Saturday, May 25, 2013

The limits of money

Money is a socially ambivalent institution.

I was reading an anthropological study of a rural Russian village, which made an interesting point not always appreciated in our market-mad society. Which is that the smaller the social unit, the less relevant is money in its economy, down to the family, where money is distinctly repulsive as a form of exchange. Within this village, people were always helping each other- planting potatoes, sharing preserves, visiting, gossipping, giving health care. But virtually no money changed hands.

The expression "your money is no good here" expresses this phenomenon neatly, implying that a relationship has passed from the level of anonymous money to the familiar one of in-kind exchange and social warmth. Which is not to say that accounts are not kept. In any relationship, there are quid pro quos- no love is unconditional. But the values exchanged are so personal, emotional, and idiosyncratic as to be impossible to quantitate or put in the common currency.

My father used to pay me for good grades. I don't think his heart was in it, but this was in the days of Milton Friedman and Young Americans for Freedom, so his ideology made it necessary to bring market forces to bear on my scholastic motivation. It is not a method with a good track record. The money had no role at all, other than as a token of his interest and support, which could be far more effectively communicated in other ways. Sometimes, we are tongue-tied.

It is well-recognized that people do not really work for money, either. One expects pay as a necessary part of a job, but being paid twice as much doesn't double one's output or really increase one's enjoyment. Motivation comes from the people we work with and the interest of the work. And even in terms of pay, its importance really boils down to its relative social value- are we getting more banannas than the guy in the next cubicle?

Likewise, money also makes a poor gift.  It can be sort of appropriate from higher to lower members of the social hierarchy, but definitely not the reverse. Grandmothers who have given up on the interests and pursuits of the young might resort to a money gift, but the reverse would be unthinkable.

Money is a powerful tool to enable exchange among anonymous people in vast societies, and the invention of minted/printed money with elastic supply has been two of the greatest advances of civilization, almost up there with writing and printing. But anonymity is dangerous; the accounts we keep as social beings are far more complex and significant than those kept in a ledger. A reputation is a holistic judgement that broadly informs what we can ask of others and what they deserve in return. It is a multidimensional measurement of human value, while money is resolutely one-dimensional.

Money exists in part to prevent cheating, since its value is evident on its face and agreed by convention. But under this guise, any amount of other cheating can still take place, since the other half of each transaction is necessarily non-monetary- the product bought, the service expected, etc. While money resolves some of the information asymmetry in a transaction, plenty remains, especially when amplified by anonymity, leading to vast amount of misvaluation, inefficiency, and fraud that continues on in our monetary systems.

One of those misvaluations is, obvously, of what people are "worth". Another is the quality of national life, as embodied in the hallowed GDP. Any exchange ripped from the social sphere, like child care, or elder care, becomes part of the GDP, not to mention horrifically damaging activities like fraudulent loans, environmental rape, and government lobbying / corruption.

All this is to say that money, like markets, are a tool which we need to continually desacralize and regulate so that we can employ it towards our true ends, which are, for instance, full employment and good employment. Throwing millions of workers on the scrapheap of unemployment so that the sacred dollar can be kept from the sin of inflation (putatively) is anti-human policy. Similarly, bailing out the biggest and most destructive financial institutions so that the sacred markets can keep producing profits for their pathological executives (even paying the most culpible mortgage financiers for another round of fraud in the form of foreclosure management and chimerical mortage adjustment schemes) is anti-human policy. Letting money leak into our political systems to control its own regulation in a vicious cycle of corruption is anti-social policy.

The answers to these issues of human value do not lie in more markets or technical tweeking of money supplies, but in our communal, i.e. political, decisions of human value, which have themselves been so corrupted by money and class in recent decades. One of my blog friends is an libertarian / anarchist of the right sort, whose ideal is a world with no government, where private enterprise runs everything, from police to roads. He looks forward to buying his police services from the lowest bidder (baddest bidder?). This is the Murray Rothbard / Ron Paul vision, and it is appalling in its celebration of monetized values for every particle of our existence, not to mention its quixotic impracticality.

