Saturday, July 30, 2011

What do I know?

A review of "On being Certain", by Robert Burton.

Do you know someone who is always right? Who knows all the answers and would be mortified to admit that he (it is usually a "he") doesn't know something, has no opinion on some topic, large or small, or, heaven forfend, was wrong? I guess that would be me, in all honesty.

Complementary syndromes, Burton suggests, might be OCD, depression, and anxiety, afflicting those who lack a sense of certainty about some issues- whether one is clean enough, has done the right thing, or said the right words. Or of having lost the essential sense of purpose and meaning of which one was previously confident.

The sense of certainty is highly valuable to us, allowing decisive and efficient use of scarce time and partial information. But is it right? Obviously, it is not always right, and can't be relied on ... that is the problem.
"It is no great accomplishment to hear a voice in your head. The accomplishment is to make sure that it is telling you the truth." - a patient, quoted by Burton
Burton is a former head of neurology at UCSF, a novelist in his spare time, and has written a charming, temperate, and succinct indictment of our sense of certainty. His first job is to elevate this mental sense to an explicit and respected status, since it is a bit nebulous. We have our five traditional senses. And recently, we have become aware of a few other senses, like the body position sense and the empathic social mirror sense. These unconscious mechanisms of our minds help make us feel "normal" and situated, becoming apparent only in rare cases when they go awry.

Likewise, the sense of certainty is central to our mental workings, yet a little difficult to appreciate. How do ideas "pop" out of unconciousness? Why do they pop out? Clearly while we are day-dreaming, or night-dreaming, some parts of our minds are hard at work, testing out problems, models, and ideas. Just as clearly, the unconscious has some mechanism to evaluate the results- how closely their solution matches a target problem, perhaps posed explicitly by our conscious mind, ("What is the nature of benzene's double bonds?"), or perhaps posed implicitly by circumstance ("How do I get out of this burning building?"). Either way, we don't typically hear about all the false leads and underlying processes, but receive "the answer" as an idea that "strikes" us as correct, perhaps leading to immediate action.

This sense is, naturally, tied into the pleasure centers of the brain as well, so if we come up with a great idea, we feel great about it. It can be a very powerful buzz. This leads to the possibility of addiction, as mentioned at the top, which is to say that people may become so attached to the pleasure of being right that they keep blogging, week after pointless week, prating about how right they are to hold some idea or other.

There are also times when the sense of certainty arises untethered and unbidden, such as during mystical experiences. One that comes to mind is that of the German Jacob Böhme in 1600: "... one day he focused his attention onto the exquisite beauty of a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish. He believed this vision revealed to him the spiritual structure of the world, as well as the relationship between God and man, and good and evil." Burton quotes William James on the subject:
"They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time."
Likewise, drug-induced hallucinations can cause absolute senses of knowledge, realness, and purpose which dissolve into a hangover. Temporal lobe epilepsy can have similar effects. All of this is to say that this sense is a specific function of our brains, and needs to be regarded with a bit of dispassion by those (which generally means all of us) who give it excessive credence. In fact, I regard this book as an excellent companion to Eric Reitan's "Is God a delusion?", which with similar temperance and good cheer goes right down the rabbit hole of imputing great (possible) cosmic sigificance to mystical experiences, among other improbable conclusions. The one clearly informs the arguments and scope of the other.
"Knowing that the sense of self is an emergent phenomenon arising out of simpler neuronal structures doesn't and won't stop theologians and philosophers from debating issues they have no chance of resolving. Scorpions sting. We talk of religion, afterlife, souls, higher powers, muses, purpose, reason, objectivity, pointlelssness, and randomness. We cannot help ourselves."
But Burton fries fishes on both sides of the culture war. The sense of certainty is not just core to our conscious stream, but also to memory, which is far less reliable than we typically assume. One of the great findings of social & cognitive science has been about the unreliability of eye-witnesses. A person may spin a tale of rationalizations with complete certainty, unaware of how vague their memories really are. We had a local court case recently where the defendent, cleary guilty of murdering an ex-girlfriend, spun a tale of defending her against two unidentified assailants who were the actual murderers. Not even his own defense attorney took the proposition seriously, but the troubling thought is that this defendent may have convinced himself of its truth, as OJ may of his yarn as well.

So certainty is fundamentally impossible. Internally, our brains use sophisticated Bayesian statistical methods to come up with probabilistic conclusions. But do they tell us about it? Of course not. They typically give us black and white answers, which we have historically assumed come from heaven, or from souls, or from wherever. We really can not make any definitive statements about anything outside the kinds of logic and math that are self-contained inventions to start with. The atheist can not be certain that there is no god, and nor can she be sure that the sun will rise tomorrow, or even that it rose today. Some things may be more certain than others, but none are absolute. And the kicker is that we are in constant revolt against this uncertainty, since it is both psychologically uncomfortable, operationally impractical, and hidden from our view.
"Our mental limitations prevent us from accepting our mental limitations."
Ultimately, I think Burton does a little soft-peddling, since the conclusion of all this is that we benefit from an outside arbiter to control our sense of knowing about important and abstract topics. And that arbiter is ideally going to be empiricism, i.e. science. Indeed, one might portray science as, in a way, a higher level of consciousness, in the sequence from unconscious reflex to consciousness under emotional brain control, to increasingly reliable memory stored in written form, and then to a communally validated pool of knowledge & theory. Science is the social mechanism we have devised to hold hypotheses in suspension, to test them logically and empirically, to subject them to public scrutiny by those who typically have an emotional interest in shooting them down, and attempt to record their fruits objectively. It descended from the academic disputation common in the monastic and humanist past, but obviously evolved in a new and far more productive direction.
"There must be certainty from the US president." -G. W. Bush, quoted by Burton.
Unfortunately, there is far more to the human condition than science can address. A depressing coda in the book deals with medical practice, which is ridden with the posture of certainty subsituting for actual knowledge, expertise, and competence. Even the best doctors can never consciously assimilate very much of the vast medical corpus, (assuming that this data is itself free of bias, which is far from the case). So they go by their training, by hunches, and experience, more or less well remembered, all wrapped up in the white coat of authority. Most of the time it turns out OK, but frequently it doesn't. Something as simple as a checklist for medical procedures has been shown to dramatically reduce complications, showing that the confident competence we typically rely on is far from sufficient to render optimal care.

Conversely, confidence and authority can have medical benefits, such as when a doctor prescribes a placebo, yet inspires enough confidence in the patient that real improvement results. The endless billions that Americans pour into alternative medical treatments, self-help, motivational speakers, and the like are surely not going completely to waste, since however appalling from a rational perspective, subjective confidence and happiness can lead to health (though probably not wealth!) in some circumstances, due to our intimate mind-body connections, particularly in the areas of stress and immune function. We just need the wisdom to know where, when, and who- which, by Burton's analysis, we can never have.

