered yet another trenchant critique of the Obama presidency. We know well that Obama has lost the confidence of world leaders. Now, Zuckerman says, he has also lost the confidence of American business leaders.

The result, they are cutting back on new investment.

Initially an Obama supporter, Zuckerman saw the light very early on in the Obama presidency.

His views today, as summarized by Breitbart News:

“[The economy] has...grown by about 2%, 2.1%, for the last five years, which is the lowest rate of growth coming out of a recession we have had ever, since the Great Depression. And what’s more, that only took place, not because of the fact that the economic environment was that good, it's because we have a hugely stimulating monetary policy and fiscal policy. We have run up huge national debt and we have undermined the value of the dollar, and this is in my judgment not representing a good economic policy” he argued. And “he [Obama] has lost the confidence of the business community and the business world in terms of where it counts, which is investment, and new plant[s] and equipment.”

Zuckerman concluded that the national debt would “restrict what we are going to be able to do as a country for decades,” adding that “we have a situation where we are losing the competitive edge that we had, not totally, but in many, many areas.”

Something worth thinking about.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Rule of Lawyers

One understands their chagrin. One sympathizes with anyone who is named in a contract.

No, not the kind of contract you study in law school. Not the kind of contract you negotiate with your boss.

I am referring, instead to the kind of contract a Mafioso puts out on you.

And that Shakespeare seems to have put out on lawyers.

In Henry VI, Part II, a character named Dick the Butcher said:

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

Ever since, lawyers have been seriously discommoded. One feels their pain. Would you want to be named in a contract put out by the bard himself? It may not cost you your life, but it will certainly damage your professional reputation.

Obviously, the state of the legal profession in the time of Henry VI (fifteenth century) was not the same as it was in the time when Shakespeare wrote the play (sixteenth century). Neither was the same as today’s.

And yet, when today’s audiences watch the play, they often break out in applause when they hear Dick the Butcher put out a contract on lawyers.

Perhaps they are thinking that the legal profession is not subject to checks and balances, so… the best they can do is laugh at it.

Those who defend the good name of lawyers have been known to perform a  bit of critical exegesis on the bard’s words. They point out that Dick the Butcher wants to kill the lawyers because he wants to jettison the rule of law… the better to establish a tyranny based on royal edicts, or, as they say today, executive orders.

And yet, a little bit of extra exegesis will tell us that there is a difference between the rule of law and the rule of lawyers. Playing fair and playing by the rules is one thing. Hobbling business with a mountain of regulations concocted by overzealous bureaucrats is quite another.

Everyone who runs a business knows how bad the regulatory burden has become during the Obama administration. It did not start with the current administration, but the Obama team has used the financial crisis to fulfill its wish to hobble business with regulations.

In many ways, it has succeeded.

But, it gets worse. When lawyers run wild they produce some serious negative effects on the economy.

We are grateful to The Economist for having pointed out the dangers that lie in the rule of lawyers.

Wrap your mind around this. This week the sober and often left-leaning publication ran an editorial and a major report denouncing the American legal profession as “an extortion racket.” Strong words those. It comes as something of a surprise, because no one that I know of, on the right, the left or the center, has offered such a vigorous denunciation.

Why do people hate lawyers? Read a few choice paragraphs from The Economist:

WHO runs the world’s most lucrative shakedown operation? The Sicilian mafia? The People’s Liberation Army in China? The kleptocracy in the Kremlin? If you are a big business, all these are less grasping than America’s regulatory system. The formula is simple: find a large company that may (or may not) have done something wrong; threaten its managers with commercial ruin, preferably with criminal charges; force them to use their shareholders’ money to pay an enormous fine to drop the charges in a secret settlement (so nobody can check the details). Then repeat with another large company.

The amounts are mind-boggling. So far this year, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other banks have coughed up close to $50 billion for supposedly misleading investors in mortgage-backed bonds. BNP Paribas is paying $9 billion over breaches of American sanctions against Sudan and Iran. Credit Suisse, UBS, Barclays and others have settled for billions more, over various accusations. And that is just the financial institutions. Add BP’s $13 billion in settlements since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Toyota’s $1.2 billion settlement over alleged faults in some cars, and many more.

