Thursday, May 10, 2012

More on Positive Psychology

I read A Primer in Positive Psychology (Oxford Positive Psychology Series) by Christopher Peterson, because I've got interested in the field. We discussed Martin Seligman here, for example.

The reason I find it so interesting is it provides some hard scientific evidence for elements of the good life that most people will have in common. This kind of work moves what we should aim for as individuals and as a society out of the category of empty abstraction and into something purposeful and real - at least a little.

The book is interesting and provides a bit more rigor and links to primary research than other books. As you would expect, it's good on methodology, research methods and taxonomy. But it fills in the gaps rather than presenting something new, at least if you have read books like Seligman's Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being or the many other books on happiness.

There were some things that did strike me - this for instance:

Gallup has learned that posing the simple question to workers: "Do you get to do what you do best every day?" provides powerful information... No more than 20% of workers in the United States believe that their jobs allow them on a regular basis to do and be their best. p195
And this outline of Martin Gardner's classification of very high accomplishment is interesting.

Gardner proposed that there are four ways to be extraordinary; by being a master of some domain of accomplishment (eg Mozart and musical composition); by being a maker of an entirely new field (eg Freud and psychoanalysis); by being an introspector and exploring inner life (eg novelist James Joyce); and being an influencer (eg Gandhi and politics). Again we see the theme of pluraility of excellence. p215

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Comeback Kid

G and I watched a PBS documentary on the Clintons last night. It's a fascinating story in simple human terms, a drama that lies beyond any partisan interpretation. And of course it's a mysterious marriage tangled with recklessness and political ambition.

It's especially interesting how he persevered through multiple setbacks, lost elections and mistakes. There's a lot to be said for that kind of grit in achieving anything.


Average return for VC firms: zero

More about problems with venture capital in Slate ( we discussed it a few posts ago here). The Kaufmann Foundation has found average returns in the industry crashed in the early 2000s - and have never recovered. They have been on average zero ever since. Matt Yglesias says:

The report offers a detailed operational critique of the industry, but I think the structural pattern you see time and again in these studies is that asset classes age like milk. Financial markets aren't perfectly efficient, so clever people think up ways to make real investment returns. But that happens in the early days when the asset class is considered risky and weird. Eventually a time comes when the class becomes recognized and respected. But by the time that's happened, there's too much money in the class and too much of it is dumb money that's just filling buckets.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Think about Problems, not Passions

A little tip in the Harvard Business Review that I liked:

Focus on a Problem, Not Your Passion

When it comes to careers, we’re told to follow our passions. But you might find greater satisfaction if you work on big problems. Whether it’s an issue in education, health care, climate change, poverty, or technology; figure out how you can contribute to a solution. Choose a problem that you care about — even personally — and let this dilemma be your compass. Get out of the office, meet people who are affected by the problem, and connect with those working in this area. Doing so shifts your attention from yourself to others. By becoming less focused on yourself, you might become happier with your work.



The Structural Revolution

A nice David Brooks column this morning saying the left doesn't get it (which I guess also means his fellow columnist Krugman.)

Many people on the left are having a one-sided debate about how to deal with a cyclical downturn. ... But you can only mask structural problems for so long. The whole thing has gone kablooey. The current model, in which we try to compensate for structural economic weakness with tax cuts and an unsustainable welfare state, simply cannot last. The old model is broken. The jig is up.

What happened to the future! Too much funding of incremental me-too ideas

Alex Madrigal notes on his Atlantic blog that Amazon just bought Kiva, a company which makes robots for the logistics industry, for $775 million. The company is a major success. It claims to triple worker productivity in warehouses.

But it couldn't raise any money from the venture capital industry when it started up.

What does it mean? "Just one more pebble of evidence on a growing pile that Silicon Valley has been too focused on small ideas in the social space." is the subtitle of the post. Too many new "me-too" consumer social network ideas, too few transformative companies. 

Madrigal links to a damning manifesto by the Founders Fund, a major venture capital company led by Peter Thiel.

Along the way, VC has ceased to be the funder of the future, and instead has become a funder of features, widgets, irrelevances. In large part, it also ceased making money, as the bottom half of venture produced flat to negative return for the past decade.

