Monday, April 27, 2009

Review article on the evolution of morality discussions

A wide ranging article by Jonathan Haidt & Selin Kesebir on Morality. Excerpt from the conclusion:
"The long debate over the relative roles of “emotion” and “cognition” seems to have given way to an emerging consensus on the first principle: “intuitive primacy but not dictatorship.” New discoveries about emotion, intuition, and the ways that brains respond to stories about moral violations have led to a pronounced shift away from information processing models and toward dual process models. In these models, most (but not all) of the action is in the automatic processes, which are cognitive processes that are usually affectively valenced. The second principle, “moral thinking is for social doing,” reflects the growing recognition that much of human cognition was shaped by natural selection for life in intensely social groups. Human cognition is socially situated and socially functional, and a great deal of that functionality can be captured by viewing people as intuitive politicians and prosecutors, not as intuitive scientists. The third principle, “morality binds and builds,” reflects the emergence of multi-level selection theory and of gene-culture co-evolutionary theory. Groups may not be significant units of selection for the great majority of other species, but once human beings developed the capacity for cumulative cultural learning, they invented many ways to solve the free-rider problem, increase the entitativity of their groups, and increase the importance of group-level selection pressures relative to individual-level pressures (which are always present and powerful).

Many other narratives could be told about the last century of moral psychology, and any narrative leaves out inconvenient exceptions in order to create a coherent and readable story. The particular narrative told in this chapter will probably be rejected by psychologists who were already united by a competing narrative. For example, many cognitive developmentalists believe the redemption occurred forty years ago when Lawrence Kohlberg (1969) vanquished the twin demons of behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Moral psychology, like any human endeavor, is influenced by moral psychology, which means that there is often a tribal or team aspect to it.
It remains to be seen whether the intuitionist team replaces the rationalist team and gets to write the history of moral psychology that graduate students will learn in 20 years.

For today’s young researchers, however, this chapter closes with three suggestions, each meant to be analogous to the 19th century American journalist Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west young man!” "
Jonathan Haidt's home page here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Assorted links

Economist surveys professions of political leaders in different countries There was a lawyer, an engineer and a politician... and an
interesting comment by Stephen Morris.

Rajib in Which nationalities are trusting says:
"Reading Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational I was struck and concerned by his data which suggested that once social norms of reciprocity break down it is difficult to regenerate them. In other words, social capital can be thought of as a limited nonrenewable resource, at least proximately." and posts data from World Values Survey responses from different countries on whether most people can be trusted.

Acemoglu and colloborators on the role of institutions in development via Chris Blattman's post The secret to development Fetchez la vache.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reviews of Jonah Lehrer's new book

From Book of the week: The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer:
"One message: if you are already an expert on a subject, then trust your gut reaction when making a decision. If you know little about the subject, then find out more and make a logical decision.

By the way, one decision we can help you make. If you want to get a copy of the book, make sure you get ‘The Decisive Moment’ and not ‘How we decide’ by the same author. Turns out it’s the same book with a different title and a higher price! How rational is that???

If you haven’t got time to read the book, then check out reviews in the New Scientist (21 Feb 2009) and The Sunday Times (1 March 2009) or listen to it on BBC."

From the Nature review Decisions, decisions... by Adam Kepecs:

"Lehrer aims high by applying lessons from the neuroscience of decision-making to everyday choices. He provides valuable — if obvious — advice, such as relying on gut instinct for unimportant decisions but on reason when faced with new problems. But we were promised insights from neuroscience, not age-old wisdom.

Neuroscientists must grapple with how to communicate subtle conclusions in a world of headline-news reporting. Popular books such as this one could serve this goal of translating science for the public. But by smoothing out the rough edges of our knowledge, Lehrer leads the reader astray. Among his well-told dramatic stories the science often gets lost. Yet he is a gifted writer, so I hope for his next project he will dig deeper, embrace complexity and make it his job to report from the cutting-edge of scientific knowledge."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

An Australian counter-terrorism expert

Awrite up about David Kilcullen: Fighting terror with brain power. Excerpts:
"The strategic mistake Kilcullen identifies at the heart of the immediate US-led response to September 11 was the weight given to counter-terrorism — an "enemy-centric" assumption that removing a terrorist network would remove the problem. Classical counter-insurgency, on the other hand, is "population-centric".

