Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Guaranteed Annual Income Update

Last month I wrote a blog post about the concept of a guaranteed annual income (GAI). There is a referendum on the ballot in Switzerland this spring that, if enacted, would mean every Swiss citizen would receive about $2800 a month.
The idea of guaranteeing a basic minimum income to all citizens was studied in the United States and Canada in the 1960s and 70s, with favorable results, but then in the 1980s the Reagan era brought a conservative turn away from social programs and all of that was forgotten.
However, the New York Times recently reported that the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina are showing that a GAI is not only an effective anti-poverty measure, but creates such positive results that it is cost-effective in the long-run.
In 1996 the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians opened a casino, and elected to distribute some of the profits equally to all the tribe’s members. Jane Costello, an epidemiologist at Duke University Medical School,
had already been following 1,420 rural children in the area, a quarter of whom were Cherokee, for four years. That gave her a solid baseline measure. Roughly one-fifth of the rural non-Indians in her study lived in poverty, compared with more than half of the Cherokee. By 2001, when casino profits amounted to $6,000 per person yearly, the number of Cherokee living below the poverty line had declined by half. 
The poorest children tended to have the greatest risk of psychiatric disorders, including emotional and behavioral problems. But just four years after the supplements began, Professor Costello observed marked improvements among those who moved out of poverty. The frequency of behavioral problems declined by 40 percent, nearly reaching the risk of children who had never been poor. Already well-off Cherokee children, on the other hand, showed no improvement. The supplements seemed to benefit the poorest children most dramatically.
As the years passed Dr. Costello continued the study and found:
Minor crimes committed by Cherokee youth declined. On-time high school graduation rates improved. And by 2006, when the supplements had grown to about $9,000 yearly per member, Professor Costello could make another observation: The earlier the supplements arrived in a child’s life, the better that child’s mental health in early adulthood.
Dr. Costello argues that a major factor in the improvements she measured was the reduction in parental stress due to an assured basic income. Other studies have also shown this, including the GAI experiments I mentioned earlier.
A nonprofit organization called The Families and Work Institute conducted a study in the 1990s called “Ask the Children.” One of the questions was, "If you were granted one wish, and you only have one wish that could change the way your mother’s or your father’s work affects your life, what would that wish be?" The largest response was, “I wish my parents were less stressed and tired.”
The surprising finding from the Cherokee experiment is that society can actually save money with GAI (continuing from the New York Times article):
Randall Akee, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a collaborator of Professor Costello’s, argues that the supplements actually save money in the long run. He calculates that 5 to 10 years after age 19, the savings incurred by the Cherokee income supplements surpass the initial costs — the payments to parents while the children were minors. That’s a conservative estimate, he says, based on reduced criminality, a reduced need for psychiatric care and savings gained from not repeating grades. (The full analysis is not yet published.)
This cost-benefit analysis is why some conservatives are in favor of a GAI. The most well known advocate was Milton Friedman who championed the idea in Capitalism and Freedom (1962). Today, Charles Murray, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues that a lot of government bureaucracy can be eliminated with a minimum income—food stamps, aid to dependent children, disability, unemployment, social security, etc. (Book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State).
I think the guaranteed minimum income is an idea whose time has (almost) come.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

We Need A New Economic System

According to Time magazine, “the world’s 85 richest individuals now own as much as the poorest half of the 7 billion global population, according to a report released by Oxfam” last week.
Just contemplate that statistic for a moment. Eighty-five people. Own more than 3,500,000,000 people put together.
Imagine what a gathering of 85 people would look like. Eighty-five people wouldn’t even fill up the small music club I frequent; it’s an intimate club and it holds 225 people.
Now imagine a gathering of 3.5 billion (a little harder to do!). The two groups have the same amount of wealth.
Is it just me or is there something seriously wrong with this picture?!
The Time magazine article goes on to say, “The report calls on governments to crackdown on international tax dodgers and invest in public institutions such as healthcare, as well as implement progressive taxes and eradicate opaque political structures that encourage corruption.”
I think we need to go a lot farther than that. I think we need to rethink our economic system completely. Tom Toles, the editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post, is a utopian dreamer like me. In his blog post today he wrote:
I know economics is really resistant to efforts to make it more equitable and fair and satisfying, but we’re going to have to take another run at it anyway. Marxism was an attempt to do it with a very blunt instrument, all cast iron gears and belching steam and hammers and sickles. It was a colossal mess. But we’re smarter now. Everything else works better, so why not a more sophisticated model of redistributed economic benefits? What would that look like? 
It would look like a conscious dedicated plan and effort to get all that grunt work [of labor] into the newly capable hands of computer-guided robot slaves. And distribute some of the profits from that endeavor and some of the Do What You Love (DWYL) opportunities to everyone. We can Do It If We Want To. (DIIWWT)
Here’s Mr. Toles’ cartoon today, in the same theme:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Spinning a Web of Self

I am digitizing the text of the metaphysics my husband Arthur and I wrote twenty years ago, The Game of God, in preparation for publishing it as an ebook. It’s been many years since I read it, so it’s an interesting experience.
As I typed in the chapter on the evolution of human consciousness, I was reminded of Daniel Dennett’s book, Consciousness Explained [which I quoted in an earlier post, Intelligent Plants], which was published about the same time as our book. In particular I was struck by a similarity in the discussion of the self: both books asserted that the self is constructed as a survival strategy.
This has made me realize that I have been taking the self (ego) way too seriously. That is, I’ve thought of the self as some entity that is as real and solid as my physical body that I am stuck with. Maybe I can exercise it and keep it toned, but the basic elements are cast in stone. The confusing advice of many spiritual teachers and books (including my own, The Game of God) is we’re ego-dominated and we need to escape it (somehow). It’s a formidable opponent that we have to battle.
But the concept of self as survival strategy has shifted my perspective in a way I find liberating.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind - a first look

I’m reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, (TOOC) by Julian Jaynes while typing in my and my husband's book The Game of God (in preparation for releasing it as an ebook), which is an interesting experience, and gratifying because the section on the development of the mind in TGOG is not contradictory to Jaynes’ classic.