Incidentally, particularly clever theologians have seized on the cognitive defects of our condition as an argument that nothing said by a philosophical naturalists can make any sense- that the position is inherently self-defeating because reason itself is impossible if we truly are naturally evolved beings, speaking nonsense and greed into each other's ears. To the rescue comes god, who by fiat makes us make sense- both in the context of the universe, and to each other. God enables reason, we are in His image, He is reasonable by definition, etc..
"And this leads directly to the question whether it is at all likely that our cognitive faculties, given naturalism and given their evolutionary origin, would have developed in such a way as to be reliable, to furnish us with mostly true beliefs." -Alvin Plantinga
Among the assumptions here is that biologically evolved reason and the sense of certainty are not just unreliable, as per Burton, but totally, fantastically, utterly defective. Needless to say, there is little reason to take this argument seriously, since evolution, while it may not have rationality as its only cognitive goal, has accuracy in many perceptual and cognitive respects among its goals, which can later be leveraged and supplemented by calibration, critique, etc. in a scientific/philosophical method, at least when carried out by competent people.

I found this is an outstanding book with philosophical and practical messages. Uncertainty touches countless areas of our lives. For example, serious consideration of uncertainty underlies much of the difference between Keynesian and classical economics, with the latter taking a typically theological approach by assuming away uncertainty (i.e. supposing rational expectations and perfect knowledge) under the cover of an impressive (in this case mathematical) apparatus. In other news- the Norwegian atrocity- the attachment that right wingnuts have for their guns testifies to their lack of appreciation for our many limits as humans- particularly, the possibility that extremism and passion (which they typically possess in abundance) may in rare circumstances get the better of them or others in their household and render their favorite weapon an instrument of mayhem and murder.

  • Wingnut response to Norway: "I hereby vow to carry my handguns more often."
  • A little epistemic humility on Afghanistan.
  • Saudi Arabia- still not a beacon of freedom.
  • How can one have a lie detector if we believe our lies?
  • Pasta, flying to new heights.
  • Why are we kowtowing to economic criminals?
  • Reinhard and Rogoff are responsible for immeasurable harm, are apparently still employed.
  • And what is going on with "President Pushover"?
  • Economics quotes of the week, via Bill Mitchell. Apparently the Bank of International Settlements understands the banking system after all, by this quote:
"In particular, it is argued that the concept of the money multiplier is flawed and uninformative in terms of analyzing the dynamics of bank lending. Under a fiat money standard and liberalized financial system, there is no exogenous constraint on the supply of credit except through regulatory capital requirements."
"Further, the only way a government such as the US can “go broke” is if the politicians deliberately and wilfully decide not to use the financial capacity of the government and refuse to credit relevant bank accounts in the non-government sector. That would be an extraordinary conspiracy against the people of their own land and against peoples in other lands that had acquired US dollar-denominated assets."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

To sleep, perchance to renormalize synapses

Flies sleep too, and give us novel access to the nature and function of sleep.

Why do we sleep? Why do even whales and dolphins sleep, alternating hemispheres so that they can stay at the surface, breathing reliably? Why does sleep deprivation eventually lead to insanity and death? Incidentally, isn't sleep deprivation as commonly used by our military and other security organizations equivalent to torture?

A recent paper supports one theory (originally developed by the same authors, Tononi and Cirelli, in 2003) of why we sleep, which is that our brain's neurons build up connections through the day, which the special characteristics of deep, slow wave sleep prune back to a manageable condition. Apparently fruit flies also sleep, allowing the enormous tool chest of experimental fly biology to be deployed on this fascinating question. That flies sleep at all is quite remarkable, since a fly's life is extremely short- a perilous few weeks at most. Yet they snooze away a third of it, admittedly at night when they might not want to be active anyhow.

The idea behind this theory is that learning happens by the classic Hebbian theory- cells that fire together wire together. That is to say, their synaptic connections increase in strength and number. Nerve cell processes (axons and dendrites) grow and make new contacts, and in a few cases, nerve cells may even divide and multiply. So during a day of intense activity and learning, we (or a fly) are continuously building up synapses, and perhaps not breaking them down ... the balance continues to rise and rise, until eventually the brain just seizes up and doesn't work anymore.
"The hypothesis predicts that the more one learns and adapts, (i.e. the more intense is the wake experience), the more one needs to sleep."
Sleep -specifically, the deepest slow wave forms that happen relatively early each night- is then theorized to put this process into reverse, erasing the weakest synapses and thus "renormalizing" the system back to some "normal" level that exchanges some old or unimportant crud for newly learned connections. Thus you might wake up and suddenly, the piano piece you were working on with diminishing returns the night before now seems a great deal easier, while yesterday's lunch is wiped clean away. Incidentally, later stages of sleep that involve dreaming may selectively reinforce older memories, instinctive imperatives, and stray connections in a completely different tuning process.

The original paper outlining this theory is thankfully available, and here are a few choice quotes from it:
"The slow oscillation occurs at a frequency that is ideally suited to induce depotentiation/depression in stimulation paradigms, namely <1 Hz [31]. Thus, from a frequency perspective alone, slow-wave sleep would be a good candidate for promoting depotentiation/depression.
The close temporal pairing between generalized spiking at the end of the up-phase and generalized hyperpolarization at the beginning of the down-phase may indicate to synapses that presynaptic input was not effective in driving postsynaptic activity, a key requirement for depression." 
(Here, depression means the opposite of classic Hebbian learning. Now cells that fire together under the slow wave paradigm unwire from each other. "Downscaling" is another term for synaptic renormalization.) 
"Thus, at least at the molecular level, sleep may not just be unfavorable to synaptic potentiation, but specifically conducive to generalized synaptic depotentiation/depression. More direct tests of this prediction can be envisaged. It is already known that sleep altogether favors dephosphorylation in the brain. One could further measure phosphorylation levels in sleep and wakefulness of residues of the AMPA channel [sensitive to the neurotransmitter glutamate and widely present in the brain] involved in potentiation/depotentiation and depression/dedepression, as well as indices of AMPA receptor internalization."
"Finally, the reduced activity of the noradrenergic system during sleep would ensure that only downscaling occurs, and not potentiation."
"According to the hypothesis, during sleep the strength of each synapse would decrease by a proportional amount, until the total amount of synaptic weight impinging on each neuron returns to a baseline level. Provided there is a threshold below which synapses become ineffective or silent, synapses contributing to the noise, being on average weaker than those contributing to the signal, would cease to interfere in the execution, and the SNR [signal to noise ratio] would increase. "

