Saturday, January 31, 2009

I really like Obama, but then, I'm a craven reformist...

Recent conversation between husband and wife, chez nous:

Me: And then Obama said (I paraphrase), "It doesn't matter whether government is big or small, what matters is if government works!" Wow! And he excoriated those CEOs who make those 40 million a year salaries! He lay into them! I've been complaining about that for years.

H: Yeah, He's telling the CEOs: Stop fucking it up for the rest of us.

Me: The rest of us?

H: The rest of the ruling class! Obama is telling the CEOs, You're being stupid. You're showing too much bling!

Me: Aww... you mean, the CEOs, in their ostentation, are showing the kind of utter disregard for the underclass, the kind of contempt, that would galvanize the oppressed to revolt? Or just such lack of awareness? Marie Antoinette unwittingly put her name on the list for the guillotine when she showed such immense misunderstanding of the class structure of her society, when she told the working poor of Paris that if they didn't have enough bread, they should eat cake.

H: (felt my comparison glossed over too many distinctions and tactfully ignored it) "The problem in America today isn't how much the ruling class pay each other every year, $40 million vs $4 million vs $1 million -- the problem is that they exist."

Me: You mean, Obama is helping, helping mightily, he'll ease some misery at the bottom, he'll let the current rule continue.

H: That's why the ruling class let him become president. He knows his job. If he's good at it, all the better for them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Karl Marx makes cover of TIME magazine

But only on the overseas edition -- not fit for domestic consumption?

In fact, only the European edition -- the covers for the U.S., Asia and South Pacific featured the Obama oath of office

The story Europeans want to read (or get to read) is (excerpt):

Rethinking Marx

As we work out how to save capitalism, it's worth studying the system's greatest critic.

From Washington to Vladivostok, the task of warding off financial collapse and economic depression is now the overwhelming priority for government leaders, central bankers and regulators everywhere. Solutions differ, but all agree that the current situation is both dire and extremely perplexing: nobody younger than 80 has experienced such a rapid decline in global confidence and economic activity. Markets have failed, and in so doing they have destroyed the conventional wisdom about how to run an efficient economy. It's as if an intellectual fog has descended, and the global positioning system has broken down, leaving the world to grope its way out as best it can. "Ask the experts what to do," says Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, "and the most honest reply is 'I don't know.' "
Searching the library for ideas, many have rediscovered the 1930s policy prescriptions of John Maynard Keynes, who advocated massive government spending programs of the type now being promoted by U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and others. Other great thinkers of the past are also being rediscovered, from Adam Smith to John Kenneth Galbraith. But hovering out there in the fog, unavoidably, is the towering specter of Karl Marx, the grandfather of political economists, whose damning critique of capitalism's inadequacies played an outsized role in world history for a century after his death in 1883... if you leave aside the prophetic, prescriptive parts of Marx's writings, there's a trenchant diagnosis of the underlying problems of a market economy that is surprisingly relevant even today. Marx, too, lived through an era of rapid globalization. (A famous passage in The Communist Manifesto, which he wrote with Friedrich Engels in 1848, is almost uncannily prescient about globalization's costs and benefits.) He was moved by glaring inequalities between rich and poor that are more topical than ever today. He thought work should bring personal fulfillment, and that labor should not be treated as a simple commodity — foreshadowing today's controversies over outsourcing and poor working conditions in developing countries. He wondered whether the middle class would be squeezed out of existence. And he identified how profits were taking an ever bigger share of the economy at the expense of wages, just as they are once again today.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Poetry today: All dressed up with nothing to say?

There are so many important things we should be discussing. I want to take up a comment by Dan from last month about Robert Hare's book, "Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work." I want to discuss video games to teach economic systems that are alternatives to the free market. I could discuss my new academic studies of Aspergers syndrome. I could discuss how students are smarter than they used to be. We could discuss a million things.

But with those promissory notes, right now let me share something out of the blue: the state of contemporary poetry. I was a bit underwhelmed by the inaugural poem of Elizabeth Alexander, but hey, the themes that can be conveyed in a poem for an incoming president are so highly constrained that its not worth complaining about the poem's tepid content.

