Monday, June 30, 2014

Campaign Finance Reform and American Democracy

There was a period in the 1930s when citizens of the Western democracies feared that their political systems had been rendered obsolete by the authoritarian systems in place in Russia, Italy, and Germany. Fascism and communism seemed to be producing more effective economic and social results than were being attained in the struggling democracies. In the darkest days Roosevelt was being encouraged to assume dictatorial powers as the only solution. Some worry that we are entering another such phase where democracies struggle and authoritarian systems seem more effective.

Michael Ignatieff addresses this issue in an article in the New York Review of Books: Are the Authoritarians Winning?

"In the 1930s travelers returned from Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany praising the hearty sense of common purpose they saw there, compared to which their own democracies seemed weak, inefficient, and pusillanimous."

"Democracies today are in the middle of a similar period of envy and despondency. Authoritarian competitors are aglow with arrogant confidence. In the 1930s, Westerners went to Russia to admire Stalin’s Moscow subway stations; today they go to China to take the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai, and just as in the 1930s, they return wondering why autocracies can build high-speed railroad lines seemingly overnight, while democracies can take forty years to decide they cannot even begin."

The focus of Ignatieff’s article was not on economics so much as political leadership. The United States has long been a dominant economic power; it has also assumed the leadership role in promoting liberal democracy as the goal for which all societies should strive. The ability to make the case for liberal democracy has been weakened.

"The Francis Fukuyama moment—when in 1989 Westerners were told that liberal democracy was the final form toward which all political striving was directed—now looks like a quaint artifact of a vanished unipolar moment."

The United States seems to have become a contrary example that demonstrates the inadequacies and inefficiencies of democracies.

"Faced with these resurgent authoritarians, America sets a dismaying example to its allies and friends. For two centuries, its constitutional machinery was widely admired. Now, in the hands of polarizing politicians in Washington and in the two parties, it generates paralysis."

The example Ignatieff uses to illustrate incomprehensible dysfunction is the decision by the Supreme Court (Citizens United, 2010) to conflate the power of wealth to influence the execution of government with "freedom of speech."

"America’s admirers overseas accept that money talks in Washington politics, since money talks in everybody’s politics. It is the energetic ideological justification of the dollar’s power in Washington that seems perverse."

How can the United States promote liberal democracy overseas when its internal policies seem determined to ensure the establishment of a plutocracy?

"To citizens of other liberal democracies, the Supreme Court doctrine that money in politics deserves the protections accorded speech seems like doctrinal insanity. For other Western democrats money is plainly power, not speech, and needs to be regulated if citizens are to stay free."

Ignatieff concludes:

"The liberal state is in crisis, basically, because its regulatory, legal, and political institutions have either been captured, or have been laid siege to, by the economic interests they were created to control. While the liberal state was never intended to enforce distributive equality, it was always supposed to keep the power of big money from suffocating competition and corrupting the political system. This is the task it struggles to perform today and must recover fully if it is to regain the confidence and support of the broad mass of its citizens."

Labeling Citizens United "insanity" seems appropriate. However, there are at least two people who think the decision was a good move, and since they were provided a platform to express their opinion in the journal Foreign Affairs, there must be many others.

Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane have produced In Defense of Citizens United. It opens with this lede:

"Why Campaign Finance Reform Threatens American Democracy"

These authors identify fiscal irresponsibility as the main problem and attribute its source to campaign finance reform.

"The underlying cause of the U.S. fiscal crisis lies deeper -- in political dysfunction that began when Congress moved to control campaign expenditures through the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971. Much of the law was initially declared unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment, but Congress revised it in 1974, and the revised law governed elections for the following three and a half decades."

Their complaint was that those who had vast sums to spend on influencing elections were supposedly rendered mute, and alternate political parties were inhibited.

"No longer were candidates free to raise unlimited donations, nor were citizens’ groups free to express their political opinions. In short, organized political discussion and activity were left largely in the hands of the news media and the two leading political parties."

"Starting with FECA in 1974, the two main parties were essentially given government protection from smaller competitors."

The authors recognize that the winner-take-all structure of our election system favors a two-party result and makes it difficult to form a third party, but they seem to conclude that it was campaign reform that made it impossible. But not to worry, the demise of campaign funding limitations will generate a new and happier era.

"A new era of political competition, one less beholden to party bosses and more responsive to the diverse needs and interests of the American public at large, will create an unexpected opportunity….Enhanced political competition will help voters generate solutions that advance both prosperity and equity -- and, ultimately, allow the country to take back its future."

Hubbard and Kane seem to have a rather myopic view of political history. For more than a century after the Civil War we had, in effect, a three party system: liberal Democrats, conservative Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats), and fiscally conservative Republicans. The Southern wing of the Democratic Party would align itself with whatever group would assist it in maintaining its "Southern way of life." The seeds of our political dysfunction were sown when the Republican Party convinced the Southerners they had a comfortable home in the Republican Party.

What the Southern politicians have always wanted was to maintain one-party states and a low-wage workforce with as few benefits and regulatory protections as possible. They have always been in favor of a small federal government in order to exploit their workers to the greatest extent possible. This aligns them perfectly with many wealthy conservatives whose interests are more financial than social. They have not only found a home in the Republican Party, they have become the Republican Party.