  • More than a "liquidity trap", we are in a savings & inequality trap.
  • And our governing trajectory is into the third world. Is convergence with Mexico the right wing goal?
  • Should corporations pay taxes at all?
  • Not only do companies not pay taxes while running our lives and political system, but use the legal system to keep their wrongdoing secret.
  • And commit ecocide.
  • Yes, a zero-E building can be done and done well.
  • A short guide to tornadoes.
  • Blitz theology from CNN.
  • The Pope- flirting with atheism?
  • Word, from Kanye West.
  • Economic quotes of the week, from an academic blog commenter:
"Markets always operate within some framework of laws and enforcement, and the claim that greed is good implicitly assumes that the legal framework is essentially perfect. To the extent that laws are suboptimal and enforcement is imperfect, greed can easily enrich some market participants at the expense of total surplus. All of this seemed sufficiently obvious to me that at first I wondered if the paper was even worth writing, but the referees were surprisingly difficult to convince."
  • And Bob Cringely, on the bankruptcy of GM, and corporate looting in general:
"So while the function of the public corporation is supposed to be increasing shareholder value, there are evidently other underlying values that are even greater. In the case of General Motors circa 2009, that greater value lay in continuing to service the company’s debt while also rewarding GM management."
"The reality is that Argentina, in part, provides a model for all nations that have surrendered their currency sovereignty courtesy – either via a peg of some sort of outright use of foreign currencies (as in the Euro case). 
That is why the elites are working hard to disabuse us of the notion that Argentina is broadly applicable. They know that the nation effectively got away with a major default, enjoyed renewed FDI [foreign direct investment] and have been growing more or less continuously ever since. 
They don’t want anyone to get any ideas!"

Saturday, May 18, 2013

War on cancer: update from the front

Some promising, and frustrating, data from the genomics revolution.

We might each very soon get our genomes sequenced, and this will provide a wealth of information about our ancestry as well as our susceptibility to many diseases and other conditions. This is quite static data ... get sequenced once, and your medical file is set for life- those basic facts are not going to change, even if our ability to interpret those genetic sequence facts is growing by the day and will continue to grow for decades, if not centuries.

But cancer is different- it is a genetic disease, a matter of mutations that waylay the normal course of cellular management from its what's-best-for-the-organism discipline to a descent into a mad Darwinian greed. To really tell what is going on, each cancer would have to be sequenced. Like HIV, whose mutations continue as the disease progresses, evading each drug hurled at it in turn, cancer mutations accumulate over time in cancer cells as well, making a dynamic genomic landscape.

Science magazine recently ran a magisterial, long, and unusually clear, review of cancer genomics. While sequencing individual cancers is not yet routine clinical practice, (other than for a few select markers), for research purposes it has been going on for some time, and we now have mountains of data. The authors made quite a few interesting points.

Sequence any cancer, and you get a mess. The tissues are heterogeneous, full of normal and mutated cells. The cancerous cells are a dog's breakfast of early and late cells, with some people theorizing that relatively few "cancer stem cells" are the real replicating drivers, and most of the other cells in the tumor in various stages of stasis or death. Even when you isolate the real, core, fastest-growing cells, they are again a mess, full of mutations that have nothing to do with the problem of cancer.

Indeed, the authors mention that genome sequences from highly mutagenized sites like lung cancers of smokers have ten times the number of mutations as those from lung cancers from non-smokers. Which gives you some idea of the incredibly mutagenic drive that smoking constitutes, and how much mutagenesis it takes to dramatically increase cancer incidence. It takes a lot of hits, and even then some smokers live to a ripe old age.

Tumors vary tremendously in their scale of gross mutation, from only a handful in an entire genome (common in pediatric cancers) to ten to a hundred in most types of tumors, up to a thousand or more in the most mutation-rich tumor of all, colorectal cancer.

So after a great deal of work, researchers have screened out all the noise and the garbage and come up with the genes that really drive cancer, out of our genomes of 23,000-odd genes. And this is the good news- there are only, roughly, 138 "cancer genes" responsible, in some mutated or altered state, for every known case of cancer that has been analyzed. Each tumor typically has a handful of these, which it has accumulated extremely slowly, over many years.

