Joseph Stiglitz: Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron

Joseph E. Stiglitz in the New York Times:

Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s regulatory “reforms,” which reduced the ability of government to curb the excesses of the market, were sold as great energizers of the economy. But just the opposite happened: Growth slowed, and weirder still, this happened in the innovation capital of the world.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Antonio Damasio on Feelings, Thoughts, and the Evolution of Humanity

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

When we talk about the mind, we are constantly talking about consciousness and cognition. Antonio Damasio wants us to talk about our feelings. But it’s not in an effort to be more touchy-feely; Damasio, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, believes that feelings generated by the body are a crucial part of how we achieve and maintain homeostasis, which in turn is a key driver in understanding who we are. His most recent book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, is an ambitious attempt to trace the role of feelings and our biological impulses in the origin of life, the nature of consciousness, and our flourishing as social, cultural beings.

More here.

The Life and Death of a Mexican Hitman

Falko Ernst at the website of the International Crisis Group (a few months ago):

It’s 7pm on a Sunday, and night is falling in this Michoacán town. The heat of the day is past, and there’s a pleasant breeze. The first visitors to the park have left for dinner, but many hang around.

Around the park’s outer edges, teenagers stroll in two circular currents.

The boys walk with their friends, in teams of two, three or four. The girls do the same, but in the opposite direction. So the circles intersect, inescapably, again and again. Boys and girls trade shy, longing glances. The lucky few get to hold hands or share a bench, words of affection and maybe a kiss. It’s a teenage ritual, here and in countless municipal parks across Mexico.

Not for Grillo, though. Not for The Cricket. He’s eligible to participate, for he’s hardly older than a teen, but he isn’t here to flirt.

Grillo is here to kill.

More here.  [Thanks to Wolf Böwig.]

Tuesday Poem

Tuesday 9:00 AM

A man standing at the bus stop
reading the newspaper is on fire
Flames are peeking out
from beneath his collar and cuffs
His shoes have begun to melt

The woman next to him
wants to mention it to him
that he is burning
but she is drowning
Water is everywhere
in her mouth and ears
in her eyes
A stream of water runs
steadily from her blouse

Another woman stands at the bus stop
freezing to death
She tries to stand near the man
who is on fire
to try to melt the icicles
that have formed on her eyelashes
and on her nostrils
to stop her teeth long enough
from chattering to say something
to the woman who is drowning
but the woman who is freezing to death
has trouble moving
with blocks of ice on her feet

It takes the three some time
to board the bus
what with the flames
and water and ice
But when they finally climb the stairs
and take their seats
the driver doesn’t even notice
that none of them has paid
because he is tortured
by visions and is wondering
if the man who got off at the last stop
was really being mauled to death
by wild dogs.

by Denver Butson
from Poetry 180
Random House, 2003

Charlottesville Was a Turning Point

David Graham in The Atlantic:

The weekend of August 12, 2017, may well have been a turning point in recent American history, but it’s not entirely clear which way things turned. That weekend was when neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. Marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and employed other anti-Semitic slogans. There were multiple violent clashes, and one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when James Alex Fields Jr., one of the marchers, drove his car into a crowd. And President Donald Trump infamously equivocated about the incident. Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” and then vacillated over the course of several daysdeclining to mount a sincere and forceful condemnation of the march.

By any objective standard, the incident was one of the lowest points of an administration defined by its nadirs, and the immediate reaction showed that public opinion concurred. Americans condemned Trump’s response, and his approval hit a record low. Yet almost two years later, the political effects of the violence remain unpredictable, as the past week showed. Former Vice President Joe Biden looked to Charlottesville as a focus for his presidential-campaign announcement, and found it to be more slippery than he had intended. Trump, meanwhile, showed no squeamishness in defending himself over his response. And a shooting at a synagogue in suburban San Diego, California, showed how anti-Semitic attacks have become a horrifyingly familiar part of contemporary American life.

More here.

Can Humans Help Trees Outrun Climate Change?

Moises Velasquez-Manoff in The New York Times:

Foresters began noticing the patches of dying pines and denuded oaks, and grew concerned. Warmer winters and drier summers had sent invasive insects and diseases marching northward, killing the trees. If the dieback continued, some woodlands could become shrub land. Most trees can migrate only as fast as their seeds disperse — and if current warming trends hold, the climate this century will change 10 times faster than many tree species can move, according to one estimate. Rhode Island is already seeing more heat and drought, shifting precipitation and the intensification of plagues such as the red pine scale, a nearly invisible insect carried by wind that can kill a tree in just a few years.

The dark synergy of extreme weather and emboldened pests could imperil vast stretches of woodland.