But let me complain about this poem, in the highly prestigious magazine, The Atlantic. Its about the secret life of a needle missing in a haystack. Wow. I was inspired to write a response (BTW, I know that poems that rhyme are considered Ewwwww).

All dressed up

I took my peek at poetry today,
Talented dears, you're all dressed up with nothing to say.

I know its art, let's emphasize form,
Until barely glimpsed abstractions become the norm.

We can almost forget, because you write so well,
That at the heart of the act you've so little to tell.

Why so little to tell....? We've been beaten down by the culture (by something?) into apapthy and momentary hedonism? Or poetry is yet another potent stirrer of human imagination and action, so it has had to be neutralized - or housebroken?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Revolution or Reform -- a TV drama?

Q: Why is the title of your blog "I married a communist"?

A: The title of anything is its highest priced real estate. Words accrue a lot of their meanings from how they are habitually used. Today, the word "communist" evokes the concepts of secret police, authoritarian regimes and the oppression in the so-called former communist countries of Eastern Europe. But there was a time, in the 19th and early 20th century, when communists were understood as the good guys.

Q: So did you really marry one of the good guys?

A: Yes, see photographic evidence at Trotsky's grave.

Q: Aren't you worried that the title will be off-putting to readers?

A: I have readers?! Thank you!

Q: How do your parents feel about you marrying a communist?

A: My parents? They're tickled pink.

Q: Really?

A: My father still remembers the Great Depression. He clips coupons and reminds everyone of the household slogan from my childhood, "We don't buy anything that's advertised on TV." His rejoinder to any story of woe is a shoulder shrug, accompanied by "Well, that's free enterprise for you!"

Q: Mother?

A: Your daughter gets married for the first time at age 42?

Q: Why do you hate free enterprise so much?

A: Any system of social organization will have its advantages and disadvantages, and some individuals will benefit more from one system than from another. I'm in favor of an egalitarian system, for reasons articulated by Rawls and others philosophers (in particular, see the argument called the Veil of Ignorance). Capitalism is explicitly anti-egalitarian (think of the board game, Monopoly). I think humans can do better. Its time to start a dialogue about what kind of society we want to live in.

Q: What about the fact that very few people seem to be interested in criticizing capitalism, even though there are plenty of conversations about improving how humans live?

A: For this question, the old lawyer's strategy of asking "cui bono" applies. Why aren't many people talking about X? Well, whose interest is served by lack of conversation about X?

Q: How to get the dialogue going?

A: I suggest a TV series, of the quality of The Sopranos. The dramatic back-drop is socio-political revolution/reform in America set in the current day or perhaps a few years in the future. There's been financial collapse, rioting -- the country is in crisis. What direction to take? Characters have conflicting views and agendas. Post your comments here about some helpful story lines.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tax payers lost 700 billion in one drunken pull of the roulette wheel...

I was skeptical, and indeed, horrified at the thought of giving $700 billion dollars to the banks, but it turned out even worse than anyone thought...

National Public Radio's Tom Ashbrook discusses today how the billions disappeared into bank vaults; no one knows where the money went (some say it went to the Saudis who had invested in the banks) not a dime went for home owners,

Jim Hightower is even harsher. Bankers used the money to buy up small banks, which isn't good for consumers because it reduces competition and means bank fees will be higher than ever. The following is from Hightower's report. Paid subscription needed to read the full thing, so let me excerpt extensively.

Lawmakers meekly rushed out $700 billion for them, a taxpayer gimmie nearly 30 times larger than the one Detroit was seeking. What plan did the bankers present? What explanation did they give of how they'd spend our money?

None. They simply dispatched their designated consigliere, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (formerly the reigning prince of Goldman Sachs), to hand Congress a three-page ultimatum. It contained not a single specific or promise of results. It was, in effect, a hold-up note.

But that $700 billion was just for openers. It has not been widely reported, but the total Wall Street bailout--counting government loans, stock purchases, debt guarantees, and backdoor handouts by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve--is nearly $8 trillion. That's eight followed by 12 zeroes!