Isaac William Martin has produced an illuminating study of how the rich have utilized the political and social methods of the poor and dispossessed in order to protect their wealth in his book Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent. Martin details how the rich have been quite busy over the last century using their wealth politically. He identifies five distinct "rich people’s movements" from the past.

1924-1929: campaign to abolish estate tax and limit income surtax rate to 25%

1936-1957: campaign for constitutional amendment limiting tax level

1951-1964: campaign to repeal federal income taxes

1978-1989: campaign for tax limitation/balanced budget amendment

1993-2001: campaign to repeal the estate tax

The lesson rich peoples’ activists learned from the past century was that it was not efficient to bide one’s time and wait for allies to appear or propitious moments to arrive. The lesson they learned was that the most effective strategy for them was to take over a political party.

"Rich people’s movements have been thoroughly institutionalized and thereby tamed. Many former activists are now well entrenched in the Republican Party and its allied think tanks, and their tactics are now correspondingly oriented toward inside lobbying. Some movement goals remain unrealized only because they are nigh unachievable."

Campaign funding limitations did not inhibit the takeover of the Republican Party. One can only assume that removing the limitations will accelerate movement towards the goals of the radical/wealthy right. Martin provides this conclusion:

"Rich people’s movements have a permanent place in the American political bestiary. As long as one of our great political parties is allied with the radical rich, it is safe to predict that rich people’s movements will continue to influence public policy in ways that preserve—and perhaps even increase—the extremes of inequality in America."

The United States is no longer in a position to tell other nations "Look at us, this is the kind of government you should have."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Valuing Lives: Breast Cancer Screening

Government agencies and healthcare professionals often issue guidelines that the layperson can find confusing and counterintuitive. In addition, different assemblies of experts can come to opposite conclusions. One area that has been in dispute for decades involves the efficacy of using mammograms as a tool to test for breast cancer. No one disagrees with the fact that mammograms are capable of detecting breast cancers before they can be detected in other ways—so what is the problem?

Paul Taylor has provided a summary of what is at issue in an article in the London Review of Books: Breast Cancer Screening. He provides this background:

"Mammography has been used as a tool for screening healthy women since the 1960s, but its use was stepped up dramatically in the 1980s. In the US, Ronald Reagan’s announcement in 1987 that his wife, Nancy, had been diagnosed with cancer following a screening mammogram made a significant impact; by 1991, most states had passed legislation requiring insurance companies to cover the cost of mammograms. In the UK, a national screening programme was set up in 1988. Even in the early days there were worries."

One of the issues associated with mammography is the difficulty in extracting an accurate assessment from a complicated image.

"All mammograms are read and reread in an effort to get accurate results, but mammography is not, as most radiologists would admit, a perfect test. Only around a third of the cancers detected in women over fifty are found at screening. Studies of cancers detected in women who had been given the all-clear at screening regularly find that 20 or 30 per cent of those cancers were missed on the screening mammogram. For now, however, we don’t have a better test."

Taylor indicates the controversy over screening is not due to the inaccuracy of the mammogram, or the monetary cost, or any unnecessary exposure to radiation that might be occurring. Rather, it is based on the fact that not all tumors that can be detected will ever evolve into a threat to life.

"One of the difficulties with breast cancer screening is that about 20 per cent of the cancers detected are ‘ductal carcinoma in situ’ or DCIS, a precursor of cancer rather than the thing itself. In some cases – it is hard to say exactly how many – these cells will not acquire the capacity to spread and do harm. A woman might benefit from having her DCIS detected before it has acquired the capacity to hurt her, or she might end up being subjected to harmful treatment for a disease she doesn’t yet have, and may never have."

If people with this class of tumor are treated aggressively for cancer their quality of life will be diminished and their lives may be threatened unnecessarily by the treatment. Taylor refers to the capturing of this class of tumor in screening as "overdiagnosis."

"When a woman has breast cancer but doesn’t need to know that she has it, that is over-diagnosis. Oncologists talk about a tumour’s ‘sojourn time’, the period of time between the point at which it becomes detectable at screening and the point at which it would be detected anyway. In some cases of breast cancer the sojourn time can be very long, so long that the cancer will never be detected. Any woman who dies of another cause during the sojourn time would have been better off not being screened. For such women, a positive mammogram means they are likely to receive harmful and mutilating treatment that can only reduce their life expectancy."

The issue then is to assess the number of women who will benefit from screening and compare that to the number of women who will be harmed by screening, and then—somehow—decide whether the gain exceeds the unnecessary pain. Unfortunately, that is not a simple task. Clinical trials to assess such things are very expensive and take decades to complete.

"Trials of mammographic screening are expensive: tens of thousands of participants are required (since only 7 per cent of them will develop cancer), and all of them must be monitored for ten or even twenty years. So far, there have been only eight trials. The first was in New York in 1963. There followed trials in Malmö, starting in 1976; the Two Counties trial, also in Sweden, in 1977; Edinburgh in 1978; Canada in 1980; Stockholm in 1981 and Göteborg in 1982; and the UK Age trial, which looked at younger women, in 1991."

Taylor discusses these early trials and the issues associated with them. They all seem to be compromised in one way or another. This has led some to dismiss them as unreliable while others have tried to extract information as best they can from whatever data they can find. Unfortunately they have arrived at quite different conclusions.

