Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What should we be worried about?

Edge Magazine's Annual Question looks pretty interesting, although I've only read a couple of the 151 responses from leading thinkers yet.

We worry because we are built to anticipate the future. Nothing can stop us from worrying, but science can teach us how to worry better, and when to stop worrying.


Tell us something that worries you (for scientific reasons), but doesn't seem to be on the popular radar yet—and why it should be. Or tell us something that you have stopped worrying about, even if others do, and why it should be taken off the radar.



More Robot news

Still more incremental improvements on the automation front, according to an article in MIT Technology Review.

That is why Budnick is now considering adding a new member to his team: a robot called Baxter. Baxter was conceived by Rodney Brooks, the Australian roboticist and artificial-intelligence expert who left MIT to build a $22,000 humanoid robot that can easily be programmed to do simple jobs that have never been automated before (see “This Robot Could Transform Manufacturing” and “Rebooting Manufacturing”).

The company hasn't sold any robots as yet but it is getting intense interest from American manufurers.

The ultimate goal is for robots like Baxter to take over more complex tasks, such as fitting together parts on an electronics assembly line. “A couple more ticks of Moore’s Law and you’ve got automation that works more cheaply than Chinese labor does,” Andrew McAfee, an MIT researcher, predicted last year at a conference in Tucson, Arizona, where Baxter was discussed.

We've seen other predictions of the impact on cheap Chinese labor before. Manufacturing will go the way of agriculture, with perhaps only 2-3% of the population working in the sector at very skilled jobs.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"History suggests the entitlement era is winding down"

Michael Barone says major changes in American life have often happened at 76-year intervals. The entitlement state may be come to an end, as one of those 76-year intervals is almost up.

The original arrangements in each 76-year period became unworkable and unraveled toward its end. Eighteenth-century Americans rejected the colonial status quo and launched a revolution and established a constitutional republic.

Nineteenth-century Americans went to war over expansion of slavery. Early 20th-century Americans grappled with the collapse of the private sector economy in the Depression of the 1930s.

We are seeing something like this again today. The welfare state arrangements that once seemed solid are on the path to unsustainability.

Of course, 76 year intervals are just a rhetorical hook. The broader point is that underlying social attitudes and institutions need to adjust and shift at least every three generations or so, as the world changes.


Abundance and Self-Realization

I'm looking at Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, starting here.

Distribution of income matters less than distributiion of "spiritual resources", he says. That means there is a tendency in the "Fourth Awakening" to refocus on the individual again, rather than material conditions in society as a whole.

I have often talked about abundance on this blog, such as here and here. Fogel also emphasizes the saturation of material goods.

Our society is so well saturated with consumer durables, in fact, that even the poorest fifth of households are well-endowed with them. Consequently, the era of the household accumulation of consumer durables, which sparked the growth of many manufacturing industries in the many decades following World War II, is largely over in the United States. p189

So where are things going? Meaning becomes more important as survival challenges recede.

Today, people are increasingly concerned with what life is all about. That was not an issue for the ordinary individual in 1880, when nearly the whole day was devoted to earning the food, clothing and shelter needed to sustain life. A half century from now, perhaps even sooner, when increases in productivity make it possible to provide goods in abundance with half today's labor, the issue of life's meaning, and other matters of self-realization, will take up the bulk of discretionary time. p 191-192

Health and leisure time will be the focus of the future economy, although, he says, it is difficult to foresee the details.

The point is that leisure-time activities (including lifelong learning) - volwork - and health care are the growth industries of the late twentieth century and the early twenty-firsty. They will spark economic expansion during our age, just as agriculture did in the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth and as manufacturing, transportation and utilities didin the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. The growing demand for health-care services is due primarily, not to a distortion of the price system, but to the increasing effectiveness of medical intervention. p201

What does self-realization mean? Interestingly, Maslow is not mentioned at all, nor are the older classical ideas about virtue in any detail. Instead, Fogel develops his own list.