In many cases, the companies deserved some form of punishment: BNP Paribas disgustingly abetted genocide, American banks fleeced customers with toxic investments and BP despoiled the Gulf of Mexico. But justice should not be based on extortion behind closed doors. The increasing criminalisation of corporate behaviour in America is bad for the rule of law and for capitalism.

You would almost think that the legal profession, or large parts of it, is an organized criminal enterprise. Being the law seems to have put it above the law.

Apparently, the rule of lawyers stifles capitalism. It stifles job creation. It stifles economic growth. If we are to believe The Economist the American legal system is a parasite, sucking the lifeblood from the American economy.

Obviously, it does not reflect capitalism:

This proliferation of cases is not a preordained consequence of America’s capitalist system. Instead, it reflects profound changes over the past century or so in thinking about the respective responsibilities of individuals and institutions and about the role of the state as an increasingly active participant in many areas of business. Collective responses to crises, notably war and depression, have also played a part, as has the embodiment in law of (often transient) economic theories.

The worst part is, it all feels completely extra-legal:

Perhaps the most destructive part of it all is the secrecy and opacity. The public never finds out the full facts of the case, nor discovers which specific people—with souls and bodies—were to blame. Since the cases never go to court, precedent is not established, so it is unclear what exactly is illegal. That enables future shakedowns, but hurts the rule of law and imposes enormous costs. Nor is it clear how the regulatory booty is being carved up. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, who is up for re-election, reportedly intervened to increase the state coffers’ share of BNP’s settlement by $1 billion, threatening to wield his powers to withdraw the French bank’s licence to operate on Wall Street. Why a state government should get any share at all of a French firm’s fine for defying the federal government’s foreign policy is not clear.

Of course, it does not just damage corporations. It is not merely a form of stealth socialism of businesses that are assumed to be guilty. It makes it far more difficult for people to respect lawyers and the rule of law. 

The Can't-Do President

When you’ve lost the Washington Post….

I do not, as a rule, follow Washington Post, so this editorial slap-down of President Obama might be the norm. I suspect that it’s the exception.

Either way, it’s devastating.

The Post is editorializing about the news conference where Obama declared that he had no strategy for dealing with ISIS.

The Post points out that several other senior administration officials, including cabinet secretaries have been sounding the alarm in the strongest terms.

The Post explains:

The discrepancies raise the question of whether Mr. Obama controls his own administration, but that’s not the most disturbing element. 

What would be the most disturbing element?

The Post writes:

When Mr. Obama refuses to acknowledge the reality, allies naturally wonder whether he will also refuse to respond to it.

One fears that allies already know the answer to that question.

The Post continues:

Throughout his presidency, he has excelled at explaining what the United States cannot do and cannot afford, and his remarks Thursday were no exception. “Ukraine is not a member of NATO,” he said. “We don’t have those treaty obligations with Ukraine.” If Iraq doesn’t form an acceptable government, it’s “unrealistic” to think the United States can defeat the Islamic State….

… none of the basic challenges to world order can be met without U.S. leadership: not Russia’s aggression, not the Islamic State’s expansion, not Iran’s nuclear ambition nor China’s territorial bullying. Each demands a different policy response, with military action and deterrence only two tools in a basket that includes diplomatic and economic measures. It’s time Mr. Obama started emphasizing what the United States can do instead of what it cannot.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"Intellectual Virtues"

We understand what it means to have good character as a soldier. We have something of an idea of what it means to have good character as a business professional.

But, what does it mean to have good character when you are in the business of thinking. That is, when you are a writer.

David Brooks asked the question in his column yesterday. He answered it clearly and cogently.

In his words:

We all know what makes for good character in soldiers. We’ve seen the movies about heroes who display courage, loyalty and coolness under fire. But what about somebody who sits in front of a keyboard all day? Is it possible to display and cultivate character if you are just an information age office jockey, alone with a memo or your computer?

Of course it is. Even if you are alone in your office, you are thinking. Thinking well under a barrage of information may be a different sort of moral challenge than fighting well under a hail of bullets, but it’s a character challenge nonetheless.