So foresters in Rhode Island and elsewhere have launched ambitious experiments to test how people can help forests adapt, something that might take decades to occur naturally. One controversial idea, known as assisted migration, involves deliberately moving trees northward. But trees can live centuries, and environments are changing so fast in some places that species planted today may be ill-suited to conditions in 50 years, let alone 100. No one knows the best way to make forests more resilient to climatic upheaval.

These great uncertainties can prompt “analysis paralysis,” said Maria Janowiak, deputy director of the Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, or N.I.A.C.S. But, she added, “We can’t keep waiting until we know everything.”In Rhode Island, the state’s largest water utility is experimenting with importing trees from hundreds of miles to the south to maintain forests that help purify water for 600,000 people. In Minnesota, a lumber businessman is trying to diversify the forest on his land with a “300-year plan” he hopes will benefit his grandchildren. And in five places around the country, the United States Forest Service is running a major experiment to answer a basic question: What’s the best way to actually help forests at risk?

More here.

New realism roundup

by Dave Maier

“Realism” is a word with many senses. In politics, it’s synonymous with pragmatism in being the alternative to idealism, which it considers naive. In science, realists oppose instrumentalism and (extreme forms of) empiricism, positing a reality behind the phenomena of empirical investigation. In philosophy as well, one can be a realist about this or that by resisting the reduction of that or this phenomenon to other things thought more ontologically basic.

Mainly, though, philosophical realism is metaphysical realism, an ontological commitment to a basic reality irreducible to, and independent of, mind, belief, language, social conventions, empirical observations – whatever you got. On this side of the pond, realism has generally been considered the default position, but analytic philosophy was born in linguistic analysis and a robust strain of empiricism, so various sorts of antirealism have remained popular here as well.

On the Continent, however, things are different. Analytic philosophy was a revolt against a post-Hegelian tradition which remained dominant in Europe, and in the last third of the previous century, when postmodernism ruled supreme, continental realists hardly dared even show their faces in public. At least, that’s the story now being related by a new breed of continental realist. Now that postmodernism is yesterday’s (or last week’s) news, realism is popping up all over.

If postmodernism was nonsense on stilts, then a return to common sense can only be good. But analytic antirealists, at least, aren’t just dimwits or charlatans, and we shouldn’t simply identify substantive philosophical claims, however intuitive, with mere sanity; and continental realism, it turns out, comes in a bewildering variety of forms. Before sounding the hosannas, and awarding the palm to realism at last, we owe this new development a closer look. Read more »

Do Octopuses Have Souls? (On the Nature of Animal Consciousness)

by Leanne Ogasawara

Anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a staring contest with an octopus –those soulful cat-eyes returning your gaze through the thick glass of an aquarium tank– can attest to the uncanny power these creatures exert over our human imagination.

They certainly look alien. With three hearts pumping blue, copper-infused blood, their tentacles (“each with a mind of its own”) are covered in suckers that can feel AND taste. Because their beaks are the only hard parts of their bodies, a large octopus can squeeze through a hole not much bigger than one of their eyeballs. They are like the Great Houdinis of the deep! Without a hard shell like other mollusks, octopuses have evolved clever ways for keeping a step ahead of predators: Not only can they change colors to camouflage themselves, blending into almost any watery environment, but they can also send out ink bombs. After lobbing one to confuse an enemy, an octopus can jet propel away from danger at surprising speeds in a funnel of water.

Is it any wonder that there have been people who believe they might have originated in space? From the Scandinavian myth of the Kraken and Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to Japanese sea monsters and the sexual predators found in erotic shunga prints, again and again–in so many cultures around the world– these creatures show up in stories and art as monsters and space aliens. And who could forget the fear instilled in the losing soccer teams by Paul the Clairvoyant World Cup Octopus? The Argentines got so angry at him that they threatened to kill him and cook him in a paella, if he kept foretelling their bad luck!

My own personal octopus “horror” is the not-as-rare-as–you-would-think sight of Japanese TV personalities (and a few of my friends) traveling in Korea and eating live octopuses–desperate tentacles clawing their way out of the people’s mouths! Read more »

On Consuming War Media

by Robert Fay

John Wayne in The Green Berets.

During the annus horribilis of 1968 when it became clear the U.S. would never “win” in Vietnam, John Wayne decided to star and direct in a propaganda film called The Green Berets. Wayne was a die-hard Orange County anti-communist who believed that the U.S. military was winning on the battlefield in South Vietnam, but losing in the media and public relations realm.

Rather shrewdly, Wayne centered his film on the U.S. Army Special Forces, a.k.a. the Green Berets, whose small 12-man A-Teams lived and trained with the anti-communist Montagnards, the indigenous peoples of Vietnam’s remote central highlands. The Green Berets in the 1960s were an all-volunteer, highly-selective outfit with both mystique and a bit of holdover, Kennedy-era glamour. These teams spoke the local languages and formed close and often lifelong bonds with their Montagnard peers. This mission profile remains to this day the classic Special Forces game; make contact with local populations and then fight alongside them against a common enemy.