"Finally, the hypothesis triggers some further questions. For example, can anesthetic agents also produce synaptic downscaling, to the extent that they promote slow-wave activity comparable to that of NREM [non-rapid eye movement] sleep? ... How does the hypothesis apply to other brain structures where sleep rhythms are different, such as the hippocampus? Or to other species, such as the fruit fly? And finally, what about REM sleep? Could it be, for example, that with its steady depolarization and high spontaneous activity, REM sleep might pro- mote the insertion of AMPA receptors in the synaptic sites that are still effective after the downscaling of NREM sleep, and thereby favor their consolidation? Such “polishing” of synapses after the “cleansing” action of NREM sleep would agree with the regular alternation between NREM and REM sleep and the reported cooperativity between the two stages of sleep in certain procedural tasks"
Summary of model, from a later Tononi and Cirelli paper.
"Evidence for a relationship between synaptic strength or density and SWA [slow wave activity during sleep] also comes from developmental studies. SWA changes during the lifespan in a way that seems to follow cortical synaptic density, as indicated directly by electron microscopy on post-mortem tissue and by MRI estimates of the amount of gray matter. Thus, both synaptic density and SWA reach a peak in adolescence, after which they decline rapidly, and continue a slower decline into old age. Pathological decreases in synaptic density, as observed in neurodegenerative disorders and schizophrenia, are also associated with reductions in SWA. Moreover, after visual deprivation during the critical period—a procedure associated with synaptic depression, slow waves are reduced by 40% in the absence of changes in sleep architecture."

The synapse is a complicated place, with special proteins expressed on both sides, (i.e. presynaptic and postsynaptic), including storage systems for neurotransmitters and neuropeptides, secretion apparatus, receptors to detect them, as well as the usual ion channels that run electrical conduction along membranes all over the nerve cell.

The researchers use flies altered to express neuron- and synapse-specific genes fused to a gene fragment encoding the fluorescent protein GFP, lighting up the resulting neurons. The researchers also use straightforward sleep/wake control over their flies, keeping them in individual glass tubes (+ food) mounted in automated activity monitors, and shaken when needed to keep the flies sleep-deprived.

Flies don't make beds, put on pyjamas, or even so much as curl up to sleep, so researchers have to define it in a slightly more indirect way. Immobility for over five minutes is called sleep, while activity within a one-minute interval is defined as wakefullness (called "wake", for convenience). Nevertheless, they tend to sleep in a familiar pattern, for an eight-hour night, of which the first 2.5 hours are the deepest and most immobile. Flies are kept up by caffeine, noisy neighbors, etc., and catch up on missed Z's as soon as possible, but only for a fraction of the missed time. All of this is very much like our own sleep.

Below is the observed sleep pattern for typical female flies, where W marks the wake period (lights on), S marks the sleep period in the dark, and SD marks sleep deprivation, which appears to be very effective.

The weak part of the paper is that the researchers get their data by microscopically visualizing the synapses and neurons in selected areas of the fly brains and counting them or measuring their overall brightness by eye, which, even if done by neutral ("blind"!) observers, as they claim, is inherently noisy and subjective. But the point was to judge the effect of sleep on synapse structure and proliferation as directly as possible, (rather than, say, measuring the level of synaptonemal proteins over the entire brain in a gross way, which has been done repeatedly and agrees with the hypothesis on that level), so for the moment, this might be the best method available.

Below is shown a typical set of data, where they measure the volume of presynaptic structures (the half of the synapse that comes from the upstream axon) with two different marked proteins (syt-e/synaptogamin, and a neuropeptide called PDF) in a type of neuron involved in circadian rhythms. There are unequivocal differences when the flies were sampled after the sleep (S) condition or after the other two conditions- sleep deprived (SD) and wake (W).

Tha shake things up a little, they use mutant flies with no circadian rhythm- the Per (Period) gene is knocked out, so the flies have random bouts of sleep, (shown below), at least until they were all sleep deprived (SD7, seven hours), followed by either more sleep deprivation (SD12) or sleep (+S5). The data shows the despite that lack of endogenous rhythm, flies still need to catch up on sleep after being deprived.

The corresponding graphs of visualized synaptonemal proteins is below, showing, as expected, that sleep lowers these proteins significantly, while continued sleep deprivation raises them. These flies are cranky!

In the next set, the experimenters test another type of neuron, and look at postsynaptic dendrite elaboration in flies expressing fluorescent actin, which should show up pretty much everywhere. In this case, the dentrites grow "spines" as they contact upstream neurons and make synapses, so the spines are counted, shown in the image below as the very small balls. They also measured dendrite branch lengths. After showing that sleep deprivation leads to slightly elevated numbers of spines, they ask a new question- whether environmental enrichment during the day correlates with number of dendritic connections. While the control flies are left in their boring one-fly-per-tube hotels (W), the experimental flies are unleashed for twelve hours into a fly "mall" with a hundred other flies (Wm). Whether terror or happiness ensues, the researchers probably can't tell!

You can see that the briefly socialized flies have a lot more going on in their brains, growing longer dendrites and more dendritic synapses (spines).

All these values fell back to normal levels after sleep (below), showing a correlating cycle of more neuronal connections after waking activities and declines after sleep. Incidentally, the enriched flies also slept longer (I), as you might expect after a day of partying, including naps taken during daylight.

Lastly, the researchers use an interesting gene (FMR1), which, when defective in its homologous form in humans, causes mental retardation and other problems, called fragile X syndrome. Prior work indicated that flies lacking this gene product have over-elaborated neurons with lack of pruning, along with learning and other problems, and that overexpression of the gene can cause the reverse effect: well-pruned neurons even in the absence of sleep. These flies sleep 30% less than normal, and sure enough, the experimental protocols of sleep deprivation didn't significantly alter the dendrite counts and volume compared to wild-type flies.

Genetic variation in such a gene might be responsible for variable amounts of sleep need seen naturally, in flies as well as in humans. So it remains slightly puzzling why most animals need so much of it. Perhaps, given the astronomically-imposed day/night cycle, checking out for eight hours is not much worse than checking out for two. We may also have only scratched the surface of what sleep does for us, whether physiologically or psychologically. Certainly Jungians, among others, set great store by dreaming, which happens during a separate sleep phase. Do flies dream?

This hypothesis is well on its way to becoming a compelling theory of what is likely the principal reason why we need deep slow-wave sleep and run into serious problems if we don't get it. The underlying mechanisms remain under investigation, (especially the functions of the various brain waves, and the dynamics of synapse growth and regression), and the hunt goes on for the mechanisms and rationale of other significant processes that happen during sleep.