Brooks is summarizing what appears to be an excellent book. Called Intellectual Virtues it was written by two professors, Robert Roberts and W. Jay Wood. By all appearances the book’s authors and Brooks are following Aristotle’s definitions of virtue. They could not have done better.

First among the intellectual virtues is a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge. Someone who thinks for a living must be curious and open-minded. He must want to learn and he must pursue knowledge avidly.

The more virtuous he is the more he is motivated by his love of knowledge, not his love of fame, money and celebrity.

Evidently, he is humble. Such an individual does not believe that he knows everything and he is willing to allow his beliefs and opinion to be questioned.

Second, he possesses courage. Brooks is correct to say that there is more to courage than holding unpopular opinions. Some opinions are unpopular because they are silly or absurd.

He defines intellectual courage differently:

But the subtler form is knowing how much risk to take in jumping to conclusions. The reckless thinker takes a few pieces of information and leaps to some faraway conspiracy theory. The perfectionist, on the other hand, is unwilling to put anything out there except under ideal conditions for fear that she could be wrong. Intellectual courage is self-regulation, Roberts and Wood argue, knowing when to be daring and when to be cautious. 

Note well that Brooks, following Roberts and Wood, uses an Aristotelian definition of virtue as a mean between two extremes.

Intellectual virtue exists somewhere between jumping to conclusions and failing to conclude anything. To find the correct middle ground between those extremes, an intellectually virtuous individual must possess self-control and self-discipline. 

He should be  able to formulate a conclusion, but he should wait until he has considered all the facts and all sides of the argument.

Next, there is the virtue of firmness.

Brooks defines it as the mean between being too yielding and being too rigid:

You don’t want to be a person who surrenders his beliefs at the slightest whiff of opposition. On the other hand, you don’t want to hold dogmatically to a belief against all evidence. The median point between flaccidity and rigidity is the virtue of firmness.

Another virtue is autonomy. For my part I would call it judiciousness. It means that you should not believe everything you are told and should not reject everything you are told. You should not take someone else’s word as gospel and should not systematically reject the views of others.

Intellectual honesty requires that you not become a cult follower. It also requires that you not make a fetish out of making your own mistakes.

Brooks writes:

You don’t want to be a person who slavishly adopts whatever opinion your teacher or some author gives you. On the other hand, you don’t want to reject all guidance from people who know what they are talking about. Autonomy is the median of knowing when to bow to authority and when not to, when to follow a role model and when not to, when to adhere to tradition and when not to.

Brooks concludes, in a statement with which I concur:

Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.

That Old Double Standard

Uh, oh. The double standard is alive and well. Even after having been denounced, over and over again, as a dinosauric relic, the double standard still exists.

It’s bad news for those who thought that women could have sex like men and not suffer any consequences… beyond an occasional pang of shame.

Apparently, the human mind has another idea.

A woman who has more sex partners prior to marriage will be less happy with her marriage. If a man does the same thing, it will not influence his marital happiness.

The Daily Mail reports on the study from the University of Virginia:

Women who have several sexual partners before getting married have less happy marriages - but men do no harm by playing the field,a study has found.

According to  new research by the National Marriage Project, more than half of married women who had only ever slept with their future husband felt highly satisfied in their marriage.

But that percentage dropped to 42 per cent once the woman had had pre-marital sex with at least two partners. It dropped to 22 per cent for those with ten or more partners.

But, for men, the number of partners a man they appeared to have no bearing on how satisfied they felt within a marriage. 

Researchers said the study showed that sex with many different partners 'may be risky' if the woman is in search of a high-quality marriage.

It concluded: 'Remember that what you do before you say 'I do' seems to have a notable impact on your marital future. So decide wisely.'  

Forewarned is forearmed… so to speak.

Krauthammer on Obama

Last night on Fox News’s Special Report, Charles Krauthammer took the measure of President Obama’s news conference.

Apparently, things were happening in the world while Obama was on vacation. Now that he is back in town he called a press conference to show that he is the man in charge. At the least, he might have pretended to be in charge.

He did neither.

