Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happiness is a Warm Gun

Rights, schmites. Gun fetishism is a psychological and social disorder.

It would be helpful in our gun debates if those opposing gun controls were named more accurately, not as "defenders of gun rights", or "staunch supporters of second amendment rights", and the like, but as gun fetishists. Reading their works makes it clear how intense their feelings are, and how unmoored from rational public policy, historical context, or constitutional history. Let alone from basic respect for human psychology. They are captivated by an heroic narrative of phallic power conferred by the gun, validating their social position, and enabling their defense, perhaps in a dramatic (not to say climactic) public showdown spraying bullets at dark miscreants, or as a last-ditch defense of the home bunker at the end times.

Unfortunately, while most people are responsible enough to carry that rather intense psychological valance without accident, and without cracking up, the idea that everyone is, and that we would be better off with free-flowing guns for the whole population, is empirically false, and thus a dangerous fantasy. Ironically, one gun blog that I read keeps harping on the idiocy of police gun usage. They use bad muzzle discipline. They barge in on the wrong houses. They shoot the wrong people. They try to hide behind procedure and the blue line. No kidding. But how is this an argument that we can trust the average gun-owning Joe to have better, more disciplined behavior? This line of argument also betrays the anti-state insurrectionism at the core of the gun fetishist's concerns. Which is quite ironic and in direct contradiction to the second amendment's historical roots which support a democratic, local, state, which is of course, what the well-regulated militia serves, and what does the regulation.

Rights are not natural, god-given, or inherent. They are political conventions; gifts we give each other to make society work smoothly and afford maximal happiness. The Bill of Rights had to be written down precisely because the rights it enumerated were not natural or inevitable. They were developed over the preceeding centuries in the English and Colonial traditions as ideals and social accommodations. The first amendment is exemplary, embodying the enlightenment lesson that established religions were good neither for the state nor for religion, and tended to foster civil war and corruption.

The second amendment is likewise an historical fossil, though far less relevant to us today than the first amendment. It specifically predicates the right to have guns on the need for a well-ordered militia. Today, we have well-ordered militias, but they are not based on citizen enrollment, let alone on the conscription of personal arms, but on an entirely different principle of professional enlistment and civilian / republican oversight and command. The broader right to keep arms was certainly cherished in the Colonies, as it still is in rural areas of the US that have a light police footprint and plenty of animals to shoot. But the second amendment doesn't address that convention. It is predicated on the specific historical situation the colonists found themselves in, where Britain tried to disarm a populace that was violently hostile to its imposed, foreign, rule. A populace that was happy with its existing local institutions of government.

The idea that guns in the hands of the populace are essential to fending off tyranny should have died with the civil war. No matter how many guns the South had in private hands, they were no match for a full military confrontation. Whatever one's view of the war's conclusion, whether the imposition of tyranny or a righteous victory, private guns made no difference. In the Wild West of the ensuing epoch, the prevalence of guns was not generally a boon to public peace and civil society, and many frontier towns made gun control one of their first orders of business. It would be truly ironic if in deference to people with significant mental health issues, we forgot this common sense legacy and went back to an open or concealed-carry gun free-for-all in the US.

For the focus of the NRA and the gun fetishists in general is frankly pathological. At the drop of a hat, they resort to phenomenal hyperbole, (Over my dead body! From my cold, dead hands!). They shriek about totalitariansm and god's commandment to defend their families from evil. They abominate the "gun grabbers" who would castrate them. So they stockpile guns in a never-enough compensation for whatever else ails them. Power is hard to come by, and it is inexorably ebbing away from the white male god-fearing class. No wonder that the Obama presidency has seen such vitriol and extremism coming from this political class, to its own detriment, really.

What to do about it? The first step would be to call this spade what it is. Not some reasonable, British-empire-resisting group with balanced public policy arguments. Not upholders of ancient and inalienable rights. But people with a screw loose: fetishists for a phallocentric symbol of a political order which is not going to come any closer when Hillary Clinton becomes president.