To those philosophers who have developed the concept, self-realization means the fullest development of the virtuous aspects of one's nature. ..Of all the maldistributed spiritual resources, sense of purpose may be the most important. p205

Others include "a vision of opportunity", "a sense of the mainstream of work and life" which means a sense of where opportunities are and how to pursue them. There must be "a sense of community", an "ability to engage with diverse groups", which entails an "ethic of benevolence". As self-realization is often achieved through an occupation, a "work ethic" and "sense of discipline" are required, as well focus and a "capacity to resist the lure of hedonism". There needs to be a "capacity for self-education", a "thirst for knowledge". an "appreciation of quality", and some "self-esteem." p205-206

To this updated list of virtues he adds a sense of balance or, as Aristotle would put it, the golden mean.

Each of the fifteen spiritual resources just outlined must be possessed in moderation. There is an optimal amount of each spiritual resource, which will vary from one individual to another. Too much of a sense of purpose turns dedication into ruthlessness. Too little sense of purpose may cause one to be uncompetitive in a given pursuit. p207

It isn't quite a virtue ethics, perhaps, as it is more a list of desirable psychological attributes, being well-adjusted rather than arete or excellence. But it comes close. It is not utilitarian, nor based on more simplistic ideas about happiness. It is certainly reconcilable with older virtues such as courage or temperance or practical wisdom. It is also reconcilable with other ideas we have looked at, such as the evolution of the economy from manufacturing to services to experiences to, finally, transformation of individuals, or the requirements for individual flourishing.

What it does not do (and no book can do everything) is explain what happens to labor markets and economic incentives when material needs are saturated. How might a post-scarcity economy work? How will people make a living?

In all, it is quite a radical book for an academic economist. It is also politically quite eclectic - egalitarian, but taking religion seriously; interested in the condition of the poor but skeptical of government intervention. It asks the right questions, even if the answers are not wholly developed.

The basic conclusion is income is no longer a suitable end-point for policy discussions. Nor are national income statistics. Like the rich sons of Athens two thousand years ago, the nature of the good life is the main question that confronts us once material needs are saturated. Even some Nobel Prizewinners in Economics can see that.




Monday, January 14, 2013

Waves of ethical and religious change

I'm looking at Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, starting here.

So Fogel argues the main challenge is no longer material inequality, but spiritual inequality. He adds a theory of cyclical evolution of ethics in responses to changes in technology and the economy. This is quite intriguing.

While economic growth since 1700 has been relatively steady and technological change has accelerated, there has been a recurring lag between the vast technological transformations and the human adjustment to those transformations. It is this lag which has produced the crises that periodically usher in profound reconsiderations of ethical values, that produce new agendas for ethical and social reform, and that give rise to political movements that champion the new agendas. p8-9.

People must evolve new ethical perspectives to cope with technological transformations. Exactly, and it seems obvious when put like that. He does not appear to adopt a vulgar Marxist-type approach, however, where ethics and culture are simply superstructure above the real economic base. People adapt their ideas ro suit circumstances when external events force them to reevaluate their perspectives and needs. And those ideas in turn create political and legislative programs.

Interestingly, he argues that this revaluation shows up in religious movements first, long before electoral politics, which, because of its compromise and balancing tends to lag behind. For example,

The greatest of all reform movements in American history, the abolition of slavery, was for decades almost exclusively a religious movement until a number of religiously inspired Northern politicians developed brilliant tactics and strategies necessary to create a winning antislavery coalition. P7

So he has a theory of how and why ethical transformations occur, which is fascinating. Why should religious movements be more responsive? Because in the frenetic competition of American religious denominations, indepedent congregations are likely to evolve responses to new ethical needs far quicker than political parties. The Awakenings are more political than relgiious, but they show up more quickly in relgious reaciton to new technology and new circumstances.

The religious response has been more rapid because of the high degree of independence of specific evangelical congregations from hierarchical control and from the restraints imposed on political parties, which must often trim their policies to maintain coalitions. P9


Great Awakenings

Evangelical religion reacts more quickly than more hierarchical and less populist churches. It means there have been a series of "Great Awakenings" in American religious life, which spilled over into politics after a generation or two.

