Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Republicans Hate Uppity Women More Than They Hate Uppity Blacks

There are two exceptional elements to the 2016 presidential race.  The first, and the one most commented on, is the surprising popularity of Donald Trump.  Trump is not your typical Republican candidate.  He espouses positions that are the exact opposite of traditional Republican policies, he is not shy about making racist, misogynist, and xenophobic remarks, and he seems to create new realities whenever convenient.  The explanation for why Trump has been so successful seems to be that Republican voters share Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, and they don’t care much about traditional Republican policies, or even whether Trump tells lies or not.  There really is no mystery here.

The second intriguing aspect of this election is the degree of hatred shown for Hillary Clinton.  She seems to basically be a typical politician.  She doesn’t propose outrageous policies, she has not been found guilty of any serious crime, and she comports herself in a manner not too different than that of numerous other politicians.  Yet, ever since she arrived in Washington over two decades ago she has been under continual personal attack.  What is going on here?

Peter Beinart, one of the more astute observers of the political landscape, tries to shed some light on this issue in Fear of a Female President, an article that appeared in The Atlantic.  Beinart begins with this lede:

“Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has provoked a wave of misogyny—one that may roil American life for years to come.”

Beinart makes it clear that this response to Hillary has gone way beyond the bounds of normal political rivalry.

“At the Republican National Convention, this fervent hostility was hard to miss. Inside the hall, delegates repeatedly broke into chants of ‘Lock her up.’ Outside the hall, vendors sold campaign paraphernalia. As I walked around, I recorded the merchandise on display. Here’s a sampling:”

“Black pin reading Don’t be a pussy. vote for Trump in 2016. Black-and-red pin reading trump 2016: finally someone with balls. White T-shirt reading trump that bitch. White T‑shirt reading hillary sucks but not like monica. Red pin reading life’s a bitch: don’t vote for one. White pin depicting a boy urinating on the word Hillary. Black T-shirt depicting Trump as a biker and Clinton falling off the motorcycle’s back alongside the words if you can read this, the bitch fell off. Black T-shirt depicting Trump as a boxer having just knocked Clinton to the floor of the ring, where she lies faceup in a clingy tank top. White pin advertising kfc hillary special. 2 fat thighs. 2 small breasts … left wing.”

Clinton was not being attacked because she was a Democrat—she was being attacked because she was a woman.  Beinart has the data to support that contention.

“The percentage of Americans who hold a “strongly unfavorable” view of her substantially exceeds the percentage for any other Democratic nominee since 1980, when pollsters began asking the question. Antipathy to her among white men is even more unprecedented. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 52 percent of white men hold a “very unfavorable” view of Clinton. That’s a whopping 20 points higher than the percentage who viewed Barack Obama very unfavorably in 2012, 32 points higher than the percentage who viewed Obama very unfavorably in 2008, and 28 points higher than the percentage who viewed John Kerry very unfavorably in 2004.”

Given the racist history of the majority of the Republican-leaning states, one might have expected Barack Obama to have been the most reviled of opposing candidates.  It would seem that misogyny trumps racism: white men fear a dominant white woman more than they fear a dominant black man. 

Particularly troubling are the passions that arise when white male dominance is threatened.

“Over the past few years, political scientists have suggested that, counterintuitively, Barack Obama’s election may have led to greater acceptance by whites of racist rhetoric. Something similar is now happening with gender. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is sparking the kind of sexist backlash that decades of research would predict. If she becomes president, that backlash could convulse American politics for years to come.”

To explain the power of this gender-based response Beinart points to “precarious manhood” theory.

“The theory posits that while womanhood is typically viewed as natural and permanent, manhood must be “earned and maintained.” Because it is won, it can also be lost. Scholars at the University of South Florida and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported that when asked how someone might lose his manhood, college students rattled off social failures like ‘losing a job.’ When asked how someone might lose her womanhood, by contrast, they mostly came up with physical examples like ‘a sex-change operation’ or ‘having a hysterectomy’.”

“Among the emasculations men most fear is subordination to women. (Some women who prize traditional gender roles find male subordination threatening too.)”

How might one expect these findings to apply to Hillary Clinton who arrived in Washington proud of her capabilities and unafraid of letting people know that she was someone to be reckoned with?

“Given the anxieties that powerful women provoke, it’s not surprising that both men and women judge them more harshly than they judge powerful men. A 2010 study by Victoria L. Brescoll and Tyler G. Okimoto found that people’s views of a fictional male state senator did not change when they were told he was ambitious. When told that a fictional female state senator was ambitious, however, men and women alike ‘experienced feelings of moral outrage,’ such as contempt, anger, and disgust.”

 And where is fear of emasculation the greatest?—in the Republican Party of course.

“In 2015, more Republicans told the Public Religion Research Institute that “there is a lot of discrimination” against white men than said “there is a lot of discrimination” against women.”

“….Americans who dislike her [Hillary Clinton] most are those who most fear emasculation. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Americans who ‘completely agree’ that society is becoming ‘too soft and feminine’ were more than four times as likely to have a ‘very unfavorable’ view of Clinton as those who ‘completely disagree.’ And the presidential-primary candidate whose supporters were most likely to believe that America is becoming feminized—more likely by double digits than supporters of Ted Cruz—was Donald Trump.”

