Behavioural economics meets development policy

From The Economist:

20141206_FND000_0A bat and a ball cost $1.10 between them. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does each cost? By paying attention to how people actually think, behavioural economics has qualified some of the underlying assumptions of classical economics, notably that everyone is perfectly rational. In fact, the mind plays tricks, dividing up $1.10 (in this example) neatly into $1 and 10 cents, rather than correctly into $1.05 and 5 cents. People also tend to copy others and often prefer to co-operate rather than compete. For these reasons, some of the simplifying assumptions of economics are not always correct: people do not act in every instance in their long-term self-interest; they do not weigh up all the costs and benefits before taking a decision.

Many of the insights of behavioural economics were based on studies of American university students and other privileged folk. But they apply with greater force to the poor—both the poor in rich countries and the more numerous inhabitants of developing ones. Behavioural economics therefore has profound implications for development. The new “World Development Report”, the flagship publication of the World Bank, considers them.

As the report shows, the poor are more likely than other people to make bad economic decisions. This is not because they are irrational or foolish but because so much is stacked against them. They are more likely to lack the basic information needed to make good choices, such as which fertiliser to use or when to apply it. They are more likely to live in societies which hold mistaken or harmful views, such as that girls should not go to school.

Conventional economic thinking assumes the poor will want to earn their way out of poverty. But as studies from countries as different as Ethiopia and France show, poverty makes people feel powerless and blunts their aspirations, so they may not even try to improve their lot. When they do, they face obstacles everywhere. They have no margin for error, making them risk averse. If they do not know where their next meal is coming from, saving and investing for the future is hard.

More here.

Sunday Poem

From The Pearl Works

Little Yang Sing, Yuzu, Hunan, Wong Wong, Imperial Siam:
all those bright syllables cascading into the bottle-bank at 5 a.m.

Spring. We get it.
After weeks on ice, buckets of pussy willow outside Woo Sang blossom & each evening is granted a little extra credit.

This is the goose-egg symbol of perfection that your perfectly pursed little lips mouthed in my direction, darling, many many moons ago.
O . . .

And this? The handful of coppers daylight borrows from October.
Come bright hour. Be bright. Be ours. Be extra, ecstatic, immaterial, other.

Glory be the carnal surface:
aluminium on flats across, blasted lime by late sun; the water cooler’s translucence, a still p.m. in the office.

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George Orwell’s luminous truths

Ca02b508-0329-4c64-a986-f84f70ec79f6Jason Cowley at the Financial Times:

Orwell could see things but he could also see ahead because he had such an acute interest in and understanding of the present, informed by deep knowledge of the past and of the canon of English literature. The limpidity of his prose — he said that he wished to “make political writing into an art” — could be explained by his desire to be understood, especially by the general reader.

He did not wish to obfuscate, intimidate or obscure. He despised jargon. In his great essay “Politics and the English Language” he warned against the dangers of the “inflated style” — against excessive stylistic ornamentation, long words, redundant or strained metaphor, ready-made formulation and use of the passive voice. He wanted to illuminate the times in which he lived — to show as well as tell, to report and discover rather than merely pontificate.

Both left and right have claimed him. The right because of his vigorous anti-totalitarianism, popularised in the late novelsAnimal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and because in his essays and journalism he never ceased challenging leftist conformity, the actions of those he contemptuously called the “orthodoxy-sniffers”. In a 1941 review of Malcolm Muggeridge’s The Thirties, he writes of the “shallow self-righteousness of the leftwing intelligentsia”.

more here.

To Revive the Lyric: Hoa Nguyen

Daniel E. Pritchard in The Critical Flame:

Juice.jacket_largeFrom the technology of printing to the economy of grants and the politics of academia, literary culture exists in complete continuity with the rest of contemporary society. It is susceptible to the same virtues, biases, limitations, and power structures. Thus it’s no surprise that the fiercest debates within our semi-isolated community should mirror those of the world at large. In her already-infamous essay at Lana Turner, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde,”Cathy Park Hong writes:

The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties likevoice to alter conditions forged in history.

Behind her critique lies an essential conflict, which has upended and reformed modern society for centuries: what is the value of the individual within a power structure? What is the role of an individual voice? It is the Papacy against the preacher, the Tory against the Jacobin, the police against the protester: and today, within poetry culture, two traditions in conflict over the same basic paradigm.