These Great Awakenings are reform movements with an ethical/programmatic phase followed by a legislative/political phase, both of which arise out of the lag between technological change and institutional adjustment. Each Awakening lasts about one hundred years, including a declining phase in which exponents of one great awakening clash with those of the next. The First Great Awakening began in the 1730s and ripened into the American Revolution against the British Crown. The Second Great Awakening began about 1800 and produced the crusade against slavery that eventuated in the Civil War. The Third Great Awakening arose at the end of the nineteenth century and led to the rise of the welfare state and policies to promote diversity. The Fourth Great Awakening, which began about 1960, has recently entered its political phase and is focused on spiritual reform. p9-10

Importantly, the Awakenings mostly came from the margins of society.

The Great Awakenings have not usually originated from the top; generally, they have welled up from below and have often been given voice by ministers and novice leaders on the fringes of the establishment. p42

The First Great Awakening eroded older Puritan beliefs and emphasized individial rights. The Second Great Awakening emphasized equality of opportunity, and moved even away from Calvinist ideas of predestination towards a sense , influenced by Methodist theology, that people could work towards their own salvation.


Individual sin versus Social Corruption

The third Great Awakening arose in large part because of the challenge of industrial development and the growth of huge enterprises. That produced a move away from emphasis on individual sin and corruption to social reform, as well as economic and social egalitarianism. Equality of condition mattered more than equality of opportunity.

The Third Awakening rejected the idea that poverty was the wages of sin, and came to terms with Darwinism and science. The innate depravity of man was abandoned in favor of a conception the innocent young corrupted by society.

Modernists in the mainstream denominations evolved into the Social Gospel movement.

Its leading figures argued that, if America was to realize itself, it would have to change not only its creed, its theory of man's relationship to God, but also its ethics. It would have to make poverty not a personal failure, but a failure of society, and evil would have to be seen, not as a personal sin, but as a sin of society...The victory of the modernists and the Social Gospellers laid the basis for the welfare state, providing both the ideological foundation and the political drive for the labor reforms of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, for the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, and for the new feminist programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. p24-5

The first three awakenings are part of mainstream historical scholarship, but Fogel is more isolated is seeing a fourth awakening, including the rise of the religious right in recent decades. Logically, however, major shifts in technology and transformation of the economy would entail some sort of Fourth Awakening in due course, however. And it is undeniable, as he points out, that the mainstream Protestant denominations have shriveled, and evangelicals have risen to over a third of the electorate.

Meanwhile, the Third Awakening forces have been secularized.

As modernist theory grew stronger, the supernatural aspects of religion diminished among those creating the New Theology, and conversions ceased to be central to their missionary work. Social reform increasingly replaced personal reform as the center of the struggle to perfect American society... The essence of religion became the elimination of poverty and inequality. p121

The rise of the professional classes has been one of the main economic transformations, and they tend to be secularized, along with a liberal mainstream media. The universities were originally founded largely to train one profession - the ministry. But the growth of new professions and vast increase in demand for skilled graduates transformed them. Academic disciplines which generally had their modern origin in 19th century theological disputes (such as economics, as founded in the American Economic Association) tended to forget the history of their disciplines.

It would be easy to quibble with this scheme of revivals and awakenings, and some would be uncomfortable putting religious feeling so close to the heart of economic and political life. Nonetheless, it is a viable and interesting theory of how and why changes in ethical perspective come about, and I had not read about these movements in any detail before. It is a story of how deep changes in the assumptions about human nature and possibility ramified through theological debate and into practical political outcomes over a period of generations.

The story is now more secularized, as ethical debate now takes place on a much wider sphere than it did one hundred years ago. But it is equally clear that purely secular perspectives can overlook much of the deeper changes going on in the world, which include the massive growth of evangelical religion in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Something is going on out there even if it is not evident in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books view of the world. The world is less secular on the whole than we think.

Inequality of Income

Moreover, many of Fogel's do not rely on his Awakening scheme for their force. He is skeptical of the Third-Awakening focus on income distribution, and he has good technical reasons for saying so. For one thing, that approach underestimates the massive improvement in nutrition, healthcare and life expectancy since the nineteenth century, as well as more leisure, both of which accrued more to the poor than the well-off.