"It focuses on the population, seeking to protect it from harm by, or interaction with, the insurgents. It competes with the insurgents for influence and control at the grassroots level," he writes.
The second fault is a layer of hypocrisy he sees in Washington's new show of good faith on Afghanistan and its hand-wringing on Pakistan — American lawmakers cannot help themselves when it comes to spending hugely on resources that are inappropriate for today's wars, he says.

In campaigning for costly defence industry facilities to win jobs and votes in their electorates, lawmakers continue to replenish defence inventories with more of the conventional, shock-and-awe capability — when the wars Washington confronts are the unconventional misfortune of accidental guerillas.

He writes: "It takes factories, jobs and industrial facilities to produce battleships and bombers. But aid workers, linguists and special forces operators are vastly cheaper and do not demand the same industrial base. (Yet) shifting spending priorities … would cost jobs and votes in the congressional districts of the very people who control that spending."
Kilcullen proposes that new US troops bound for Afghanistan be tasked with securing population centres, allowing the people to get on with their lives and politics, while Afghan security forces, backed by small teams of US special forces, secure the areas between the centres.

"The conflict remains winnable, but the overall trend is extremely negative and a concerted long-term effort is needed — lasting 5-10 years at least — if we are to have any chance of building a resilient Afghan state and the kind of civil society that can defeat the threat.

"Extending an effective, legitimate government presence into 40,020 villages for the first time in modern Afghan history is the principal challenge, as government weakness, corruption, misrule and perceived lack of legitimacy at the village and district level allows militias, warlords and criminals to reassert themselves.""

There is also a discussion of some of Kilcullen's comments in the Chapati Mystery:
Will Pakistan Become A Theocracy? II. The first part has many interesting comments and links.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reports of farmers suicides in Chhattisgarh

From Mass Farmer Suicide Sobering Reminder of Consequences of Water Shortages:

"In one of the more tragic stories related to water shortage in recent history, some 1,500 farmers in India’s agricultural state of Chhattisgarh committed mass suicide in response to the devastating effects of water shortages on their crop production.

The story, reported here by The Belfast Telegraph and The Independent, underscores the potentially devastating effects of water shortages to agriculture-centric regions of the globe, and to those who rely on water for not only their financial livelihoods and health, but for their hope.

“The water level has gone down below 250 feet here. It used to be at 40 feet a few years ago….”
said Shatrughan Sahu, a villager local from a Chhattisgarh district, to India’s Down To Earth magazine. The district has been particularly devastated by farmer suicides in recent years, having recorded 206 in the past year alone. District police records indicate that many of the deaths occur due to distress over financial debt related to crop failures. In the Chhattisgarh region, water levels in the area have been reported to have been in major decline during recent years primarily due to drought, which has all but destroyed agricultural efforts in the region."
Earlier reports by Shubhranshu Choudhary:The truth about farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh and Chhattisgarh: Where Journalists get paid to keep their mouths shut.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Marx's dream?

From Chris Dillow's Marx's important error :
"...there is this passage in the The German Ideology, written some 30 years before vol III:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
He was presaging a point made 85 years later by Keynes, in his essay (pdf), Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. In this, he predicted - just as Marx did - that productivity would grow sufficiently to allow our needs to be met with very little labour:

For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem - how to use his freedom form pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

Marx thought that living wisely and well would consist in working voluntarily, cultivating mind, body and garden.
This, though, raises a question. Why is it that the rise in productivity hasn’t had the effects predicted by Marx and Keynes? Why have our “needs” risen as our productive powers have, with the result that the hours we devote to employment haven’t fallen as much as Marx or Keynes forecast? Why is it that so many of us - I count myself fortunate to be a partial exception - haven’t used wealth to free ourselves from alienating labour?"

There is a suggestion in the podcast linked in the post Jonathan Wolff on Marx on Alienation that the above remark by Marx might have been an isolated statement to tease Engels.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Links, April 14th

William Easterley reviews False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World By Alan Beattie. Excerpts:
"Looking in hindsight, one can emphasise the favourable factors, minimise the unfavourable factors and produce a plausible explanation. Sometimes these explanations will be orthodox economics 101 (free trade worked!); other times they will be heterodox (government industrial policy worked!). But these “explanations” cannot really be proved or disproved; each particular bout of success or failure is special. Ultimately, they give little guidance – to other countries, or even to the same country in a future period.