"The contrast is stark. Whereas Gøtzsche estimates that one cancer in three is over-diagnosed, Duffy suggests the figure is only one in 28."

The utility of mammography in screening is also a function of time. As progress is made in treating breast cancer, the importance of early detection by general screening is diminished. Also, as the accuracy of mammography increases, the risk of over-diagnosis increases as well. These developments may have rendered the old clinical trials obsolete. The ubiquity of screening today renders a modern clinical trial almost impossible.

It seems that each nation tries to come to its own conclusion on the screening issue.

"In February this year, the Swiss Medical Board published a report recommending that no new mammography screening programmes be introduced and that the existing ones be wound up."

The UK has come to a conclusion and has provided some numbers, based on their assessment, to try to explain the issues to its citizens.

"If you are told that screening reduces breast cancer deaths by 20 per cent you will probably feel that is a substantial reduction. But the same information, put differently, seems less impressive: the 20 per cent reduction means that the likelihood that you will die of breast cancer while in the screened age-group drops from 2.1 per cent to 1.7 per cent."

This assessment also concludes that about 20 percent of the cancers detected in screening are of the over-diagnosed variety.

An impressive chart is also provided to inform the public. It includes this information:

"If a group of 200 women all have breast screening every three years from the age of 50 to 70, then by the time they are 80:

"15 are diagnosed with breast cancer. 8 are diagnosed and survive. They would have survived without screening. 3 are diagnosed with cancer that would never have become life-threatening. 3 die of breast cancer even though they were screened. 1 has her life saved from breast cancer. She would have died without screening."

Faced with this assessment, how should policy be determined? Taylor suggests that the deciding factor will not be the conclusions of politicians or medical experts. The women who feel affected by the issue will decide what policy will be—and they are in favor of screening.

"In the end the question of whether or not breast screening should continue will be determined by politicians’ assessments of what the public wants. And the public seems to want screening. When asked about over-diagnosis, most women say that rates even as high as 30 per cent wouldn’t stop them having a mammogram."

On the men’s side, there is an analogous controversy about screening for prostate cancer. The numbers and methods are different, but the issues are the same.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Future for the Auto Industry in a Resource-Limited World

Given that most might view the world as being on a path to catastrophe with too many people, too much pollution, and too much of our resources either being destroyed or consumed, it is startling to encounter a book that provides any kind of optimistic assessment for the future. Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers (with contributions from Paul Carroll) provide such a perspective in their book Resource Revolution: How to Capture the Biggest Business Opportunity in a Century.

The authors begin with this statement:

"We are standing at the threshold of the biggest business opportunity in a century."

They base that statement on their experience as long-time consultants to various industries in their roles in the McKinsey organization. They came to realize that new technologies and new business models could lead to enormous gains in efficiency that could balance or even diminish concerns about overuse of resources as the population continues to grow.

They illuminate the challenge ahead for the business community—and the world—in this manner.

"The key fact for business for at least the next two decades is this: More than 2.5 billion people in China, India, and other developing countries are moving out of poverty and will urbanize and move into industrial and service occupations by 2030."

"To accommodate all these people urbanizing, industrializing, and moving into the middle class, China alone will build two and a half cities the population of Chicago every year for the foreseeable future. India will build one Chicago each year….Think of the amount of concrete, iron and steel in a bridge or skyscraper; the amount of copper in a power grid and the energy required to power the cranes, bulldozers, and other machines that build it—and multiply those amounts by tens of thousands."

This increase in demand for resources comes at a time when commodity prices have already begun to climb due to supply issues. The authors point out that commodity prices were flat or decreased during two previous industrial revolutions (mechanization: 1770-1840, and urbanization: 1880-1920), but since the latter decades of the twentieth century they have begun to rise. What is needed now, to accommodate the future needs, is a third industrial revolution, a "Resource Revolution."

The authors claim that such a revolution has already begun. Their goal is to demonstrate that much more can be done to minimize resource demands across the economy. To get to a state where the world actually lives within its resources will require a revolution in which old business models are supplanted with new, more efficient ones. The business opportunity lies in succeeding in this resource-limited world.

The authors discuss several sectors of the economy and demonstrate that much more can be done to increase the efficiency of resource usage. Their discussion of the automobile industry provides an example of what they mean by a "revolution."

The resource revolution in auto manufacture will come from the inevitable transition to electric cars and the spread of advanced fabrication techniques that will minimize wastage of materials. Tesla technology is used as the example of where the industry must go.

"Tesla began with the idea that inexpensive electricity could substitute for gasoline as the primary fuel for cars. That’s a potentially important switch: At the current cost of electricity and gasoline, the cost to operate an electric car is about one-fifth as much as a gasoline powered car per mile driven. That’s the equivalent of paying—astonishingly—about 40 cents per gallon."

Electric cars also deliver efficiencies in design and maintenance.

"So, replacing an internal combustion engine with electric motors can give the manufacturer a car without engine cooling, transmission,, and most of what’s under the hood, but with better acceleration, better handling, and better safety. Electric cars also require less maintenance; in fact, with no transmission, no clutch, no spark plugs, and almost no other parts that wear out, the Tesla is the first car that doesn’t require maintenance to keep its warranty."