Most commentators view Trump’s anti-women statements as a weakness, but it is possible that his misogyny is what won him the nomination as the strongest counter to a female Democratic nominee.

Beinart fears that, just as racism was stirred up by election of a black president, sexism will become more prominent with the election of a female president.

“Even without Clinton, resentment against female empowerment would be a potent force….This spring, 42 percent of Americans said they believed the United States has become “too soft and feminine.” Imagine how these already unnerved Americans will react once there’s a female president. Forty-two percent isn’t enough to win the presidency. But it’s enough to create a lot of political and cultural turmoil. What I saw on the streets of Cleveland, I fear, may be just the beginning.”

The election of Barack Obama as president did not turn out to be the turning point in race relations that many hoped it would be.  But it was an inflection point at least as it indicated that it was possible for the best candidate to be elected even if that candidate was a black man.  Similarly, gender equality will not be attained by electing a woman president.  But it will be a sign of progress if the most competent candidate can be elected even if she is a woman.

What kind of message would we be sending to ourselves—and to the world—if we elect the most incompetent candidate for the presidency that we have ever had—merely because he was a man running against a woman?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Demography: Immigrants, Culture, and Fertility

The fertility value necessary to maintain the size of a population is generally taken to be 2.1.  This means that the average female in that population must have 2.1 babies or more if the population is to sustain itself numerically.  Most of the developed countries now have fertility values that are well short of this, spanning the range from 1.1 to 2.0.  In Wikipedia are provided several estimates of national fertilities.  Consider those from a 2014 tally by the World Bank.  A few countries are hovering near breakeven such as Ireland, France, and New Zealand (2.0), and USA, UK, Sweden, Norway, and Australia (1.9).  But these contrast with Hong Kong (1.1), South Korea and Singapore (1.2), Portugal, Poland, and Spain (1.3), and Italy, Japan, and Germany (1.4).

Some of these low fertility countries have been, and continue to be economic powerhouses.  The conventional wisdom among economists warns that these countries are not on a sustainable path.  Low fertility leads to a falling population with ever more older people and ever fewer working-age people to earn the income that will be necessary to finance the care of the elderly.  Immigration is touted as the solution.  Bring in workers from other countries—hopefully, with higher fertilities—to fill the perceived employment shortfall.

Immigration has been an effective way to fill labor shortages, but is it a long-term solution for a falling population, or merely a short-term fix?  It has been claimed that it only takes a generation for newcomers to fall into step, fertility-wise, with the culture they settle into.   If the newcomers acquire the social characteristics of the native population, then not much will have happened demographically; the population will have been increased, but the same downward trend will continue.

A recent article in The Economist sheds some light on this issue.  It was titled Fecund foreigners? 

“Xenophobes and xenophiles share a belief in the fecundity of newcomers. ‘Immigrants are more fertile,’ explained Jeb Bush, an erstwhile American presidential candidate (and xenophile) in 2013. ‘They love families and they have more intact families, and they bring a younger population.’ That is still just about true in America, but the gap is vanishing.”

“Between 2006 and 2013 the fertility rate among Mexicans in America fell by 35%, compared with a drop of 3% among non-Hispanic whites. In the Netherlands, the immigrant fertility rate is now almost exactly the same as the native one. Even in Britain, where a quarter of births are to immigrants, statisticians reckon that immigration has raised overall fertility by a mere 0.08 children per woman.”

What is referred to as “acculturation” seems to be a powerful force.

“But the big reason immigrants’ birth rates are falling is that they tend to adopt the ways of the host communities. This happens fast: some studies suggest that a girl who migrates before her teens behaves much like a native. Acculturation is so powerful that it can boost birth rates as well as cut them. In England, migrants from high-fertility countries like Nigeria and Somalia have fewer babies than compatriots who stay put. Those from low-fertility countries such as Lithuania and Poland have more.”

The article focuses of the industrial German town of Duisburg where a large number of immigrants, mainly Turks, came to work in the factories in the postwar years.

“In the early 1980s women with foreign passports in Duisburg had a birth rate much higher than native Germans….Most of the foreigners were Turks, who had settled in this Ruhr Valley city for its industrial jobs and brought their big-family culture with them.”

This chart is provided to illustrate the effect of acculturation on the birth rate.

The foreign-born reproduced at a healthy rate—at least for a while.  However, within a generation or so their fertility fell to the same low level as that of the native Germans.

“Christine Bleks, who runs a children’s charity near Weseler Strasse, points to the front gardens of houses around Duisburg’s large mosque. They are small and orderly, with neat hedges and kitsch ornaments. The style is stereotypically German, she says. But the owners are mostly Turkish. As with gardens, so with families: immigrants have gone native.”

So if you happen to believe that falling populations are a problem, don’t count on immigration as a long-term solution.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Learning to Live With Stagnation

The term “stagnation” often arises in discussions of current economic issues.  The “experts” expected the sharp decline in economic activity caused by the Great Recession to be followed by a rapid recovery in economic growth as indicated by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Instead, we have been faced with nearly a decade of slower than expected growth—at least within the club of developed nations.  This development has generated a large number of articles trying to explain why slow growth—stagnation—is occurring.  The actual measurement of growth (GDP) has been called into question, stagnation has been explained as a fundamental evolution of our capitalist system, and a lack of innovation are examples of what has been discussed.  Thomas Picketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, provides another perspective.
The historical data on economic growth suggests that much that has occurred was driven by population growth, and once that is factored out to obtain economic growth per individual (per capita GDP), low growth rates have been the norm not the exception.  He provided this chart.