More here.

40 Years Ago, Earth Beamed Its First Postcard to the Stars

Nadia Drake in No Place Like Home:

ScreenHunter_891 Dec. 06 18.05Forty years ago, Earth beamed its first postcard to the stars.

The message left our home planet on a warm and sticky mid-November day in Puerto Rico. It has been flying through the galaxy at the speed of light ever since, and in about 25,000 years will arrive at a cluster filled with more than 300,000 stars.

Unlike the radio signals that had been leaking from Earth since the late 1930s, this postcard was the first deliberate transmission to an alien civilization. Written in a way meant to be decipherable by extraterrestrial beings, the message contained some key information about the species that had sent it.

“It was a message that would actually inform anyone who did receive it that we existed, and tell them a little bit about what we were like,” says my dad Frank, who had the responsibility of constructing and sending what’s now known as the Arecibo Message. “And it was also a message to ourselves in that it showed what an intelligent civilization can do to contact other civilizations.”

He had just one month to write Earth’s first radio greeting to the stars.

It was 1974, and the Arecibo Observatory’s giant radio telescope had just gotten a major upgrade. Beamed into space by the Observatory’s powerful, one million-watt transmitter, the message would cap a ceremony marking the completion of the improvements (you can listen to it being sent, below). But it was a secret – only the ceremony’s organizers knew ahead of time what would happen, and they envisioned a transmission lasting about 3 minutes.

More here.

You can’t detox your body. It’s a myth. So how do you get healthy?

Dara Mohammadi in The Guardian:

Detox“Let’s be clear,” says Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, “there are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t.” The respectable one, he says, is the medical treatment of people with life-threatening drug addictions. “The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.”

If toxins did build up in a way your body couldn’t excrete, he says, you’d likely be dead or in need of serious medical intervention. “The healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak,” he says. “There is no known way – certainly not through detox treatments – to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better.”

Much of the sales patter revolves around “toxins”: poisonous substances that you ingest or inhale. But it’s not clear exactly what these toxins are. If they were named they could be measured before and after treatment to test effectiveness. Yet, much like floaters in your eye, try to focus on these toxins and they scamper from view. In 2009, a network of scientists assembled by the UK charity Sense about Science contacted the manufacturers of 15 products sold in pharmacies and supermarkets that claimed to detoxify. The products ranged from dietary supplements to smoothies and shampoos. When the scientists asked for evidence behind the claims, not one of the manufacturers could define what they meant by detoxification, let alone name the toxins.

Read the rest here.

Rethinking the Republic: Fintan O’Toole and the Irish Crisis


Daniel Finn in the New Left Review:

It seems clear that the Eurozone crisis has been stabilized, for the time being, on terms dictated by Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. The price that has been paid to preserve the single currency and sustain a dysfunctional banking system hardly needs recounting here: from Athens to Dublin, mass unemployment remains a crippling burden. Yet, to paraphrase Tolstoy, all bail-out countries are unhappy in different ways. Greece has witnessed the stormiest opposition, with the emergence of Syriza as a potential, if fragile, counter-hegemonic force. In Spain, years of street protest have begun to leave their mark on the political system, and there is a gathering storm over Catalan independence. Rolling strikes in Portugal have seen public-sector wage and pension cuts blocked by the constitutional court. In Ireland, however, where the economy has been bled dry to reimburse the bad loans of British, French and German banks, resistance has been muted. Cabinet ministers have boasted of their ability to impose ‘remarkable’ cuts in public spending without provoking social unrest. For their part, European officials have repeatedly held Ireland up as an example of good citizenship to its unruly counterparts on the Eurozone periphery, much to the delight of local media outlets.

But if mass protests have been comparatively few in Ireland, it is not for lack of spirited polemical broadsides against its ruling elites by native writers. Pre-eminent here, in terms of impact and visibility, has been Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, the country’s leading public intellectual. Published in the immediate wake of the crash, O’Toole’s Ship of Fools (2009) was a coruscating attack on the crony culture and bubble economy fostered by Ireland’s political leaders, soon followed by Enough Is Enough (2010), another onslaught on the myths of the Republic, which proposed a comprehensive reform programme with fifty action points. Is there any writer in another EU—or OECD—country who has produced such a comprehensive indictment of the ruling establishment’s record, in such damning detail and in such sparkling prose? O’Toole’s latest works form part of a cycle dating back to the 1980s that testifies to his formidable range as a social commentator. In seeking to explain the ‘Irish exception’, it may thus be helpful to explore O’Toole’s writing in more depth: what distinguishes the critical character of his work, what causal explanation does it offer of his country’s predicament, and what light can it shed on Ireland’s post-crisis trajectory?