These genes tend to encode master controllers of the cell cycle, cell survival, cell differentiation, and DNA damage repair. For instance, ATM encodes a protein that senses DNA damage and halts the cell cycle in response. Obviously the kind of gene you want on your side, but one that gets in the way of cancer progression. It is frequently mutated in leukemias and lymphomas.

The 12 general classes of the 138 genes whose mutation or overproduction drives cancer growth. Some positively drive growth, while most are inactivated from their normal function of inhibiting cell growth.

The bad news is that few of these genes are easily targeted by drugs. The majority of these 138 drive cancer by virtue of being mutated into inaction, which is to say that they are tumor suppressors in their normal state. The typical gene mutation truncates these proteins- the remnant folds badly when it is made and is promptly tossed into the cellular recycling bin. There is little a drug can do for (or against) a protein that is not doing anything or is absent. Only when we have true gene therapy reliably injectable into these (highly inaccessible) cells would such a defect be truly fixable.

The ones that can be effectively targeted by drugs are oncogenic enzymes which are overproduced or specifically mutated into overactivity. The Ras kinase is a classic example, where a specific mutation of codon 12 or 13 from glycine to another amino acid renders this signalling protein deaf to upstream pathways that turn it off, by inactivating an enzymatic function that constitutes its "reset" switch. It becomes an always-on signaller, telling its cell (falsely) that external growth factors are always there, so go ahead and grow, grow, grow.

This is the kind of thing that can be targeted with drugs, not to turn the protein's reset switch back on, but to block its other actions so that it no longer does harm. This KRAS gene is mutated in about 30% of human cancers, so one can appreciate the usefulness to a cancer cell of having a good deal of mutagenesis going on, perhaps via another mutation in the DNA repair machinery, since this specific defect would otherwise be extraordinarily rare- much harder to come by than a truncating mutation.

The authors hold out hope that, since each of the un-druggable tumor suppressor gene products function in larger cellular pathways of control, other proteins can be found downstream from these inactivated tumor suppressors that might be usefully targeted by drugs:
"All of the known driver genes can be classified into one or more of 12 pathways (Fig. 7). The discovery of the molecular components of these pathways is one of the greatest achievements of biomedical research, a tribute to investigators working in fields that encompass biochemistry, cell biology, and development, as well as cancer. 
We believe that greater knowledge of these pathways and the ways in which they function is the most pressing need in basic cancer research. Successful research on this topic should allow the development of agents that target, albeit indirectly, defective tumor suppressor genes. Indeed, there are already examples of such indirect targeting."

Unfortunately, the fact that there are so few core driver genes for cancer, itself militates somewhat against this view. If there were so many pressure points in the pathways of cellular control, we would see more of them reflected in oncogenesis. By all means, we need to gather all the knowledge we can, but magic bullets are going to be hard to come by.

The bottom line is that cancer, while far more complicated than the singular word naively indicates, still has an underlying "muta-genetic" pattern that can be used for definitive diagnosis in the coming molecular age, where genomes and individual cancers will be sequenced as a matter of routine. Once we devise maybe a couple hundred magic bullets to various oncogenes and related pathways, we may be able to treat cancer on an individualized basis much like HIV- with a customized cocktail of several drugs that, in combination, will forestall recurrence indefinitely. Currently, there are maybe twenty such drugs, many of which have poor efficacy or other issues, not to mention astronomical expense, so we have a long way to go.

A related point from this paper is that metastasis does not seem (at current knowledge) to involve novel or special mutations. The authors observe that cancer takes decades to develop, slowly accumulating its growth-promoting mutations, and that cancers slough off circulating cells in prodigious numbers, more so the larger they are. Thus a careful diagnosis of the original tumor, or any decendent, should suffice to characterize a cancer completely, and to stop it no matter how disseminated, given the specifically tailored and combined drugs that are envisioned above.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bellah 5: Equality before the rite

How egalitarian are humans, and do our rites express or create social structure?

In this last rumination on Robert Bellah's book, "Religion in human evolution", I consider some of the interactions between human social and religious structures.