From the dawn of the industrial age to the start of World War I, growth (per capita GDP) in the developed countries of North America and Western Europe never exceeded 2% over extended periods.  The unique circumstance of two world wars and the Great Depression caused sufficient disruption and destruction that the postwar years from roughly 1945 to 1970 had to be a period of enormous economic activity.  Note, however, that during this period in the North American countries, often referred to as the “golden era,” growth averaged below 2.5%.  Note also that since 1970, Western Europe, thought to be shackled by an economically inefficient social welfare system, and North America, dominated by the presumed ideal free-market system, have been falling in economic growth rate in lockstep.  One way or another, the developed economies are returning to the historical mean of low per capita growth.

From this perspective, low growth can be expected for the foreseeable future.  If that is the case, is it a disaster requiring ambitious countermeasures, or is it less of a problem than thought?

Zachary Karabell considers the latter point of view in an article that appeared in Foreign Affairs: Learning to Love Stagnation.

Since GDP is an attempt to measure income, the growth rate is taken to indicate the rate of growth of income; one then assumes that also indicates a growth in prosperity for the population.  But if the population grows by 2% and GDP grows by 2% the economy is just keeping its head above water and, on average, there is no gain in prosperity.  The most quoted figure for GDP is one that includes population growth, and, as indicated by Piketty, it can be very misleading. 

Karabell argues that simple GDP tallies can be misleading in other ways.  He claims that the economics professionals focus strongly on income and measures of inflation, but only loosely on costs and their consequences.  It is the interplay between wages and costs that is the more appropriate measure of prosperity.

“Because GDP measures simply the value of all the goods and services produced by a country, lower costs can reduce it; economies that depend on high prices will contract as prices fall. That is true both for real GDP, which adjusts for price changes and inflation, and for nominal GDP, which does not. And this contraction alarms not only economists….but also most government officials, whose legitimacy has become tethered to their ability to increase GDP growth.”

There are numerous ways in which the standard GDP tally leads to incorrect conclusions with respect to prosperity and well-being.

“But GDP growth is no longer an especially useful way of measuring the health of modern economies. Many of the most important developments in the modern economy contribute little to official GDP figures. Browsing on Wikipedia, watching videos on YouTube, and searching for information on Google add value to people’s lives, but because these are digital goods that have zero price, official GDP figures will consistently downplay their impact. Improvements in efficiency, which reduce costs, have a negative impact on GDP. Consider solar panels: their installation boosts GDP initially, but thereafter the savings in oil or gas will reduce GDP.”

“The combination of lower costs and less growth can lead to the same endpoint as higher costs and higher growth.”

Since GDP fails to measure prosperity or well-being in any useful manner, the dependence on growth in GDP can therefore lead to decision making that is not in the public interest.

“This is more than just a problem of perspective. The view that growth is stagnating leads to a crisis mentality that makes policymakers adopt measures designed to boost growth: stimulus spending, tax cuts, investments in higher education. Some of these may be beneficial, but they can also crowd out other actions that may be more beneficial: investing in greater efficiency, developing a leaner bureaucracy, and, above all, establishing and securing a baseline minimum standard of living. A society that followed these steps would be better off in the long run.”

One of the reasons for focusing on maintaining strong growth is the fear of deflation and the feeling that there must follow a deflationary death spiral.

“But most economists and central bankers fear deflation even more than they fear inflation. They worry about a deflationary trap: if prices fall, people have less incentive to spend today, as they can simply wait for cheaper prices tomorrow. If consumers keep their wallets shut, the economy will grind to a halt, resulting in falling prices, and the cycle continues. To make matters worse, deflation increases the cost of debt, which can further depress spending. And deflation is often taken as a sign that demand is weak, which in turn is interpreted as a sign that consumers lack spending power.”

“But some of these fears are ungrounded. Although it is true that deflation offers little relief to those in debt, it, like income, matters only to the extent that it affects people’s affluence and quality of life. Deflation and lower demand may hobble growth, but they do not necessarily jeopardize prosperity. One country knows this better than most: Japan.”

Japan is the country that Karabell turns to in order to make his case.  Most economists turn to Japan to indicate an economy where everything has gone wrong.

“For almost three decades, since Japan’s immense property and asset bubbles burst in 1991 and growth suddenly decelerated, pundits from across the political spectrum have used the country as a cautionary example of what can befall economies that become ensnared in the trap of large amounts of government debt, zero inflation, and little to no growth. Search the Internet for “Japan syndrome” or “lost decade,” and you’ll find scores of articles and papers addressing the country’s purported malaise and the lessons it offers to other societies hoping to avoid its fate.”

Karabell thinks these concerns are misplaced.

“But the reality is that there is nothing really wrong with Japan. It may have negative real interest rates, an undervalued currency, a debt-to-GDP ratio approaching 250 percent, and an average annual GDP growth rate over the last decade of less than one percent. Yet it is also one of the richest and most stable countries in the world.”