  • We have a gambling problem.
  • On the power of the placebo effect.
  • What happened to the Republicans?
  • How's that hearts-and-minds operation going in the Middle East?
  • A local peace dividend- open space on Mt Umunhum.
  • Krugman tracks employment.
  • Economics quote of the week, George Packer in the New Yorker, on Goldman Sachs board member Rajat Gupta's insider trading conspiracy with Galleon's Raj Rajaratnam.
"On the afternoon of September 23rd [2008], Rajat Gupta, former head of McKinsey, joined members of the Goldman Sachs board on a conference call. They discussed Warren Buffet's proposed investment of five billion dollars in the investment bank, which had been imperiled by the crash. The conference call ended at 3:54 P.M. Sixteen seconds later, Gupta called Rajaratnam's office. At 3:58, just two minutes before the markets closed, Rajaratnam gave an order to buy three hundred and fifty thousand shares of Goldman stock, worth forty-three million dollars. That night, the world learned of the Buffett investment. At the peak of the crisis, Gupta the Goldman board member's first thought was to make sure that his investment partner Raj Rajaratnam could exploit the deal. A month later, the drill was repeated: as Goldman prepared to announce an unexpected quarterly loss, Gupta called Rajaratnam, and Rajaratnam sold all his Goldman stock before the announcement."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Who's got the biggest piggy bank?

Some notes on the US federal debt.

It is important to realize what a non-issue the US federal debt is, and thus what a stalking horse it is for the same old class war of rich vs poor and capital vs labor. This was clarified when, after voting against raising the debt ceiling, House Republican leaders hurried to assure Wall Street bankers that they were just bluffing- they would surely raise the debt ceiling in the end, but just wanted to put some more theatrical pressure on the Democrats to squeeze out more spending cuts, presumably so that the economy performs worse during the upcoming election. Government is always bad, when it is run by Democrats.

One would think that savings are a good thing to be encouraged, so increased government bond holdings by individuals would be a good thing, insulating them against future calamity, funding their retirements, paying for their medical services, etc. The Federal reserve has certainly encouraged banks to save lots of money, pumping them full of reserves and offering them bonds so that they can make a bit of money and crawl their way back to solvency without lending.

But one person's saving is another's liability. Why not leave these liabilities in the private sector instead of the government sector? The private sector recently went through a meltdown where some savings were lost due to bankruptcy, and other savings through vertiginous market drops- a highly unpleasant situation. Federal debt has zero financial risk, (though the risk of political idiocy rises by the day). The US government has never defaulted, has never repaid substantial amounts of its own debt, and can print up more money any time. So from the customer's standpoint, safety is worth the low interest rates the government offers.

On the other hand, is the government robbing the private sector of capital, "crowding out" sources of savings? Hardly ... the world is awash in savings, increasingly desperate to chase even meagre returns. Obscure economies were inudated with investment in the 90's, only to be whipsawed by its fickle exit. The Chinese, of all people, are saving prodigiously. The dot-com boom showed the nation's enormous appetite and financial capacity (via other people's savings) to support risky schemes that end in tears. Ditto for the housing boom just ended. Most companies are sitting on hoards of cash. Any decent commercial investment can find plenty of money, but with demand guttering, few companies have strong growth and investment prospects. Bankers are reluctant to lend, but not for lack of money.

Granted, the private financial sector (or FIRE) would prefer to force the regular savers and pension funds to invest through their greedy minions. Thus the ideological push to privatize Social Security, Medicare, 401k's, and anything else they can get their hands on. But while private finance is surely important, (though its "innovations" are anything but), it is not ideal for many forms of investment, retirement perhaps among them.

But what of the risk to the government? Isn't its debt bomb "exploding"? Or spiralling? Or "out of control"? This where the title comes in, because if we take a step back, we can see that of all the savings kitties out there, the government has the largest one by far. The power to print money is equivalent to having an infinite piggy bank. It can spend any time, as much as it wants. It can also reverse course and add to its virtual savings by running overall budget surpluses (drawing dollars back out of the private balances, which is typically quite destructive to economic growth). So of all the actors on the scene, the federal government is best equipped to weather any storm and meet any calamity. The question is mostly whether it wishes to do so, and secondly, whether its use of that piggy bank is consistent with keeping the value of the money stable.

Inflation can be caused by unbalanced spending from any source- if the government prints and spends too much money, or if China suddenly decides to dump all its dollars and buy US real estate, or if the older generation suddenly joins a Buddhist cult en masse and gives all its money away, or if banks keep lending and creating money without proper oversight and capital backing. The economics would be the same- galloping inflation when spending of saved dollars far outstrips the productive capacity of the economy. So whoever has the dollar stash is a source of inflation risk, just as sudden credit destruction and a pell mell flight to safety leads to the economic tailspin we are experiencing now.

It is uniquely the government's job to 1. regulate the banking sector which creates most of the money, and  2. meter out its own spending to counteract whatever monetary pressures there are, whether contractionary or inflationary. Today the pressures are clearly contractionary. With interest rates at zero, the Fed has found it impossible to prod banks to create more money by lending. More spending is called for, and indeed a higher explicit inflation target is called for as well. (A whacky site hosts a good video series on money & banking, at least in the opening three parts- especially note the equation of debt with money.)

Note how different this is from an individual Euro country, which has no implicit pile of savings to work from, or from a gold-standard country, which likewise is limited to whatever its miners happen across in their voyage of environmental destruction. The powers of having an unlimited piggy bank are enormous, as are the dangers, which is why governments have tried to paint central banks as mysterious, oracular, god-like, non-political entities.

Conversely, it does the government no good to pile up surpluses. Since its "savings" are infinite, it need pile up no savings against a rainy day. Indeed, any surplus it runs is useless, flushed down an accounting hole. Surpluses represent money withdrawn from the private sector (by excess taxation) which is simply extinguished ... it is not stored in a vault somewhere, or used to buy private bonds, etc.. it is deflationary destruction of the same money it creates effortlessly on the other end. Sometimes such deflationary pressure is helpful, but of course not today.

It is also worth noting that issuing government bonds to balance government spending is no protection against inflation. Bondholders give up short notes (dollar bills) in exchange for long notes (bonds). But nothing much else changes as far as anyone is concerned. The government had spent the money originally in any case, the money was intended to be saved in any case, the savers still possess the money in any case, and they can redeem their bonds in the market at any time, given the government's commitment to keeping it liquid and functioning. With bonds, the spending of those dollars is notionally barred for the term of the bond, and in return, government throws in a small annuity, paid from its infinite stock of savings or from taxes. But these are very minor effects in the normal course of affairs.

The bond rigamarole is virtually pointless from a macroeconomic standpoint, though from a political standpoint, it can "bond" the rich to the financial soundness of the government (though Republicans may not have gotten the message!). Government bonds also provide provander for central bank's management of bank reserves and interest rates, though it certainly doesn't need endless trillions for that purpose in the normal course of events.

Anyhow, the bottom line is that savings in government bonds will be an increasing and stabilizing feature of our financial landscape. By all means, private issuers should have first priority in the market, getting all risk-seeking money that wants higher rates. But our future looks much like Japan's present, with high levels of federal bonds held by individuals as a stable core of savings. And that future looks very good, as far as the government's accounts go.

