24 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.23

Monday: disincentivizing greed; George Soros; memes and temes; more on the evolution of color terms; dogs and humans; von Sternberg's last three silent films released on DVD; Ed Yong on Atul Gawande.

Today's Digest is intentionally short. My time on Monday was limited; in addition, several items appeared on Monday on the theme of the future of the book, and I will write about these in a separate post.


Neal Gabler has an essay in the Los Angeles Times, "Disincentivizing greed." The subtitle is: "Financial reform must take into account human nature — investment bankers enjoy being rich(er) — or it will fail."

Some quotes:
The problem with nearly all attempts at financial reform, including this one, is that they try to prevent malfeasance either by changing the economic architecture, like erecting firewalls between financial sectors, or by mandating institutional curbs, like increasing reserves. But the new law gets at only proximate causes. The system malfunctioned because the human beings who ran it were greedy and saw a way to enrich themselves. That means that the recession from which we are still reeling was primarily a result of human nature, which the latest reforms don't begin to address.

Indeed, our economic catastrophe actually can be traced to government policies that encouraged this sort of misbehavior. To change that behavior and prevent future disasters, one needs a much different and, frankly, far simpler solution than the one President Obama signed — one that disincentivizes greed.


If we've learned nothing else about investment banking over the last two years, we've learned that it operates like a virus. You can devise all sorts of economic antibiotics — from stricter regulation and more oversight to limiting certain institutional arrangements, as Glass-Steagall did — but sooner or later they are all bound to fail because financial instruments keep mutating to escape destruction. Investment bankers reconstitute highly risky, highly profitable schemes such as credit default swaps or unit contingent options or other exotic inventions. That's why reform never works. It will always be outsmarted.
Gabler suggests that slashing of marginal tax rates under Ronald Reagan incentivized greed; he writes:
In effect, the Reagan tax cuts, which were hailed by conservatives as a way to unleash American initiative, also unleashed American avarice.
His conclusion is pessimistic:
When the fire of greed is stoked this way, financial reforms cannot possibly bank it. In truth, probably nothing can. We now live in a country that seems to worship wealth, and we may just have to live with the consequences — a Bernie Madoff, an Enron, a Lehman Bros., and a steep recession when the super-rich overplay their hand. The alternative is regulation that goes to the source by raising those marginal tax rates (and capital gains taxes) and forcing the super-rich to merely be rich again. And honestly, that's not going to happen. It would be a violation of human nature.

The focus topic at The Browser this week is George Soros, who is aptly described there as: "Investor, philosopher, philanthropist, writer, activist. His latest project: to reinvent economics."  The page includes links to two major pieces by Soros on the financial crisis, both of which I read when they first appeared and are worth revisiting:
"The Crisis and What to Do About It," The New York Review of Books, 4 December 2008.

"Anatomy of a Crisis," a speech delivered on 9 April 2010, posted at GeorgeSoros.com.  A concise and devastating critique of traditional economic theory.


Susan Blackmore, one of the most vigorous proponents of the notion of memes has a long post at The Stone, at the NYT, "The Third Replicator," in which she proposes yet a third type of "replicator" that is subject to evolution (in addition to genes and memes), which she calls "temes" or "technological memes."  Her post is linked at On the Human, which is also collecting responses.

I am deeply skeptical, partly because Blackmore's writing seems so strongly self-promoting (perhaps she is trying to instantiate her own theory?).

However, you won't be getting a full-blown critique of her piece (or of the concept of meme) from me here today, in spite of her highlighting of "the copy" (a concept about which I have had a few things to say in an earlier incarnation).

Instead, you can read Daniel Lende's grumpy but apt critique at Neuroanthropology, "People, Not Memes, Are the Medium," which begins:
Susan Blackmore is up to her usual shenanigans, promoting memes like the red in her hair, following fashion when it’s just not good science.
And he continues:
The basic analysis is two-step: (a) like so many spectacular failures before, slot humans into a reductive evolutionary analysis – eugenics, selfish-gene sociobiology, and now the memes/temes team (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do good evolutionary analysis!); (b) come up with a categorical concept and apply it everywhere – the replicator (genes, memes, and temes) – even after the complexities of actual genetic “copying” reveal a dynamic and incomplete process, not a prime mover and essentialist causal force (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do neural/anthropolological analysis!)

Sean Roberts at a replicated typo continues with part 7 of his series on the evolution of color terms, "Perceptual Warping."

The Human

Greg Downey at Neuranthropology has a detailed summary and critique of Pat Shipman's forum paper in the current issue of Current Anthropology, "The Animal Connection and Human Evolution."  The forum (which includes responses from several prominent figures in the field) is unfortunately behind a paywall at the Chicago Journals site, where I can't even access pricing information.

Here is Shipman's abstract:
A suite of unique physical and behavioral characteristics distinguishes  Homo sapiens  from other mammals. Three diagnostic human behaviors played key roles in human evolution: tool making, symbolic behavior and language, and the domestication of plants and animals. I focus here on a previously unrecognized fourth behavior, which I call the animal connection, that characterized the human lineage over the past 2.6 million years. I propose that the animal connection is the underlying link among the other key human behaviors and that it substantially influenced the evolution of humans.
Downey's post, "The dog-human connection in evolution," is long but very much worth reading.


The Criterion Collection is releasing (today, as it happens) a new three-disc set containing Josef von Sternberg's last three surviving silent films: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1927), and The Docks of New York (1928). Kristin Thompson has a rich essay on the films at Observations on film art.

I'll be looking forward to watching them.


Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science analyzes Atul Gawande's recent piece in The New Yorker on death and dying, "Letting Go."  I haven't read it, but Yong and many others find it riveting, in spite of its length (12,000 words, by Yong's count).  Yong calls it a "a textbook example of how to use narrative to sustain interest, regardless of length."  Yong is a very good writer himself, and it's enlightening to see a good writer discuss the nuts and bolts of a piece that he admires.
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1 comment:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5R5IUR_EwM