Tesla has an effective range of about 200 miles. Today it costs about $20,000 to provide the battery power required for that range. With current technology, Tesla is developing a midsize passenger vehicle that is expected to sell for about $35,000. The authors extrapolate advances in battery technology and suggest that what costs $20,000 now could be available for as little as $5000 by the end of the decade. This would make electric vehicles even more price-competitive

with gas-powered autos.

Numerous advances in manufacturing are possible that would diminish resource requirements. Manufacturers are beginning to factor recycling into the design of vehicles already. New techniques such as 3d printing are becoming more widely available for part manufacture. This method would essentially eliminate waste of material by only using precisely the amount needed for the design.

While much can be done to minimize the resource requirements to produce an automobile, the biggest waste is associated with the inefficient use of the vehicle. If transportation is to be provided to those additional 2.5 billion people, it can’t be done using the ownership model that is now in place. Fewer automobiles per person will have to be built, and they will have to be used more efficiently.

"….most of us own a car mainly to park it 96 percent of the time. Cars are typically the second biggest capital expenditure we make….yet they spend almost their entire lives sitting at home or in parking lots."

This traditional model of automobile usage is beginning to seem obsolete to some.

"Companies are already starting to seize the opportunities to optimize car usage. Mobile apps are making it easier to arrange car pools. Zipcar, acquired by Avis in early 2013 for $500 million, offers memberships that let people rent cars cheaply by the hour in major cities; each Zipcar is estimated to replace twenty-one cars in its subscriber base. Uber smoothes out inefficiencies in cab and limo systems by letting people summon a car and driver via a smartphone app. Going even further, RelayRides and Getaround provide marketplaces where individuals can rent their cars to others, rather than just have the cars sit idle."

Even the car manufacturers are getting into the car-sharing business.

"GM is working with RelayRides so renters can receive a code to type into their smartphones that will unlock a car via GM’s OnStar; that way, owners can simply leave the keys in the car and avoid having to arrange a meeting to hand them over. BMW and Daimler have started car-sharing programs and publicly said they are transportation companies, not car manufacturers."

One of the major difficulties associated with efficient use of automobiles arises because they are driven by humans prone to errors and irregular driving habits. This is the source of numerous accidents and inefficient use of highways. The car companies are already including features that avoid collisions and reduce accidents, but the greatest opportunity to eliminate them could come from the introduction of driverless cars.

Consider Google’s progress:

"Its car already has a license to operate in California, Florida, and Nevada (with a driver behind the wheel, ready to take over if needed). The car has driven more than 500,000 miles without causing an accident. Even if Google doesn’t try to commercialize the technology—and a $258 million investment in Uber, the car hailing app company, suggests that Google is serious—the company has created an arms race in driverless cars. Nissan has already said it will have driverless cars on the market by 2020; Tesla and Daimler have also committed, and the new Mercedes S-Class is already close to driving on its own."

Google has demonstrated that a driverless car can negotiate streets filled with human drivers. What might be gained if all the cars were driverless and all were able to communicate with each other and with traffic controls and monitors under some sort of master program? If such a system was feasible, accidents would essentially disappear; we would use our roads more efficiently; and we would need fewer traffic lanes.

"If Google is right that its car can reduce accidents by 90 percent, that would mean more than 30,000 lives would be saved in the United States every year. More than 2 million people, just in the United States, wouldn’t have to go to emergency rooms because of traffic accidents; and $260 billion would be saved, according to an American Automobile Association study. People would also gain ten additional ‘days’ per year—the time we now waste in traffic jams."

What is most striking about the authors’ view of the auto industry of the future is the amount of "creative destruction" required to bring it about. Manufacturers would produce many fewer vehicles. The authors suggest they would recast themselves as "transportation companies" and adopt an entirely new business model that would be based not on selling the vehicle, but on leasing it.

"Studies suggest that a company could offer a consumer access to car transportation for 80 percent less than he currently pays, and still make a hefty profit. Today, telecom companies make 8.5 percent net margins selling minutes, while automotive companies make about 4 percent selling cars. Why not make 15 percent selling miles?"

Fewer cars produced means fewer workers making cars. An electric car fleet requiring almost no maintenance means that the vast array of auto parts manufacturers and suppliers would shrink considerably. No accidents means no need for auto insurance as we now know it, fewer lawyers, few, if any, repair shops, and less demand for hospitals and physicians. Traffic violations would no longer exist so law enforcement people could concentrate on more serious issues. And, of course, driverless cars would eliminate the need for drivers.

This scenario provides an example of where technology can take us and how it can provide society benefits, but at the expense of jobs. While some new positions would be created by the new developments, it is hard to see anything but a continued contraction of employment opportunities. Such is the future we seem to face.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Knives, Forks, Overbites, Brains, and Neanderthals: Anthropology Reveals Its Secrets

In 2011, Kathleen McAuliffe published a fascinating article in Discover magazine: If Modern Humans Are So Smart, Why Are Our Brains Shrinking? Her article and its implications are discussed here.

McAuliffe was startled to learn that anthropologists (paleoanthropologists) had discovered the human brain had been shrinking in size over the last 20,000 years but neglected to tell anyone about it.

"As I soon discover, only a tight-knit circle of paleontologists seem to be in on the secret, and even they seem a bit muddled about the matter. Their theories as to why the human brain is shrinking are all over the map."