More here.

Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley

Memory-Theatre-Final-Cover (1)

Andrew Gallix in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: Do you agree that much of your back catalogue can now be read as a preemptive commentary on Memory Theatre, as though the latter had been written in the stars all along (which would be in keeping with the book’s uncanny astrological theme)?

SC: Sure. Why not? Look, what I really learned from Paul De Man years and years ago was that writers are structurally self-deceived about what they do, what they write and the intentions that might or might not lie behind their writing. Namely, to write is to be blind to one’s insight, if such insight exists. I understand this structurally: namely, that writing is an adventure in self-deception. I simply do not know what I am doing and you — as a reader, and a very good reader, moreover — can tell me what I am doing much more accurately than I can. Therefore, I should be interviewing you. In fact, let’s consider that we have reversed roles.

3:AM: The late Michel Haar, who haunts the book, is said to have been fascinated by the “poetic dimension” of Nietzsche’s style, which he saw as “that which might escape philosophy” — a fascination you also share. In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing (1997), you argued that “Writing outside philosophy means ceasing to be fascinated with the circular figure of the Book, the en-cyclo-paedia of philosophical science, itself dominated by the figures of unity and totality, which would attempt to master death and complete meaning by letting nothing fall outside of its closure”. Did you need to exorcise your fascination with this totalising tradition — by dramatising its failure — in order to write “outside philosophy”?

SC: Wow, thanks for reminding me of that passage from Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, which was written in 1992 or 93, as I recall, right towards the beginning of what became that odd book. I have two contradictory reactions to your question: on the one hand, many of the authors I have been obsessed with over the years have endeavoured to take a step outside philosophy, by which is usually meant the circle and circuit of Hegel’s system or Heidegger’s understanding of history as the history of being. I respect and love that gesture, that can be found in Bataille, Levinas, Blanchot and others. But, on the other hand, what I learned from Derrida very early on — my master’s thesis was on the question of whether we could overcome metaphysics — is that the step outside philosophy always falls back within the orbit of that which it tries to exceed. Not to philosophize is still to philosophize. Similarly, any text or philosophy that simply asserts the value of metaphysics is internally dislocated against itself, undermining its own founding gesture. This leave us writing on the margin between the inside and the ouside of philosophy, which is where I’d like to place Memory Theatre. Also note that although Michel Haar existed and was real, as it were, he didn’t say much or anything that I say that he said. He is a kind of vehicle that I try and drive and steer.

More here.

Crisis in Mexico: An Infrarealista Revolution


Francisco Goldman in the New Yorker (photo by Alejandro Acosta/Reuters):

In mid November, three caravans converged on Mexico City, led by family members of the forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School whose abduction, in late September, has led to nationwide protests. One caravan was coming directly from Guerrero State, where the students disappeared, another from the state of Chiapas, and another from the city of Atenco, in Mexico State, the site of the most notorious act of violent government repression committed by Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s current President, in 2006, when he was governor there. The plan was for the caravans to come together and for the travellers to lead a giant march on November 20th.

The kidnapping is now known to have been carried about by the municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero, on orders from the city’s mayor. According to the government, the police handed the students over to a local narco gang, which murdered them and burned their remains in the Cocula municipal dump. This scenario is still awaiting forensic confirmation, and the families of the missing students, and many others, do not accept it. “They were taken alive, we want them back alive!’ remains one of the most common chants at the marches. “It was the state!” and “Peña Out!” are also staple slogans.

As the caravans approached Mexico City, President Peña Nieto, along with members and supporters of his PRI government, began issuing statements and warnings that seemed to signal an aggressive new strategy to counter the protests. On November seventeenth, Beatriz Pagés Rebollar, the country’s Secretary of Culture, published an editorial on the PRI’s official website. “The chain of protests and acts of vandalism—perfectly well orchestrated—replicated in various parts of the country, demonstrate that the disappearances and probable extermination of the 43 normal-school students were part of a strategic trap aimed at Mexico,” she wrote. “All these activists and propagandists have the same modus operandi.” Pagés included opposition media on her list of these activists and propagandists, accusing them of fraudulently confusing Mexicans into believing that the students’ disappearance “was a crime of state, as if the Mexican government gave the order to exterminate them.”