Speaking practically, is there a place for guns at all? Sure- in hunting, (as personally appalling as that is as some kind of "sport", and however poisonous in its use of lead), in self-protection in rural areas, and in simple collecting and possession. Guns should not be prohibited. But they should be allowed under very stringent conditions, in view of their extreme psychological valence and demonstrated harmfulness. Handguns, for instance, have no use outside of killing people, which makes the fact that there are over 100 million of them in the US somewhat alarming. Owners should be fully registered, and should have to take yearly refresher courses in safety and handling, have a safe to keep them in, legal liability for their control, and a continuously clean criminal and mental health record. There should be no open carry other than for uniformed officers, (or hunting in rural areas), and concealed carry only for specific needs approved and documented on the registration.

Sensible gun control would not get rid of all guns. Yet it is obviously effective in countries (i.e. every developed country other than the US) where it is public policy. While it is perhaps impolite to cast psychological aspersions on our gun nuts, they have brought it on themselves with the antics of the NRA and the broader gun-show, gun-crazy video game, gun-crazy Hollywood movie culture we have to deal with. Such raw, potent, fondle-able power is undeniably attractive, but it also corrupts. Guns keep corrupting impressionable (typically male) minds in very damaging ways, and we really can do better against this menace.

  • A little history of English gun laws, militias, etc.
  • WSJ: Guns are already so bad and so prevalent, that we can't do anything about them. Win!
  • Religious people think it is a spiritual issue.
  • True gun nuts hate the GOP.
  • Just how expensive is free speech? Too expensive for you, that's for sure.
  • Better banking for the poor.
  • Yes to carbon pricing / taxing.
  • The military can't do it alone in foreign policy, needless to say. One-year attention spans lead to endless conflict.
  • A visit to the creation museum.
  • Bill Gates: "Since World War II, U.S.-government R&D has defined the state of the art in almost every area."
  • State subsidies go to big companies.
  • Markets reward lying ... how could we have known?
  • Progress in statistics.
  • But no progress in economics. WSJ Nobel laureates still dare not speak the words "low aggregate demand", but prefer to blame the Fed for low interest rates, and low interest rates for low corporate borrowing and investment. As though borrowers would borrow more at higher rates.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

With a Little Help From My Chaperones

Ribosomes need hundreds of helper proteins during construction.

One of the premier machines of molecular biology is the ribosome. It weighs in at about 3 million daltons, or hydrogen atom-equivalents, and has a huge catalytic core of RNA surrounded by 79 proteins. Due to its ancient origin, mixed composition, and large size, it is also very complicated to produce, yet needs to be made in prodigious amounts. Its manufacture begins in its own organelle, the nucleosome, which is a small compartment within the nucleus where the many copies of genomic DNA that encode ribosomal RNAs get transcribed. Countless events happen thereafter, chemically modifying the RNA, adding proteins, chemically modifying them with various phosphate, acetyl, and methyl groups, and transporting the nascent ribosomal halves out of the nucleus to the cytoplasm. One irony is that the proteins added to the ribosome are all synthesized (by pre-existing ribosomes, naturally) in the cytoplasm and thus have to be transported into the nucleus individually before being re-exported as part of the assembled ribosome halves.

While most proteins and RNAs fold themselves and assemble naturally, based solely on their sequences / composition, the bigger they are and the bigger the complexes they participate in, the more help they tend to need from special proteins called chaperones. The ribosomal RNA uses 76 helper snoRNAs to get itself folded and modified correctly. For assisting the folding of proteins, there are two classes of helpers, general chaperones which help proteins fold by exposing them alternately to hydrophobic and hydrophilic surfaces, and specific chaperones that bind to one or a few target proteins, typically right as they come off the ribosome production line, to prevent them from aggregating with the wrong crowd, and to transport them to the right place for assembly. Assistance for ribosomal RNA folding may have been the original function of some ribosomal proteins which are now essential for function and permanent parts of the mature structure. But now the ribosomal proteins themselves need chaperones, to the tune of about 200, for proper assembly.