National Review summarized Krauthammer’s remarks:

“Look I thought that the president could no longer surprise me,” Krauthammer said. “I was wrong. He shocked me today. The President of the United States, in the middle of a real crisis, a few days after the beheading of an American, deliberately sort of spitting in the face of the country and demonstrating his cruelty, the president gets in front of the world and says, “I don’t have a strategy.” If that is true, don’t say anything. Why do you announce that you don’t have a strategy?”

But even worse than the president’s statement that he had no strategy to defeat the Islamic State, Krauthammer said, was his comment about Ukraine. Krauthammer summarized Obama’s comment on his strategy in Ukraine by saying Obama acknowledged that he had a strategy in Ukraine, which was “to do absolutely nothing.” 

“He basically said, “We’re going to do nothing. I’ll wait until I chat with the allies next week.” I thought he had a phone,” Krauthammer said. “How about picking up the phone and talking with the allies? You know the phone is a way to communicate rather rapidly.”  He went on to say Obama could have said today he would impose sanctions that have been discussed at great length. Host Bret Baier then chided Krauthammer for talking about a topic slated for the next panel discussion. Baier channeled Obama’s words from earlier today, saying that Krauthammer was “putting the cart before the horse,” to which Krauthammer responded, “But that’s because I don’t have a strategy.”   

Obama is doing his best deer-in-the-headlights impersonation. Events are spinning out of control. He doesn’t have a clue. His vaunted foreign policy team doesn’t have a clue either.

The menace of ISIS has been looming for months, if not years. Now, Obama has figured out that he might need to have a policy.

Everyone joked about the “optics” of his golf outings. Apparently, it wasn’t all optics. Our president really has checked out.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Redefining Marriage

From the dawn of human history people have married. Until very recently, they have always married members of the opposite sex.

In truth, the issue of same-sex marriage has never arisen. It’s not that the wish has been repressed. It’s that no one ever thought of it.

If many people now believe that it is perfectly natural and normal for gays to marry, how come no one ever thought of it before. Isn’t there something slightly suspicious about that?

Throughout human history gays have often been subjected to vicious persecution. The situation has been better in some places at some times; worse in other places at other times.

Contemporary thinking has it that gay relationships were reviled because they were not called marriages. Many people believe correctly that we should put an end to such persecution. That same-sex marriage will do it remains to be seen.

Moreover, marriage has always been a universal institution. If you are married here you are considered to be married everywhere you go. Everyone everywhere recognizes you as married. You do not cease to be recognized as married when you cross a border. 

The same does not apply to same-sex marriage. Most of the world does not recognize the validity of such unions. The notion that the rest of the world will eventually come around to the enlightened American opinion on the matter seems a bit like wishful thinking.

(It seems roughly equivalent to having a proper name. No matter where you go your name stays the same. It does not even get translated into different languages. One might ask what would happen to your sense of your identity if your name changed in different parts of the world.)

Institutions that are universally recognized are very likely based in something that belongs to nature. They are not merely cultural excrescences, to be changed at will.

In the case of marriage, one assumes that the institution is as it is because the act of heterosexual copulation is necessary to the production of new members of the community.

If the survival of one’s genes and one’s community and one’s bloodline matters, then heterosexual copulation has a special privilege and is granted  a higher value than other forms of sexual activity.

It is the only sex act that has the potential for being about more than individual enjoyment.

Some people have taken serious offense at the notion that one form of sexual pleasure has been considered of greater social value than others, but obviously they have never read Darwin.

Let us point out that the interest of genes and community has also trumped the notion that marriage is an expression of romantic love. In reality, the link between marriage and love is of recent coinage. It is only practiced in relatively few human communities. And even then, love, in and of itself is not enough to sustain the social institution called marriage. 

Today, all of these questions are being ground up in the judicial system. They have formed the basis for legal opinions that, I think it fair to say, offer a special perspective.

Nearly all American courts, but certainly not all people, have decided that limiting marriage to couples of the opposite sex is prejudicial against people of the same sex who wish to marry.

The arguments for traditional marriage seem to have been routed, at least in the courts. I was struck yesterday to read the views of Richard Posner, the chief judge of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Posner is a serious jurist, a man of many books and writings, a deep thinker if ever there was one. We are not dealing with a hack columnist or even a blogger. Richard Posner is an influential public intellectual.