“On almost every major metric that societies use to measure individual and collective well-being, Japan ranks near the top. Life expectancy is among the highest in the world; crime rates are among the lowest. The Japanese people enjoy excellent health care and education. The UN Human Development Index, the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index, and the Better Life Index of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development all regularly give Japan high marks. Income inequality in Japan has increased in the past decade, as it has in much of the world, but that shift has not meaningfully eroded living standards for the bulk of the population. What’s more, Japan’s very high level of public debt hasn’t led to financial collapse.”

“Economic stagnation, in short, has had little impact on the Japanese public’s high quality of life.”

Karabell provides some words of advice for policy makers who insist on focusing on growth as the primary driver.

“Rather than start with the assumption that growth is the only viable path to collective economic security, policymakers must first consider what ultimate goal they are trying to reach. Presumably, it is at least to provide all people with adequate calories, shelter, health care, education, clothing, appliances, and some basic opportunities to improve their station. This is hardly a new idea.”

“A world where growth is lower but where more people than ever before have access to life’s essentials is hardly a dire scenario. In fact, it is just the opposite. The world may be reaching the limits of growth, but it has not begun to reach the limits of prosperity.”

Karabell’s perspective deserves serious discussion.  Japan now has a falling population.  This is not a bad thing; it is a good thing.  A falling population, by conventional economic thinking is a disastrous situation leading to all sorts of difficulties, including slow or negative growth.  The message to economists should be: “Make yourselves useful and figure out a way for populations to decrease gracefully with minimal economic disruption.”

Japan made a conscious decision to limit its population growth and succeeded.  China made the same decision and is succeeding.  Both will soon have to live with falling populations.  For the inhabitants of developed countries across the globe, low fertility rates indicate that falling populations will soon become the norm.  Hopefully, somewhere out there are a few clever economists trying to figure out how to help make this work.

The interested reader might find these articles informative:

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Our Economic Future and What We Should Be Teaching Our Children to Prepare Them for It

The future of labor in our ever-evolving economies has become a topic of much discussion.  Automation has been a concern for a half century, but while transforming the nature of labor it has not threatened to create mass unemployment.  The replacement of mechanical tasks performed by humans with tasks performed by machines has diminished classes of employment, but has managed to create other jobs at a comparable pace—albeit at lower levels of compensation.  What has threatened to upset this standoff is the rapid expansion of capabilities in computers and computer applications—the so-called knowledge economy.  Just a few years ago self-driving cars seemed like the work of science fiction and now they are already beginning to patrol our streets.  That development could eventually eliminate millions of jobs.  There is now a real fear that no job is safe from replacement by a machine or by a computer program.  And if that is the case, then how do we prepare ourselves to survive in such an environment?  In particular, what type of education is appropriate for children as preparation for this new world?

Alec Ross addresses these issues in his book The Industries of the Future.  It turns out the industries of the future will change our lives in numerous ways, but what they will not do is create many jobs.  The future, it seems, will be dominated by a few highly-trained and very competent people and everyone else will respond to the changes they impose.  For Ross, the goal is to raise children who will be able to gain access to this small group of elites.

Ross expresses his concern about his children’s future.

“The most important job I will ever have is being a dad, and I can’t help wondering what all these coming changes—the ones that this book anticipates and the ones that it does not—will mean for our children’s economic future.  My kids will have an entirely different set of opportunities and challenges than I had growing up in West Virginia.  What will it take for them to compete and succeed?”

Unfortunately, Ross does not seem very concerned about the future of kids in general.  For answers to his question he turns to others like himself who are immersed in this burgeoning knowledge economy.  The responses he receives are what one might expect from this class: learn foreign languages to better compete in a globalized world, and learn computer programming languages to better compete in the knowledge economy.

“My approach in our family is my kids need to learn two languages: one is Spanish—they’ve learned it from day one—and the second will be like Python or some other technical language, which they will learn when they are six and older.”

Ross even encountered people who suggest that learning computer coding is the best way to hone the mind for contending with complex problems.

“….Jack Dorsey makes the case that the benefits of programming language fluency go well beyond coding: ‘I don’t think you do it to become an engineer or to become a programmer; you do it because it teaches you how to think in a very, very different way.  It teaches you about abstraction around breaking problems into small parts and then solving them, around systems and how systems intersect.”

Ross does allow that there may be problems with his tight little narrative.

“Charlie Songhurst provided an interesting counternarrative.  He sees today’s need for highly technical and mathematical skills as a short-term phenomenon.  ‘There’s a demand curve for certain skill sets at a given time,’ he says.  ‘At the moment there’s a demand for aspergy-math minds.  But I think we’ve only got ten more years of the Asperger’s economy, because once the tech platforms are established, they won’t reinvent.”

Ross adheres to the conventional wisdom with respect to technological threats to employment by claiming that technology demands that we become better educated in order to compete in a rapidly changing world.  This approach might make sense if the changes afoot were potentially going to create work for vast numbers of people.  But that is not the case.  In fact one of the few areas of employment expected to grow in the future is low-paid, menial labor involved in caring for the increasing number of elderly.  Ross dashes even that hope by pointing out that the Japanese believe many of those tasks can be performed by robots and are investing heavily in the development of such machines.  And if anyone should think there is much future employment in building those robots, then recall that building things is what robots do best—the robots will be built by robots and the few people who design them will make a bundle of money.

