All Posts in the ‘Society’ Category

WHY IS THE WORLD MORE DEPRESSED?

April 21st, 2014 | By ken in Society | 3 Comments »

Putting Two Things Together

There is good reason to believe that the world is getting more depressed. T.M. Luhrmann, Professor of Anthropology at Stamford travels a lot, frequently to the third world, so she has a chance to sample what people say and note how that changes over time. But she also cites data such as the World Health Organization’s report that “suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world.”

Writing in The New York Times, she notes the report predicts: “by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world.” She adds: The British medical journal, The Lancet, “found a 36.7 percent increase in the ‘burden’ of mental illness and substance abuse disorders across the globe.” And then: “In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate of antidepressant use in the United States rose by 400 percent between 1988 and 2008.” (See, “Is the World More Depressed?”)

None of this is proof of the trend, but it is highly suggestive – and worrisome.

How does she account for it?

She mentions the usual suspect, urbanization: “cities . . . break traditions and fracture families, and they breed psychiatric illness.” But then she adds an interesting thought. “It turns out that your sense of relative social rank — where you draw a line on an abstract ladder to show where you are with respect to others — predicts many health outcomes, including depression.” In the Facebook Age, where “friends” are constantly checking each other out, “It may truly be a depressing reflection.”

But it takes more than a comparison to make one depressed. A more plausible explanation is the comparisons with others when you feel stuck and helpless yourself. If we put together the impact of social media and the world-wide phenomena of growing income inequality, we may have the answer.

In his new book, the French economist Thomas Piketty makes a convincing case that, over the long haul, growth in the return from capital outstrips growth from productivity. This is the explanation for our explosive and growing disparity in wealth. In other words, the rich get richer simply because they have more money to invest.

There are huge exceptions, of course, but that is the trend shown by the economic data that Piketty and his colleagues have exhaustively examined.

In an inverview with Eduardo Porter in The New York Times, Piketty responds to the argument that the rich in the U.S. have earned their money by creating new products, services and technologies: “This is what the winners of the game like to claim. But for the losers this can be the worst of all worlds: They have a diminishing share of income and wealth, and at the same time they are depicted as undeserving.”

He adds: “History suggests that this kind of inequality level is not only useless for growth, it can also lead to a capture of the political process by a tiny high-income and high-wealth elite.” (See, “Thomas Piketty on the Wealth Divide.”)

This might be the reason to be depressed. Even if you haven’t figured it out, you are still affected by it. We don’t know we know it, but we do.

G.M. Responds

April 17th, 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

Hints About the Real Problem

G.M.’s CEO has responded all too predictably to the Cobalt crisis by firing its senior vice president for global communications, responsible for “handling . . . the public response to the recall of nearly 2.6 million cars.” (See, The New York Times)

Killing the messenger is not exactly the same as trying to find out what went wrong – but it still seems to be the preferred strategy when big problems are uncovered at big companies.

My last post raised the question “Is G.M. too big to fix?” This seems to be more evidence that those at the top, at least, seem to think it is. They view it as primarily a public relations problem.

General Motors – Too Big to Fix?

April 14th, 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

“Business Decisions” at GM

Could some companies be just too big to manage effectively? They may offer too many dark corners, too many layers of responsibility, too many opportunities for their executives to get distracted and forget.

Complex and intractable problems do not find solutions under such circumstances. On the other hand, these are ideal circumstances if you have anything to hide.

That seems to be what investigators and reporters are finding as they sift through over 200,000 pages of documents, looking into the Cobalt’s ignition problems that caused several deaths. The defects themselves were not hard to find – and indeed they had been found. Now two of the engineers who found them have been “suspended.”

It turns out that both of them were “deposed last year in a lawsuit filed against G.M. by the family of a Georgia woman who died in a Cobalt crash in 2010,” according to The New York Times. “In his deposition [one of the engineers] was asked by the family’s lawyer . . . whether G.M. had made ‘a business decision’ not to make the ignition switch stronger and less prone to failure.”
‘That is what happened, yes,’ he said.” (See, “GM Suspends Two Engineers.”)

But it took other documents to illuminate what exactly that meant. In 2004, “an engineer who was working for G.M., described the problem, but said, ‘After talking to Ray DeGiorgio [one of the suspended engineers], I found out that it is close to impossible to modify the present ignition switch.’”

