Economics’ Biggest Success Story Is a Cautionary Tale

CAMBRIDGE, MA – OCTOBER 14: Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, who share a 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics with Michael Kremer, answer questions during a press conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on October 14, 2019 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Sanjay G. Reddy in Foreign Policy:

RCTs cannot reveal very much about causal processes since at their core they are designed to determine whether something has an effect, not how. The randomistas have attempted to deal with this charge by designing studies to interpret whether variations in the treatment have different effects, but this requires a prior conception of what the causal mechanisms are. The lack of understanding of causation can limit the value of any insights derived from RCTs in understanding economic life or in designing further policies and interventions. Ultimately, the randomistas tested what they thought was worth testing, and this revealed their own preoccupations and suppositions, contrary to the notion that they spent countless hours listening to and in close contact with the poor. It is not surprising that economists doing RCTs have therefore been centrally concerned with the effects of incentives on individual behavior—for instance, examining the idea that contract teachers who fear losing their jobs will be more effective than those with a guarantee of employment.

But valuable innovations in everyday life, whether on the small or large scale, are likely to result from explorations of a more open-ended kind. This requires that people experiment with the institutions of which they are a part, which is not the same as conducting randomized experiments on other people. Policies (and reforms of policies) that go beyond one dimension are essential in a complex environment. For instance, better schools are likely to result both from measures dealing with teachers’ employment and ones dealing with curriculum, community participation, and funding arrangements. RCTs simply cannot advise us on how best to combine all of these, let alone on how to think creatively about them. Better schools may also result from changes that result from improvements in other domains beyond the individual school—for instance, safer neighborhoods, better drug policy, or lessened poverty. The actions needed to achieve better outcomes may sometimes only be possible to undertake at a level going much beyond the locality. A good example is provided by the iodization of salt, which has contributed not only to better health but may also have improved educational outcomes.

More here.

When the C.I.A. Was Into Mind Control

Sharon Weinberger in the New York Times:

In 1955, R. Gordon Wasson set off for southern Mexico to experience a sacred Indian ceremony rumored to provide a “pathway to the divine.” Wasson later extolled the mystical effects of what he called the “magic mushroom,” the Mexican plant used in the ceremony, in a 1957 photo-essay for Life magazine.

Wasson’s article, read by millions, helped set the stage for an eventual cultural revolution that peaked with Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor who proselytized for LSD and called on Americans to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” The seminal role Wasson’s trip played in promoting mind-bending drugs and the accompanying cultural revolution has been described before, including in Michael Pollan’s recent book, “How to Change Your Mind,” but a new biography by Stephen Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, adds a key detail to this fascinating history.

“Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control” describes how, unbeknown to Wasson, the spy agency was funding his travel. In fact, Wasson’s trip “would electrify mind control experimenters in Washington whose ambitions were vastly different from his own.”

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Cory Doctorow on Technology, Monopoly, and the Future of the Internet

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Like so many technological innovations, the internet is something that burst on the scene and pervaded human life well before we had time to sit down and think through how something like that should work and how it should be organized. In multiple ways — as a blogger, activist, fiction writer, and more — Cory Doctorow has been thinking about how the internet is affecting our lives since the very beginning. He has been especially interested in legal issues surrounding copyright, publishing, and free speech, and recently his attention has turned to broader economic concerns. We talk about how the internet has become largely organized through just a small number of quasi-monopolistic portals, how this affects the ways in which we gather information and decide whether to trust outside sources, and where things might go from here.

More here.

The End of Neoliberalism?

Jeff Sparrow in the Sydney Review of Books:

While all men might be equal in death, all sponsors must all be thanked in appropriately sized font. The memorial courtyard now contains an eternal flame, a donation from AGL, Santos and East Australian Pipelines. The gas for the eternal flame is ‘generously’ provided by Origin Energy under a sponsorship agreement. The gas industry’s ‘sacrifice’ in funding a tiny fraction of the local cost of the Australian War Memorial receives far more prominence than the names of Australian who gave their lives for our country. Lest we forget our sponsors. … While the irony of sponsorship by the oil industry, a fuel over which so many wars were fought in the twentieth century, might be missed by some, surely no one could miss the irony of BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Thales and other weapons manufacturers sponsoring the Australian War Memorial.