A recent paper discussed an example of a specific ribosomal chaperone, Acl4, which ferries the ribosomal protein Rpl4 to its mark. Rpl4 is an average-sized protein, about 50,000 daltons, but its structure is remarkably splayed-out, rather than compact. When assembled, part of its structure reaches into the exit tunnel of the ribosome, where newly synthesized protein chains come out, and seems to help them stay in the straight and narrow, especially hydrophobic segments that would be tempted to stick to themselves or other proteins, clogging the tunnel.
Structure of Rpl4. The blue part sticks into the protein chain exit tunnel, and is evolutionarily conserved, while the red part reads over the surface of the ribosome, touching several other ribosomal proteins, with unknown function.

Position of Rpl4 (red) on the ribosomal large subunit. PTC labels the peptide transferase center, or synthetic core of the ribosome, and the emerging amino acids chained into a protein are black circles. The hydrophobic knee of the nascent protein tunnel is where the key segment of Rpl4 (4) has a role, along with some other ribosomal proteins (17, 39).

But this ability to manage hydrophobic protein segments implies that Rpl4 is itself, in that region, hydrophobic, and thus prone to aggegation. This is in addition to the rest of the structure, which reaches across several other proteins on the ribosomal surface, in snake-like fashion. While researchers know that this latter structure is essential, they do not know yet what it does. This intriguing protein clearly needs help in assembly. The researchers hypothesized such a chaperone helper, and went out to find it using a tagged version of RPL4 with which they could easily co-purify whatever stuck to it, including several of its ribosomal protein colleagues. But there was one more protein, called Acl4. Unfortunately, the researchers didn't come up with this name themselves, but were scooped by others who published similar data only a few months before. So it goes.

Using a series of engineered deletions of the Rpl4 protein, the researchers show that Acl4 binds over the key hydrophobic area of Rpl4, as one would expect. They additionally show that Acl4 binds to Rpl4 even before it is fully synthesized, also as one would expect for a specialized protein chaperone. In yeast cells, neither protein is actually essential. Strains with either or both genes deleted still live, though grow very slowly. They would never survive in the wild.

Knowing the nuts and bolts of how our biological molecules operate, particularly the extraordinary lengths evolution has gone to fix and fine-tune systems that must have been functional enough in their much simpler, early incarnations, fosters an appreciation of the messiness of the molecular world. Sometimes huge size and complexity is a product of endless jury-rigging, not of exquisite design.

Drama of ribosomal synthesis, for a few actors. Rpl4 (green) is synthesized in the cytoplasm, and captured by Acl4 (purple). Then both transport to the nucleus, where they dock to the assembling ribosome, which is then in due time transported back out to its final destination. Acl4 cycles back by itself for another load. A minor pathway also exists in the absence of enough Acl4, where a generic nuclear transport conductor, importin, can bring Rpl4 into the nucleus, since Rpl4 contains the necessary targeting signals in its sequence.

  • Investment is better than saving.
  • "...  if the corruption persisted, the Taliban would win, no matter how many American troops joined the fight."
  • Mice stutter too.
  • Are we really that bad? And if so, is the answer to self-destruct? "If Western governments desired to reduce the number of people trying to find safety in Europe, and the suffering that results from such attempts, they would refrain from invading other countries, from impoverishing their peoples, from providing arms to repressive regimes that collaborate with the West, from requiring neoliberal policies that create inequality and poverty, and from destroying the world by their consumption of fossil fuels."
  • Krugman on Japan's timidity trap ... it needs 4% inflation, with all available tools.
  • Gun nuts packing purple prose: "I have seen many homeschoolers on the trail with parents, reading literature and learning real American history, when men were free, rather than the fabricated crap and lies they learn in public schools that passes for history, taught by the collectivist lemmings."
  • Nuns in a pickle.
  • Annals of feudalism: Hey, let's make worker's comp optional!
  • And then off-load the cost to the taxpayer.
  • Up from poverty, around the world.
  • Up from draught.. by ending traditional water rights.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Man Does Not Live by Competition Alone

Tuning our way between competition and cooperation; Mankiw, Diamond, et al. on institutions.