We believe that the shift away from backing transformational technologies and toward more cynical, incrementalist investments broke venture capital. Excusing venture’s nightmare decade as a product of adverse economic conditions ignores the industry’s long history of strong, acyclical returns for its first forty years, as well as the consistently strong performance of the top 20% of the industry. What venture backed changed and that is why returns changed as well.

On the one hand, it's bad news. On the other, we shouldn't be surprised. Thomas Kuhn's categories are notoriously overused, but still, it's not surprising that the equivalent of incremental "normal science" is, well, normal. Paradigm shifts are rarer.

But there is still huge potential for massive transformation, as we were discussing last week.


Monday, May 7, 2012

The Outsourced Life

An article in the NYT takes issue with the growing personal services market:

The bad news in this case is the capacity of the service market, with all its expertise, to sap self-confidence in our own capacities and those of friends and family. The professional nameologist finds a more auspicious name than we can recall from our family tree. The professional potty trainer does the job better than the bumbling parent or helpful grandparent. Jimmy’s Art Supply sells a better Spanish mission replica kit than your child can build for that school project from paint, glue and a Kleenex box.

The prospect is not attractive:

WE’VE put a self-perpetuating cycle in motion. The more anxious, isolated and time-deprived we are, the more likely we are to turn to paid personal services. To finance these extra services, we work longer hours. This leaves less time to spend with family, friends and neighbors; we become less likely to call on them for help, and they on us. And, the more we rely on the market, the more hooked we become on its promises: Do you need a tidier closet? A nicer family picture album? Elderly parents who are truly well cared for? Children who have an edge in school, on tests, in college and beyond? If we can afford the services involved, many if not most of us are prone to say, sure, why not.

I'm still skeptical about whether the personal services model will work for long. The professional nameologist at $100 a consultation may lose out to which provides an inferior but comparable service for free. Effective personal service will just cost too much money, and people will use better tools to do things themselves - just as happened with domestic service.


I suspect the NYT is identifying a market which does not really exist outside a few upper-class enclaves - Manhattan, Boston, Marin County, Santa Monica. If there is evidence of booming personal services demand in Tulsa, that would be something.


It is true that there is demand for newer forms of domestic service. Instead of full-time butlers or valets, the upper middle classes hire a morning of maid service here, a childminder there. But even if people hire maids, that isn't really the ideal economy of the future. It only works if there is huge income inequality.


There is little leverage or scale in personal services, which means that they will generally be low-paid. Even the legal profession is starting to struggle, and it has had several centuries of stiff barriers to entry into the profession.


Artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to cut the cost of alternatives even further in ten or twenty years' time.  

And this article argues that even if a market in personal services does expand much further, we might not like it. There is clearly a new argument developing here, which also comes from Harvard theorist Michael Sandel, which says the market for personal services could damage or undermine other social goods.


It's really an issue of the boundaries of the market, which can shift back and forth. People can cook food at home, or get delivery Chinese, or microwave frozen pizza. Maybe delivery Chinese is not the future we were hoping for.


Identity is not the same as flourishing

Just following on from the last post, one major problem in politics is that so much of the dialogue in the last generation has revolved around identity - gender, ethnicity and race, sexual orientation - and associated claims for equal respect.

But identity is not the same as flourishing. A label is not the same as achievement or happiness or fulfillment. Labels are ultimately empty.

Equal respect in the abstract can drain away any respect for developing human potential or helping people flourish in particular cases. People shouldn't be respected equally. Respect should come at least in part from what people have done as individuals, rather than simply members of an abstract group. Abstract universalism does not work.

I think this is why arguments about tax policy, for example, can grow so venomous. It's not just about money, of course, but about recognition. On the left, success or achievement is not seen as something worthy of respect, so much as simply obligation to give back more. On the right, people increasingly see elevated parts of the culture (the leading universities, the arts, the mainstream media) as simply snobbery and condescension.

We can't agree on legitimate ways to distribute resources. The welfare state doesn't work, as it destroys incentives. The market doesn't completely work, as it is incomplete in motivating behaviors we want to see (less CDOs, more happy relationships.)