In spite of Ross’s belief that his children will need programming skills to compete in the future, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not see that field as a growth activity.

“Employment of computer programmers is projected to decline 8 percent from 2014 to 2024. Computer programming can be done from anywhere in the world, so companies sometimes hire programmers in countries where wages are lower.”

That assessment is somewhat different from that arrived at by those who judge the field based on what is happening in the rarified atmosphere of Silicon Valley.  As one of Ross’s experts pointed out, programming is the art of breaking big problems into a lot of small pieces—pieces so small that almost anyone, anywhere on earth can solve them.  There are a few generals and a lot of low-ranked soldiers.

Do we face a future filled with gloom and doom?  Not necessarily.  It is possible to consider a future in which unemployment is the norm not with fear, but rather with excited anticipation.

Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky consider just such a future in their book How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life.  The authors use an essay written by Keynes in 1930, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” as their point of departure. 

“Its thesis is very simple.  As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all.  Then Keynes wrote, ‘for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from 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.’  He thought this condition would be reached in about a hundred years’ time—that is by 2030.”

For Keynes, capitalism could still be thought of as a servant of society, a tool by which wealth could be accumulated to serve society as a whole.  It seems that none other than Adam Smith, he of “the invisible hand” fame, thought “the hand” would not only produce efficient markets, but would also distribute wealth equally.  The authors serve up a number of precious quotes—none more so than this from Smith’s writings.

“[Though the rich] mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements.  They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interests of society.”

So, both Keynes and Smith vastly misunderstood human nature in even considering that humans could have a limited set of “needs” that it is possible to satisfy.  Humans have instead proceeded down a path whereby “wants” are continually created and treated as “needs.”  Given that paradigm, needs can never be satisfied—not for the rich, nor for the poor.

  The authors argue that acceptance of this need for unlimited acquisition of things is a fairly recent development.  They survey classical societies of the past and conclude that the accumulation of wealth was never viewed as a valid end in itself.  Rather, the higher goal was to attain the ability to live “the good life.”  The definition of the good life might vary from society to society, but inevitably it involved having the leisure to pursue purposeful activities without the need to make money in the process.

Scientists, sculptors, musicians, and teachers are provided as examples of people who would be using their leisure to pursue some goal based on the enjoyment of the pursuit rather than any monetary reward.  Simpler people might have simpler pursuits available to them: learning a new language, a hobby, reading, writing, gardening....the list is long.

Some readers might be dubious about today’s ‘couch potatoes’ making good use of any increase in leisure.  The authors address that concern.

“The image of man as a congenital idler, stirred to action only by the prospect of gain, is unique to the modern age.  Economists, in particular, see human beings as beasts of burden who need the stimulus of carrot or stick to do anything at all.”

Humans are capable of more than they are currently given credit for.  However, some reeducation of the population would be required.

“Athens and Rome had citizens who, though economically unproductive, were active to the highest degree—in politics, war, philosophy and literature.  Why not take them and not the donkey as our guide?  Of course, Athenian and Roman citizens were schooled from an early age in the wise use of leisure.  Our project implies a similar educational effort.  We cannot expect a society trained in the servile and mechanical uses of time to become one of free men overnight.  But we should not doubt that the task is in principle possible.”

A future of “leisure” would then be better served by a more classical education.  We could focus on teaching our children things like history, civics, music, art, and so on.  Perhaps they might even have the time to learn about the land they live in and the planet they live on.

Are such considerations patently ridiculous?  Is our current avaricious state so fundamentally human that it cannot be tamed?  Or perhaps, is it a learned response that can be unlearned?

When hypothesizing on evolutionary explanations of why humans behave in the manner in which they do, male anthropologists tend to emphasize male characteristics such as aggression, murder, and mayhem.  Female anthropologists are more likely to focus on more socially positive attributes such as sharing, cooperating, and empathizing.  Which view you wish to believe makes a difference when considering whether our current capitalistic behavior is innate or learned.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has produced a fascinating discussion of what characteristics make humans human and different from the other apes.  Consider reading her book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

According to Hrdy the most distinctive human attribute is the ability to interpret, understand, and empathize with the feelings and intentions of others.

“From a tender age and without special training, modern humans identify with the plights of others and without being asked, volunteer to help and share, even with strangers.  In these respects, our line of apes is in a class by itself.”

“This ability to identify with others and vicariously experience their suffering is not simply learned: It is a part of us.”

Any number of psychological studies have verified that these social traits persist in us as adults today.

Anyone who has observed infants will be familiar with their interest in staring into peoples’ faces and trying to understand what they observe.  Also familiar are the attempts to imitate the actions they observe around themselves.  Soon they make conscious attempts to perform acts that they think will endear themselves to others, followed by anxious looks to see if their performance has been met with approval. Children are observed to willingly share their possessions with others.  These are behaviors that are uniquely human among the ape species.  Hrdy identifies these survival-driven abilities to interpret and understand the emotions and intentions of others, and to acquire the approval of others, as the bases for subsequent human development.

