29 July 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet

What Neuro-Science Adds and Takes Away

The powerful don’t empathize with those less powerful, according to new research reported in The New York Times. The reason offered is that, “when people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the actions of others.”

This is a nice example of how cognitive neuro-scientists, focusing entirely on “objective” evidence, in this case the activity of “mirror neurons,” miss out on the common sense meaning of human behavior. An earlier explanation of this well-known effect, offered by Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton, is that “powerful people don’t attend well to others around them because they don’t need them in order to access important resources.” They “already have plentiful access to those.”

Conversely – and perhaps more importantly – the less powerful are acutely attentive to the opportunity to gain allies or avoid powerful enemies. Empathy is instrumental, and our drives to survive and thrive guide our sensitivity and perception. That’s the reason we have to understand motivation.

To be sure, the researchers suggest that theirs is a “complementary” reason, not the only explanation. It makes sense that human motivations inevitably are implemented by neurological activity. We inhabit our bodies and our bodies help us out. And sometimes our bodies are a bit ahead of our minds, initiating actions before we are consciously aware of the dangers and opportunities we encounter. In those cases, consciousness can supervene and influence the outcome.

Perhaps a better way of putting this is that the understanding of motivation and neuro-science are two sides of the same coin, two perspectives on the behavior of our “mind-bodies.”

Looked at this way, what the researchers appear to have found is one of the many mechanisms in the brain that help us in our never-ending struggle for survival. That is not insignificant. But more significant for our well-being is understanding the motivations that guide our behavior, making it possible to have more intelligent, compassionate and aware selves as well as communities that promote and support those selves.

The neuro-researchers sum up their findings by suggesting that the powerful are hardly “heartless beings incapable of empathy.” They were subject to a temporary set of manipulations in an experiment. Or, as they put it: “The good news is that they are, in theory, redeemable.”

The better news would be our finding ways as a society to remind the powerful, who do not “need” the weak, to become more mindful of them. They are fellow humans, after all, brothers and sisters, colleagues, citizens. Moreover, if ignored, they might sabotage our plans or, worse, rise up in rebellion.


25 July 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet

Sucker Genes?

It seems that the easiest people to scam are those who have been scammed. According to Doug Shadel an expert at AARP: “It’s pretty well known in the fraud world that the best list to get is the list of people who have already been taken.”

That might suggest a genetic vulnerability to sweet talk. But it is more likely that the explanation is entirely psychological and rests on a powerful and irrational desire to believe in a special relationship with another person who wants to help you.

Such a desire in most cases is probably rooted in early disappointment. Having faith in someone who lets you down – when you are particularly needy or inexperienced – leads to one of two likely consequences: you become cynical and mistrustful, generalizing from that experience to others, protecting yourself from being hurt again.

Or else you deny that it has happened. That denial can stem from feeling that the person who disappointed you is too important for you to give up, like an inconsistent parent whom you still need to offer protection. So you soft-pedal your hurt, explain it away, or you refuse to remember it, preserving the offender, while also sparing yourself the embarrassment or shame of having been gullible.

If one is prone to that response, one is all too likely to establish a pattern of vulnerability to fraud. In other words, sensing the possibility of fraud, that person will look the other way. Remembering the earlier experience of disappointment and hurt – often unconsciously – he takes that as a signal to spare himself a painful repetition. He also then is able to retain his belief that someone, someday, will want to help him.

“Mr. Shadel said he was surprised at first to learn that con artists preferred to focus on investors who had already fallen for scams because he expected that victims would be on guard. . . . But during interviews with con artists over his career as a consumer advocate [he] learned that, in the view of criminals, the victim who has lost $10,000 in an energy scam has passed the test.”


22 July 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet

The New Norm?

Researchers have created an “index of corruption,” using a data base of court cases to rank different states.

According to Fortune, the “researchers studied more than 25,000 convictions of public officials for violation of federal corruption laws between 1976 and 2008. And they found the cost to be an average of $1,308 per year, or 5.2% of those states’ average expenditures per year.”

Before this systematic research, we all had impressions and opinions. So it will come as no surprise that topping the list of the most corrupt states are Mississippi and Louisiana. But who would have thought that Illinois ranks as the forth most corrupt state? And what about New York, the financial capital of the world?

According to the report, “states with higher levels of corruption are likely to favor construction, salaries, borrowing, correction, and police protection at the expense of social sectors such as education, health and hospitals.” The paper explains that “construction spending, especially on big infrastructure projects, is particularly susceptible to corruption because the quality of large, nonstandard projects are difficult for the public to gauge, while the industry is dominated by a few monopolistic firms.”

To be sure, the data is based on legal proceedings and inevitably leaves out the corruption that does not come to the attention of prosecutors.

And it leaves out the private sector, including the financial industry, where the pattern has been for firms caught engaging in questionable practices to pay out immense fines without acknowledging guilt. Corruption there is massive, fueled by billions of dollars of profit.