How much is too much? We are closing in on a federal debt of 1X GDP, or about $14 trillion. Japan is at roughly 2X GDP. How much do you have in savings personally? Do you want to have one year's income, or two year's? These seem like paltry amounts, really, compared to what is needed for serious retirement, so averaged over a population, 2 or 3X GDP sounds perfectly reasonable as a steady-state level of population savings parked in safe government bonds, balancing consumption with savings. (The fact that these holdings tend to be held highly unevenly among income groups is a separate issue.)

The problem in the mean time is that savings desires are running ahead of consumption desires, resulting in depressed economic activity and unemployment. Here is where the our political will comes into play. It is the government that can support both the desire of people to save after the recent profligate boom, and also the horrifying unemployment that continues in its wake.

There is no inherent contradiction between the two. The government clearly needs to spend more, within its inflationary constraints, which are right now extremely low. It would also help if it spent in targeted ways that directly create jobs, rather than disproportionately giving to the rich through tax gifts, etc. and waiting for the shower of money to trickle down. And the point doesn't have to be consuming more stuff made in China. With a little political foresight and leadership, we could be spending on remaking our energy system and rebuilding our infrastructure and educational system. There is a great deal to be done to make our country and world a better place.

"The national government in a sovereign nation (currency issuing with floating exchange rate) always chooses the national unemployment rate. Not sometimes, but always."

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Is consciousness search?

Search is all the rage in apps and the internet. What if search is consciousness as well?

After reading Antonio Damasio's book "Self comes to mind", about consciousness, I am little wiser than before. One of its few significant points is to reiterate that explicit memory is a matter of replaying data stored entirely unconsciously in certain areas of the brain (like the frontal lobes) in other areas regularly involved in presenting sensory information. Thus, if we remember a day at the ocean, a brain scanner would see our visual, hearing, and smell processing areas light up with a muted version of the actual experience, presumably transmitted there as a pattern from memory storage areas that, as we learned, basically dump out in reverse what previously played into them.

The book's second significant point is that consciousness is largely about learning, by using long-term, large scale context drawn from unconscious sources to train unconscious modules elsewhere in the brain. Consciousness doesn't directly execute anything, as anyone learning a new skill can attest. If we are learning to play a musical instrument, a very painful process of setting a conscious goal alternates with halting execution as we consciously try to get our body to adopt new actions and habits. Then we consciously perceive the woeful result, and the learning cycle continues. Once the relevant unconscious processes form, conscious direction can be devoted to ever-greater levels of abstraction and indirect control.
"In the words of William James, ‘‘consciousness’’ appears as ‘‘an organ added for the sake of steering a nervous system grown too complex to regulate itself’’ (James, 1890, chapter 5)."   (All quotes taken from this article, not from Damasio)

Third and last is that Damasio is convinced that consciousness involves very low levels of the brain- the stem and thalamus, in addition to higher cortical regions. In one of the few items of data presented, he claims that hydrancephalic patients, born with with no cortex at all, (and who can live into their 20's), still have a rudimentary and responsive form of consciousness. They like some people and not others, like some foods and not others, etc. He also notes that only very few lesions, such as some in the higher brain stem, can radically impair consciousness, indicating that consciousness is a rather broad and evolutionarily primitive function.

So much for the book review. Thankfully, I ran across a much more lucid and up-to-date review of the field, which seems to be freely available, and which supplies relevant quotes below.

What gets me going are databases, so I would naturally see consciousness as a search function over a database. Are feelings involved? Sure, they are just another datatype in the database! Specifically, I'd propose that consciousness is the integration of connections drawn from a vast database which instantly (that is to say, within about 0.3 to 0.5 second) inbue perceptual or recollected data with context, meaning, valance, and feeling. That, I would argue, is the solution of the consciousness problem... the hard problem that is posed as: what makes the "redness" of red?

On its face, red is just a brain-encoded category plucked out of the electromagnetic spectrum more or less arbitrarily. What makes it conscious and rich for us, unlike what a video camera might experience of the same visible phenomenon, are the feelings and knowledge associated with red in our internal constellation. Perhaps we "like" red, and have special associations with various shades of red. Perhaps we know a little about interior design, or graphic design, and see the power that red can lend to projects in those areas. To a baby, red is just flat data, though it may also be intrinsically attractive, based on biological programming of our perceptual apparatus and feelings. Red is the color of blood, after all, and of ripe fruits- doubtless a powerful color on purely inborn biology alone. But to adults, it can be far more meaningful, in qualitative terms of association, which leads to the term "qualia".

Our brains are connection machines, (and also modelling machines, at a higher level). All data that pours into our heads are automatically linked to a web of ambient data- how a cookie smelled as it was being dunked in an aromatic tea by our fingers which felt its slightly greasy, crumbly surface, as we fumbled through a conversation and thought about the morning ahead. Stream-of-consciousness is old-hat by now in literature, but it is important to recognize how significant it is, relative to what is possible with current computers. In database technology, we struggle to relate individual pieces of data, and have to frame them into arbitrary classifications, numerically indexed and neatly tucked into bins. The technology is utterly unlike the freewheeling automatically everything-connects-with-everthing-else analog methods of brain data storage.

Once the data is in, it is ready to come back out, whether implicitly as we go about our lives and keep associating whatever is new with all that has gone before, or explicitly via reverie and replay in our sensory brain regions. One can have more or less data, thus more or less consciousness. Without training, one might be oblivious to the subtleties of classical music, or baseball, in effect being less conscious. Animals have all sorts of levels of consciousness, depending on how much information they can muster, and how much of it their brains keep in close and immediate connection, rather than in the vast unconscious troves of senstivities and implicit memories that far outnumber what is conscious.

What differentiates unconscious from conscious data? Unconscious data is surely usable in specialized systems, and through the mysterious processes of the dynamic unconscious, may create truly novel linkages (ideas) that pop into consciousness from time to time. Unconscious processing is also parallel, in contrast to consciousness, which, while maybe disjoint, still exhibits a linear "flow". This makes unconscious processing far, far more efficient and powerful than consciousness. But it is not continuously integrated and available, perhaps via the high-frequency gamma-wave attention system and long-range axons that seem to correlate with consciousness. The cerebellum is an example- a module of the brain devoted mostly to fine motor control, which processes information without contributing one iota to consciousness, probably because it isn't wired into the top-level consciousness system that exchanges information all over the brain, if in limited amounts.
"Human ERP [event-rrelated potential] and MEG [magnetoencephalography] recordings also revealed that conscious perception is also accompanied, during a similar time window, by increases in the power of high-frequency fluctuations, primarily in the gamma band (>30 Hz), as well as their phase synchronization across distant cortical sites (Doesburg et al., 2009; Melloni et al., 2007; Rodriguez et al., 1999; Schurger et al., 2006; Wyart and Tallon-Baudry, 2009)."
"Nonconscious stimuli can be quickly and efficiently processed along automatized or preinstructed processing routes before quickly decaying within a few seconds. By contrast, conscious stimuli would be distinguished by their lack of ‘‘encapsulation’’ in specialized processes and their flexible circulation to various processes of verbal report, evaluation, memory, planning, and intentional action, many seconds after their disappearance (Baars, 1989; Dehaene and Naccache, 2001). Dehaene and Naccache (2001) postulate that ‘‘this global availability of information (...) is what we subjectively experience as a conscious state.’’"