So, two very young children, each with an object that interests them, are more likely to share their little treasures than to plot a means to take possession of the other’s treasure.  Yes, capitalism must be a learned trait.

As of this writing, we have about 14 years in which to recreate our economic world to match the predictions made by Keynes.  We may not be able to do it, but we would be better off if we can.  And we should not believe that human nature is inherently and unalterably destructive.  It isn’t.  Our observed characteristics are learned and can be altered by a process called “education.”

Education is truly important and it is more than what is learned in schools.  But schools are a good place to start.  Should we continue to convert our schools into employment application assistance providers in hopes that our children will get lucky and land one of the remaining good jobs?  Or, is it time to revert to a more traditional role in which students are taught how to learn, not what to learn?  It depends on your vision of the future.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Human Animal Rediscovers Its Kin

Carl Safina begins and ends his fascinating book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel with this claim:

“….all life is one.”

Safina does not dwell on these statements.  He lays them out there as if referring to some ineffable truth; one that can only be comprehended by first shedding any illusions we have of human uniqueness in order to be able to recognize the wondrous variation in intelligent life on earth.  Before proceeding with Safina’s narrative, a slight diversion is appropriate to pick up a comment by Stephen J. Gould on our knowledge of evolutionary history.

Evidence of multi-celled structures does not appear until about 600 million years ago.  Then suddenly(?) about 500 million years ago the earth experienced what is referred to as “The Cambrian Explosion,” a brief period (in terms of millions of years) at the beginning of the Cambrian era when many forms of life developed, most of which died out.  This period of experimentation with multi-cellular life forms ended with the survival of a few anatomical forms that would form the basis for further evolution.  Development of new species from these fundamental forms would characterize further evolution rather than the development of new anatomies.  The fossil records contained in the Burgess Shale provide some understanding of what took place during this period.  From The Evolution of Life on Earth Gould provides this observation.

“Humans arose, rather, as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway that would not have led to consciousness...only one member of our chordate phylum, the genus Pikaia, has been found among these earliest fossils.  This small and simple swimming creature , showing its allegiance to us by possessing a notochord, or dorsal stiffening rod, is among the rarest fossils of the Burgess Shale, our best preserved Cambrian fauna....Moreover, we do not know why most of the early experiments died, while a few survived to become our modern recognized traits unite the victors and the radical alternative must be entertained that each early experiment received little more than the equivalent of a ticket in the largest lottery ever played out on our planet—and that each surviving lineage, including our own phylum of vertebrates, inhabits the earth today more by the luck of the draw than by any predictable struggle for existence.”

What Gould is suggesting is that a single animal was the ancestor of all the vertebrates that were to follow.  Humans, as one of those vertebrates, share the same molecular machines, the same cell structures, and the same biochemistry as our vertebrate relatives.

Safina elaborates on that thought.

“If you imagine the very slow changes over millions of years that turned some mammals into apes and others into whales, we seem to have grown very distant indeed, almost estranged.  But is that really a long time, or a big difference?  Take the skin off, and the muscles are much the same, the skeletal construction nearly identical.  The brain cells, under a microscope, are impossible to distinguish.  If you imagine the process very much sped up, you see something real: dolphins and humans, both having already shared a long history as animals, vertebrates, and mammals—same bones and organs doing the same job, same placenta and that same warm milk—are basically the same, in merely shape-shifted proportions.  It’s a little like one person outfitted for hiking and another for scuba diving.”

“Whales are nearly identical to us in every way except their outer contours.  Even their hand bones are identical to ours, just shaped a little differently and hidden in mittens.  And dolphins still use those hidden hands for handlike gestures of touch and calming reassurance.  (In any group of spinner dolphins, at any given time one-third are usually caressing with flippers or making bodily contact, a bit like primates grooming.)”

Even our human brains, of which we are so proud, are quite similar in structure and function to that of other animals.

“If you look at side-by-side drawings of human, elephant, and dolphin brains, the similarities overwhelm the differences.  We are essentially the same, merely molded by long experience into different outer shapes for coping with different outer surroundings, and wired inside for special talents and abilities.  But beneath the skin, kin.”

There was a time in history when humans were just one more animal trying to survive and thrive in a dangerous environment.  Once, humans had a greater appreciation for the capabilities of other animals and found it useful to come to an “understanding” with them.  Here are a few of the anecdotes Safina provides to make his point.

“In the unciphered span of time that the San people (formerly called ‘Bushmen’) lived as hunters somewhere in the coordinates of the vast space and deep antiquity of the Kalahari Desert, they did not hunt lions.  Their courtesy was repaid.  Lions and the San had somehow forged a solid truce….No one had ever heard of a lion killing a human.  Leopards, yes, sometimes at night.  But lions, never.”

“The San never hunted lions, and lions never hunted the San.  Perhaps each side knew that the other was potentially dangerous….They chose not to tamper with one another, lived well without doing so, and passed the custom to their children.”

And then there were the Siberian tigers.

