Thursday, April 08, 2021

Cut them down to size

Illustration of USA wealth curve 2016
USA wealth curve 2016

When shrubbery gets overgrown it must be pruned. Same goes for big corporations sprouting monopolistic tendrils. But it's easier to prune a garden than an economy. About half a dozen companies buoy up the value of the stock market. Of those, five are major tech companies. They trade as AAPL, MSFT, AMZN, GOOGL and FB. Most, if not all, of these engage, or have engaged, in monopolistic practices.

Now and then these companies come under scrutiny, but little ever gets done. If one political party has a good idea, the other calls it a partisan ploy. One big reason our politics is so partisan comes down to the influence of large unregulated corporations. Today there are no fairness doctrines to constrain broadcast media, and no rules at all for social media.

Aside from partisan politics, trust-busting doesn't come easy. To tilt at financial monoliths without regard as to where their rubble will topple would be dangerously quixotic. Monopolies must be disassembled carefully. Adding to a hesitancy to disassemble them is the unspoken fear of unleashing the Invisible Hand.

I hope some day to be able to prove my belief that bad old ideas become parasites that stunt the growth of new thoughts. Adam Smith used the term Invisible Hand only twice in his writings and never in the context in which it's popularly used. The idea that an Invisible Hand will balance financial markets in lieu of regulating them has never been tested. That's because financial markets have always been regulated. When regulations were weakened to allow the Invisible Hand more freedom to balance markets, lenders and borrowers got greedy. The result was the Great Recession of 2008. When the government realized that banks were too big to fail — that if the banks failed the greater economy would collapse — it rescued them financially. Institutions were enabled while common folks lost their homes. Enamored of their bonuses, bankers quickly returned to believing in the balancing Invisible Hand.

Because they were too big to fail, the largest financial institutions should have been reorganized. They weren't. Small competitors can play a bit dirty without disturbing the economic order, but when large companies do so, they have become monopolies, and must be cut down for the social good.

It's high time for companies like AAPL, MSFT, AMZN, GOOGL and FB to face regulation and partial disassembly into companies designed to collaborate and compete with smaller entrepreneurs. Just like the Tooth Fairy, there is no Invisible Hand. It's a myth the greedy promoted while grabbing advantages for themselves.

America needs a more balanced economy; one with a larger middle class and reduced levels of both poverty and opulence. Pruning monopolies like the big five will help achieve this but it's not enough to rebalance our economy. According to Economic Policy Institute:

"In 2019, the ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was 320-to-1 under the realized measure of CEO pay; that is up from 293-to-1 in 2018 and a big increase from 21-to-1 in 1965 and 61-to-1 in 1989."

In 1965, a worker in 1965 whose boss made 21 times his salary could be invited to his boss' home for dinner. In 2019, a worker earning 320 times less than his boss is unlikely to ever meet him. Not only has the degree of income inequality increased enormously, class distinctions have grown, and our sense of community has shrunk. Back in 1965 the wealthiest paid high progressive taxes. They may have complained, but they didn't suffer all that much. We need to tax wealth to prevent it from growing into a weed that disrupts social harmony.

Lastly, a Hands-On effort to balance our economy will work faster and more efficiently than an Invisible Hand ever will. Yet we need to be cautious. The Soviet planned economy didn't work well. It might work better today because of our abundance of internet driven consumer data. Still, we shouldn't attempt it. When Capitalism excels it 's because competing businesses create innovation. Innovation stops happening when companies grow too large. We need to encourage innovation and that means more entrepreneurs and fewer corporate monoliths.

But we won't have more entrepreneurs without the right economic conditions. While many entrepreneurs start with little capital, they can't start at all if they live from one paycheck to the next. Universal Basic Income (UBI), or similar stimulus programs could allow people to take entrepreneurial  risks without risking everything. Larger organizations could receive government startup funding. A helping economy unleashing creativity and innovation is what we need to reverse climate change and restore American prosperity.

V.O Diedlaff is author of, We Can Fix It: Reclaiming the American Dream.

Friday, April 02, 2021

We have met the enemy and he is us.

The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle

Steven Pressfield
Non-fiction, 167 pages

"The War of Art" like Sun Tsu’s similarly named, “The Art of War,” is about winning battles. Both brief volumes address their themes through a series of short chapters which build upon and clarify earlier chapters.

While Sun Tsu addresses war on the battlefield, Steven Pressfield addresses the artist’s battle against resistance. Although artists, particularly writers, comprise Pressfield’s primary audience, the problem of resistance is universal. Resistance can prevent anyone from achieving life’s higher purposes, whether those be artistic, altruistic, educational, entrepreneurial, healthful, moral or spiritual. Resistance is a force that inhibits those activities which lead to personal growth but not activities performed to appease our lower nature. Some of these activities (think instant gratification) are themselves symptoms of resistance.

Symptoms of resistance include: procrastination; instant gratification, through abuse of alcohol, junk food, television, etc.; attention getting through trouble-making, grandstanding, etc.; creating life complications by creating personal dramas, playing victim or martyr, etc.; and being cruel to, or critical of, others. Procrastination is resistance’s most typical symptom. Resistance’s closest ally is rationalization; procrastination is extremely easy to rationalize. Once rationalized, procrastination becomes habitual. We may even find ourselves believing our rationalizations.

Resistance causes personal dissatisfaction; a sense of boredom, antsiness, listlessness, joylessness and self-loathing. As resistance mounts, bad habits and mood or behavioral disorders begin to emerge. Our consumer culture further complicates the resistance problem. Consumerism fans the flames of resistance while selling us panaceas offering temporary relief.

Fear underlies resistance, and though, Pressfield doesn’t dwell upon it, it also underlies consumerism. We fear no one will like us if we don’t buy the right deodorant or laundry soap. We fear boredom; that’s why the radio and television are always on. We fear being alone; that’s why we take our cell phones everywhere.