I've read a fine book by Jared Diamond, "The world until yesterday", which is filled with analyses about many native cultures, in contrast to the ambient Euro-Western commercial culture we find ourselves in. What are the differences? Can we learn from each other? Indeed we can. The chapters on warfare make one very important point, which is that war is not hard-wired into humans. When conditions are conducive, we make war, and when it does not pay or is not necessary, we do not make war. Traditional societies typically live at some level of constant, if low-level, warefare, which takes a great toll in lives as well as tranquility. It was often an enormous positive when Westerners imposed state-based systems that eliminated free-lance (ouch) warfare, appreciated by all concerned, despite all the other injustices, indignities, and horrors of colonialization.

Institutions matter a great deal, and if we arrange those institutions to foster cooperation, we can have peace. But when they foster competition, honor, winning, and all the other martial values, we should not be surprised at the results. That is sort of the fork in the road we in the US find ourselves at right now, as the GOP doubles down on class war and seeks to enshrine the right of the 1% or 0.1% to screw over the rest of the population. At the same time, we seem to have valorized this war in the form of the culturally dominant NFL, where competing CEOs (either coaches or quarterbacks, take your pick) lead the nameless and abused troops to pummel rival firms and take over their territories. Some sectors of our society seem to have lost sight of the virtues of anything but competition.

A exemplary document in this effort is the recent defense of the 1% by Greg Mankiw, Harvard economist. To summarize, he points out that super-stars like Steve Jobs and Robert Downey Jr. get their money fair and square in a market competition, so they deserve it, as do all the other CEOs and high-earners who command their high incomes by virtue of a competitive market in talent. All fair, right?

There are many things to say about this, particularly about the true nature of the CEO / FIRE executive market. But one is that it lacks perspective on the institutional framing at work, which is not a matter of accident or divine command. Back in the days of the Hollywood studio system, what would Mr. Downey have been paid for his stellar acting? Not $50 million, by a long shot. Back then the institutional setting was different, and while star actors were well paid, they did not take a high fraction of the box for themselves. Did actors of that time *deserve to be paid less? Did the CEOs of those times deserve to be paid less?

This is far more than a question of how much a market in talent should or shouldn't bear. It is a moral question about what everyone's talent and time is worth, as well as the more practical psycho-economic question of how to treat our fellow workers / citizens in ways that extract their maximum talent for the general cultural betterment and prosperity, including their own. If 99% or 25% must be beaten down so that 1% can pillage and then flaunt their wealth, is that desirable, even if it is the natural result of a competitive system that we ourselves construct? Is the market even the proper measure of such values? Does 1% of the population have to go homeless so that another 1% can maintain its market power vs labor?

My point is that competition is a tool that we use in the classic economic sense to run a capitalist economic system, putatively for everyone's benefit (that is, the greatest good for the greatest number, more or less). And in reality, competition is sharply regulated and limited so that we get results we want rather than those we don't. Each firm is internally socialistic to some extent in order to fence out the market and form a team that can get work done without competitive pressure that is otherwise extremely damaging and literally counterproductive. Many results of competition that are judged to be bad, such as pollution, monopolization, organized crime, etc., are regulated for the public good (or not, as the case may be!). Firms do not go into commercial warfare with machine guns blazing.

As they say in business, "everything is negotiable". The system is not pre-ordained. And if a system fosters excessive competition, with winner-take-all economics that destroys its own institutions and empowers a greedy and amoral elite with so much money that it corrupts the entire political and cultural landscape, a rethink is certainly in order. For example, the recent economic crisis was largely caused by FIRE [finance, insurance, real estate] executives making the conscious decision to short their institution's futures, and those of their customers, via liar loans and all the other paraphernalia of banking control fraud, in order to make short-term gains for themselves. They won the competition, (indeed were forced to those practices by competition itself), leaving the rest of us holding the bag. In response, we need (and have not really gotten) better regulation to block such harms, but more deeply, we need to look at the whole competitive culture.

A similar dynamic is short-changing our longer-term future, where short-term gains in using fossil fuels are funding an enormous political / propaganda effort to minimize / deny climate heating and forestall any public policy to address it. We need a little less competition as the metric of all value, and a little more reflection, compassion, foresight, and judgement.