In questioning lawyers for states that had voted to ban same-sex marriage Posner explained that, to his mind, marriage could not be based in reproductive biology. Writing in Slate Mark Joseph Stern pronounced Posner’s views a devastating critique of the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage.

For the record, calling arguments devastating and saying that they completely decimated the opposition is a rhetorical ploy. Jon Stewart uses it well and effectively. People who do not know any better find comfort, not merely in thinking that they are right, but in thinking that there is only one rational point of view.

In a marketplace of ideas you respect your opponent’s point of view. Dismissing his position as ridiculous merely serves to shut down debate.

This is what has happened in the gay marriage debate. Today, only one point of view is deemed worthy of respect.

But, if you arguments are self-evidently true why do you need to suppress the opposition?

Also, if the proponents of gay marriage are so obviously right, they do need to explain how it happened that the near-entirety of the human species, from the dawn of human history has never even entertained the idea.

For reasons that need to be explained, but never are, contemporary views about gay marriage never crossed the minds of anyone else throughout the course of human history. If that makes you confident that you are right or that you are smarter than everyone else, so be it.

For my part I will ignore the legal issues and address the larger philosophical issues. After all, Posner addresses them too. Unfortunately, his efforts do not inspire confidence.

Addressing a lawyer representing the state of Indiana Posner pointed out that Indiana allows sterile people to marry. And it allows old infertile people to marry. Ergo, reproduction cannot be the meaning of marriage.

The state of Indiana notwithstanding, there is in nearly all cases only one way to know whether people are sterile. That would be, their attempting and failing to conceive. In itself that does not tell us which person is sterile, but surely, at the dawn of and throughout human history, no one ever imagined giving couples a fertility test prior to marriage.

Of course, gay couples are not, strictly speaking, sterile. Since they do not, by preference, engage in heterosexual copulation, the question does not arise. The analogy is dubious.

Note well, when the first patriarch Abraham and his wife were too old to have children, they did not seek to divorce.

In truth, custom has had it that marriages are not real until they are consummated. And there is only one way to consummate a marriage. Sad to say the act of heterosexual copulation is not prescribed as an expression of love. It is required because it makes reproduction possible. Failure to consummate a marriage is grounds, not for divorce, but for annulment. That means that an unconsummated marriage was never a real marriage.

So, the institution of marriage has always required an act whereby conception would be possible. It has not required conception as a necessary consequence.

Ah yes, and then there is the devastating argument, to the effect that if we allow elderly couples to marry, then obviously the institution cannot really be about reproduction.

Of course, elderly opposite sex couples are not really the same as young same-sex couples. The reason is fairly obvious. The first can consummate their marriage. The second cannot. And the first might have conceived. The second never could have.

Beyond the fact that for most of human history most people did not live long enough to face circumstances where they could no longer conceive, menopause has never been considered grounds for divorce.

And, the institution of marriage is not merely about producing offspring. It is also about raising offspring in a stable family environment. We humans care for our children for a very long period of time. We have always preferred to have children brought up by the people who have the most important genetic investment in their well-being.

The fact that a couple, to take the example, can no longer have children does not relieve them of a responsibility to continue to care for their children.

And, if we believe that it is desirable for children to have grandparents, then surely we are not going to dissolve their marriage because they are no longer fertile.

Human cultures, with their great wisdom have discouraged older infertile couples from getting divorced. But, in order to make sense of the precept it has also grandfathered in older couples that met each other late in life.

Nevertheless, one suspects that the notion of 65 year olds marrying is a very recent occurrence in human history. The nature of an institution that has endured through many millennia cannot be overthrown because we now, routinely, live beyond our reproductive years.

Finally, an institution that has existed throughout human history probably has a rationale. Those who think that they have escaped history and tradition should have enough humility to consider that they might be wrong.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Case Against Empathy

In this blog and in my book The Last Psychoanalyst I have inveighed against our modern tendency to make empathy the seat of all moral virtue.

At times, I seemed to be nearly alone in holding this viewpoint. Now, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, at work on a book about empathy has declared that he is against it.

He argues the point persuasively in the Boston Review and I will review his ideas at length.

By way of an introduction, I point out that most of the confusion about empathy lies in the fact that the therapy culture had made empathy the basis for moral behavior.