That striking passage comes from Richard Denniss’ new book Dead Right: how neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next. For Denniss, the evolution of the Australian War Memorial into a giant billboard illustrates the logic of neoliberalism, something that, he says, ‘has wounded our national identity, bled our national confidence, caused paralysis in our parliaments and is eating away at the identity of those on the right of Australian politics’.

Certainly, Lockheed Martin’s involvement with an institution purportedly commemorating battlefield deaths represents a particular crass commercialism, an unapologetic assertion of corporate interests over human sensibilities. Yet does that make it neoliberal?

More here.

The Gloriously Understated Career of Elaine Stritch

Alexandra Jacobs at Lit Hub:

But by far the most affecting performance came toward the event’s end, when the lights dimmed and an image of Stritch herself materialized on a big screen, like a glamorous ghost, in what might have been called her prime had she not so forcefully redefined that term. Wearing an ensemble of white blouse and black tights cribbed from Judy Garland’s famous “Get Happy” sequence but carried off even more effectively with her long, slim legs, she began the Sondheim song “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from the landmark 1970 musical Company, which was for so many years her signature anthem.

The Stritch-specter inhabited the dark world of the lyrics completely: cocking her silvery blonde head at the camera, enunciating, clasping her manicured hands as if in prayer, raising and furrowing professionally arched eyebrows, grinning, winking, nodding, jabbing, giving the okay sign, beckoning, pumping a fist, clawing, and throwing both hands up in a V shape that seemed to signify equally victory and defeat.

more here.

My Teacher, Harold Bloom

Gary Saul Morson at The American Scholar:

The positive lesson was that the most important thing a teacher can convey is a deep love of literature and an understanding that it offers insights, wisdom, and experiences to be found nowhere else. Nothing could be further from Bloom than the usual ways in which most students are taught literature today. Most learn mechanics: let’s find symbols. Others are instructed to see the work as a mere document of its times. And many are taught to summon the author before the stern tribunal of contemporary beliefs so as to measure where she approached modern views and where she fell short. (Bloom was to name such criticism “the school of resentment.”) Each of these approaches places the critic in a position superior to great works, which makes it hard to see why it is worth the effort to read them. Bloom instructed us to do the opposite: presume that the poets are wiser than we are so we can immerse ourselves in their works and share in their insights. Then the considerable difficulty of reading Milton or Spencer or Shelley makes sense.

more here.

Doris Lessing and The Veld

Lara Feigel at The New Statesman:

The landscape of Lessing’s childhood – and her sense of being in exile from it afterwards – remained, I think, the key to her writing in the 40 books that eventually gained her a Nobel Prize. Her experience of the veld was crucial to her politics. She became a communist because she was outraged by the system of racial segregation known as the colour bar, oppressing the black people she heard playing the drums at night outside in the bush while her mother played Chopin on the piano. And the veld was also crucial to her life as a feminist. After roaming freely as a child, sometimes pausing to shoot guinea fowl, she didn’t understand the conventions governing women’s lives in the city. Living in the Southern Rhodesian capital of Salisbury (now Harare), she found the nuclear family unbearably claustrophobic and longed to escape a social world that restricted the independence of women. And so, in 1942, aged 23, she abandoned her marriage, leaving behind two children.

Looking back on Lessing now, a hundred years after her birth, it’s the freedom with which she thought and acted for herself that makes her so enticing. This was the freedom to leave her first marriage (“I would have had to live at odds with myself, riven, hating what I was part of, for years”) and then to have a new child with her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, though she knew they were going to split up.

more here.

fascinating study of why we misread those we don’t know

Andrew Anthony in The Guardian:

Some years and several books ago, the New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell moved from being a talented writer to a cultural phenomenon. He has practically invented a genre of nonfiction writing: the finely turned counterintuitive narrative underpinned by social science studies. Or if not the inventor then someone so closely associated with the form that it could fall under the title of Gladwellian.