Peering into these murky depths, another study based on a statistical analysis of trades strongly suggests that “A quarter of all public company deals may involve some kind of insider trading.” According to The New York Times: “The study, perhaps the most detailed and exhaustive of its kind, examined hundreds of transactions from 1996 through the end of 2012.”

“The results are persuasive and disturbing,” wrote The Times, “suggesting that law enforcement is woefully behind — or perhaps is so overwhelmed that it simply looks for the most egregious examples of insider trading, or for prominent targets who can attract headlines.”

The business school professors who did the study are so confident in their findings of pervasive insider trading that they determined statistically that the odds of the trading “arising out of chance” were “about three in a trillion.” (It’s easier, in other words, to hit the lottery.)

“But, the professors conclude, the Securities and Exchange Commission litigated only “about 4.7 percent of the 1,859 M.&A. deals included in our sample.”

It seems an inexorable conclusion that we are getting more corrupt. At the very least, corruption is becoming more pervasive and acceptable. As the new norm, businesses and individuals will feel that they will have to join the crowd in order to remain competitive.

As a result, elected officials will have fewer compunctions about accepting bribes or “contributions” to their favorite causes in exchange for favors. Investors will expect to know more that “outsiders” know and will be upset if challenged. Bankers will think it a reasonable goal to rig markets, and will figure out ever more ingenious ways to do that.

Or has all of this already happened? Perhaps we are just catching up with reality.

Fleeing Taxes

17 July 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet


What would you say to someone who tried to avoid taxes by registering as a resident in a state where he had, say, just a mailbox? Better yet, what would that state’s department of taxation say?

No deal, to be sure. But businesses are “moving” like mad, and “merging” to avoid U.S. taxes. The Treasury Department is objecting, according to a story in The New York Times, but it looks like they are going to continue to get away with it.

As the Treasury Secretary put it in his letter to Congress calling for action, “The firms that engage in these ‘inversions,’ still expect ‘to benefit from their business location in the United States, with our protection of intellectual property rights, our support of research and development, our investment climate and our infrastructure, all funded by various levels of government.’” And in most cases, few employees will actually have to relocate.

But nothing will be done because those businesses have friends in Congress. “Republicans in the House . . . have so far declined to pursue legislation on inversions and may not call a hearing or bring a bill to a vote.”

As a result of these and other manipulations of the tax code, our corporate tax rate is nowhere near what is should be. But without someone to pin the blame on, the public will continue to be virtually ignorant.

And it’s perfectly legal, unlike “moving” to another state without actually “moving.” Where are our “friends” when we need them?


14 July 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet

Magical Thinking in Kansas

There are two big ideas that don’t make sense but sometimes work in the world of macro-economics: cut taxes to increase revenue and spend money you don’t have to increase growth.

The second is a staple of Keynesian thinking, and the U.S. government employed it in its stimulus package of 2008 to get us out of the Great Recession. The basic idea is to prime the pump, using water to get the well to start producing more.

The first is a staple of conservative policy, and it includes the notion that smaller taxes will force the government to cut back, always a good thing for conservatives who tend to view government as the problem. But, then, so the theory goes, businesses and individuals will have more money to spend and that will grow the economy.

Being somewhat paradoxical, these ideas need to be applied carefully. Spending money you don’t have can lead to inflation and burdensome debt. Cutting taxes can reduce the government’s ability to pay its own employees and provide essential services, further injuring the economy.

So it was something of a shock when the governor of Kansas pushed for dramatic tax cuts in 2012 with absolute faith in the counter-intuitive idea that cutting taxes would increase revenue: “Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.”

But as The New York Times pointed out in a sharply worded editorial this week: “the growth didn’t show up.” In fact, in the last six months when unemployment declined throughout the country, Kansas was “one of only five states to lose employment . . . . It has been below the national average in job gains for the three and half years Mr. Brownback has been in office. Average earnings in the state are down since 2012, and so is net growth in the number of registered businesses.”

I suspect The Times enjoyed the opportunity to demonstrate the falsity of that conservative cliché, what it called the governor’s “magical ideology,” while the “evidence of failure is piling up” and his “re-election campaign is faltering because of his mistake.”

But the point is that no one understands the economy well enough to speak with arrogant certainty about how it works. Economics is not a religion, without evidence of its efficacy. Besides, there are competing interests and warring sectors, that make it impossible to prescribe one definitive solution to all our needs. Rich and poor do not want or need the same things.

Sometimes the media paper over our differences and our conflicts by talking about “The Economy” as if we all participated equally in its triumphs and failures. The jobless figures do introduce discordant notes, but even there it ignores the critical differences between the chronic, long-term unemployed, the unemployable, and the part-time employees who have settled for the jobs they can get and given up on the jobs for which they are qualified.

I can appreciate that given the complexity of our problems, our divisions and conflicts, we might want to settle for the appearance of certainty – even when unwarranted. And others may be impressed by the convictions of politicians, even though they may not understand the issues they appear to address.

But we need more.