There was quite a bit of interest in this finding. In an era when many researchers seem intent on having their conclusions and hypothesis published simultaneously in scholarly journals and in the New York Times, this seeming lack of interest in publicity is surprising.

In 2012, Bee Wilson published her book Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat in which she revealed another anthropologic secret of great interest. She revealed that the manner in which our top incisors overlap and close over our lower teeth "like a lid on a box" to produce an overbite has only recently occurred in our society.

"….the overbite is a very recent aspect of human anatomy and probably results from the way we use our table knives. Based on surviving skeletons, this has only been the ‘normal’ alignment of the human jaw for 200 to 250 years in the Western world. Before that, most human beings had an edge-to-edge bite, comparable to apes. The overbite is not a product of evolution—the time frame is far too short. Rather, it seems likely to be a response to the way we cut our food during our formative years."

Wilson points out that the timing of this transition to an overbite is consistent with a change in table manners, not a change in diet.

"What changed substantially by the late eighteenth century was not what was eaten but how it was eaten. This marked the time when it became normal in upper- and middle-class circles to eat with a table knife and fork, cutting food into little pieces before it was eaten."

Eventually, this dining habit trickled out to the rest of society and became the norm. It would only take a generation for this change in habit to initiate the change in the structure of our teeth. For this to have been observed suggests that the growth of our upper front teeth must have been inhibited by constant pressure from the food ingested. Presumably, people were biting and/or tearing food with their front teeth with sufficient force to change the position and extent of the teeth.

Wilson attributes the evidence and explanation of this transition to Charles Loring Brace, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan. Brace provided the most compelling data to support this hypothesis in China. The Chinese had long ago developed the habit of cutting their food into small pieces before cooking and eating it. Brace was able to observe the "pickled" remains of a young man that dated back to the era when the use of chopsticks in eating became common. He was thrilled to discover the young man had a generous overbite.

"Over subsequent years, Brace has analyzed many Chinese teeth and found that—with the exception of peasants, who often retain an edge-to-edge bite well into the twentieth century—the overbite does indeed emerge 800-1,000 years sooner in China than in Europe."

Brace, who seemed to prefer the appellation C. Loring Brace, is an interesting person. The University of Michigan produced a long summary of his work. The word "overbite" appears only once, and that is in the title of a thesis produced by one of his students. The most concise summary of his conclusions on the origin of the overbite is probably a short three-page note submitted as a "Commentary" in American Anthropologist. He provides this background:

"My interest in the form of the bite was originally stimulated….by Coon’s observations-in my case by reading his account of the relation between age and occlusal form in the mountains of northern Albania in1930 (Coon 1950….). Coon raised questions concerning the possible role played by changes in foodstuffs and eating habits, but he wisely avoided any summary judgment other than noting that the difference between an edge-to-edge bite and an overbite was not genetically determined."

Similar observations were made as far back as the 1930s.

"Others also have noted that, in such diverse examples as Australian Aborigines (Price 1938, 1939; Brace 1980) and Eskimos (Price 1936, 1939; Waugh 1937), the change from an edge-to-edge to an overbite took place in the space of a single generation. The association between this change and the adoption of the diet of Western "civilization" has been duly observed."

He attributes the dental transition not to changes in diet but to changes in the way food was eaten.

"Prior to that point, the accepted method of reducing ingested food to bite-sized proportions was to grasp it with the fingers of the left hand and thrust a portion into the mouth to be gripped by the front teeth and sliced off at lip level with the knife held in the right hand —what I have referred to as the "stuff and cut" school of etiquette (Brace 1977….). Practiced since childhood, it would be this that prevents the continuing eruption of the incisors which is the source of the overbite."

With the modern use of knife and fork:

"The role of the incisors as clamps ceases at that moment, overeruption is no longer opposed, and the result is the deep modern overbite that is now thought of as being ‘normal’."

The "creation" of the overbite, coupled with the "stuff and cut school of etiquette" would be the makings of a book by an enterprising contemporary scientist. One might envisage talk show appearances and, perhaps, tales of self mutilation as amateurs tried to reproduce the eating technique. However, Brace’s passion was focused elsewhere.

His main interest was in Neanderthals and their relationship with the species generously referred to as Homo sapiens. He believed that the fossil evidence was consistent with the notion that modern humans were descendents of the Neanderthals. From Wikipedia:

"Brace argued that cultural factors, especially the increased use of tools by Neanderthals, produced morphological changes that led the classic Neanderthals to evolve into modern humans."

Brace’s view was controversial. Others took an almost exactly opposite view that Neanderthals were rendered extinct, one way or another, after interacting with modern man and had little effect on the evolution of today’s humans. Recent evidence from the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome resolves that controversy, or, at least, it moves it to a different plane.

Steven Mithen provided an article for The New York Review of Books: Most of Us Are Part Neanderthal. He discusses the work of Svante Pääbo and his collaborators in acquiring and mapping the Neanderthal genome as presented in Pääbo’s book Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes.

What has this research concluded?