What have we gotten for this gargantuan giveaway? Zip. The rationale for indiscriminately pouring public funds into big banks, investment houses, insurance giants, hedge funds, and the like was that our money would "unclog" the financial markets, allowing credit to flow again to businesses and consumers-as though America is having a plumbing problem and our national treasury is a bottomless vat of Liquid Plumr.

But, guess what? It didn't work. Credit is still not flowing. As a result, an economic crisis has swiftly spread across the country, including a rash of business bankruptcies, construction shutdowns, massive job losses--and, yes, a credit crunch that is crushing auto sales, auto dealers and suppliers, auto makers, auto workers...and Detroit.

The reason that the Wall Street bailout has not worked is quite elementary: Congress and the White House attached no requirement whatsoever that the recipients of our money use it to make loans! It seems that Washington didn't feel that it should "interfere" in the decisions of the financial deities.

Country rubes attending their first carnival sideshow are not this gullible.

With no conditions put on the phenomenal taxpayer windfall they received, the wizards of Wall Street have chosen to spend it selfishly, rather than for any public purpose. They've already used billions to buy out some of their competitors, a perverted use of bailout funds that will reduce our banking choices and raise the bank fees we're charged. Other billions have gone to the banks' big investors, to executive pay, to pad the bottom line, or simply into bank vaults to be hoarded--while America remains starved for capital.

Even more amazing, the very same Congress that harrumphed about trusting Detroit automakers with taxpayer money was not even told where most of the $8 trillion Wall Street bailout went. Which banks got government backing, and how much did each get? That's a secret, Congress was told by the Bushites. What are they doing with the money? We can't tell you, say those who doled out the cash.

Moving from amazing to reckless audacity, Secretary Paulson has even taken the law into his own hands. Last September, he unilaterally, secretly, and illegally nullified a federal law because it was in the way of his unauthorized plan to help big banks take over smaller ones. Hank's autocratic decree allows banks to use offshore tax dodges that Congress banned 23 years ago. This executive maneuver provides an under-the-table tax subsidy for predatory banks wanting public financing to absorb their rivals--a subsidy that will cost our national treasury upwards of $140 billion even as it reduces bank competition.

This is a flagrant usurpation of Congress's constitutional power and a kleptocratic transfer of public wealth by executive fiat. Yet it was met with barely a meow from lawmakers.

Callers to the NPR show are topping each other with their eye-popping accounts of what can be done with $700 billion -- build a high-way across American 4 miles wide, connect every city by mag-lev trains. (Yes, and pay for universal health care? That can be done with a mere 50 billion...)

Monday, January 12, 2009

What's psychology good for?

Dear Professor,

I'm a reporter at the Boston Globe, looking for someone to interview about the body language of politicians in a recent photo-op at the White House. (I have attached the photo to which I am referring.) Would you be able to speak about this subject matter? At your earliest convenience, I would like to ask you just a few pointed questions over the phone. I'm doing research for a story in the Globe's Ideas section about the significance of the presidents' body language in the photo - what each man's hand placement, stance, positioning, etc says about him and about the context/significance of the event.

I'm disheartened and dismayed. Is this what psychologists are good for? This reporter may as well have been asking me about handwriting analysis --crunched, angular lettering suggests an anxiety prone obsessive, and big loops with dotted hearts signal openness and extroversion.

With all the great brain science research coming out, aren't we a little bit beyond fortune-cookie style thinking? Sure, there are statistical associations between body postures and attitudes, such as arms-crossed correlating with protective stance. But hand position? Scrutinizing momentary postures (hands-in-pockets vs. at side versus loosely held in front) for hints about "what it says about him" is not worthy of the "Ideas section" of a major newspaper, of a blog, or even cocktail party chat. It's just not what psychology is all about.

It takes about 3 seconds inspection of that photo to determine that "each man's hand placement, stance, positioning" was posed by the photographer using their special photography psychology. Thus, any psychologizing is not about the presidents, but is essentially about the impression-management goals/strategies of the handlers. Having all presidents' hands hanging in the same position wouldn't look right; it would be visually stilted and uninteresting. We could make a big stretch and speculate that the photographers wanted to emphasize the presidents' individuality -- but that's a speculation about the photographers' goals, not the personalities of the presidents.