To be clear, empathy is a feeling, it is an emotion. You do not act empathically or even empathetically.

Being moral means following rules or laws. Some will argue that empathy motivates people to follow rules, but it need not. Empathy does not tell you what to do or what not to do.

Confucius said that it’s better to follow rules, to perform rituals without the right feeling than not to do it at all. If so, people are motivated, not by their feelings, but by their sense of propriety.

Making empathy the basis for morality is to misunderstand the basis for morality.

Bloom introduces his thought here:

…  I’ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens—a statement so outlandish it can only be a joke. And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.

For our edification he defines his term. Empathy involves feeling someone else’s pain. It’s the ultimate Clintonian virtue.

But there are different kinds of empathy. Normally, we recognize that someone is in pain by reading facial expressions and tone of voice. When we do so we change our own facial expressions. This produces a recognizable emotion. It helps us to identify what we are seeing, but it does not necessarily mean that we are feeling the other person’s pain.

In truth, if you want to be precise, we can never really feel anyone else’s pain.

Bloom defines his terms here:

The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. I will follow this convention here, but we should keep in mind that the two are distinct—they emerge from different brain processes; you can have a lot of one and a little of the other—and that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side.

He adds the following:

In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.

In part, this is true. Empathy, by my theory is an attempt to form an unmediated connection with another person. Since that kind of connection is impossible in reality, empathy allows people to live in a fiction.

One must add that selfishness and indifference are constituted by behaviors. You might behave selfishly or indifferently, but that might also be the result of the fact that you do not know any better. It does not necessarily say anything about your heart.

Next, Bloom begins to make his case against empathy:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.

Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.

Bloom makes an interesting point. Others have argued that empathy can inhibit action. (It is not an accident that empathy is based on pathos, which is something that you suffer, while action is something that you do.) When you empathize with someone who is in anguish because he does not know what to do you too will feel that you do not know what to do.

Moreover, in his most salient point, Bloom remarks that empathy only pertains to relationships with other individuals. It numbs us to larger, more systemic problems and issues.

He adds, importantly that people who are good at what he calls “unmitigated communion,” or what I would call an unmediated connection are prey to the feelings of others, both positive and negative. This is what it means to suffer an emotion or a passion.

In his words:

Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety.

Continuing, he compares empathy with compassion:

 A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout.

Bloom then notes that when you consult with a physician you do not want him to feel your pain. You want a doctor who can express a calm confidence when you are feeling anxious. Often when we consult with a physician we make note of his emotions and use them to gauge the severity of our illness.

Bloom reports:

He gets the most from doctors who don’t feel as he does, who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain. And he particularly appreciates certain virtues that have little directly to do with empathy, virtues such as competence, honesty, professionalism, and respect.

As is well known, psychologists have latched on to empathy because it glorifies feelings. And Bloom remarks, it glorifies a capacity in which women excel more than men. It’s yet another effort to feminize the world… the better to makes us more civilized, I assume.

Since psychologists believe that psychopathy is defined by a lack of empathy, they assume that a dose of empathy will cure it. One must note that most psychopaths are of the male persuasion.

To which Bloom responds, cogently:

… many people diagnosed with psychopathy are excellent at reading others’ minds. This is what enables them to be such masterful manipulators, con men, and seducers. But the emotional part is thought to be absent—they cannot feel other people’s pain—and this is why psychopaths are such terrible people.
Of course, psychopaths might very well feel someone else’s pain and enjoy it. For some people pain is a source of pleasure.

One might say that psychopaths are terrible people, not because they do not feel the right feelings, but because of the way they behave. They are proud of their bad character and take joy in abusing the good character of other people.

They do not follow the rules, but break them with impunity. They take advantage of those who follow rules and are thrilled when they get away with something. One doubts that their condition will be cured by a putting them on an empathy drip.  

It is fair to say that psychopaths are self-centered, but it might also be the case that theirs is a politically and culturally subversive act.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Time to Bury Common Core Math

In America we call it Common Core. In Canada they have been calling it discovery-based learning.

As applied to teaching mathematics, these new approaches reject rote learning in favor of more complex and often confusing ways of solving problems.