What form does this "information" take? That is a significant question, even if we accept the overall hypothesis about a global information exchange network or workspace that correlates closely with consciousness. Information all over the brain takes the form of action potentials, quite different from whatever we might imagine as qualia- cloudy whisps, movie images, compositions by Bach, etc. Consciousness would clearly take the same form, being a subset of the wider information flow in the brain, with the properties of being integrative, linear, and consistent in form while varying in content. Positing any other form that this information could take wouldn't make biological sense, nor would it help clarify what makes qualia special.
"A notable feature of the dynamic core hypothesis is the proposal of a quantitative mathematical measure of information integration called F, high values of which are achieved only through a hierarchical recurrent connectivity and would be necessary and sufficient to sustain conscious experience: ‘‘consciousness is integrated information’’ (Tononi, 2008)."

One special property of consciousness is that it can reach into many other areas, depending on attentional focus. Special long-range axons (pyramidal) are thought to provide some of these connections:
"The ‘‘special morphology’’ of the pyramidal cells from the cerebral cortex was already noted by Cajal (1899–1904), who mentioned their ‘‘long axons with multiple collaterals’’ and their ‘‘very numerous and complex dendrites.’’ ... Furthermore, quantitative analyses of the dendritic field morphology of layer III pyramidal neurons revealed a continuous increase of complexity of the basal dendrites from the occipital up to the prefrontal cortex within a given species (DeFelipe and Farin ̃ as, 1992; Elston and Rosa, 1997, 1998) and from lower species (owl monkey, marmoset) up to humans (Elston, 2003). ... These observations confirm that PFC [prefrontal cortex] cells exhibit the morphological adaptations needed for massive long-distance communication, information integration, and broadcasting postulated in the GNW [global neuronal workspace] model and suggest that this architecture is particularly developed in the human species."

Outside the brain, search has evolved rapidly over cultural history. First, we gave up our deep cultural memories, such as epic poems and stories, in favor of writing and books, such as scriptures. Now we give up our medium-term memories to the internet, not bothering to remember the blizzard of factlets that can so easily be looked up on Wikipedia. Perhaps the next step is supplementing consciousness itself- our moment-to-moment short term memories that make up the database that connects everything in our heads into meaningful constructs. While technically fanciful, or at any rate very far off, (cue the singularity people), if we could get faster and bigger analog memory storage from chips implanted into our heads, and connections between them made compatible with the existing consciousness network, then search would be internalized and create new levels of consciousness.

As an example, head-mounted displays are already in existence that automatically annotate ambient scenes, for instance for military pilots. So imagine looking out, but instead of a bare streetscape, it is covered with highlighting colors or text annotations that indicate properties of interest, like restaurants, or street signs, or dirt ... whatever you are concerned about. This would be a richer form of consciousness than we are normally used to, though still limited by what we can pack through our existing sensory apparatus. Suppose that these annotations were internally generated and spontaneously pop up in response to whatever we were thinking or looking at ... that would be consciousness itself.

Some more interesting papers and links on the topic:
  • Phase transitions and chaos.
  • Gamma and the coding of consciousness.
  • More on gamma.
  • Relations of gamma and theta waves.
  • Not all gammas are the same.
  • Another all-around review of the field.
  • The demented Stuart Hammeroff retreats from quantum consciousness, to only slightly more plausible dentritic gap junction consciousness.
"Interestingly, recent research also suggests that spontaneous brain activity, as assessed by resting-state EEG recordings, may be similarly parsed into a stochastic series of slow ‘‘microstates,’’ stable for at least 100 ms, each exclusive of the other, and separated by sharp transitions (Lehmann and Koenig, 1997; Van de Ville et al., 2010). These microstates have recently been related to some of the fMRI resting-state networks (Britz et al., 2010). Crucially, they are predictive of the thought contents reported by participants when they are suddenly interrupted (Lehmann et al., 1998, 2010). Thus, whether externally induced or internally generated, the ‘‘stream of consciousness’’ may consist in a series of slow, global, and transiently stable cortical states (Changeux and Michel, 2004)."
  • Unemployment is also a civil rights issue.
  • Stiglitz speaks.
  • Trickle down? Nope. Wages are declining.
  • Corporations to rule over us all.
  • Christians still hunting for Adam and Eve.
  • It's just a fish, so who cares
  • Another telling of the regulatory and free market debacle.
  • Bradley Manning, Hero.
  • Economics quote of the week- Warren Buffet:
"If Greece could print its own drachmas, it wouldn't have a debt problem."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Blogging alone

A review of Putnam's Bowling Alone, about social connections as social capital.

In "Bowling alone", (2000), sociologist Robert Putnam offers a wide-ranging critique of recent US society as having become more disconnected and socially poverty-stricken, even as we have gained in many other forms of intellectual and material wealth. It is enough to make one wonder whether the Islamists and related extremists have something of a point, as they resist the destruction of traditional Afghan and other Islamic societies by the steamroller of Western commercialization.

I was reading another delightful book, the Big Bonanza, by Dan DeQuille, about the silver mining days of the 1880's Comstock lode, which mentions the dizzying array of social associations in Virginia City in its glory days: the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Ancient Order of Druids, Knights of Pythias, Knights of the Red Branch, Improved Order of the Red Men, Masons, Champions of the Red Cross, Caledonia Society, Society of Pacific Coast Pioneers, German Turnveriens, trade unions for miners, printers, and others, churches, Virginia Benevolent Society, St. Mary's Orphan Asylum and school, two daily papers, and more. This in a town of 30,000. I realized that this connected significantly with Putnam's thesis, though I had never read his book. Not having TV back in the day, they entertained each other in grand style, making music, gambling, meeting, lecturing, dining, doing good deeds, prospecting, and pontificating. Now, much of that social connection has fallen by the wayside as we cacoon in our homes with professional entertainment piped in profusion, via cable, internet, broadcast, and radio. We have gained immeasurably, but what have we lost?

So I read Putnam's book, which provides a detailed and multifaceted analysis of what he calls social capital. The first thing to ask is- what is social capital, and what is good about it?

Social capital is the kind of thing that researchers like to visualize with complicated maps, like the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. It is the degree to which we are connected to other people by bonds that are social, and thus reciprocal and feeling, rather than commercial and anonymous, or imagined via novels and film. It is saying hello to someone on the street, making both of you feel more human and connected in a society, rather than anonymously alone. It is voting, and marrying, and writing letters to the editor, and conducting meetings of the bridge club or neighborhood group, and running the library. It is baby-sitting for others and looking in on an elderly neighbor.