Boston Globe Ideas section? Sure, I got ideas for your section. Big Ideas. Next time you email me, no Mickey-mouse stuff, okay?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

if every business was a nonprofit, what would our society look like?

Three examples I came across recently, for your enjoyment:

There was big public campaign to convince Mattel not to make a brand of dolls aimed at 3-6 year-olds called Pussycat Dolls based on scantily clad females (even worse than Bratz).

Board which meets to provide funding for proposed business venture to manufacture and distribute Pusscat Dolls:

Advocate for Pussycat Dolls: I made a few for the neighborhood girls, and they really liked them. The parents didn't of course.

Review board: Why create a product that psychologists suggest is harmful AND parents don't like? Next!

Decade-long campaign to pass legislation to remove phlates (a potent teratogen) from nail polish. Manufacturing organizations are under crushing constraints to increase profits or be out-competed. They are thus obligated to direct their energy into fighting health-oriented regulation, hence the reason it took more than a decade for health activists to win their fight to remove phlates from nail polish. But if the goal of manufacturing is to meet human needs, then governing bodies will weigh different contingencies: the needs of humans to have lower cost nail polish vs. the needs of the children of factory workers and nail polish users to be free of phlate-caused birth defects.

Last year, Consumer Reports discussed a tree sapling which is sold via mail with the boast that it grows faster than any other tree, and if you plant it, you'll have a lovely shade-providing tree in your front yard in 6 months. The boast is true. But what isn't said is that the tree is considered an invasive species that threatens native trees and it is even illegal to plant it in some, but not all states.

Imagine that to obtain financial backing to produce a product, you present your business plan to a board of experts who will debate how well your product will serve its intended community.

Note that this is the process I and other academics go through in order to get funding to conduct scientific research. U.S. publicly-financed scientific research has a track record that is unparraeled for innovation and quality, which shows that profit motive is not required for innovation and excellence.

Under a planned economy with review boards:

Board member: Hm, should we approve the business plan to market this lovely weed tree? No, its a dangerous weed. The desire of some home owners to have a quickly-grown tree is not as necessary as the need to protect against invasive species. Not approved. Next!

Under capitalism:

Note: In the U.S., currently no board of experts who evaluate the public good of a produce or service is required to approve a business plan. All that's required is that some capitalists believe they can make money off of it and avoid criminal prosecution for any violated laws or regulations.

Venture capitalists: Hm, the tree is actually illegal in some states, so be careful not to mention this in ads. It does grow faster than any other tree, and we should be able to make a good profit in those states that haven't passed laws against it. People may even buy it even in the places where it is illegal, but that's their fault, not ours, so there won't be any legal liability. Approved!

More info, see this video...

Leave a comment if you'd like to contribute to the blog, "if every business was a nonprofit." Thanks!

Friday, January 2, 2009

How the brain works: Even blatantly insincere flattery makes us feel good...

sarah said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Dear Sarah (or Ruth, or Karen, or Elena),

I'm such a sucker for flattery (and feeling good about flattery is so automatic) -- that I feel good even though I know that you say that to all the girls (guys).

You say it because an advertiser pays you to say it. I won't say which one, because then the advertiser would have won my (few) readers' eyeballs.

How do I know you're an advertiser's lackey?

Sarah, you've had 773 profile views in two months, compared to my profile view of half that in 2 years. Yet you don't even have a blog! Why are people so curious about you? Because you post a lot -- your posts are devoid of content, but the average blogger with minimal traffic is still curious about this mysterious flatterer.

And every time you post, you leave a little url after your vague flattery.

I googled your cute empty statement and the exact same sentences, minus your cute typo, have appeared on hundreds of blogs from to

Now, I'm not one to keep someone from trying to make a living. But one of the wasteful side-effects of the competition that is part of a capitalism economic system is that human beings like you need to earn a living doing what you do: sneaking ads into places where they are not wanted.