"Pääbo and his team were able to determine that the modern human and Neanderthal lineages had split between 270,000 and 440,000 years ago, a conclusion that confirmed existing views. Far more surprisingly, however, they concluded that people outside of Africa, whether Europeans or Asians, have up to 5 percent of their DNA derived from Neanderthals. The most likely scenario is that a group of modern humans left Africa sometime around 50,000 years ago, interbred with Neanderthals in the Middle East, and then went on to populate the world, taking the Neanderthal DNA with them. That DNA would have been diluted with every generation of humans but its persistence into the present day suggests that some of the Neanderthal gene variants have provided modern humans in Europe and Asia with enhanced adaptive capabilities over their African Homo sapiens forebears."

And then there is this note on how little separates us from the other species of apes.

"The nature and extent of the differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens—the gap—remain as vigorously debated as ever. Pääbo and his team identified the molecular gap between them. There are seventy-eight amino-acid-altering nucleotide positions—"meaningful mutations"—in which all humans today are similar to one another and different from Neanderthals and the apes. Pääbo suspects that this number will reach two hundred as the sets of data are refined but even that will be only a tiny proportion of the complete human genome."

"These amino acid differences arose from mutations after the lineage divide that led to the emergence of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens from a common ancestor. They influence the proteins that build tissues and the mind. Considering that there are more than 20,000 proteins encoded by the genome, a mere seventy-eight (or even two hundred) mutations seem a tiny genetic gap—but the behavioral consequences might be vast. Regrettably, we have little idea of any such consequences. Pääbo confesses all: ‘The dirty little secret of genomics is that we know next to nothing about how a genome translates into the particularities of a living and breathing individual.’ As such, despite all we know about ancient DNA, arguments about the relative cognitive capabilities of modern humans and Neanderthals remain reliant on interpretations of the archaeological data."

The fate of the Neanderthals is unknown, but this data demonstrates that the two species interacted in such a way as to allow mating. So, in a sense, Brace was correct. Most of us are descendents of Neanderthals. One suggested explanation for their disappearance is that they were assimilated into Homo sapiens and disappeared as a separate entity. That would make him a bit more correct.

One wonders what Brace thinks of all this.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Conservation in the Anthropocene: Trying to be Realistic

The geologic era in which we live is officially known as the Holocene. The era has become better known as the Anthropocene, a term coined to better recognize the effects of humans on the earth. The point to be determined by those who make these labeling decisions is whether or not some scientist examining geologic records many millions of years from now would recognize our current era as having unique characteristics that would set it apart from the periods immediately before and after. We can probably be assured that the popular term will become the official one.

One of the characteristics of the Anthropocene is something referred to as the Holocene Extinction or the Sixth Extinction. From Wikipedia:

"The Holocene extinction, sometimes called the Sixth Extinction, is a name proposed to describe the extinction event of species that has occurred during the present Holocene epoch (since around 10,000 BCE) mainly due to human activity. The large number of extinctions span numerous families of plants and animals including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods."

There have been five previous recorded mass extinction events in which large fractions of the flora and fauna simply disappeared. The most severe of these occurred about 250 million years ago and is popularly referred to as the Great Dying. From Wikipedia:

"It is the Earth's most severe known extinction event, with up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species becoming extinct. It is the only known mass extinction of insects. Some 57% of all families and 83% of all genera became extinct."

How does our era, the Anthropocene or Sixth Extinction, stand up against these earlier catastrophes? From Wikipedia:

"According to the species-area theory and based on upper-bound estimating, the present rate of extinction may be up to 140,000 species per year."

There are more species than can be counted and species come and go naturally without the assistance of humans.

"One scientist estimates the current extinction rate may be 10,000 times the background extinction rate. Nevertheless most scientists predict a much lower extinction rate than this outlying estimate. Stuart Pimm stated ‘the current rate of species extinction is about 100 times the natural rate’ for plants."

Given this view of the Anthropocene in which humans have already had such a profound effect on nature, isn’t it reasonable to ask the conservationist community what exactly is it that it is trying to conserve?

To that end, Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Robert Lalasz produced an article titled Conservation in the Anthropocene. They begin with this assessment:

"By its own measures, conservation is failing. Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline. We continue to lose forests in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There are so few wild tigers and apes that they will be lost forever if current trends continue. Simply put, we are losing many more special places and species than we're saving."

The view of a reserve where nature can be enjoyed devoid of other humans and human activity has never been a possibility. Humans have been around for a long time and have had their foot on Mother Nature’s neck all the while. It is a bit arrogant to assume that the state of nature when an individual first observes it is somehow an ideal that must be preserved. Consider the case of Yosemite.

"Though Yosemite was a state park when Muir arrived, it was occupied by Miwok Indians growing crops, white settlers raising sheep, and miners seeking gold and other minerals. Not long after he built himself a cabin and a water-powered mill, Muir, as head of the Sierra Club, decided the other occupants had to go. Muir had sympathized with the oppression of the Winnebago Indians in his home state, but when it came time to empty Yosemite of all except the naturalists and tourists, Muir vigorously backed the expulsion of the Miwok. The Yosemite model spread to other national parks, including Yellowstone, where the forced evictions killed 300 Shoshone in one day."

Similar expulsions of indigenous peoples have been necessary to create nature preserves around the world.

"In 2009, the investigative journalist Mark Dowie, now professor of journalism at University of California, Berkeley, published Conservation Refugees, which estimated, ‘About half the land selected for protection by the global conservation establishment over the past century was either occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples. In the Americas that number is over 80 percent.’ Estimates vary from five million people displaced over the last century by conservation to tens of millions, with one Cornell University professor estimating that 14 million individuals have been displaced by conservation in Africa alone."