We fear many things. We fear rejection. We fear failure. We even, and especially, fear success. Fear, in all its forms, drives resistance and resistance prevents us from achieving personal growth. Borrowing from Jungian psychology, Pressfield considers the self to be the source of creativity and personal growth, while the ego is the source of resistance.

Resistance can be countered through the act of “turning pro.” The difference between a professional and an amateur is that for the amateur the stakes are small making it easy to rationalize procrastination and other forms of resistance. The professional treats his art like most people treat their jobs. People may not like going to work every day but they go anyway, arriving on time and staying the entire eight hours. Professionals don’t permit themselves excuses when it comes to their art. They stick to their art regardless of criticism, lack of remuneration, and setbacks. They stick to their art out of love, because it’s important to their self-development, and they stick to it even when it’s unpleasant and difficult.

Pressfield’s book is more of a ‘challenge’ than a ‘how-to.’ It’s earthy, and it de-glamorizes the artistic life. Still, Pressfield’s arguments make sense, and his style is engaging. “The War of Art” is well worth reading.

*Title is a quote from Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip

Friday, March 26, 2021

Keeping its secrets

Incognito: the secret lives of the brain
David M. Eagleman
Nonfiction 290 pages
Pantheon. 2011

You may think you know who you are, but according to David Eagleman it’s a case of mistaken identity. We consider the contents of our awareness as belonging to ourselves. Yet, that awareness, what we call consciousness, is only a small part of what goes on in our brains. Consciousness is like an iceberg’s tip – visible above the water’s surface. Much of what runs us is below the surface and well beneath our awareness.

Most of us realize this to some extent. After all, our hearts pump and our lungs breathe without our awareness most of the time. But most of us don’t realize the extent to which non-conscious mental activity controls our behavior.

Eagleman tells us that the brain is composed of interacting systems, running a myriad of mental routines, and very little of this activity makes it into our awareness. It’s as if our brains are run by a team of rivals with different viewpoints to match different circumstances. When teammates interact appropriately, we make good decisions most of the time.

It’s natural for us to prefer people like ourselves over those who look different. But, the dark side of this preference may be behind xenophobia and racism. Psychologists have used word association tests to tease subjects’ inner-racists into showing themselves. Most people keep their inner-racists well under control, but brain dysfunction or alcohol use can disturb the balance between the rivals in our brains. After visiting a Jewish friend, actor Mel Gibson, was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Later, a sober Gibson apologized for the anti-Semitic remarks he made while intoxicated. The question arises, which is the real Mel Gibson, the sober or the drunken one?

Eagleman’s answer is that both are real, because Gibson’s brain, like everyone’s, is composed of interacting rivals. Most of us behave in socially appropriate ways most of the time. But, there are exceptions. One of the symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome is coprolalia, that is, inappropriate vocal outbursts. While a normal person might experience an inappropriate thought, a Tourette’s sufferer might involuntarily vocalize it, much to his embarrassment.

People suffering from frontotemporal dementia act out socially inappropriate impulses that they formerly kept well controlled. For example, they may shoplift, make unwelcome sexual passes, act aggressively, and even publicly remove clothing. They lose the ability to know that this behavior is inappropriate.

Eagleman argues that legal systems need to be reformed to take into account criminals’ capacity to change their behavior. While society should be protected from criminal behavior, punishments having no effect on those unable to change, should be replaced with other interventions. Eagleman discusses the case of a man who committed murder while sleep walking. Although, this seems unlikely, electroencephalogram findings demonstrated an abnormality that caused the man’s brain to attempt rapid transition from sleep to wakefulness without passing through the intermediate stages that most people pass through. This occurred 10 to 20 times per night. The man was acquitted.

As neuroscience discovers more precise ways of uncovering brain abnormalities, the legal system will need to accommodate these new findings. Asking if a criminal is blameworthy will ultimately become an irrelevant question, Eagleman believes. Instead we should be asking how to prevent him from committing future crimes. An experimental technique, called the prefrontal workout, shows promise for eliminating undesired behaviors. The technique uses real-time biofeedback to reduce the strength of unwelcome urges.

In 1848, a premature explosion sent a tamping rod through Phineas Gage’s head. He survived, but his personality did not. After his accident, he was no longer capable of socially appropriate behavior and judgment. Those who knew him described him as, “no longer Gage.”

Who was he then? Did he lose his soul along with some of his brain? Do we even have souls to begin with or are we simply collections of parts? Eagleman tells us, “If there’s something like a soul, it is at minimum tangled irreversibly with the microscopic details. Whatever else may be going on with our mysterious existence, our connection to our biology is beyond doubt.”

Eagleman’s first book was “Sum: forty tales from the afterlives.” One might expect a man who constructed 40 possible afterlives to have more to say about the soul. Alas, he only writes a few words on the topic in “Incognito: the secret lives of the brain.” So let me offer up a theological question or two. If part of the brain is injured, does part of the soul vanish? If a good man turns evil after a brain injury, will he be eternally punished or spared through God’s mercy? Just which pieces of the brain house the soul, anyway?

Eagleman discusses a type of epileptic seizure in a “sweet spot” in the temporal lobe that causes religious conviction, writing on religious topics, voices from apparently divine sources, and a sense of divine presence. Is the sweet spot a gift from God that allows Him to communicate with his prophets or merely the reason the prophets invented Him?

Eagleman concludes his book with a discussion of the weaknesses of reductionism as a means of understanding the brain. It isn’t practical to break the brain down into a collection of parts. Regardless, he tells us, it’s the model that most neuroscientists bring with them into the lab. I wonder how a sense of personal identity can arise from a collection of parts.