Putting this in investment terms, there is always a balance between public investment and private investment. An advanced economy always needs some of each- streets to drive on, and cars to drive in. No economy can run without a large array of public goods. We have been under-investing in public goods for a very long time, not only in the critically important area of future climate change, but in the totally here-and-now issues of bridges, education, and perhaps most of all in our political system which provides all these goods, keeping it safe from corruption and capture by the most amoral (and highly competitive!) minority elements of society.

Basically, the whole tenor of competition in the US is vastly overdone. Other cultures (Scandinavia) work extremely well with a much lower level of competitive vainglory and economic elitism, not to mention its concomitant existential destruction of the underclass. And in large part, they do this through redistribution, since what the 1% gather is far from just deserts. It is the product of luck, of public investment, of the work of others, of unanticipated aspects of institutional settings, rent, plus, at times, talent. And where did this talent come from? Even that is only partly their own responsibility, having been largely conferred by birth. We all built it. Collectively, we want everyone's talent to be nurtured and expressed, but isn't the prospect of having a great and fulfilling job or life's work a sufficient spur to develop one's talents? What more does money provide in life satisfaction? And what happens when the flagrant reward of a few people's talents retards everyone else's chances to develop theirs?

Converse examples come from regions like the Middle East and Africa. Where is no shortage of competition, yet for some reason, progress is limited, if not retrogressive. Is it possible that competition is not enough, and that for progress to occur, that competition needs to be heavily channeled and regulated by both strong states with explicit laws, and by implicit cultural practices and norms that favor creation and service over destruction? (For comparison, consider the extended debates on governance that took place in the pre-revolutionary American Colonies.) Looking at the Middle East in particular, Islam has a special problem with violence. It is outstanding at fostering (small) institutions of worship and charity. But it is miserable at fostering instutitions of governance, and through its doctrine of jihad encourages destruction, at least by some readings, particularly those that take its earliest scriptures and history most seriously.

  • A WSJ author gives some numbers on what full redistribution would look like. "To recap: Current federal tax-and-spending policies combine to redistribute $1.5 trillion each year from the top 40% of Americans to the bottom 60%. To close the income gap to zero would require $4 trillion. The questions to those who say we should do more to narrow the income gap are: Where on that continuum should we aim, and what policies would achieve these goals without bringing the economy to its knees?"
  • Tax havens are bad.
  • Netherlands is the Delaware/Cayman Islands of the EU.
  • Conventional lunacy ... central bankers plead for interest rate increases.
  • The invisible hand needs visible public works.
  • Leadership means building cooperation.
  • Sociopaths in the 1%- rule or exception? Are companies themselves sociopathic (i.e. amoral) by definition?
  • Competition for thee, but not for me.
  • Iraqis have been misgoverned for some time.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

For Whom Shall the Robots Work?

When robots do everything, will we have work? Will we have income? A review of Martin Ford's "Rise of the Robots".

No one knows when it is coming, but eventually, machines will do everything we regard as work. Already some very advanced activities like driving cars and translating languages are done by machine, sometimes quite well. Manufacturing is increasingly automated, and computers have been coming for white collar jobs as well. Indeed, by Martin Ford's telling, technological displacement has already had a dramatic effect on the US labor market, slowing job growth, concentrating economic power in a few relatively small high-tech companies, and de-skilling many other jobs. His book is about the future, when artificial intelligence becomes realistic, and machines can do it all.

Leaving aside the question of whether we will be able to control these armies of robots once they reach AI, sentience, the singularity ... whatever one wishes to call it, a more immediate question is how the economic system should be (re-)organized. Up till now, humans have had to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. No economic system has successfully decoupled effort in work (or predation / warfare / ideological parasitism) from income and sustainance. The communists tried, and what a hell that turned out to be. But Marx may only have been premature, not wrong, in predicting that the capitalist system would eventually lead to both incredible prosperity and incredible concentration of wealth.