Economics has a better track record explaining very long run patterns of success or failure – explaining the level of development (per capita income) more than the economic growth rate. This requires economists to swallow our professional pride and admit that many fluctuations around very long run paths are indeed surprising – they will always resist explanation or prediction.

Even the long run patterns don’t explain everything; any prescription has counter- examples. We must give up the search for the grand unified theory of short run and long run growth and development, a bitter pill indeed. But at least this would keep us from chasing the ephemeral “miracles” for their unstable “lessons”, and keep us from trying to squeeze a prescription out of every last counter-example. Instead, we’d stick with ideas that, on average, for most countries, have stood the test of time."

Mark Thoma discusses Tim Hartford's views on macroeconomics in Macroeconomic Meltdown? and Willem Buiter's views in"The Unfortunate Uselessness of Most 'State of the Art' Academic Monetary Economics".
Thoma's comment from the first discussion:
"We do not have either the theoretical models or the empirical evidence we need to understand this episode thoroughly and completely, and to provide the policy advice that will cure the problem with any degree of certainty. Without solid theoretical models and the associated empirical evidence, we really have no choice but to fall back upon older models that were "built to answer the questions that are important at the moment," i.e. the old-fashioned Keynesian model, and to rely upon loose, but solid theoretical principles rather than a tightly constructed model and vast amounts of empirical evidence. It's quite understandable that economists who have been striving to push the profession in a positive, scientific, solidly theoretical and evidence based direction would resist going backward, and resist strongly, but what choice do we have? Until we have a better mousetrap, the simple, old fashioned one will have to suffice."

Alladi Sudhir Venkatesh profiled in The Other Cicago School (via Freakonomics Blog. Excerpt:
"The underground economy includes a vast array of people providing services that are off the books but otherwise legal. Venkatesh enumerates those having a harder time in the face of the recession: office cleaners, squeegee men, informal security guards, "canners" who scavenge for recyclables (there's less consumption now, so less to recycle) and nannies whose employers have been laid off. And as business contracts, underground workers face certain problems unique to their status. They have no unemployment insurance or other benefits, and, with little protection from law enforcement, they tend to resolve disputes by physical means.

Venkatesh prefers to leave detailed prescriptions to policymakers but nevertheless ventures a few. Microcredit loans, as well as education on risk management and planning, could help shift some black market entrepreneurial zeal above ground. He heartily approves of the proposal by Barack Obama--a fellow pickup basketball player at the University of Chicago when Venkatesh studied there--to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to give a bigger break to low-income parents. Sales taxes also hit the poor hard, he says; one way to help would be to let them use prepaid cards to buy goods tax free.

Venkatesh is struck by how much the black market resembles the wider society in which it is enmeshed."

Interview with Michael Perelman in 'Politics and Culture'. Excerpt:
"In 1866, British industry could not get cotton from the Confederate states because of the American Civil War. Britain turned to it’s Indian colony for cotton, restricting rice cultivation and causing the infamous famine of 1866. Karl Marx reported that this famine cost the lives of a million people in the district of Orissa alone—a more extreme version of the recent food crisis resulting from the destructive biofuels movement I mentioned earlier. Similarly, when the potato famine hit Ireland in the 1840s, the country’s agriculture was largely geared to exporting crops to England. Local poor people relied on potatoes. When the British finally got around to sending relief, they sent wheat, but the people had no facilities for baking.

In my book, The Invention of Capitalism, I tried to show how British economists and the powerful economic and political forces that they represented went to great lengths to figure out how to make people dependent on purchased food by making it impossible for them to produce for themselves."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Some photographs

from a recent trip to India have been uploaded today. These include photographs of two of the best young mathematicians (in my opinion) from India. Both are working in Vivekananda University, located in Belur Math, Kolkata.