His latest book, Talking to Strangers, is a typically roundabout exploration of the assumptions and mistakes we make when dealing with people we don’t know. If that sounds like a rather vague area of study, that’s because in many respects it is – there are all manner of definitional and cultural issues through which Gladwell boldly navigates a rather convenient path. But in doing so he crafts a compelling story, stopping off at prewar appeasement, paedophilia, espionage, the TV show Friends, the Amanda Knox and Bernie Madoff cases, suicide and Sylvia Plath, torture and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, before coming to a somewhat pat conclusion. The tale begins with Sandra Bland, the African American woman who in July 2015 was stopped by a traffic cop in a small Texas town. She was just about to begin a job at Prairie View A&M University, when a police car accelerated up behind her. Doing what almost all of us would have done, she moved aside to let the car pass. And just like most of us in that situation, she didn’t bother indicating. It was on that technicality that the cop, Brian Encinia, ordered her to pull over.

More here.

Why Mammalian Brains are Geared Toward Kindness

Patricia Churchland in The Scientist:

Three myths about morality remain alluring: only humans act on moral emotions, moral precepts are divine in origin, and learning to behave morally goes against our thoroughly selfish nature. Converging data from many sciences, including ethology, anthropology, genetics, and neuroscience, have challenged all three of these myths. First, self-sacrifice, given the pressing needs of close kin or conspecifics to whom they are attached, has been documented in many mammalian species—wolves, marmosets, dolphins, and even rodents. Birds display it too. In sharp contrast, reptiles show no hint of this impulse.

Second, until very recently, hominins lived in small groups with robust social practices fostering well-being and survival in a wide range of ecologies. The idea of a divine lawgiver likely played no part in their moral practices for some two million years, emerging only with the advent of agriculture and larger communities where not everyone knew everyone else. The divine lawgiver idea is still absent from some large-scale religions, such as Confucianism and Buddhism. Third, it is part of our genetic heritage to care for kith and kin. Although self-sacrifice is common in termites and bees, the altruistic behavior of mammals and birds is vastly more flexible, variable, and farsighted. Attachment to others, mediated by powerful brain hormones, is the biological platform for morality. As I write in my new book, Conscience: “Between them, the circuitry supporting sociality and self-care and the circuitry for internalizing social norms create what we call conscience. In this sense, your conscience is a brain construct, whereby your instincts for caring, for self and others, are channeled into specific behaviors through development, imitation, and learning.”

More here.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Fantasy Politics

by Thomas R. Wells

Fantasy politics starts from the expectation that wishes should come true, that the best outcome imaginable is not just possible but overwhelmingly likely. Brexit is classic fantasy politics, premised on the delightful optimism that if the UK were only freed of its shackles it would easily be able to negotiate the best deals imaginable.

The great appeal of fantasy politics is that you it puts you in complete control. Using the power of your imagination, you get to control not only what you will do but also how everyone else will react. Sometimes you also control laws of nature, such as economics or even physics. Unsurprisingly, this kind of politics tends to go your way. Decisiveness is the only quality needed for your actions to succeed. Everyone recognises your awesomeness and competes to serve your interests, whether motivated by admiration or fear.