One theme of Bellah's book is the varying levels of social hierarchy humans have experienced over history and pre-history. The primitive system he takes to be common before, say, 10,000 years ago, is strongly egalitarian, with small groups of families wandering the land with little wealth among them and an enforced equality of sexual and material resources- among males- based on a mutual conspiracy against power-grabbing upstarts as well as the option of relatively easy escape from overly oppressive leaders. Whether women shared in this equality is doubtful, despite the matriarchial cults and practices found in some instances. The gender difference in physical size alone indicates mild but longstanding biological and social inequality on this front.

Prior even to that, if one takes chimpanzees and most other mammals as our guide, societies were far more hierarchical, with an alpha male who more or less terrorized the rest of the group and took sexual possession of available females. So Bellah marvels a bit at the egalitarian turn that humans took in their evolutionary path, (cue bonobos as an analogous linage), and portrays the religious practices of prehistoric societies as commensurately egalitarian, centered on the land, ancestors, and vaguely healing powers of the mysterious cosmos, rather than on some totalitarian hierarchy projected out from their oppressed social situation. There were wars over women and land, but internally, the bands had little hierarchy and a great deal of democracy.
"When Boehm describes the essential basis of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism as the emergence of moral community, he is pointing to what mimetic and mythic culture made possible. In this moral community, powerful norms negatively sanctioned despotic behavior and protected the family. Although culture is the key resource in making such a reversal possible, Boehm insists that the reversal is not quite what it seems. Despotic tendencies in human beings are so deeply engrained that they cannot simply be renounced. We did not just suddenly go from nasty to nice. Reverse dominancy hierarchy is a form of dominance: egalitarianism is not simply the absence of despotism, it is the active and continuous elimination of potential despotism.
The tendency of upstarts to try to monopolize females and undermine the family is illustrated by the ancient Hebrew upstart David, who took Bathsheeba to wife and had her husband killed, although Machiavelli warned potential upstarts not to fool with other men's wives as that can spark instant rebellion. For an upstart to become a legitimate ruler there must be a reformulation of the understanding to moral community and new ritual forms to express it, so that despotism become legitimate authority and therefore bearable by the resentful many who must submit to it, a consideration that leads to the next step in my argument."

The loss of equality began when we discovered agriculture and the charms of a denser, rooted existence. Hierarchy became possible, even necessary, leading to enormous tension between long-ingrained ideals of freedom and the more or less oppressive structures of new/old-old state organization. A particularly remarkable example was in pre-contact Hawaii:
"Even in Hawai'i, which was an early state or very close to becoming one at the time of Western discovery, there was an annual alternation of rituals. During the period of the year belonging to Ku, the war god, rituals took place in walled temples where the general populace could not enter. There the priests undertook sacrifices, most significantly human sacrifices, to magnify the power and prestige of the paramount chiefs on the verge of becoming kings. But for the rest of the year, the Makahiki season, especially beginning with the New Year rituals, a very different kind of ritual prevailed. Significantly in this period the gates of the temples of Ku were closed. As we saw in Chapter 4, no one worked during the four days and nights that follow the hi'uwai rite. People of all classes devote themselves to feasting, mockery, obscene and satirical singing, and above all, to dancing. Laughter overcomes kapu [tabu], and sexual advances during the dancing cannot be refused. Valeri writes that 'these marvelously coordinated dances' realize 'a perfect fellowship' that reconstitutes society itself. All of this takes place in an atmosphere of 'hierarchical undifferentiation'. For a while at least, the old egalitarianism reappeared."

Our own time is no different, with the hierarchical structures of monarchy and Catholicism overtaken by that of business and "the market", prompting periodic revolts like the 60's and the Occupy movement. Half of our political system fetishizes "freedom" from government tyranny and worships CEOs, while the other half fetishizes "freedom" from economic reality, and worships politicians. Needless to say, this tension exists internally within each person and within each tradition, not just between alternate visions of man, society, and nature. Even in Islam, one has Sufism and Salafism.