The theory projected by the Social Gospelers, and embraced by modernism generally, held that cultural crises could be resolved by raising incomes. That theory has been given a long trial and has turned out to be incorrect. Despite the sharp rise in incomes, especially at the low end of the income distribution, the moral crisis of the cities remains unresolved. Although income transfers have gone far beyond the mild redistributions advocated by Bascom, Ely and Commons, such problem as drug addiction, alcoholism , births to unmarried teenage girls, rape, the battery of women and children, broken familitgies, violent teenage death , and crime are generally more severe than they were a century ago. p172

Income redistribution is at the core of the current political debate. But it is also increasingly irrelevant. We will conclude looking at the book tomorrow.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Happiness versus Meaning

Here's an interesting article in the Atlantic. New research confirms what Victor Frankl famously wrote about following his experience in Nazi concentration camps: a sense of purpose is deeply necessary to people, even more so than immediate happiness.

Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. "It is the very pursuit of happiness," Frankl knew, "that thwarts happiness."

This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables -- like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children -- over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver."

"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors write.

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior -- being, as mentioned, a "taker" rather than a "giver."

People want to contribute to something.

Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves -- by devoting our lives to "giving" rather than "taking" -- we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

It's worth reading the whole article.


The Fourth Great Awakening

I read Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism over the holidays, and it is a very interesting book. Fogel is a Nobel Laureate in Economics (1993) , mostly for his earlier quantitative economic history and study of the historical economics of slavery in the US. Perhaps he felt liberated to write a much more original book, published in 2000. Yet it is based on deep knowledge of US history.

He focuses on the impact of the waves of religious revival in the US on broader growth and public policy. The main challenge for egalitarianism now is not material redistribution, he says, but the maldistribution of "spiritual resources."

The agenda for egalitarian policies that has dominated reform movements for most of the past entry - what I call the modernist egalitarian agenda - was based on material redistribution. The critical aspect of the postmodern egalitarian agenda is not the distribution of money income, or food, or shelter, or consumer durables. Although there are still glaring inadequacies in the distribution of material commodities that must be addressed, the most intractable maldistributions in rich countries such as the United States are in the realm of spiritual or immaterial assets. These are the critical assets in the struggle for self-realization. p2

Traditional measures of income inequality are inadequate. They ignore consumption of leisure and improved health, for example.

They focus on a variable - money income - that currently accounts for less than half of real consumption and that in a generation may account for less than a quarter of real consumption. Such measures shed little light on the most intractable forms of poverty (those related to the unequal distribution of spiritual resources). Nor do they bear on the capacity of individuals to overcome the social estrangement that undermines their quality of life. p3

So a politics based on income transfers is exhausted. That naturally leads to consideration of the good life.

A good place to begin a consideration of the content of a postmodern egalitarian agenda is with Socrates' question, What is the good life? That was a crucial question not only for the sons of rich Athenians but for the sons of the landed rich throughout history. Freed of the need to work to satisfy their material needs, they sought self-realization in public service, military adventures, philanthropy, the arts, theology, ethics and moral philosophy. p2

Naturally, I felt a huge sense of recognition and agreement at this point, as I believe that without some sense of the good life public action is empty. Fogel adds another twist. State action cannot redistribute such spiritual resources.

Realization of the potential of an individual is not something that can be legislated by the state, nor can it be provided to the weak by the strong. It is something which must develop within each individual on the basis of a succession of choices.

The quest for spiritual equity thus turns not so much on money as access to spiritual assets, most if which are transferred and developed privately rather than through the market. Moreover, some of the most critical spiritual assets, such as a sense of purpose, self-esteem, a sense of discipline, a vision of opportunity, and a thirst for knowledge, are transferred at very young ages. P4.

This is very much in tune with what I have been arguing on this blog. The main challenges we face are more ethical than economic now, about how people can be helped realize the good life and what kinds of behavior should be rewarded. It is surprising to see such a clear statement in this vein from an academic economist - although economic historians consistently seem more heterodox and interesting than mainstream model-builders.

We will look at more tomorrow, especially his emphasis on how ethical concerns develop over time.