On books

Recently, I was interviewd by Duppala Ravikumar about books for his blog 'Meeru Chadivaara?". Apparrently he came to know of my name through a Telugu book based on "The Confessions of an Economic Hitman" which I presented to a friend.
The interview in Telugu is here:
Mr. Ravikumar is more literary than me and his translation of my answers seem better than my write up. Below are rough translations of his questions and my answers.

1.What are the books and writers that you found boring?
Many writers and books. Sometimes after a few years, I found some of the books that I could not read earlier appealing. One example Bernard Cohn's "An Anthropologist Among Historians".
2.Your latest read?
"Recovering the Lost Tongue:The Saga of Environmental Struggles in Central India" by Rahul Banerjee (Prachee Publications, Kachiguda). But I have a vested interest in this being partly responsible for the publication. Soon after on the plane, I read V.S. Naipaul's "A Million Mutinees Now".
3. How many books are there in your library?
I do not know. There are five shelves about 6 rows in each. Possibly the number of books in each row varies from 30 to hundred.
4.What are the books that you wanted to read for a long time but could not?
Too many, but I am beginning to feel that after a while just reading is not enough and one has to analyze the topics. It really does not seem to matter if we miss a few books; the same information is spread through other books and sources.
5. What are the books and authors that you liked?
In Telugu, the one I remember most is "Asamarthuni Jeevayaatra" by Gopichand. But I read very few Telugu books since 50's. Since my Telugu is not strong, I like those written in simple Telugu like Annamayya, Vemana, Gurajada, Rallapalli, Arudra, Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry.
In English, there are too many books and writers that I liked. A few recent ones are Matt Ridley (The Red Queen etc), Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Mother Nature etc) Dan Gilbert "Stumbling on Happiness"), Amitav Ghosh's "In an Antique Land", Suketu Mehta's "Maximum City", V.S. Naipaul's books, Kautilya's Arthasastra (Partly read), Bernard Cohn's books, Cynthial Talbot's book on Medieval Andhra, Sheldon Pollock's "The language of the gods in the world of men". I just started on Ramakrishna Mission's seven volumes on Indian culture and heritage but they are being shipped now.
6. How many books have you presented to friends recently and how many did you recieve?
About 15-20 books to friends. I also get quite a few from my children.
7. Which news papers and magazines do you read regularly?
None in particular. Browse through several on internet. I was told by friends in India that some of the regional language papers are better than the English news papers in India. I read EPW and OUTLOOKindia fairly regularly.
8. What are the books that many others liked but you did not?
I generally do not read best sellers. I start on a topic and try to find books on that topic. Currently I am trying to understand a bit about 'development' particularly in the Indian context. So I am trying to look at books that describe ancient India to medieval to recent developments. I must add that I understand very little of these topics.
9.What are you currently reading?
Planning to read "India: A Wounded Civilization" by V.S. Naipaul. I just finished reading a book by him.
10. What are the books that stimulated you?
Several. If I have to select one book, I would probably choose "Mother Nature" by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.
P.S. I would like to thank P.P.C. Joshi of Prachee Publications and Paruchuri Sreenivas for suggesting to me several interesting books.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

An old friend reviews Slumdog Millionaire

Bobby Winters' review The One Story: Slumdog Millionaire in which I make an appearance. Apart from helping with driving, I rember that Bobby was very excited then about John Stallings concept of 'binding tie' which later became 'folding' when formulated in terms of trees. I have not seen the movie or read the book yet.

His blog

Bloomberg's initiative to cut salt intake

From Public Policy That Makes Test Subjects of Us All :
"But that prediction is based on an estimate based on extrapolations based on assumptions that have yet to be demonstrated despite a half-century of efforts. No one knows how people would react to less-salty food, much less what would happen to their health.
In the past year, researchers led by Salvatore Paterna of the University of Palermo have reported one of the most rigorous experiments so far: a randomized clinical trial of heart patients who were put on different diets. Those on a low-sodium diet were more likely to be rehospitalized and to die, results that prompted the researchers to ask, “Is sodium an old enemy or a new friend?”"

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Replicating Milgram

A whole issue of American Psychologist on the famous Stanley Milgram experiments via Chris Blattman.
See also Eric Wargo's Bad Apples or Bad Barrels? Zimbardo on ‘The Lucifer Effect’.