Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life is a Mix of Good and Bad

Last year my 12-year-old niece and I started a “reading club”—it’s an exclusive club, just the two of us. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s given me an interesting insight into her life and the things she thinks about. It’s also given me a chance to read some wonderful young-adult novels that I would never have known about otherwise.
Last summer three of the books we read were A Wrinkle in Time (which I had read when I was a teen-ager), Where the Mountain meets the Moon, and Tuck Everlasting, and an interesting theme emerged from these three very different books: an understanding of Taoist principles, in particular the yin-yang aspect of life.
What I realized was that I have a tendency to dream about and work for a life where there are no problems; a utopian vision of sunshine and happiness everlasting. And I don’t think I’m alone with this tendency. We dream about our relationships—our fairy-tales end with the couple riding off into the sunset, living “happily ever after.” Our politicians prey on this thinking, promising us that they will deliver the policies that will solve all of our problems. Many of us work hard all our lives, building a retirement fund that we imagine will finance living the life of our dreams, free of stress and hassle.
But these dreams always set us up for disappointment, because they are based on the flawed belief that there can be a situation with just one side of the yin-yang polarity—that we can have good without bad, happy without sad, love without grief, joy without heartbreak.
Reading these books left me with this piece of wisdom: everything is a mix of good and bad. Allow for that, embrace it. Quit your pursuit of that unattainable, nothing-but-happiness rainbow.
When my niece and I discussed A Wrinkle in Time, I mentioned that once again we were hearing the Taoist message. She said, “Mom and I went on a hike this morning and I asked her, ‘Do you like going up or down better?’ and she replied, ‘if you do one you’re going to have to do the other!’”

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

An Empirical Test for Economic Theories

Is economics a hard science, like physics? Or is it more like sociology and history? Many economists would like us to believe that the first is true, that economics is now firmly rooted in mathematics and empirical evidence.
In Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists have Damaged America and theWorld, author Jeff Madrick asserts that the myth that economics is a science is one of the ideas that have inflicted damage on our country. In particular, he writes that for all the talk about being a science, many economists don’t care much about how their theories work in the real world. In Paul Krugman’s review of the book, he wrote, “Economists presented as reality an idealized vision of free markets, dressed up in fancy math that gave it a false appearance of rigor.”
It seems to me it’s time to do an empirical test of economic theories; an objective analysis of real-world results. For forty years from about 1930-1970, the policies of John Maynard Keynes were followed. Keynesianism included a strong role for government in regulating business and the markets.
In the 1970s a different economic model began to gain popularity, and in the U.S. the main proponent was Milton Friedman, so I’ll call this model Friedmanism. This model claimed that markets work best without government interference, because markets had an inherent tendency to always find perfect states of equilibrium. By 1980, with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, this new economic thinking began to dominate western economic thinking.
We now have forty years of Friedmanism to contrast with the forty years of Keynesianism. How do those two periods compare? Keynesianism produced strong economic growth and a relatively equal society with no major financial crashes. Friedmanism has led to poor economic growth, an increasingly unequal society, and regular and painful financial crashes. Interestingly, somehow these crashes are, in the end, only painful to the middle and lower classes; they are strangely rewarding to the 1%.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Origins of Symbolic Thought

What distinguishes humanity from animals? Many attributes have been proposed over the years, including language and tool-use, but most have been discarded once it was discovered how widespread their use was in the animal kingdom. One candidate still survives, and that is the capacity for abstract, symbolic thought.

We take symbolic thought for granted. For example the idea that I can write my thoughts in this blog and you can (hopefully) understand them seems unremarkable, but when you take a step back the capability is quite astonishing. In his film “Waking Life,” the director Richard Linklater has a character describe the wonder of symbolic thought: it’s easy to imagine how we came up with a word for “tiger,” and a phrase that means “tiger attacking from behind!” But how did humans come up with a word for “frustration”? That’s an abstract concept, with no obvious analogue in objective reality to point to.

All of human civilization is based on this ability to conceptualize.

What an intriguing period in human history, when we were first capable of symbolic thought! There’s no way of knowing exactly when this happened, but the evidence of art on the walls of caves allows us to give it a minimum date—by the time humans were capable of painting images of animals they were obviously capable of thinking symbolically.

For many years, it was thought that the oldest cave paintings were in southern France, in the Chauvet caves. Werner Herzog produced a documentary about the art, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” and watching it, I was deeply moved by the power of the imagery produced by humans 30,000 years ago.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

History Told Through the Three Stooges

I am a great fan of the Three Stooges. Their earliest films were made in the 1930s, and most of the characters they played were working class men struggling to make a living and occasionally interacting with the wealthy in ridiculous ways. In an era when Hollywood answered the Great Depression with glamorous movie stars and movies like “Gold Diggers of 1933” (the opening song is “We’re in the Money”; the film is well-worth watching for the Busby Berkeley dance choreography), the Three Stooges must have provided a hilarious satirical depiction of ordinary life for the average moviegoer.

Not long ago I purchased a DVD set of all their short films from 1934-1942. Watching them in order over a period of a couple of months, it occurred to me that you could teach a class on the Great Depression using the Three Stooges as the foundation. Because they often portray workmen, the Stooges are often in people’s homes, particularly kitchens, and I was struck by the difference in kitchen appliances over the course of these few years. In one of their famous films, “An Ache in Every Stake” (1941) they are ice deliverymen; even in 1941 people still had iceboxes. The ovens start out looking like modified woodstoves. By the last film of 1942, “Sock-a-Bye Baby” they are in a kitchen with an electric refrigerator and fancy gas stove, and the kitchen looks gleamingly modern.

There are also references to the New Deal, including a visit to the Oval Office where the Stooges thank President Roosevelt.