Ford offers an interesting aside about capitalism, (and he should know, having run a software company), that capitalists hate employees. For all the HR happy talk and team this and relationship that, every employee is an enormous cost drain. Salary is just the start- there are benefits, office space, liability for all sorts of personal problems, and the unpredictability of their quitting and taking all their training and knowledge with them. They are hateful, and tolerated only because, and insofar as, they are absolutely necessary.

At any rate, the incentives, whether personal or cooly economic, are clear. And the trends in wealth and income are likewise clear, that employment is more precarious and less well paid (at the median), while income and wealth have concentrated strongly upward, due to all sorts of reasons, including rightward politics, off-shoring, and dramatic technological invasion of many forms of work. (Indeed, off-shoring is but a prelude to automation, for the typical low-skill form of work.) There is little doubt that, left to its own devices(!), our capitalist system will become ever more concentrated, with fewer companies running more technology and fewer employees to produce everything we need.

What happens then? The macroeconomic problem is that if everyone is unemployed, no one (except the 0.00001%) will be able to buy anything. While the provision of all our necessities by way of hopefully docile machines is not a bad thing, indeed the fulfillment of a much-imagined dream of humanity, some technical problems do arise; of which we can already see the glimmerings in our current society. Without the mass production lines and other requirements for armies of labor that democratized the US economy in the mid-20th century, we may be heading in the direction, not only of Thomas Piketty's relatively wealth-heavy unequal society of financial capital, but towards a degree of concentration we have not seen lately outside of the most fabulous African kleptocracies.

What we need is a fundamental rethinking of the connection between income and work, and the role of capital and capitalists. The real wealth of our society is an ever-accumulating inheritance of technology and knowledge that was built in common by many people. Whether some clever entrepreneur can leverage that inheritance into a ripping business model while employing virtually no actual humans should not entirely dictate the distribution of wealth. As Ford puts it:
"Today's computer technology exists in some measure because millions of middle-class taxpayers supported federal funding for basic research in the decades following World War II. We can be reasonably certain that those taxpayers offered their support in the expectation that the fruits of that research would create a more prosperous future for their children and grandchildren. Yet, the trends we looked at in the last chapter suggest we are headed toward a very different outcome. Beyond the basic moral question of whether a tiny elite should be able to, in effect, capture ownership of society's accumulated technological capital, there are also practical issues regarding the overall health of an economy in which income inequality becomes too extreme."

As a solution, Ford suggests the provision of a basic income for all citizens. This would start very minimally, at perhaps $10,000 per year, and perhaps be raised as the policy develops and the available wealth increase. He states that this could be funded relatively easily from existing poverty programs, and would at a stroke eliminate poverty. It is a very libertarian idea, beloved by Milton Freidman, (in the form of negative income tax), and also emphasizes freedom for all citizens to do as they like with this money. Ford also beings up the quite basic principle that in a new, capital-intensive regime, we should be prepared to tax labor less and tax capital more. But he makes no specific suggestions in this direction ... one gets the impression that it cuts a little too close to home.

This is the part of the book where I part company, for several reasons. Firstly, I think work is a fundamental human good and even right. It is important for us to have larger purposes and organize ourselves corporately (in a broad sense) to carry them out. It is also highly beneficial for people to be paid for positive contributions they make to society. In contrast, the pathology surrounding lives spent on unearned public support are well-known. Secondly, the decline of employment in the capitalist economy has the perverse effect of weakening the labor market and dis-empowering workers, who must scramble for the fewer remaining jobs, accepting lower pay and worse conditions. Setting up a new system to compete at a frankly miserable sub-poverty level does little to correct this dynamic. Thirdly, I think there is plenty of work to be done, even if robots do everything we dislike doing. The scope for non-profit work, for environmental beautification, for social betterment, elder care, education, and entertainment is simply infinite. The only question is whether we can devise a social mechanism to carry it out.