Social connections generally make us feel good and improve health. Marrying raises life expectency the same amount as quitting smoking. "Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income." On the work front, connections are self-evidently conducive to getting better jobs and greasing the wheels of commerce. "Rainmakers" are hired in many businesses almost solely for their Rolodexes. And in the political sphere, those with more social capital vote more, and those with more connections have more influence. Organizing is all about aligning the participation of the many towards shared ends. The tea party is an example of (relatively few) people of like mind banding together on behalf of an agenda and gaining influence from that solidarity.

But there is a flip side to social capital as well, which is freedom. Moving to the anonymous city from the gossipy small town can be hugely liberating. Everyone needs some personal space, and some, such as many artists, intensely need quiet and solitude to plumb the depths of their muse. So there needs to be a balance. Putnam notes that when it comes to happiness, while attending club meetings monthly is far better than attending none, attending them daily is worse than monthly ... there are diminishing returns to sociability. We observe the same among monkeys and chimpanzees, that infants need intense social connection to their mothers, but thereafter, there is an ongoing and shifting balance between independence / exploration and the need to be part of a group- to have a sound home base to work from.

Additonally, social capital is not always positive, but can bond in intolerance and bigotry. The KKK was a voluntary civic organization, after all.

So what's the problem? Putman points to a variety of studies and statistics that show that our civic life and social connections have become weaker over the last few decades. Membership in all kinds of organizations has declined. Many organizations that used to be truly civic and locally based are now skeleton membership and lobbying operations based in Washington DC. Graph after graph shows declines in such things as membership rates in chapter-based national organizations, local meeting attendance, service as an officer, volunteering in campaigns, voting, social visiting, family dinners, stopping at stop signs, philanthropy, subjective happiness, card playing, and yes, bowling as part of a league.

For example, membership in the PTA, per family with children, is less than half what it was at its peak in 1960. Union membership is less than half of its peak in 1950. United Way giving is roughly half of its peak in 1960. The number of security guards has doubled per capita since the 1950's, as has the number of lawyers. Hitchhiking has become unheard of. Suicide is three times more prevalent among youth in the 90's than it was in the 50's. Putman makes quaint reference to people raking their own leaves before they blow onto someone else's yard, in the general (socially rational) expectation that similar good turns would be done by others. Today, of course, the name of the game is to power-blow your leaves and other detritus onto as many neighbor's yards as possible.

Probably this is not surprising to anyone. All kinds of civic virtues have been faltering noticeably, as have bridge clubs, entertaining, smoke filled rooms, percolators, and the rest of it. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the many internet communications technologies, one has to say that facebook is a social wasteland- focused on the barest of substance- "like"!- and the barest of interaction, however far-flung. Blogging can occasionally furnish more substance, but its interactions remain rather disembodied, as well as parochial.

More interesting is Putnam's analysis of why this social decline happened. There is a long list of possibilities, of which I will give a few, mixing in some of my own:

  • The auto-addled suburb
The twin benifices of oil and prosperity allowed most of us to move out of the warm Jane Jacobs urban community into sterile Levittowns, requiring an isolating and draining car trip to go anywhere and do anything. While the genteel ideal of living in the country took the US by storm, it left in its wake neither the closeness of traditional rural country life nor the close-packed inescapable community of the traditional city.
  • The demon tube
TV is the only form of entertainment that, according to Putnam, destroys social capital, sitting us on our couches and frying our brains. The average household has their TV on an average of eight hours per day, shockingly enough. Those who watch only what they plan for in advance are far more resistent to its corrosive effects on social engagement than those who watch "whatever's on".
  • The greatest generation
In a word, war is the greatest social glue, especially if you win. 
  • The feminist vacuum
Not vacuums that are feminist! The 50's and 60's were the age of stay-at-home moms driven bonkers by their isolation in the above-mentioned suburbs by the problem that had no name, who then devoted their vast energies to den-mothering, league of women voter-ing, and all the other worthy pursuits of social gluing and betterment they have no time for today.
  • The forgetting of Keynes
Life was supposed to be getting better about now, with jetpacks and endless leisure. Instead, most workers face stagnant living standards, higher risks off-loaded by their employers, (principally in the areas of retirement and job security), less effective leisure time, and longer working lives due to the downturn and the lack of secure retirement. Meanwhile, income has risen immensely for the fewer rich, making the entire society, as an economic system, poorer and less prosperous than it could be if wealth and spending were more evenly distributed. All this is principally due to the ideological forgetting of Keynes, whose policies were aimed at maintaining overall prosperity through full employment.
  • The prosperous cacoon
The home has taken on increased significance in modern America, as the consequence of all the above trends, principally those of suburbanization and electronic entertainment. 
  • The inequality curse 
Putnam has numerous graphs of social metrics tabulated by state, where states of the South always come off worst. One could view this through an economic lens, since economic inequality has long been higher in the South than elsewhere, with its stronger class distinctions, glorification of hereditary wealth, and antipathy to unions, not to mention the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. In recent decades, the entire country has moved in the same direction, dramatically losing union membership and seeing rising economic inequality. Republicans keep trying to repeal inheritance taxes as the purest expression of their plutocratic proclivities. Of course, as mentioned above in the discussion of Keynes, inequality is fundamentally corrosive to prosperity. But it is also directly corrosive to social capital, as the rich rule the political system and airwaves from within gated communities, served by a pliant underclass, and feel less beholden to and less like the "little people". 
"Inequality and social solidarity are deeply incompatible." 
  • The red scare (not one of Putnam's theses)
Communism was far more popular during the Great Depression and WW2 than it is today. Social solidarity, socialism, unions, and similar sentiments had great traction, while today, even being a community organizer seems to be a dirty word. Of course as the 50's wore on, the revelations of Stalinism and McCarthyism eroded this legacy, focusing communitarian sentiments on less liberal practices like keeping women in the kitchen and showing wholesome family dramas on TV. Still, the greatest generation had significantly more exposure to and practice of serious socialism than we would dream of today, with FOX news keeping a careful watch over our bodily fluids.
  • A surfeit of civil rights (not one of Putnam's theses)
The civil rights movements of the last century, encompassing successive waves of inclusion of, well, virtually everybody, have been unquestionably good. But is it possible that the club that everyone can join has become devalued in the process? One theory of our unique national founding is that the founders were especially conscious of liberty and the rights/values of association because they denied them so systematically to their slaves. Putnam makes a substantial point about social capital taking two forms, either bonding capital, which can be quite introverted within a community and exclusionary, versus bridging capital, which is open to all and encourages cross-fertilization. But there may be less to this distinction than meets the eye, if a society is class-structured so that no truly bridging capital is really possible. In short, in psychological terms, do we always need an out-group, however distant and implicit, to support in-group social solidarity?
"Slavery was designed to destroy social capital."