“Modernity’s self imposed exile from the world seems to have degraded an older human ability to recognize the minds in other animals.  Yet it can seem that other animals recognize human minds.  In The Tiger, John Vaillant describes how Amur (Siberian) tigers had a kind of ancient understanding with local peoples.  People long accustomed to living with Amur tigers, such as Udeghe and Nanai hunters, knew enough to stay out of a tiger’s way, but also left a cut of their hunted meat.  It was ebb and flow; human hunters sometimes scavenged from tiger kills.  The balance of powers and considerations in the deep northern taiga forests yielded a kind of mutual courtesy, an understanding of mutual nonviolence.”

This understanding would be damaged when Russian colonists arrived in the 1600s and began breaking the rules.

“Violations of that pact carried consequences, suggesting that it had been a true two-way understanding.  Commenting on what he calls ‘the Amur tiger’s capacity for sustained vengeance,’ Valliant relates a story told by a modern hunter about what happened after they scared a tiger off its kill and took some of the meat.  ‘The tiger destroyed our traps, and he scared off the animals that came to our bait.  If any animal got close, he would roar and everyone would run away.  We learned the hard way.  That tiger wouldn’t let us hunt for an entire year….Very smart and very vengeful.’  It’s as if the tiger was not just a hunter but the manager of its hunting territory.”

Let someone try to explain how that tiger was acting out of “instinct” rather than making intelligent and emotional decisions.

Of course the accommodation between humans and wolves has been the most significant for our civilization.  Some might think that dogs arose when humans raised captured wolf pups and bred them for the desired characteristics.  However, those who have actually tried to domesticate a wolf pup are dubious.  Most believe that it is a case of wolves deciding that humans provided an easy source of food and humans deciding having wolves around was useful as a security perimeter.  Only after that mutual conclusion was reached could domestication of both species occur.

Perhaps the most astonishing example of humans forming a collaboration with another species involves the killer whales of Eden, Australia.  Some species of killer whale target mammals as their food source.  A pod may not be able to subdue a mature whale but it often will attack young whales.  At some point, the killer whales noticed the humans harpooning and subduing the adult whales and concluded that they would profit from collaborating with them.  Wikipedia provides a description of what ensued.

“The killer whales of Eden, Australia were a group of killer whales (Orcinus orca) known for their co-operation with human hunters of cetacean species. They were seen near the port of Eden in southeastern Australia between 1840 and 1930. A pod of killer whales, which included amongst its members a distinctive male called Old Tom, would assist whalers in hunting baleen whales.  The killer whales would find target whales, shepherd them into Twofold Bay, and then alert the whalers to their presence and often help to kill the whales.”

“Old Tom's role was commonly to alert the human whalers to the presence of a baleen whale in the bay by breaching or tailslapping at the mouth of the Kiah River….This role endeared him to the whalers and led to the idea that he was ‘leader of the pack,’ although such a role was more likely taken by a female (as is typical among killer whales), probably the whale known as Stranger. After the harpooning, some of the killer whales would even grab the ropes in their teeth and aid the whalers in hauling. The skeleton of Old Tom is on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum, and significant wear marks still exist on his teeth from repeatedly grabbing fast-moving ropes.  In return for their help, the whalers allowed the killer whales to eat the tongue and lips of the whale before hauling it ashore, providing a rare example of mutualism between humans and killer whales.”

 As humans became more powerful and more plentiful they lost contact with their animal relatives—and lost their respect for them.  We became so proud of our cleverness that we began to assume that we were not like those other animals.  We are humans and we think; they are merely animals so they can’t think.  Safina rises up periodically throughout his narrative to smite the pompous ones who harbor such thoughts.

“Once I was watching elephants with another scientist in another African reserve.  Several adult elephants were resting with their young in the shade of a palm, fanning their ears in the heat.  The scientist opined that the elephants we were watching ‘might simply be moving to and away from heat gradients, without experiencing anything at all.’  He declared, ‘I have no way of knowing whether that elephant is any more conscious than this bush’.”

“No way of knowing?  For starters, a bush behaves quite differently from an elephant.  The bush shows no sign of having a mental experience, of showing emotions, of making decisions, of protecting its offspring.  On the other hand, humans and elephants have nearly identical nervous and hormonal systems, senses, milk for our babies; we both show fear and aggression appropriate to the moment.  Insisting that an elephant might be no more conscious than a bush isn’t a better explanation for the elephant’s behavior than concluding that an elephant is aware of what’s going on around it.  My colleague thought he was being an objective scientist.  Quite the opposite; he was forcing himself to ignore the evidence.  That’s not scientific—at all.”

Similarly, scientists have constructed methods by which they can conclude that humans are supreme when it comes to intelligence.

“Because we’re human, we tend to study non-humans’ human-like intelligence.  Are they intelligent like we are?  No, and therefore—we win!  Are we intelligent like they are?  We don’t care.  We insist that they play our game; we won’t play theirs.”

“What other animals must learn, the problems they must solve, and how they must solve them differs greatly.  A human must make a spear; an albatross must travel four thousand miles from her nest to find a meal and then return across open ocean to an island half a mile wide and pick out her own chick from among thousands.  A dolphin or sperm whale or bat might pity us for staring dumbly into the night while their brains virtually ‘image’ a high definition sonic world at great speed, allowing them to hunt, identify others, and catch fast moving food in darkness.  We might seem to them as utterly bereft of crucial abilities as they seem to us disabled by lack of language—although actually they are extremely enabled, in some ways we cannot match.”