Does religion merely express these tensions, or does it manage them or even resolve them? Looking back with the broadest view, Bellah seems to say that religion largely reflects the ambient social and cognitive structures. Perhaps in markedly imaginative and comforting ways, but it requires quite rare revolutionary activity and individual creativity to make it into something productive of new visions of reality. Whether the question makes sense at all, society being a complex, interacting system, the point is that religious conceptions can not be characterized as arriving from some extra-cosmic plane and reforming people at the point of a crucifix, as it were. Religions are always ways to address ambient problems, and express deep seated human questions (with artistic, psychologically-driven answers). Speaking again of his theories about the axial age, Bellah says:
"My point is that the power of Plato is his reform of the whole of what [Merlin] Donald called the cultural 'hybrid system', the system that includes mimetic, mythic, and theoretic in a new synthesis, but not the replacement of the mimetic and the mythic by the theoretic alone. Such a replacement is an experiment that no one central to the axial transition in any of the four cases undertook; that awaited the emergence of Western modernity in the seventeenth century."
One of the higher theoretic accomplishments of the current age is its casting off of thralldom to illegitimate hierarchies political and religious, in tandem with systematic enforcement of the ancient instinct of equality (using the language of "natural rights" and the like) by suppressing upstarts and despots, at least in the political sphere. So ironically,  I have hope that the future evolution of religion will likewise take us back to the past. The current axial questioning of traditional myths, hierarchies, and mythical history (termed by some "mythistory") means that the hierarchical functions with which traditional religions have been weighed down during the last few thousand years of despotism in various flavors are on their last legs, and giving way to spiritual as well as political egalitarianism. Even economic egalitarianism finds some basis in past religious & cultural practices, as periodic debt-cancellation was part of some ancient cultures' solutions to the creeping despotism of economic inequality. Occupy is only the beginning!

  • Boohoo for Mr. Tebow.
  • A sleazy payoff that sells out US workers.
  • Corruption, fraud, price rigging- OK for banks. Because their customers are dumb.
  • Start Trek enters the legal lexicon.
  • Science, religion, and Templeton.. not a happy mix.
  • Public services actually do serve the public ... we like libraries.
  • Economic quote of the week, from Keynes, via Krugman, on the many sources of aggregate demand:
"During the nineteenth century, the growth of population and of invention, the opening-up of new lands, the state of confidence and the frequency of war over the average of (say) each decade seem to have been sufficient, taken in conjunction with the propensity to consume, to establish a schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital which allowed a reasonably satisfactory average level of employment to be compatible with a rate of interest high enough to be psychologically acceptable to wealth-owners."

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bellah 4: A new axial age

The one we are in.

Robert Bellah's wonderful book, "Religion in Human Evolution" ends with the axial age, and a major theme is- what made that age axial? The axial age is the period of about 700 to 200 BC when most of the advanced cultures experienced a dramatic religious re-orientation that offered critiques of the statist / tribal myths that had gone before, arriving at (typically) more universalist moral positions. Confucius in China, the writers of the Upanishads, Ramayana, and Mahabharata in India, not to mention the Buddha, Socrates and Plato in Greece, the prophets of Israel, and Zoroaster of Persia are the main axial happenings.

It is an enormous topic, but he makes the case that as societies became more complex and prosperous, doubts arose about the given myths, especially about the archaic identification of the state with the priesthood and deity/pantheon. In Israel, the Deuteronomic prophets moved the theology of might is always right to a new morality whose main covenant was directly between the Jews and God, cutting the state out of the action, so to speak (similar to what Protestantism was to do again, much later). The state could be bad, and behave immorally, even if it had a leading role in the classic temple worship system. Likewise, in China, the concept of the mandate of heaven arose, where again, might didn't always make right, but sometimes right made might, by the mysterious workings of right action, the Dao, good government, a similar concepts edging dangerously close to one of popular legitimacy, though cast in very elitist terms.

India saw the most thorough renovation of its religious landscape, where Buddhism particularly renounced virtually all aspects of the old rites, old theology, and even the social caste system. Even though Buddhism eventually withered in the face of enormous Hindu conservatism and inertia in India, it had dramatic effects on Indian philosophy and practice, implanting an enduring strain of pacifism, as well as spreading widely through East Asia.

