Food for thought

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Turns out, there are good reasons to believe that free markets (such as they are) make fools of us. This review explains the basic outline of a book by two Nobel winning economists — Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception — which is very likely worth reading in full.

As we all know, current GOP politicians absolutely adore (or profess to adore, at any rate), Ronald Reagan. While I never understood that attitude, this article points out one good reason: one simply cannot find a better (or less bad) Republican President throughout the past century.

An interesting, if a bit idiosyncratic, piece in the NYT’s Stone column by Alva Noë on why art is a better guide to understanding human nature than neurobiology.

A nice article by historian Mary Beard on why ancient Rome matters to us, based on her forthcoming book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. The Romans are not relevant to us for the usual reasons, Beard argues, and I think the longish essay is well worth the time. I’m waiting for the book to come out (November 9th in the US, October 20th in the UK).

My colleague and friend Will Provine, a historian of science at Cornell, has just passed away. This lovely in memoriam by Anya Plutynsky, published by Philosophy & Theory in Biology (an online journal that I founded and used to edit) explains why he will be missed.


Categories: Plato's Suggestions

7 replies

  1. That was a most generous eulogy to a gentleman.

    But, evolution could not have had a more gentlemanly advocate; Will was always kind and generous to his interlocutors. He never said an unkind word, or attacked the person. He was a friend to those he debated, and took his interlocutors seriously.

    His gentlemanly behaviour was reflected in this generous(for an atheist) appraisal.

    Christian humanism has a great deal going for it. It’s warm and kindly in many ways.

    Sadly he missed the point when he said this

    Finally, there is no reason whatsoever that ethics can’t be robust, even if there is no ultimate foundations for ethics.

    The robustness of an ethical system is determined by the strength of the institutional practices that support the ethical system and not by any abstract consideration of its foundation.


  2. 1. Massimo, would it fall more under “irony” or more under ‘hypocrisy” for neoliberal nudgemeister Cass Sunstein to be writing about the market making fools of us? The likes of Dan Ariely, and his mentor, Tversky, have long pointed that out from the POV of actual behavioral economics, even while good old Cass was still talking about money as the mother’s milk of nudges.

    That said, the actual book authors, Akerlof and Shiller, have more brains than Sunstein for sure.

    But, I guess the NY Review of Books wanted a “name” to do the review.

    2. Largely agree with and like the Beard article. That said, Rome’s population at peak may even have been 1.5 million.

    And, while it was inundated with slaves, the ancient world in general did not defend slavery primarily on a race-inferiority basis.

    As for early marriage, that was a commonplace across the ancient world. Bit unfair of her to apparently single out Rome on that issue, unless it’s just to make the point that we’re not like Rome as much as some think. In that case, for the US side of the pond, the differences between American and Roman slavery should be played up even more.

    3. The Reagan piece? Totally, totally ignores the GOP’s growing lovefest with Calvin Coolidge, as documented by Amity Shales’ relatively new bio.

    It also ignores that Ike wanted to replace the military-industrial complex with the spooks-industrial complex. Don’t forget that Mossadegh/Iran and Arbenz/Guatemala, as well as planning for the Bay of Pigs, were all on Ike’s watch. Apparently our anonymous “Quora Contributor” did, or is clueless.


    And, you could have used this as one of your “five” — more people telling Lawrence Krauss to shut up:

    (IMO, it certainly would be better than the Reagan piece.)


  3. As I grok the whole Sunstein review, he’s unfair to Keynes. We easily could have, if not a 15-hour work week, a 25-hour one. Sweden just officially adopted a 30-hour one. Rather, Sunstein’s neoliberal friends, especially in the US, want noses to grindstones. True, he does note this is part of the phishing, but doesn’t note it doesn’t have to be. And, here, the irrationality in the US extends to the Protestant work ethic and other nonsense.

    The presidential “selling”? That’s not a new idea. A century ago, political scientists talked about how Americans had a “charismatic leadership” rather than “competency leadership” focus.

    That said, the book is spot-on about alcohol. It’s far more dangerous than marijuana. I wouldn’t call it as dangerous as cigarettes, but it’s certainly closer to that level of danger than it is to marijuana. It’s also more dangerous than cocaine, and at least somewhat more dangerous than most other illicit drugs.

    I wrote about some of this in a newspaper column a year after 9/11, noting that cigs kill as many Americans every 2.5 days or so as did the 9/11 attacks — and that alcohol kills as many ppl every week or so.


  4. Socratic,

    oh, I still think the Reagan article has a point. And I’ve never heard of a new love of the GOP for Coolidge (Coolidge?!?), but I’ll look into it…

    “A century ago, political scientists talked about how Americans had a “charismatic leadership” rather than “competency leadership” focus.”

    To be fair, that’s hardly an American phenomenon only (think Mussolini…).

    “I wouldn’t call it as dangerous as cigarettes, but it’s certainly closer to that level of danger than it is to marijuana.”

    I tend to agree. I guess fewer martinis for me?


  5. True on Mussolini, or Herr Hitler. But, they never intended to keep their countries democratic.

    Yes, on Coolidge. Shlaes book has more than 400 Amazon reviews.

    Just don’t drive after the martinis. And, more seriously, per the First Amendment, court rulings and secularism, if you know anybody who needs help: http://lifering. org. (Non-religious, but not anti-religious.)


  6. To summarize the conclusion of the review of Phishing for Phools, the plural of example isn’t theory.

    The problem is that when you get to large masses of people, it’s not so much about particular political or cultural mores, morals, desires, codes of conduct, regulations, strictures, etc, as it is about the basic physical dynamics of accumulating and dissipating energies and structures, as reflected in the biological food chain and its sociological equivalents, both political and economic.

    Not to say that such social strictures, cultural norms and civil regulations are not fundamentally necessary to the functioning society, but viewing them from within their own frame of reference is distorting.

    For example, consider governmental regulation as the layout of a building that one generation constructs according to their needs. Then the next generation naturally evolves in slightly different directions, as circumstances change, so they want to alter the layout of the rooms, but don’t always consider the structural integrity as they tear down old walls and add new floors, given there is a natural tendency to build onto what is given, than go back and start fresh.

    The question then is that if one were to go back and examine the economic process in whole, it would not be a serious question of building to one’s emotional and cultural desires, but studying the materials at hand and the physical processes at work, then figure out how to move in a more positive direction.

    For example, one significant issue I think that is being overlooked in our current economic ideology is our concept of money. We treat it as both medium of exchange and store of value, but on biological terms, the body’s medium of exchange is blood and its store of value is fat and trying to mix the two beyond the levels they function efficiently is eventually fatal.

    Money functions as a voucher system and by commodifying it, we are turning the entire economy into a device to extract and store vast amounts of notional value, without real regard for the system generating it.

    Now necessarily this would be a far more broad topic of conversation than considering this particular book review would warrant, so my point is that if we really want to deduce some general principles and then induce possible solutions from them, we need to expand the area of focus well beyond the particular discipline. Though expertise tends to focus more on the examples within the field.


  7. labnut,

    “The robustness of an ethical system is determined by the strength of the institutional practices that support the ethical system and not by any abstract consideration of its foundation.”

    Exactly. As I pointed out on the prior thread, “what makes religion such a potent force is not the beliefs it espouses, but the force of authority by which it espouses them.”


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