The study of animals in their natural environment is not an old field.  Research requires time and patience.  Much of what Safina presents is provided by researchers who have spent decades studying animals as they progressed through life: birth, infancy, adolescence, reproduction, family life, social life, dealing with conflicts, dealing with natural disasters, dealing with humans, and dealing with death.  He has focused mostly on elephants, wolves, chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, and killer whales.  Given what has been learned of these creatures, he insists that these animals no longer merit being referred to as “its.”  We should think of them as distinct individuals with distinct personalities and distinct lives.  They are not “its,” they are “whos.”

“’Who’ animals know who they are; they know who their family and friends are.  They make strategic alliances and cope with chronic rivalries.  They aspire to higher rank and wait for their chance to challenge the existing order.  Their status affects their offspring’s prospects.  Their life follows the arc of a career.  Personal relationships define them.  Sound familiar?  Of course.  ‘They’ includes us.  But a vivid, familiar life is not the domain of humans alone.”

Safina continually questions the tolerance these animals show for humans.  If we show too little respect for them, perhaps they show too much respect for us.  One thing we animals all have in common is a brain that is capable of more than just doing whatever is necessary to survive.  We have brains that create leisure time and the need to do something interesting in those periods.  Socializing is important.  Physical contact among animals is desirable.  Think of the handshaking and hugging that takes place when adult humans congregate.  A desire to play, even for adults, seems common.  One could argue that these other animals see humans as animals interesting to hang around with.

Dolphins and killer whales seem to tolerate captivity surprisingly well—at least for a while.  Perhaps their new environment and activities provide them some stimulation, if not entertainment.  Safina tells the story of some entrepreneurial dolphins.

There was a dolphin named Kelly at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi who noted that dolphins were rewarded with a fish whenever they brought a piece of trash to the staff that had floated into their pool.  Kelly also noted that a small piece of paper received the same reward as a large piece of paper.

“So under a weight at the bottom of the pool she hid any paper that blew in.  When a trainer passed, she tore of a piece of paper to trade for a fish.  Then she tore off another piece, got another fish.  Into the economy of litter, she’d rigged a kind of trash inflation rate that kept the food coming.”

“One day a gull flew into Kelly’s pool, and she grabbed it and waited for the trainers.  The humans seemed to really like birds; they traded her several fish for it.  This gave Kelly a new insight and a plan.  During her next meal she took the last fish and hid it.  When the humans left, she brought the fish up and baited more gulls to get even more fish.  After all, why wait to scrounge an occasional piece of accidental paper when you could become a wealthy commercial bird-fishing dolphin?  She taught this to her youngster, who taught other youngsters, and so the dolphins there became professional gull baiters.”

And then there is the playful whale calf and the tolerant mother.

“Photographer Bryant Austin had been photographing humpback whale mothers and babies for several weeks when a five-week-old infant left his mother and swam up to him.  Austin wrote, ‘The newborn maneuvered his five-foot-wide fluke precisely by my mask less than a foot away.’  While transfixed, Austin suddenly felt a firm tap on his shoulder.  ‘As I turned to look, I was suddenly eye to eye with the calf’s mother.  She had extended the tip of her two-ton, fifteen-foot-long pectoral fin and positioned it in such a way as to gently touch my shoulder.’  Realizing that he was now between the mother and her baby, he was frightened by the thought that she could easily break his back.  Instead, Austin described her actions as ‘delicate restraint.’  Meanwhile the baby swam over to biologist Libby Eyre.  ‘Time slowed down as I observed the calf roll underneath Libby and then gently lift her out of the water on his belly.  She was on her hands and knees looking down at his throat.’  As Bryant’s mind scrambled through a list of things that could go wrong, ‘the young whale placed his pectoral fin on her back, then gently rolled her back in the water’.”

And finally, there are the fun-loving killer whales.

“Argentina is one of those places where killer whales sometimes burst through the surf to drag sea lions right off the beaches.  You see a video of this and you think it would be insanity to stroll near the shoreline.  Yet when park ranger Roberto Bubas stepped into the water and played his harmonica, the same individual killer whales would form a ring around him like puppies.  They’d rally playfully around his kayak and come as, by names he gave them, he called to them.”

One day Ken was watching several killer whales who were focused on getting some salmon.  All except J6, a teenage male. ‘He went from boat to boat and burst his head out right alongside and just looked at everyone just—showing off.’  When [killer] whales pass certain land points where people line up, clapping and shouting, Ken claims, ‘the whales get much more excited and acrobatic and really put on a show.’  People will be running along the shoreline and the whales will flap their tails and slap their fins and jump.  Same if they are near whale-watching boats with people cheering.’  Why?  ‘Because,’ he says, ‘I think we’re as entertaining to them as they are to us’.”

Elizabeth Kolbert reviewed Safina’s book and produced a comment that captures the sentiments of this reader.  It appeared on the book cover.

“Carl Safina shows there is indeed intelligent life in the universe, and it’s all around us.  At once moving and surprising, Beyond Words asks us to reexamine our relationship to other species—and to ourselves.”

The interested reader might appreciate these additional articles based on Safina’s book:

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