These authors also point out that conservationists’ actions are often inconsistent with their stated goals.
"Beneath the invocations of the spiritual and transcendental value of untrammeled nature is an argument for using landscapes for some things and not others: hiking trails rather than roads, science stations rather than logging operations, and hotels for ecotourists instead of homes. By removing long-established human communities, erecting hotels in their stead, removing unwanted species while supporting more desirable species, drilling wells to water wildlife, and imposing fire management that mixes control with prescribed burns, we create parks that are no less human constructions than Disneyland."

The best of intentions often go awry when assets are removed from private ownership and become part of the "commons."

"In Indonesia, every major international conservation NGO has invested heavily to stem the tide of deforestation and the decline of iconic species, such as the orangutan. As a result, the country now has many protected areas. But you would never know it if you were to visit them because these areas are so heavily logged. Quantitative analyses of deforestation rates using satellite imagery reveal that forest loss is much greater inside protected Indonesian forests than in forests managed by local communities for sustainable logging."

The authors issue this challenge to conservationists of the future:

"….conservation cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes. Humankind has already profoundly transformed the planet and will continue to do so. What conservation could promise instead is a new vision of a planet in which nature -- forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems -- exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness -- ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science -- and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision."

It is not surprising that this article shocked and angered a large number of "traditional" conservationists. The element of shock arose because the authors are not headline-seeking journalists; rather, they are firmly embedded in the conservationist community. Peter Kareiva is the Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy, Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy, and Michelle Marvier is professor and department chair at the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University.

The Nature Conservancy is a big-time player in this arena.

"Founded in 1951, The Nature Conservancy works in more than 35 countries, including all 50 states of the United States. The Conservancy has over one million members, and has protected more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide. The Nature Conservancy also operates more than 100 marine conservation projects globally. The organization's assets total $5.64 billion as of 2009."

"The Nature Conservancy is the largest environmental nonprofit by assets and by revenue in the Americas."

D. T. Max produced an article that describes the tumult the Anthropocene paper caused within the Nature Conservancy community for The New Yorker: Green is Good: The Nature Conservancy wants to persuade big business to save the environment. Max details the efforts of Mark Tercek, the head of the Nature Conservancy as he tries to make the organization more "people friendly."

Tercek was recruited from, of all places, Goldman Sachs. He hopes to grow active collaborations with industry to further the Conservancy agenda. Max’s article focuses on an interaction underway with the Dow chemical plant in Freeport, Texas.

"The key idea is to create tools that can assign monetary value to natural resources. Tercek, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, thinks that environmental organizations rely on fuzzy science and fail to harness the power of markets. With the help of sound metrics drawn from the world of finance—‘a higher level of accountability,’ in his words—some of the ecological harm caused by the very same corporations can be undone. Nudging big business in a green direction, he believes, can do far more good than simply cordoning off parcels of Paradise."

"The assumption is that if you want companies to care about nature you must put a price tag on it. Otherwise, as one Nature conservancy economist told me, 'it implicitly gets a value of zero'."

An example of how the collaboration with Dow is intended to work was provided.

"The ground ozone level in the region exceeds the legal limit, and the Nature Conservancy calculated that, for what it would cost Dow to furnish the Freeport facility with an additional smokestack scrubber, it could reduce smog by planting a thousand acres of trees….In addition to absorbing the pollution, the trees would suck up carbon dioxide—the primary cause of climate change—while beautifying the landscape and providing wildlife with food and sanctuary. Moreover, a mechanical scrubber needs to be replaced every two decades, but a forest is self regenerating. ‘The idea to look at trees—it would never have crossed our minds,’ the Dow manager told Tercek."

Max expresses doubt that corporations can be expected to act in an environmentally sound manner.

"Yet there’s something dubious about trusting the main forces behind ecological ruin to reverse it. Dow and Coca Cola and Rio Tinto, to name three Nature Conservancy partners, are motivated not be public spirit but by survival instinct. If business goals overlap with ecological impulses, so much the better, but if they don’t, most companies will continue on a polluting path. This leaves little room for conservationists to operate."

That seems a rather harsh assessment of future possibilities. Putting credible costs on environmental damage and pollution is critical in convincing people of the need for regulations and restrictions. If the Nature Conservancy can play a role in that process, more power to them.

One wonders how the Nature Conservancy might put a price on the destruction of the only known habitat of a frog no one ever heard of so that might be compared with the benefit of a major construction project.

Change comes to all things, even to the concept of conservation. Let’s see what Tercek and his allies can accomplish.

Monday, June 2, 2014

An Individualist Age: Finding a Different Path to a Fair Society

For one who is generally in agreement with their principles and goals, it is often disappointing to read articles generated by left-leaning publications. There seems a scent of age—or even decay—about them. Most look nostalgically back at a past when unions were strong and taxes were much more progressive. The "Golden Era" occurred in the postwar years when the "great convergence" occurred, as opposed to the "great divergence" in income inequality that we face now. Many proposals to address this growing inequality emerge, but few resonate with the majority of the population. It seems that old remedies are not stirring new hearts.