“He added, ‘The switch itself is very fragile and doing any further changes will lead to mechanical and/or electrical problems.’”
“A month later, in March 2005, the inquiry was closed, partly because of cost issues, with this explanation: ‘The lead time for all the solutions is too long. The tooling cost and piece price are too high. None of the solutions seems to fully countermeasure the possibility of the key being turned (ignition turn off) during driving. Thus none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case.’” (See, “GM Documents Show Years of Talks on Flaw.”)

That seems to mean that the problem was too costly to fix. And that was that. The problem had been assigned, researched and then disposed of.

Clearly this is not the first time that problems have been “disappeared” in large organizations, and for sure it won’t be the last time. But what can be done about it? Will “business decisions” become the standard euphemism for abandoned dilemmas and ethical lapses? This is the kind of thing that gives big business and bad name

Mary Barra, GM’s CEO who is testifying before an angry and skeptical Congress, is under pressure to come up with something better. But Congress itself is notorious for short attention spans and easy distractions, and for sure it will move on. Will she?
Perhaps we could have a “Lost and Found” office for such problems, someplace to park them with someone assigned to remember their existence. That would not be a popular job, but perhaps the person could be paid enough to keep at it.

“LOWFLATION”

April 10th, 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

H I N T S A N D G L I M P S E S

“So what makes the obvious unsayable?” asks Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

He’s talking about the case for inflation, which is generally viewed as a bad thing. It conjures up people losing their life savings, watching the value of their earnings erode, and so forth.

But economists have known for some time that modest inflation is a good thing. It helps people in debt and it stimulates the economy. Krugman draws the obvious point, once you think about it, that moderate inflation is good for the poor, bad for the rich. If the value of money declines, the value of what you owe declines – and that’s obviously better for the poor as it makes it easier for them to get out of debt.
Not so good for the rich. If the value of money declines, the rich will be less rich.

So that is what is “unsayable.”

AMERICA’S NEED TO BE NUMBER ONE

April 7th, 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

“Exceptionalism”

We like to think America is exempt from the limitations of other countries, that we are richer, better, wiser, freer. But why is that so important to us?

To be sure, our founding fathers made a fresh start, free from established religion and inherited privilege, with extraordinary rights for individuals and wonderful opportunity. We were weak and poor then, but much of the rest of the world has caught up with us since, and with wealth and power our flaws have blossomed too.

Citizens of other countries have great affection and pride for their native lands, but we don’t hear them boasting of their superiority. It’s not required for their politicians to proclaim they have unique and morally superior destinies. So when surveys or objective comparisons show that we may not be No. 1 in every respect, we recoil.

That happened again when Nicholas Kristof reported in The New York Times on a new index of “social progress” that ranked us 16 out of 132 countries. The headline was “No, We’re Not No. 1. No We’re Not No. 1.” Kristof knew we would find that hard to accept.

According to his account: “This Social Progress Index ranks New Zealand No. 1, followed by Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands. . . . . The United States excels in access to advanced education but ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety. Even in access to cellphones and the Internet, the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd.” (See, Kristof)

If an individual person had such difficulty accepting facts, we would attribute it to insecurity, an underlying fear he was not as perfect as he needed to believe he was. What can you say about a whole society? Does the explanation lie in our need for some unifying myths or creeds or counter an underlying doubt?

Since America is essentially a nation of immigrants, of people who have migrated here from divergent cultures, all we have in common is our citizenship and allegiance – and the memories of the promises that drove people to come to “the land of opportunity.” Having so many differences among us, perhaps we need a common creed that needs to be affirmed and reaffirmed, an article of faith if not an irrefutable truth.

Moreover, in coming here, our ancestors gave up so much, their languages, native customs, their cultures and their families. Belief in the superiority of their new country may be one of the few things they could all hold onto, especially given the inevitable fact that for many who struggled and sacrificed to make it here, the dream turned out to be not as perfect as it seemed at a distance it was going to be.

The report makes it clear how much things have changed. Kristof writes: ‘Ireland, from which so many people fled in the 19th century to find opportunity in the United States, now ranks 15th. That’s a notch ahead of the United States, and Ireland is also ahead of America in the category of ‘opportunity.’ . . . Germany is 12th, Britain 13th and Japan 14th.”

So, perhaps, this conviction of American exceptionalism is actually a sign of being exceptionally in need of myths and unifying beliefs, exceptionally diverse and uniquely desperate to find common ground on which to stand.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/03/opinion/were-not-no-1-were-not-no-1.html?hp&rref=opinion