This leads to the concept of a job guarantee. The government would provide paying work to anyone willing to participate in socially beneficial tasks. These would be real, well-paying jobs, geared to pay less than private market rates, (or whatever we deem appropriate as the floor for a middle class existence), but quite a bit more than basic support levels for those who do not work at all. Under this mechanism, basic income is not wasted on those who have better paying jobs. Nor are the truly needy left to fend for themselves on sub-poverty incomes and no other programs of practical support. While the private market pays for any kind of profitable work no matter how socially negative, guaranteed jobs would be collectively devised to have a positive social impact- that would be their only rationale. And most importantly, they would harness and cultivate the human work ethic towards social goals, which I think is a more socially and spiritually sustainable economic system, in a post industrial, even post-work, age.

The problem with a job guarantee, obviously, is the opportunity for corruption and mismanagement, when the market discipline is lifted in favor of state-based decision making. Communist states have not provided the best track record of public interest employment, though there have been bright spots. In the US, a vast sub-economy of nonprofit enterprises and volunteering organizations provides one basis of hope and perhaps a mechanism of expansion. The government could take a set of new taxes on wealth, high incomes, fossil fuels, and financial transactions, and distribute such funds to public interest non-profit organizations, including ones that operate internationally. It is a sector of our economy that merits growth and has the organizational capacity to absorb both money and workers that are otherwise slack.

Additionally, of course, many wholly public projects deserve resources, from infrastructure to health care to combatting climate change. We have enormous public good needs that are going unaddressed. The governmental sector has shown good management in many instances, such as in the research sector, medicare, and social security. Competitive grant systems are a model of efficient resource allocation, and could put some of the resources of a full job guarantee to good use, perhaps using layperson as well as expert review panels. Improving public management is itself a field for development as part of the expanded public sector that a job guarantee would create.

In an interesting digression, Ford remarks on the curious case of Japan. Japan has undergone a demographic shift to an aged society. It has been predicted that the number of jobs in health care and elder care would boom, and that the society would have to import workers to do all the work. But that hasn't happened. In fact, Japan has been in a decades-long deflationary recession featuring, if anything, under-employment as the rule, exemplified by "freeters" who stay at home with their parents far into adulthood. What happened? It is another Keynesian parable, since the elderly are poor consumers. For all the needs that one could imagine, few of them materialize because the income of the elderly, and their propensity to spend, are both low.

The labor participation rate in the US.

Our deflationary decade, with declining labor participation rates, indicates that we are heading in the same direction. We need to find a way to both mitigate the phenomenal concentration of wealth that is destroying our political system and economy, and to create a mechanism that puts money into the hands of a sustainable middle class- one that does not rely on the diminishing capitalist notions of employment and continue down the road of techno-feudalism, but which enhances our lives individually and collectively.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Hunting the Muse

Review of "This is Your Brain on Music", by Daniel Levitin.

Music is an odd intersection of math, science, and emotion. The notes are starky digital, as laid out in their logarithmic sequence on a keyboard, or on other instruments. Our hearing of them is likewise mapped with pitch-precision up the windings of the cochlea. But once in the brain, all hell breaks loose, as we map a linear sound input into many dimensions, from source location, source identification, speech interpretation, and emotional understanding. It becomes a rich sound-scape.

Dan Levitin's book is subtitled: "The science of a human obsession." He is clearly obsessed himself, going into an academic study of sound cognition after a lengthy career as a music producer. And he writes an excellent story about what is currently known about music in a scientific sense, along with a very effective primer in music theory. But one question still, in my mind, eluded him, which is perhaps the most basic- why does music carry such a strong emotional impact?

Scholars of music make a great deal out of a theory of expectations- how musicians play with our expectations in all aspects of music- rhythm, pitch, timbre, etc., to retain our interest, tell stories, move our bodies, paint a picture in soundscapes. This is an important area of work, but I think leaves out some very basic aspects of musical communication. What is the difference between a major chord and a blues chord? Just one note, but it makes a vast and instant difference in feeling. I think a major question in music theory has to be.. what is that difference? Cultural and personal expectations may have a role, but the effect is so immediate that I think something deeper is going on.