Why is fantasy politics so popular these days? One reason is that it is so much easier than real politics. In real politics we try to address multiple, intersecting, complicated collective action problems – like the high cost of housing or sexism in the labour market – while at the same time grappling with the deep diversity of beliefs, values, and interests within and between societies. Real politics is a difficult and time-consuming activity that usually requires dissatisfactory compromise with reality and what other people want. It is much easier to make-believe our way to our favoured outcomes, i.e. as Boris Johnson put it after the 2016 Brexit referendum, “Our policy is having our cake and eating it.” Read more »

Monday Poem

High and Blue Enough

plums on limb tips
across a grassy slice of space
have just begun to taste the sunny juice
that tips the scale of day —a star
that sprays its golden light across turning
leaves above our arbor vitae emeralds,
brushy backboned sentinels twenty feet tall
we planted there when they were three

sun is out of frame to right
but I visualize the mountain’s hump
of brown and ruddy trees it glides above

I visualize the red blaze I see
when time is ripe enough

I visualize the particles and waves
by which light in space behaves

space that’s wide enough
and deep and true enough

space that’s sweet and bright enough,
high and blue enough,

infused with life enough
to make all this possible

and now an aspen flicks an arbor vitae
its hellotouch of  jittering leaves
in vacuum’s breeze

Jim Culleny

What counts as cheating in sport? And why?

by Emrys Westacott

Baseball has always been a thinking person’s game. Like cricket, it seems able to offer an infinite variety of complicated situations demanding subtle analysis, and these are deliciously frozen for everyone to consider and reconsider during the tense, drawn out intervals between moments of active play. Moreover, although afficianados know the rules well, novel problems can always arise. One such puzzler, amusing and thought-provoking, arose in a 2018 game between

You can watch the incident here. Mets third baseman Todd Frazier ran to catch a foul ball, fell over the barrier into the crowd, and immediately surfaced holding the ball aloft. The umpire ruled it a fair catch. Video replays showed, however, that Frazier had not actually caught the ball that the batter hit. The ball he held up in triumph was an imitation baseball that had been lying on a bench close to where he fell over the fence.

Here’s the question: Did Frazier cheat? Most people to whom I have put this question immediately answer “yes.” I then ask: which rule did he break? A little thought makes it clear that he didn’t break any rule. There is no rule against holding up a rubber ball after missing a catch. And there is certainly no rule requiring players to let umpires know if a decision they’ve made is mistaken. What Frazier did could even, arguably, be compared to “framing,” the strategy catchers use when they subtly shift their catching glove to make the umpire think that a pitch is a strike when in fact it’s a ball.

But even when rules are broken, we may not want to describe an action as cheating. Read more »

A Philoctetes for our times: from Kokoschka to The Peaky Blinders

by Abigail Akavia

Detail from the Laocoon Group

On permanent display in the MFA in Boston is a bust by Oskar Kokoschka, “Self-Portrait as a Warrior.” The sculpture is a dramatic head with bulging features: bridge of the nose, cheek bones, and creased brows. The eyeballs are painted azure blue, the parts around them bright orange. The head’s wrinkled features are highlighted by an unnatural yellow and raw red, which make it look like exposed flesh. The mouth is open. It is this last feature in particular that I found striking: the man portrayed lets out a “violent scream,” as Kokoschka himself puts it in his biography. The portrait, ridiculed when it was first shown in 1909 and later condemned by the Nazi regime as “degenerate,” is an image of torment. This artist-warrior figure of anguish, and the question whether (or how) he is giving voice to his suffering, reminded me of the ancient Greek hero Philoctetes.

A famed archer, Philoctetes was one of the warriors that embarked on the initial expedition against Troy. On the way, he was bit on the foot by a snake. The wound festered and became putrid; Philoctetes screamed in pain so badly that the fleet could not carry out the required sacrifices to the gods. Philoctetes’ suffering presence, in short, was so repulsive and disruptive that the Greeks had to get rid of him. They abandoned him on the island Lemnos, where he remained for ten years, periodically visited by bouts of pain. In the version of his story that has come down to us, a tragedy by Sophocles first performed in 409 BCE, Lemnos is uninhabited. The only thing keeping Philoctetes alive on this desolate place is a magical bow he inherited from his friend Heracles (i.e. the legendary Hercules), with which he preys on wild beasts and birds. Ten years after first leaving him there to fend for himself, the Greeks learn by prophecy that Philoctetes and his bow are necessary to take Troy down. Odysseus sets out to Lemnos to bring him back, with the help of the young Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. Odysseus, forever conniving, deduces rightly that Philoctetes would sooner die than help the Greeks, and concocts a scheme in which it is Neoptolemus’ job to trick Philoctetes into joining him.