I had never thought of Greece as part of this story, but Bellah proposes Plato and his Athenian milieu as one of the purest and most interesting of the axial revolutions. In his Republic and elsewhere, Plato offers a dramatic reformulation of Greek society, from governance to religion. Naturally, philosophers are to be in charge! But more importantly, the religious myth system was almost completely discarded, in favor of Plato's fixations on ideal forms, and more intellectual mysticism, which was to be so enduringly influential in the later schools of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Christianity. Bellah notes interestingly that the movement was embodied just as starkly in Greek tragedy, which subjected its ambient culture to the most searching critiques. So deep, in Bellah's view, that the people of Athens eventually couldn't take it anymore, made a scapegoat of Socrates, and retreated into superstitious mediocrity, outside the academy.
"What is truly remarkable is what the plays that followed [the rest of the religious festival in which they wer embedded] were about: they were neither patriotic propaganda, nor bland moralistic tales; rather they called into question everything in heaven and on earth. A Vernant puts it, 'tragedy could be said to be a manifestation of the city turning itself into theater, presenting itself on stage before its assembled citizens,' and doing so without fear or favor, showing its self-destructiveness as well as its grandeur." 
"And it is perhaps the tragic consciousness of the depth and confusion of the self and the need for self-understanding, however difficult, that is the axial moment provided by Greek tragedy, one almost completely missing in Homer, where things are, by and large, what they seem. It is here that Eric Voeglin finds the tragic 'leap into being,' his terminology for what I am calling the axial moment." 
"Probably only a democratic city could subject itself to such searching self-examination, and we must remember that the city never faltered in its pride and respect for its tragic poets, but the city did not heed what they were attempting to teach. Athens did gradually turn a self-defensive alliance into an oppressive, at moments brutal, empire. Though insisting on justice at home, it willingly behaved tyrannically to its subject cities. ... The voice of Plato's Thrasymachus was the voice of imperial Athens."

The resonant note for our present day is unmistakable.

But the axial philosophies, while creating enormous advances in views of the self, morality, state relations, and the role of myth, did not in general do away with religion or theism entirely. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism came the closest, but still held onto precious mystical kernels that informed their respective systems. The final turn towards rationalism and deep psychological self-examination had to wait out an almost two thousand year haitus through a very dark age, which in the West, at least, held all fundamental criticism in thrall to the paradoxical, totalitarian Greek-Jewish theological blend of Christianity.

But finally, Western culture resurrected many precious texts of antiquity, threw off its blinders, discovered printing, and re-entered the critical plane of existence that had flourished so brightly, if briefly, in ancient Athens. Now we are in a second axial age- one with far more staying power and deep change than the first one, or so it seems. One where god is dead, and tragedy, myth, and criticism over all topics are produced as a matter of course by our novelists and other artists. One where religion continues to slink around the edges, and perpetually erupt in new age and other cultic forms, but where analytic understanding takes precedence over the ravishments of mystery.

Clearly, we are still working out the social consequences of the enlightenment. The new system of state legitimacy, by way of money popular vote by an propagandized educated populace, on Godly Christian  completely secular principles, was off to a very shaky start a couple of hundred years ago, but has taken the world by storm over the last generation, and is making inroads into even the most recalcitrant precincts of that final word of Axial monotheism- Islam.

Will a new religion seize the reigns, after this cosmopolitan age? Right now, the world is, in historical terms, a very peaceful place. The only serious trouble spots are associated with either the religion of Islam, (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mali, Nigeria, Israel, Syria), or with drugs, as in Mexico and points south. An interesting connection, I might add.

But a crisis is certainly coming, as the resources on which our populous and peaceful world are built gradually run out. Unless we keep ahead of fossil fuel depletion with sustainable energy development, there is little doubt that the human population of earth will decline precipitously, though whether the culprit will be climate change or simple lack of fuel remains up in the air. Otherwise a new dark age is in prospect, this time taking not only humanity back into the depths of conflict, privation, and religious unconsciousness, but taking the entire biosphere with us.

"Thanks to a declining birth rate and negligible immigration, it faces a steady decline in its working-age population for at least the next several decades while retirees increase. Given this prospect, the country should save heavily to make provision for the future–and lacking the kind of pay-as-you-go Social Security system that allows Americans to ignore such realities, it does. But investment opportunities in Japan are limited, so that businesses will not invest all those savings even at a zero interest rate. And as anyone who has read John Maynard Keynes can tell you, when desired savings consistently exceed willing investment, the result is a permanent recession."
"Markets are not stable, efficient, or self-correcting"