In America the new method was concocted by experts and funded by the Gates foundation.

What could go wrong?

Apparently, lots can and has gone wrong. I have already posted about the views of retired Berkeley math professor Marina Ratner. She was very pessimistic about the new way of teaching math.

Now, Canadian researchers have discovered the rote learning is much better for a child’s development. Memorizing the multiplication tables helps you to move on more effectively to more complex mathematical problems.

In effect, as young math students memorize the basics, their brains reorganize to accommodate the greater demands of more complex math. It is a gradual process, like “overlapping waves,” the researchers write, but it clearly shows that, for the growing child’s brain, rote memorization is a key step along the way to efficient mathematical reasoning.

By tracking a group of young students over the course of a year, the authors show “that children learn to associate individual problems with the correct answers. Repeated problem solving during the early stages of arithmetic skill development also contributes to memory re-encoding and consolidation, thus resulting in enhanced hippocampal activity and ability to recall basic arithmetic facts… The maturation of problem-solving skills is characterized by a gradual decrease in the use of inefficient procedures such as counting and an increase in the use of memory-based strategies.”

As a scientific justification of rote learning, the study seems likely to further polarize the controversy over math teaching styles, in which arithmetical fundamentalists are squared off against the popular and progressive forces of “discovery-based” learning, in which students are encouraged to find their own ways to the right answer.

And also:

One critic of the government’s adoption of “discovery-based learning,” Ken Porteous, a retired engineering professor, put it bluntly: “There is nothing to discover. The tried and true methods of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division work just fine as they have for centuries. There is no benefit and in fact a huge downside to students being asked to discover other methods of performing these operations and picking the one which they like. This just leads to confusion which ultimately translates into frustration, a strong dislike for mathematics and a desire to drop out of any form of mathematics course at the earliest opportunity.”

Civilization and the Triumph of the Feminine

Human beings are symbol-using animals. They have found it more economical to think in symbols and to plan with symbols than to move real objects in the world.

Why use combat to develop military strategy when you can use war games? Of course, you will at some point have to engage in armed combat, but war gaming or preplanning is surely more economical.

Many people believe that the advent of symbols—be they tokens or words—made humans human.

Now, under the aegis of evolutionary science we learn that the decisive shift, the founding moment of human civilization occurred when our ancestors became feminized.

Adam Gopnik reports on the scientific research. By the new account, when humans discovered symbols they took a great leap forward, from the old aggressive chest-thumping testosterone-filled male behavior into a world of cooperating and chattering.

Before the advent of civilizing symbols men would threaten and intimidate each other. After, a newly feminized humanity discovered the value of “social tolerance.” Then, human communities began to resemble afternoon talk shows.

Gopnik has his doubts, but the hypothesis is plausible. Or better, it is plausible if you buy into the narrative of the stereotypical division of the sexes. In truth, these versions of male and female human behavior are contemporary caricatures.

Since no one much questions them, they have been allowed to infect the culture, unmolested.

You will note, of course that this version of male behavior is not only a caricature. It is slanderous. I represents an effort to transvalue values, to diminish and demean masculine behavior and to exalt and glorify feminine behavior.

Without the superior virtue of women we would all be uncivilized brutes.

Such is the party line. It has become so engrained that no one seems to question it any more.

And yet, the caricatures of male individuality and female cooperation are far from being self-evident. Open up the sports pages one day. How many team sports will be reported on? How many of those team sports are male-dominant?

By the evidence of the sports pages, to say nothing of the military, men to do better than women at functioning in teams.

Let’s accept that human beings embraced symbols because symbols allowed them to cooperate? Why would we not believe that our ancestors embraced cooperation because it made them stronger, more efficient and more effective… in war and in hunting?

Didn’t Benjamin Franklin say, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence:

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.    

Call it strength in numbers. Call it the power of a group that is well-coordinated. If human beings learned how to work together to achieve a larger goal, there seems little doubt that this served the interests of the male of the species… or better, that it enhanced the group’s chance to survive and to prosper.

Obama Administration Priorities

In the “actions speak louder than words” rubric, the White House has been showing its priorities by sending or not sending representatives to funerals.