And the soaring efficiency of the economy is likely to undercut the labor market, as the nature of our needs become less material.

What we have to do is stop discussing these issues as a matter of tax policy or economic incentives. It's not a matter of incomes and redistribution, or even dollars and cents. Dollar measures tend to conceal actual needs or incentives or motivation.

The issues can only get solved at a higher level of discussion, about what we want to achieve as a society and how we flourish and live better lives.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Accomplishment and purpose in the Arts


We've talked about Charles Murray before on this blog. Indeed there is a link in the last post below to his argument the welfare state has drained the life out of life. 

Here is a new essay in which he argues that the arts in America will not flourish if there is no deeper sense of purpose. And elites have been avoiding that for decades.


Murray wrote a book in 2004 about the conditions necessary for human achievement to flourish (which I haven't read for now.) And he has been thinking since about what it means for the prospect of a renaissance in the arts in America.

We have the wealth and the infrastructure for great artistic achievement, of course. But this is not sufficient. Look at how little Europe has achieved in the arts in the last fifty years, he observes. Why ?

For him, the answer is Europe has lost confidence and vitality. There needs to be some sense of purpose in the culture for great art, he says. Without it, there is no urgency to make your mark, or do anything other than live and pass time pleasantly. There is less sense of "this-is-what-I-was-put-on-earth-to-do" calling which is necessary to master a field over many years.

In trying to think about how a renaissance might happen, I cannot put aside the strongest conclusion that I took away from the work that went into Human Accomplishment: Religiosity is indispensable to a major stream of artistic accomplishment.
Religiosity does not have to mean specific religious observance, however:

By “religiosity” I do not mean going to church every Sunday. Even belief in God is not essential. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are not religions in the conventional sense of that word—none postulates a God—but they partake of religiosity as I am using the word, in that that they articulate a human place in the cosmos, lay out understandings of the ends toward which human life aims, and set standards for seeking those ends.


In fact, it points back to Aristotle - which is why I find the essay particularly interesting.

A secular version of this framework exists, and forms a central strand in the Western tradition: the Aristotelian conception of human happiness and its intimate link with unceasing effort to realize the best that humans have within them. In practice, we know that the Aristotelian understanding of human flourishing works. A great many secular people working long hours and striving for perfection in all kinds of jobs are motivated by this view of human life, even if they don’t realize it is Aristotelian.

There needs to be a sense of transcendental goods for a society (and the arts) to flourish - some anchoring in conceptions of truth, beauty, and the good life. And that recalls Aristotle. In Murray's words,

When applied to human beings, the essence of “the good” is not a set of ethical rules that one struggles to follow, but a vision of human flourishing that attracts and draws one onward.
Without some conception of the good, art tends to become vulgar,

This for me is the huge lesson I've learned from reading Aristotle and work on virtue ethics. Morality and society are not just a matter of following universalized rules, or procedural neutrality, as we've generally come to believe. There has to be some concrete sense of the good life, and what flourishing means. It's not just an ethical issue. It's also an economic issue, because it has a fundamental impact on what we want the economy to do and how we want it to evolve.

State neutrality does not mean that everyone is free to develop their own conception of the good life. It just means the state tends to crowd out and dominate all other efforts and initiatives.

Murray says we have tried to ignore the big questions about purpose for too long. But that must ultimately change.

The falling away from religiosity that we have seen over the last century must ultimately be anomalous. From the Enlightenment through Darwin, Freud, and Einstein, religiosity suffered a series of body blows. The verities understood in the old ways could not survive them. Not surprisingly, new expressions of those truths were not immediately forthcoming, and the West has been wandering in the wilderness.

It won’t last forever. Humans are ineluctably drawn to fundamental questions of existence. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is one such question. “What does it mean to live a good life?” is another. The elites who shape the milieu for America’s high culture have managed to avoid thinking about those fundamental questions for a century now. Sooner or later, they’ll find it too hard.

Liberalism evolved out of a desire to eliminate bloody conflicts over religiosity and the good life. But avoiding a conception of the good life altogether is not a durable answer either.

(h/t Arts and Letters Daily)