TOOC is fascinating. It looks at the same period of human history as Ken Wilber’s Up from Eden (which I have described as a frame-changing book for me), but from a completely different perspective. One difference, which I was relieved to find, is that he basically ignores the details of mythology. Both Up From Eden and the similar book Cosmic Consciousness were filled with the names of Gods and it was easy to get overwhelmed. But Jaynes sees all those various Gods as irrelevant details of the larger picture.

Jayne's theory is that humans didn't possess "meta-consciousness," that is, the awareness of being conscious, until about 2500 years ago. Jaynes estimate the use of language developed around 70,000 years ago. Then about 10,000 years ago a new development occurred—hearing a voice in the mind. This was the emergence of the bicameral mind. By “bicameral” he means the two brain hemispheres were split, and the interior voice, a function of the right hemisphere, was interpreted as the voice of a God or King. There was no conception of “self.”

Then about 2500 years ago a breakdown occurred, which was actually an integration of the interior mind as part of a new conception, the self. The gods retreated and quit speaking.

Jaynes provides evidence in many different writings of 2000-3000 years ago. His main texts are the two works attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad has no terms for self, or thought, or reflection. Everything is directed by the Gods. But the Odyssey is different: all of a sudden there is a hero, an  individual who has thoughts and wishes.

He also uses the Old Testament, and in particular suggests the reader compare Amos with Ecclesiastes, which I did. Amos is almost completely the ravings of God against various peoples, with a very short section about Amos, and none of that has any reference to what Amos thought. In contrast, Ecclesiastes feels like the first self-help book, an advice manual full of the wisdom accumulated by a thinking human being. The author repeatedly says “I thought to myself” or “I applied my mind.”

I think the difference between Wilber and Jaynes is that Wilber believes in God and Jaynes doesn’t. Wilber suggested that those mythical Gods were visions of the actual Underlying Ground of Being, distorted by the level of consciousness of the most advanced people of the time, but real nonetheless. Jaynes calls the Gods “hallucinations.”

This is just a first impressionistic post on the book, I’ll be writing more soon.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Intelligent Plants

What is consciousness? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. To be conscious is, according to the dictionary, “to be aware of and responsive to one’s environment.”
A large contingent of scientists and atheists insist that consciousness is strictly a product of the brain, and by that they mean neuronal activity. For example, in Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, which I read recently, he suggests there is no such thing as consciousness in the way most people think of it. There is no witness, no I. Dennett postulates that our sense of self is just a narrative that we use as a survival tool, similar to the shell a hermit crab inhabits. The narrative creates mental models of the world around us, as well as a mental model of our self.
Each normal individual of this species [humans] makes a self. Out of its brain it spins a web of words and deeds, and, like the other creatures, it doesn’t have to know what it’s doing; it just does it. This web protects it, just like the snail’s shell, and provides it a livelihood, just like the spider’s web, and advances its prospects for sex, just like the bowerbird’s bower.
Dennett’s conclusion is that consciousness is analogous to software running on the hardware of the brain. Neurons fire in patterns and this produces activity that we call the mind.
But what if organisms without brains and neurons possess consciousness? What would this mean about consciousness in general? Would it mean that consciousness is not a function of brains and neurons?
We don’t have to leave our own bodies to question the proposition that consciousness/intelligence is in the brain. We have a “gut reaction,” a “sinking feeling in our stomach,” or a “heart throb” that often is more accurate a response to our situation than the thoughts in our minds.
Michael Pollan has a fascinating article in The New Yorker about intelligent plants. In it I learned of a controversial new field: “plant neurobiology.” The authors of a 2006 Trends in Plant Science article presented evidence that plants have extremely sophisticated behaviors that (in Pollan’s words)

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Cosmic Egg

Riddle: How is modern cosmology like ancient creation myths?
Answer: They both envision an exploding egg.

Vladimir Kush, Sunrise by the Ocean
I learned about this parallel in Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Set Free. The Cosmic Egg is featured in
many archaic stories of origins, like the Orphic creation myth of the Cosmic Egg in ancient Greece, or the Indian myth of Hiranyagarbha, the primal Golden Egg. Significantly, in all these myths the egg is both a primal unity and a primal polarity, since an egg is a unity composed of two parts, the yolk and the white, an apt symbol of the emergence of ‘many’ from ‘one.’
After Taoism became established in China, a creation myth emerged in which the universe began as an egg that contained yin-yang (female-male, cold-heat, dark-light, wet-dry, etc). The cosmic egg features in the myths of Japan, the South Pacific, and Africa also.

Georges Lemaitre, an astronomer and Roman Catholic priest, proposed in the late 1920’s that the universe was expanding. After Edwin Hubble’s observations of receding galaxies provided the evidence for Lemaitre’s theory, he went on to examine the consequences. If the universe is expanding, there must have been a moment in time when it was a single point. He described this as the “primeval atom,” or “the cosmic egg exploding at the moment of creation.” This theory became known as the “Big Bang,” and is widely accepted today.

Today, with our technological, scientific worldview, we congratulate ourselves on how far we have come from our primitive human origins. It’s refreshing to find such a profound link to our past.