So what's the answer? Mostly, it's war that's done it. Putnam tracks the changing complexion of civic engagement, and finds a very strong generational component, where engagement rose in a small spurt after WW1, then massively around WW2. The WW2 generation has been consistently more civically inclined throughout their lives than those before or after, for several probable reasons. First was that the war directly trained US citizens in countless acts of engagement, from actual military service with their fellow bumpkins from all over our fair land to intensive mobilization on the home front for victory gardens, scrap drives, bond drives, and all sorts of other sacrifices. As religious leaders know well, the greater the sacrifice, the greater the psychological commitment.

Secondly, the whole mood of war is rather electrifying and unifying. In my lifetime, we have experienced faint echos in the various Middle Eastern wars, but none in the existential way that world war against utter evil engendered. And lastly, winning the war certainly helped as well, with the added flourish of devising and dropping the most incredibly powerful weapon ever. This mood of sheer power and potency was later sapped away in the Vietnam war, as we faced an enemy that made a mockery of our technological power with its understanding of social capital, ironically enough.

So, the greatest generation was highly trusting of each other and their institutions, expressed in their high degree of involvement in those institutions and in other forms of social engagement. Call them square, but they were cohesive and civic-minded in a way that our later jaded, ironical generations are not. It is also noteworthy that the Civil war, for all its internecine horror, also engendered a generation of civic activity that was reflected in the profusion of social organizations mentioned above in Virginia City, Nevada.

The other factors listed above also have roles in the drama, especially TV, which Putnam blames for perhaps a third of the decline. The TV epidemic is indeed serious, as bad as the much discussed obesity epidemic, and closely connected to it. Both are characterized by the ingestion of junk and the displacement of healthy fare. Both make us less fit and are promoted by corporations pushing what are essentially drugs in the guise of free choice, individualism, and easy living, not to mention better sex, ironically enough. TV presents the additional insult of the thoughts and desires of corporations themselves in a constant barrage of deceitful harangues that form our ambient intellectual atmosphere, and as a bonus, forms our current mode of politics as well.

Is there any hope? Putnam has an absolutely dreadful concluding chapter, full of stentorian "Let us find ways to ..." pronouncements. More interestingly, he devotes a long chapter to the Gilded age, also called the progressive age (1870's through 1920's), when the US really transitioned to modernity and when most of the large associations that survive today were born, like the Boy Scouts, League of Women's voters, Red Cross, NAACP, Goodwill industries, Lion's Club, Teamsters, and Sierra Club. It wasn't just the civic energy from Civil War mobilization that caused this flowering, but the deep social changes of urbanization and immigration that posed the problem of rootlessness as never before. Social entrepreneurs of many stripes devised new organizations to replace some of the rural civic connections that had been lost, using the dense new urban neighborhoods as springboards to restore social connection.

Conservatives might comment that it was precisely the lack of government meddling that called forth the private action and philanthropy that made this flowering possible. Ironically, in that view, the aim of many of the new organizations was to regularize their charitable activities as part of the state, in which they succeeded in cases like hospitals, welfare, work training programs, and Carnegie's libraries. Did they succeed too far?

In essence, these organizers discovered and promoted novel public goods, which are most fairly provided on a public basis. If we find that various social services (like, say, Kindergarten) are important to have on a universal basis, then leaving them to the vagaries of sociability as it ebbs and flows with the generations, let alone leaving them to the free market, isn't a fair, efficient, or consistent way of providing them. So government provision simply makes sense, even if it has an eroding effect on our voluntary scope of activity. One of the last bastions of social solidarity occurs during natural disasters, when communities pull together to pile sandbags, evacuate the elderly, rescue pets, and eventually rebuild and sue oil companies. Yet even these sacred tasks are being seized by FEMA and other government agencies! Where will it all end?

One wrinkle in the greatest generation theory above is that the older generation still votes at far higher rates than succeeding generations. And despite their higher civic-mindedness, they also vote their pocketbooks, which in California has meant the decline of public eduction, and nationally means the government-mandated transfer of wealth from the young to the old, in the form of social security and medicare.

What is the solution? As has been often remarked, we missed a significant opportunity after 9/11, when we were told that more tax cuts and more shopping were the proper sacrifices to make for this new war effort. While a nice world war against an evil empire might be just the ticket, that doesn't seem to be in the offing, largely due to the good work of the greatest generation who, through WW2 and the long cold war, sought to reduce the scourge of war, more or less successfully. Very well, there we are!

Politicians have long been calling us to the "moral equivalent of war", against poverty, inflation, cancer, oil shortages, obesity, whatever... These faint echos only accentuate the dilemma, which is that only a real war presents the existential threat that calls forth the commensurate social solidarity. Were it up to me, the new war would be waged against global warming, in a global Kumbaya effort to save the biosphere, uniting not just one nation, not just all humanity, but all life forms in one intense shared effort to make a greener, richer, and sustainable world. Unfortunately, that seems psychologically naive. All of evolution and anthropology tells us that there is no quarry or enemy nearly as lethal nor as numinously significant as our fellow humans.

Thus we may just have to settle for a less-than-greatest-generation level of social solidarity. Without unifying wars or sufficient rates of natural disaster, the US still has a strong civic mythos, whose cultivation remains of great importance. On the other hand, we don't have to give in to twitter, facebook, and TV as they dumb down our discourse and keep us glued to our individual seats & tray tables. I am hardly one to talk, blogging and all, but perhaps the odiferous tide of faux-reality TV may finally prompt viewers to turn themselves into doers ... to go outside and say hello to their neighbors.

  • Arctic village tells of a fascinating and rich society in the 1930's Alaskan wilderness.
  • Along with social capital, remember natural capital.
  • Pax Mongolica, successor to the Islamic golden age, precursor to the Renaissance.
  • "Tomorrow's China will be a country that fully achieves democracy, the rule of law, fairness and justice, ..."
  • Speaking of rotting our brains, the decepticons will enslave us all.
  • Joseph Stieglitz relates how globalization has not helped its targets- the underdeveloped masses, cancelling out our global hearts and mind operation, such as it is.
  • Krugman on books that inspired him.
  • The Bank of International Settlements hires Lehman's former risk manager.
  • Economics quote of the week, from Krugman:
"The key insight is that while debt does not make the world poorer – one person’s liability is another person’s asset – it can be a source of contractionary pressure if there’s an abrupt tightening of credit standards, if levels of leverage that were considered acceptable in the past are suddenly deemed unacceptable thanks to some kind of shock such as, well, a financial crisis. In that case debtors are faced with the necessity of deleveraging, forcing them to slash spending, while creditors face no comparable need to spend more. Such a situation can push an economy up against the zero lower bound and keep it there for an extended period."
  • And even Martin Wolf recognizes that government deficits play an essential role in allowing private deleveraging in the current depression:
"The question I have is this: does the BIS know that every sector cannot run financial surpluses at the same time?"