Two days later, Carlos Alazraki, a veteran PRI insider and an advertising executive who has worked on the election campaigns of several of the party’s Presidential candidates, published an editorial entitled “Open Letter to All Normal Mexicans (Like You)” in the newspaper La Razón. “46 days ago, two bands, students and Iguala narcos, got into a brawl,” he wrote. “There are varying versions of what happened. . . . That one [band] were guerrillas, the other narcos. One or the other wanted to run the whole region.” Since the start of the “narco war,” in 2006, equating victims’ criminality with that of narcos has been a routine pro-government strategy.

More here.

the madness of modern parenting

Zoe Williams in The Guardian:

BabyI initially interpreted the new atmosphere around mothering especially as just a new kind of patriarchy: even if a topic were far from the point of consensus, we should all pretend to agree, in order not to make the ladies anxious. And while I remain assured that there is a lot of casual sexism underpinning all this, I have concluded that the driving impetus is political: adverse conditions that are related to poverty are recast as parenting failures. For instance, mothers in the bottom quintile go back to work soonest, presumably because they cannot afford to take their full entitlement of maternity leave. This makes breastfeeding for the “recommended” amount of time impossible: it also renders unrealistic the ideal childcare for the pre-toddler – one-to-one, round-the-clock care from the primary care-giver.

The modern conversation about parenting turns the healthy baby, and healthy child, into the proof of the parents’ excellent life choices. By turning it into a matter of the self, predominantly the maternal self, to create the successful or unsuccessful child, we let society completely off the hook. There is no broad responsibility to create a healthy environment for children (because mothers who were concerned would live in some other environment), and no social imperative to look after children who were born in ill-health or some other misfortune (because mothers who behaved responsibly would have prevented this outcome). We all know that is ridiculous: we all know that the business is riven with good and bad fortune. I’ve never encountered any parent who seriously thinks they can prevent every negative event with extra vigilance, nor any parent who isn’t moved to empathise with another’s misfortune, rather than judge what he or she may have done or eaten. The top-down, ersatz scientification isn’t really fooling anyone.

More here.

The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte

Caroline Weber in The New York Times:

JosephineThis year marks the bicentennial of the death of Josephine Bonaparte, but Napoleon’s empress has been having a moment for some time now. In the past two decades, she has starred in at least 20 new biographies, six museum exhibitions and six novels. Three editions of her correspondence have also appeared during this time, as have many more studies (of Napoleon and other Bonapartes) in which she features. The latest addition to this corpus is “Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte,” by Kate Williams, a biographer of Queen Victoria and Emma Hamilton. Beyond her appreciation for “flawed, vulnerable, engaging, powerful” women, Williams does not seem to have a compelling reason to tell this story. In the absence of new material or a new approach, she offers a breathless paean to the woman who, while “no great beauty,” could with “one twitch of her skirt . . . enthrall the man who terrorized Europe.”

Born in 1763 to a clan of blue-blooded French colonists on Martinique, Marie-Josèphe de Tascher de La Pagerie grew up “in a paradise of pleasure,” where she “splashed in the sea like a dolphin” and “sucked on sugarcane plucked from the fields.” In 1779, her family shipped her off to Paris to marry the self-styled Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, a “languidly aggressive” blackguard by whom she had two children before separating from him in 1785. (Fond of alliteration, clichés and mixed metaphors, Williams indulges in all three when noting that “hotheaded Alexandre also had to eat humble pie.”)

More here.

Saturday Poem


—after ‘Irisch’ by Paul Celan

Grant me the wayleave
across the draw-bridge to your sleep,
the by-your-leave
to wend the wild meanders of your dreams,
the privilege, now I’m fit, to split the turf
along your breast’s incline
come dawn.

by Paula Cunningham
from Heimlich's Manoeuvre
Smith/Doorstop, Sheffield, 2013,



Grant me the right of way
over the cornstair to your sleep,
right of way
over the path of sleep,
the right to cut turf
on the shelf of the heart,
come morning.

by Paul Celan

A brief survey of the short story part 51: Sherwood Anderson

Chris Powers in The Guardian:

AndersonCertain locations belong to certain writers. Kafka stalks the streets of Prague; Fitzrovia pubs call Julian MacLaren-Ross to mind; Dublin, to the understandable frustration of its other writers, is Joyce. When I lived in the flat expanses of the American midwest I would drive through mile after mile of cornfields, a landscape that always made me think of Sherwood Anderson and his collection Winesburg, Ohio. Even as Anderson's once-great reputation plummeted, the book, published in 1919, continued to exert a pronounced effect on the American short story throughout the 20th century. His prose carries flavours of Whitman and Twain, and the distinctive, comma-rejecting rhythm of Gertrude Stein. Above them you detect those he influenced: the Hemingway of In Our Time, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver among many others. Sometimes he writes very badly, but when he writes well his discursive style envelops you completely, without fanfare.

Winesburg, Ohio is a story cycle set in a small town in the 1890s. Each story concentrates on a different “grotesque” who inhabits the town, people whose lives have become distorted through an inability to communicate. For Anderson these “grotesques” are not monsters to be feared, but creatures to be pitied and loved. Many of them feel compelled to explain themselves in some way to a young man called George Willard, the closest thing the book has to a hero. George matures over the course of the collection, and in the final story leaves Winesburg behind. The effect of the book is to cumulatively produce an atmosphere of uncomfortable but compelling intimacy. Throughout, hands appear as symbols of the desirability and difficulty of human contact, and it was hands that Edward Wilson Jr used to precisely describe the feeling of reading it: “We are at once disturbed and soothed by the feeling of hands thrust down among the deepest bowels of life – hands delicate but still pitiless in their exploration.”

More here.

Companions in Misery

Mariana Alessandri in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_890 Dec. 05 15.49I had just arrived home from my summer vacation — a week in a Minnesota cabin whose brochure warned “no crabbiness allowed” — when I came upon a study that declared New York the “unhappiest city in America.” I doubt many people were surprised by the results — New Yorkers, both in lore and reality, can be hard to please, and famously outspoken about their grievances — but as a born-and-raised New Yorker, and as a philosopher, I was suspicious of how the study defined happiness.

The survey in question, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked how “satisfied” Americans were with their lives — very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. But the National Bureau of Economic Research used the data to conclude things about their “happiness.” Some might not have minded that the terms satisfaction and happiness were used interchangeably, but I did. The study was titled “Unhappy Cities,” and the headlines that followed it came out swinging against New Yorkers.

I was certain that a person (even a New Yorker) could be both dissatisfied and happy at once, and that the act of complaining was not in fact evidence of unhappiness, but something that could in its own way lead to greater happiness.

At times like this I appreciate philosophers’ respect for words, and a number of them have argued to keep happiness separate from satisfaction.

More here.

ISIS: What the US Doesn’t Understand

Ahmed Rashid in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_888 Dec. 05 15.44Over the last few days, as the United States has stepped up its bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria, it has been hard to escape another reality: the US is still looking for a coherent strategy against the Islamic State. Along with its relentless drive across the deserts of Syria and Iraq, and its continued massacre of civilians and members of endangered minorities, ISIS can now also claim its first victim in Washington with thesacking of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. His departure—prompted in part by divisions with the White House over Syria policy—highlights the deep problems of an air offensive against ISIS that has alienated Arab states and other allies in NATO, even as it has failed to bring tangible results.

The crisis ISIS has created for the West and the Arab world cannot be effectively addressed until there is a broader understanding of what ISIS wants. The first thing we need to recognize is that ISIS is not waging a war against the West. In view of the staggering growth in the number of ISIS’s international recruits—there are now estimated to be some 18,000 foreign fighters from 90 countries—the growing possibility that some who have joined the group may return home to carry out acts of terrorism must be taken seriously. There is also a risk that others who never went to Syria, like the shooter in the Canadian parliament in October, will be inspired by ISIS to carry out such attacks.

In contrast to al-Qaeda, however, ISIS has not made the US and its allies its main target. Where al-Qaeda directed its anger at the “distant enemy,” the United States, ISIS wants to destroy the near enemy, the Arab regimes, first. This is above all a war within Islam: a conflict of Sunni against Shia, but also a war by Sunni extremists against more moderate Muslims—between those who think the Muslim world should be dominated by a single strand of Wahhabism and its extremist offshoot Salafism and those who support a pluralistic vision of Muslim society.

More here.