To make a long story short, things do not quite go as planned, especially from the moment Neoptolemus witnesses Philoctetes’ excruciating pain. Sophocles’ play is a plot-twisting, complex exploration of the power of language in its various manifestations—sophistry, lies, pleas, inarticulate cries, and poetic invocations, to name some of the drama’s expressive linguistic media. What becomes of humanity when language is used to defy its proclaimed ends? Can language help restore trust and reintegrate into human community a man that has been so traumatized, physically and emotionally, that he can no longer envision camaraderie—no longer imagine any existence other than his beastly exile? Can this trauma be voiced, and responded to, in language? Read more »

The Cancer Questions Project, Part 12: Siddhartha Mukherjee

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee is a physician-scientist with a persistent scientific and clinical interest in acute myeloid leukemia, hematopoiesis, novel therapeutic drug development and cancer biology. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. He has published articles in Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, The New York Times, and Cell. Dr. Mukherjee’s research lab at Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center studies the biology of blood development malignant and premalignant diseases such as myelodysplasia and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). His goal is to develop new drugs against diseases. He currently serves as an Associate Professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

Azra Raza, author of the forthcoming book The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last, oncologist and professor of medicine at Columbia University, and 3QD editor, decided to speak to more than 20 leading cancer investigators and ask each of them the same five questions listed below. She videotaped the interviews and over the next months we will be posting them here one at a time each Monday. Please keep in mind that Azra and the rest of us at 3QD neither endorse nor oppose any of the answers given by the researchers as part of this project. Their views are their own. One can browse all previous interviews here.

1. We were treating acute myeloid leukemia (AML) with 7+3 (7 days of the drug cytosine arabinoside and 3 days of daunomycin) in 1977. We are still doing the same in 2019. What is the best way forward to change it by 2028?

2. There are 3.5 million papers on cancer, 135,000 in 2017 alone. There is a staggering disconnect between great scientific insights and translation to improved therapy. What are we doing wrong?

3. The fact that children respond to the same treatment better than adults seems to suggest that the cancer biology is different and also that the host is different. Since most cancers increase with age, even having good therapy may not matter as the host is decrepit. Solution?

4. You have great knowledge and experience in the field. If you were given limitless resources to plan a cure for cancer, what will you do?

5. Offering patients with advanced stage non-curable cancer, palliative but toxic treatments is a service or disservice in the current therapeutic landscape?

Some Thoughts On This October Day

by Samia Altaf

I could not believe my luck when I woke up this morning. It had rained last night, but this morning the sky was blue the breeze gentle,and the wild grass along the smelly sluggish, open sewer that meanders through the swanky Defense Housing Authority—home to lush golf courses and palatial villas—past the gates of the elite Lahore University of Management Sciences, was audaciously green. The mango tree in the front yard of my mother’s  house—quiet after a fertile summer of exuberant fruiting—balances the crow’s nest full of chattering chicks in its gently swaying branches. All God’s creations bask in the mellow sunshine. No more the snow and ice and cold of Eastern US. For these weeks, it’s going to be this bliss in Lahore. I was glad to be me, and to be alive. I say to myself “Thank God I am on this side of the earth, rather than under it.” What a beautiful world. So much to see and so much to do. I could live like this for a hundred years like William Hazlitt, who claimed to have spent his life “reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.” I’ll add eating to that list, at the top of it, fried eggs and buttered toast.