While Levitin's book mentions to the use of music and sound by other animals, it still seems to suffer a bit from species-ism, the idea that human music is of a different kind than that of other organisms like a bird's song or a whale's call. He argues against the extreme theory of Steven Pinker's, that music is "cheesecake" in the sense of being an intense, possibly even dangerous, derivative of some other, perhaps vestigial, evolutionary function (that function being language, which Pinker studies!). Levitin points out that rock stars have the kind of reproductive success, at least in potential terms, to put that theory to the lie in short order. Music is not vestigial at all.

But he does not seem to go the rest of the way, which would be to plumb the depths of the emotional code that music in the wide sense has been for animals from a rather early stage. While mammals have brought hearing to the highest possible pitch (sorry!), as exemplified by bats and dolphins, even insects involve song in the most momentous and doubtless emotional aspects of their lives. Who hasn't heard crickets chirping, or cicadas singing, or fruit flies courting? It may not sound like much to us, but to them it is the way to fulfill their most cherished hope, the fulfillment of which must stir whatever emotion they are capable of. And while anthropomorphization has its dangers, it seems fair to me to understand emotion as a virtually universal system of evaluation and expression of needs, little different in less complicated species than in ourselves. After all, the youngest human infant has towering emotions, despite virtually non-existent cognition. We should not confuse richness with intensity.

And it isn't just love. Hearing the Blue Jays and Hummingbirds fight it out in the yard, with terroristic screeches, shows that a wide-spread tone-language covers the emotional gamut. Human music is clearly a refinement and elaboration, and perhaps this is what Steven Pinker had in mind with his cheesecake analogy, but the underlying tonal language is not confined to humans at all. It also clearly preceeds all kinds of explicit language, even though birds are known to have small languages as well. Think of cats purring, and mice chirping in their ultrasonic language, to their pups and to others. Such sounds express strong pleasure, just as our music can.

That lays the groundwork of the universality of sound communication and music-type communication particularly. From there is a small step to recognize that, given the physics of sound, that assonance and dissonance form natural poles of emotional tone language. Blue Jays use dissonance to scare competitors, cats use assonance to express pleasure. Crickets chirp in tune and in rhythm, because that is attractive to female crickets. The assonance/dissonance spectrum seems to have been encoded into emotion very deeply in evolution, sort of like the flavors of sweet and bitter foods, or the attractiveness of pure colors, which are so strikingly encoded on the plumage of birds, versus the drab comouflage at the other extreme. (Or on chameleons.)

The language of chords, then, is rather analogous to that of color mixtures, where shades of dissonance enter as more complex mixtures are made. Why does that mixing evoke particular emotions, and more importantly, why do we value these complex mixtures, over the pure, major chord tones? We seem, in common with whales, mice, and other complex creatures, to need to share our emotional states, which are rarely simple. Sharing emotion creates social coordination and bonding, essential to social species, which we all are. The importance of song in courting is the premier example, of course. James Brown eloquently expressed the virtigenous rollercoaster of pain and pleasure in love, and communicating it to potential partners gives them important messages about how much they are loved and needed, creating the basis of long-term cooperation.

Emotions are complicated, and while we have many modes for communicating them, from smell, to touch, to visual cues / badges, movements and gestures, and among humans now even explicit language, music has evidently been a pre-eminent mode for complex animals. It is there that we can find the reason why Dmaj7 is different from Dmaj5 or an octave. This is not a mechanistic explanation- brain scientists such as Levitin are busy figuring out how the connections among perception and emotion happen in the brain. But we know that it happens and wonder, more crucially, about its evolutionary rationale. And that rationle, to paint it in extremely glib fashion, is to provide animals, humans included, a mode of emotional communication of exquisite expressiveness and sensitivity, which is open to anyone who hums a tune or coos to a child. It is closely related to language, which is typically strongly musical in part or whole, but is far more deeply and directly emotional.

Indeed, Levitin makes an interesting contrast late in the book between people with the genetic disorders autism and Williams syndrome. The former are emotionally impaired and generally perplexed by music, while the latter are notoriously musically gifted and highly social & verbal. Those with Williams syndrome can read emotions well, as they can music- the languages seem closely related on this genetic level as well.

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