If John Wayne had depicted the typical American military units in Vietnam, main-line U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps infantry troops trudging through rice fields—even with all the hilarious puffery of Hollywood special effects—he’d have had far-less glamour to work with. These units were often filled with draftees who went out on company-sized operations supported by massive amounts of artillery and air support, some of it indiscriminately unleashed upon the countryside. There were generally no Vietnamese speakers among the troops, and the cultural and historical knowledge (e.g., of the recent Indochina War between the Vietnamese and the French) was nil. Read more »

On the Road: Leaving Home

by Bill Murray

My wife and I live in the southern Appalachian mountains across a narrow valley from Georgia’s highest mountain. Most of our farm borders the United States Forest Service, pretty far up in the woods. If we don’t go out, we might not see anyone for a week.

It’s so far up in north Georgia that we shop in North Carolina, which is way more cosmopolitan. In Murphy (population 1638), they have a shop that sells different kinds of cooking oils.

Just 2-1/2 hours north of Atlanta, up in the mountains, isn’t like you might expect in the southern United States. It snows in winter and you usually can’t get a proper grip on spring until the middle of April. Like this year.

Our view to that mountain, called Brasstown Bald, is all natural.  From the farm to the peak there’s not a manmade thing to see. The Bald, at 4783 feet, makes its own weather, and ours, too. We wake to its lenticular top hats, revel in its autumn flamboyance and in summer, cower under its electric fury. That requires periodic replacement of our home electronics. Read more »

Thinking a Way Out

by Holly Case

About 1,500 years ago, the Chinese literary critic Liu Hsieh wrote The Literary Mind. It includes a section on metaphor—hsing—which he describes as “response to a stimulus.”

[W]hen we respond to stimuli, we formulate our ideas according to the subtle influences we receive…. the hsing is an admonition expressed through an array of parables.

I first came upon The Literary Mind some months ago and was immediately fascinated by Hsieh’s elucidation of hsing, but will confess to having had no idea what he meant, even after studying his examples. It remained in the back of my mind.

Some time after discovering Hsieh, I was having a series of intense discussions with a group of students on the theme of apocalypse. Again and again, two of them mentioned a story by Ursula K. Le Guin from 1973 called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Omelas, Omelas, Omelas.

Some weeks later, the word “Omelas” occurring to me in flashes, I printed out a copy of the story and read it. You should read it. Omelas is a mythical city where the mood is festive and everything and everyone appear in good form and spirits. The narrator begins by describing and defending how Omelas functions as a great festival of summer unfolds in the background. “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?” the narrator asks the reader. “No? Then let me describe one more thing.”

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window.… In the room a child is sitting.… The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes—the child has no understanding of time or interval—sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.… It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually. They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Sometimes it happens that, after seeing the child, a person from Omelas sets out on a road that leads away from the city. And keeps walking. The story ends: “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

The story troubles me. It’s the leaving. What does leaving do for the child locked in the cellar? Read more »

The digital divide – when even the beggars need smartphones

by Sarah Firisen

I was standing in Penn Station the other day waiting for a train and someone passed through begging for change. I’ve lived in New York City long enough that I don’t just start taking my wallet out and going through it in crowded public spaces, but beyond that, I don’t have change. I normally don’t carry cash. If I have cash on me its for one of two reasons, either someone has paid me back for something in cash (which in these days of Venmo is increasingly unlikely) or I have a hair or nail appointment where they like their tips in cash. So even if I have cash, it’s bigger bills and certainly no coins. And I’m sure I’m not unusual. I pay for things with credit cards. I pay other people using Apple Pay or Venmo. I mentioned this thought to someone who told me that they had seen someone begging in New York with details of their Venmo account. On the one hand, there seems to be a certain chutzpah to that, after all, if you have a bank account to receive the money in and some kind of smart phone to access it, is your situation as dire as you’re making out? On the other hand, it’s pretty smart. Of course, there are serious privacy issues involved in giving money to a random stranger through an app like Venmo, it’s not private, so I probably wouldn’t do that either, but it’s an interesting idea, if it could be made more anonymous and secure. Apparently, at least in China, the virtual beggar is a thing, “Even beggars have begun to accept wireless payments by offering QR codes…That’s mostly down to the proliferation of cheaper smartphones in China and the dominance of the WeChat and Alipay apps – which both support direct mobile payments.”

What this whole thing makes me think about though is that this is yet another way that modern digital life is exacerbating the divide between rich and poor. Read more »