When Margaret Thatcher died, the White House sent no representatives to her state funeral.

When James Foley was beheaded by ISIS, the White House sent no representatives to his funeral.

When Michael Brown died in Ferguson, MO, the White House sent three representatives to his funeral. It also sent Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson.

Commentary is unnecessary.              

Monday, August 25, 2014

Obamacare's Collateral Damage

Lately, Obamacare’s defenders have been on message. They have been saying, over and over again, that the program is working well.

To hear them tell it, the program is not going to cost the Democrats too many votes in the next election.

Worse yet, they are talking as though Obamacare is here forever.

The Wall Street Journal has often editorialized about President Obama’s signature achievement. In a recent editorial it placed the program in a larger context, revealing what would be called, in other circumstances, collateral damage.

Whatever the advantage in getting some of the uninsured insured, part of the cost lies in the number of people who no longer have full time jobs.

Obamacare, the Journal explains, is a highly efficient job killer:

On Thursday the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia reported the results of a special business survey on the Affordable Care Act and its influence on employment, compensation and benefits. Liberals claim ObamaCare is of little consequence to jobs, but the Philly Fed went to the source and asked employers qualitative questions about how they are responding in practice.

The bank reports that 78.8% of businesses in the district have made no change to the number of workers they employ as the specific result of ObamaCare and 3% are hiring more. More troubling, 18.2% are cutting jobs and employees. Some 18% shifted the composition of their workforce to a higher proportion of part-time labor. And 88.2% of the roughly half of businesses that modified their health plans as a result of ObamaCare passed along the costs through increasing the employee contribution to premiums, an effective cut in wages.

Those results are consistent with a New York Fed survey, also out this week, that asked "How, if at all, are you changing (or have you changed) any of the following because of the effects that the ACA is having on your business?" For "number of workers you employ," 21% of Empire State manufacturers and 16.9% of service firms answered "reducing."

Last week Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve remarked that the job situation was not very good. True enough, the unemployment rate is down. True enough, the economy is creating more jobs. Unfortunately, most of those are part time jobs.

For those who cannot find full-time employment the job situation is dismal:

To complete the triptych, an Atlanta Fed poll earlier this month found that 34% of businesses planned to hire more part-time workers than in the past, mostly because of a rise in the relative costs of their full-time colleagues. ObamaCare may be contributing to that surge to the extent the law's insurance mandates and taxes increase spending on fringe benefits for people who work more than 30 hours.

As it happens, the workforce participation rate has never recovered from the recession.

The Journal explains:

Liberals will dismiss this as merely anecdotal or of minor impact, but it makes sense that ObamaCare's labor effects would be concentrated in some industries with relatively low-wage or marginal workers. The data points also help explain why the number of people employed part-time surged by 12% during the recession but the rate hasn't fallen even as the economy has improved. Or why labor force participation is the lowest since the late 1970s.

Desperately Seeking Pleasure

So much for the pursuit of excellence. So much for the pursuit of career success.

Female aficionados of the Fifth Shades of Grey trilogy are more likely to engage in risky and dangerous behaviors… presumably to garner more than their fair share of extreme thrills.

Is it a case of life imitating art? Perhaps, so.

At the least, it feels like a sign of desperation.

Women who read "Fifty Shades of Grey" were more likely to have fasted, used diet aids and had a partner who verbally abused them or demonstrated stalker behavior toward them, according to a study by Michigan State University.

Women who read all three books were more likely to binge drink and have five or more sexual partners than women who hadn't read any of the triology.

Naturally, the group is self-selected. No one knows whether women who try out extremely risky behaviors in search of intense thrills are more likely to read the books or whether women who read the books are induced to avoid stable relationships in search of pleasure that is associated with abuse.
The distinction is certainly important, though one imagines that, given the number of books that have been sold more than a few of the readers would not have indulged such temptations without having the imprimatur that arrives when a book becomes a best seller and when everyone is reading it.

And, it is worth mentioning that people who seek extreme thrills often do so because they have, perhaps through trauma, numbed themselves to many of life’s more banal and perhaps more enjoyable pleasures.

The phenomenon bespeaks an underlying malaise in American women. The popularity of these books seems to have offered them a new way to try to overcome it.