Most liberals were heartened by the publication in this country of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In it he documents the history of economic inequality and predicts a dire future. Piketty’s work provides a justification for action being taken to address the problem of inequality.

Also included in his economic history is a warning. He makes quite clear the notion that the period from the beginning of World War I to about 1970 was an anomalous time in economic history. Two world wars and the Great Depression created circumstances and shared experiences that hopefully will never be replicated. Yet, our beliefs about economics, politics, and society emerged from that unique period. If they seem less valid now, could it be that we are, as a society, evolving into different creatures with new concerns and mindsets that are not receptive to old rallying cries?

Just before he died, Tony Judt published the short book Ill Fares the Land. He recognized the fact that a transition had occurred in society.

"Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth."

He observed a startling transformation in the attitudes of students he taught.

"And in the classroom, the enthusiasm of an earlier generation for radical politics has given way to blank mystification. In 1971 almost everyone was, or wanted to be thought, some sort of a ‘Marxist". By the year 2000, few undergraduates had any idea what that even meant, much less why that was once so appealing.’

And he bemoaned the lack of political mobilization.

"We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or a march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals—fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers—are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion. In our political, as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole. We must do better than this."

Note the phrase "fragmented individualism of our concerns."

Daniel T. Rodgers provided similar conclusions about changes in society in his book Age of Fracture.

"….in the last quarter of the [twentieth] century, through more and more domains of social thought and argument, the terms that had dominated post-World War II intellectual life began to fracture. One heard less about society, history, and power and more about individuals, contingency, and choice. The importance of economic institutions gave way to notions of flexible and instantly acting markets. History was said to accelerate into a multitude of almost instantaneously accessible possibilities. Identities became fluid and elective. Ideas of power thinned out and receded. In politics and institutional fact and in social imagination, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s had been the era of consolidation. In the last quarter of the century, the dominant tendency of the age was toward disaggregation."

Rodgers provides a different context and uses different terms, but he is describing the same phenomenon as Judt.

Rodgers also provides this insight:

"In contrast to mid-nineteenth-century notions of the self as a free-standing, autonomous production of its own will and ambition, twentieth-century social thinkers had encircled the self with wider and wider rings of relations, structures, contexts, and institutions."

Given that the society that emerged in the post-war years was determined by the traumas of the first half of the century, could it be that views of individuals on their role in society are gradually reverting to a longer-term mean that was comfortable with a looser coupling to others and to the institutions of society?

The time when the legislation establishing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was being argued was rather disturbing for liberals with a traditional communitarian view of society. The goal of the legislation was to provide healthcare to the many millions who did not then have access to healthcare insurance. However, when the traditional argument was made in terms of helping those in need of help, it generated little support from the general population. The Obama administration subsequently had to resort to tactics that emphasized the notion that all people would benefit from the legislation.

Was the experience with Obamacare an indication that we have entered an era where the idea of social justice is no longer operative, or does it simply mean that individuals have begun to see their interaction with society as more tenuous, and must be approached in a different manner if their support is to be gained?

This latter question is the topic of an article by Paul Starr in the New York Review of Books: A Different Road to a Fair Society. Starr reviews a book by Pierre Rosanvallon The Society of Equals. The discussion focuses not on healthcare, but on income inequality.

Starr points out that inequality is known, recognized, and discussed, but little action toward correcting it is imminent.

"But if people are angry about so much wealth going to so few, they are keeping quiet about it nearly everywhere."

Rosanvallon recognizes a fundamental change in society.

"This passive consent to inequality is the point of departure for the French historian and political theorist Pierre Rosanvallon in his new book, The Society of Equals. As Rosanvallon writes, there is ‘a generalized sense that inequalities have grown "too large" or even become "scandalous,"’ but that sense ‘coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.’ The crisis of equality therefore involves more than widening economic disparities: ‘it reflects the collapse of a whole set of old ideas of justice and injustice’ and ‘must be grasped as a total social fact’."

Rosanvallon describes this change in terms that are reminiscent of both Judt and Rodgers.

"With the ebbing of revolutionary movements and the collapse of communism, ‘the fears that had once driven reform dissipated.’ As the world wars receded into the past, ‘memory of the shared ordeals’ faded as well."

"Rosanvallon also points to the ‘hollowing out’ of institutions of solidarity and changes in economic life and popular thought that emphasize individual competence and adaptability. The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways."

Rosanvallon wishes to find a way to address people possessing this more individualistic view and convince them of the importance of traditional views of social justice.

"Rosanvallon would like his book to provide a comprehensive understanding that would help overcome the general sense of resignation and revive equality as a moral ideal and political project."

To formulate a path to a fair society one must recognize, as Rosanvallon concludes:

"’We live today in an individualist age and must reformulate things accordingly,’ he writes in his new book."

Does Rosanvallon arrive at a means to counter the growth of inequality? Starr provides this summary statement.

"Does he solve the contemporary puzzles about inequality? I don’t think so. But he analyzes them in so illuminating a way that anyone interested in understanding and reversing the surge in inequality should read his work."

While Rosanvallon cannot tell us that the task ahead is simple, he does tell us that history is on the side of fairness. Excessive inequality is unstable and leads to revolution or reform.

Liberals take note. Reformulate your rhetoric and get back to work!
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