Gayatri Spivak

In addition to the sunshine and the crows, and trees waving gently in the breeze, there are books to read, newspapers to follow, old trunks to sort through and the joy of restoring broken things. And now, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, music to listen to, movies to watch, many enlightening videos to engage with. This is no time to die! Although it seems unlikely, I have been hooked onto Gayatri Spivak since I heard her speak here in Lahore some years ago. That formidable woman and her harangue about the subalterns, a word I associated with the military, which I was quite intrigued to learn that evening applies to me as well. Not a word of what she says about subalterns makes sense to me but I love to hear her speak. She really is something. She said things that evening, to a crowded hall of Pakistani college students, activists and others, about Derrida and Gramsci —names I  heard for the first time. Read more »

“I Assure You, We’re Open”: 25 Years of Clerks

by Mindy Clegg

Jeff Anderson as Randal and Brian O’Halloran as Dante

In 1994, Miramax Pictures released a small, independently made film by an unknown director from New Jersey named Kevin Smith. Made for a mere $27,000 (maxing out credit cards and the proceeds from selling his comic collection), the black and white film—replete with deeply offensive language, references to drug dealing and usage, and philosophical debates on Star Wars—grossed over $3 million and netted the young director not only a career, but accolades from the Cannes and Sundance film Festivals and nominations in three categories at the Independent Spirit Awards that year.1 It’s since been acknowledged as one of the best indie films of the 1990s.

Clerks, it can be argued, functions as a brilliant example of Gen X slacker culture that prized authenticity over slick production techniques and funny but insightful discourse over spectacle. Smith’s career has been built on that authenticity in community and self-expression, even in films that fall outside of his “View Askewniverse.” Generally speaking, Smith makes films that he wishes to see, not what he thinks will sell, and that was very generationally grounded. He infused his love of endlessly examining comic books and sci-fi/fantasy films/shows with the structure of the rom-com and buddy film genres to carve out a career catering not to all mainstream audiences, but to a like-minded audience of fans who love seeing themselves reflected on the screen.

Part of the enduring popularity of Smith’s work represents various shifts within film and TV making that centers on at least some Gen X sensibilities. His work also signaled a shift in Hollywood finally beginning to take speculative fiction seriously, in part to cater to Gen X (and later millennial and Gen Z tastes). The goal was never superstar status as a filmmaker, but a career that allowed Smith to make the kind of work he himself sought out and enjoyed, which mirrors the Gen X relationship to other cultural forms, too—the rise of the current subcultural society that we live in now. Read more »


For the Artists

I know you just want to be a flute
the wind sings through
to make a melody
or an intricate mistake
like the existence of crystals
in nature, drifting as flakes
to cover a field
in a clean white blanket
or inside a rock,
the tiny, glittering caves.

In other words, you just want to be
a structure
with the beauty
built into it.

But I’d guess, like me
you’ve walked through a few
gardens in heavy shoes
accused friends & lovers of things they did
& sins they didn’t do
panicked awake at 3am
to sit alone in the kitchen
trying to sip breaths in
past your choked throat.

Still, I hear a song
alive in you
when the joy sets in along
your spine and through
the fields and caves of your body.
Somewhere within
a tree, a willow
rustles as a cool wind
from some other world begins to blow.

by Amanda Beth Peery

Graz, Austria and me? It’s complicated

by Cathy Chua


Shortly before my first trip to Austria in September, a story did the rounds of  a tourist sued for leaving a review on Tripadvisor complaining of a photographic display of Nazis at a hotel in a little town called Gerlos in the Tyrolean Alps. The case has not yet ended, but for now the Austrian court has granted a temporary injunction against the tourist, in favour of the hotel.

Seeing a Nazi publicly honoured at the hotel had made K and his wife feel indignation and disgust, the post said. “This made us wonder what the hotel owners are trying to tell us with this image. This incident speaks volumes about the current state of affairs in this region of Austria. Sadly, our desire to visit this mountain region has disappeared completely.

For me this raised an issue I often find  myself discussing: is the Far Right in Europe, as it presents itself at the moment, ‘new’? Being a historian, I take the long view and see the continuum. For me,  what is happening isn’t new, it’s connected to the past. Far Right sympathies haven’t stopped, they have from time to time gone into hiding, or disguised themselves, but they have always been there, if not necessarily in plain sight. I hope that is full disclosure of my relevant bias. Read more »