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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Book Review - People, Power, and Profits - Joseph Stiglitz

Book Review - People, Power, and Profits - Joseph Stiglitz

If you are following along here at all, you must realize by now that I read a LOT - I mean, A LOT. And, as Jude says, that latest book is always the very best one I have ever read - and YOU should read it. Well, this one is NOT the very best one - but it is a damned good one. I highly recommend it. This is not really a book review - more like encouragement to read the thing. I got my copy from the digital local library - and am debating whether to buy a copy for my family to peruse when they have some time. We shall see. 
 People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent

Why Is This Book Important?

The author. Joseph E. Stiglitz is a progressive economist, Nobel prize winner. He has held some significant positions around economics - like chief economist of the World Bank, and the like. He knows what he is talking about. He is also very hopeful. And, frankly, I needed that. Humankind: A Hopeful History is the most hopeful thing I have read of late - but it is a bit short on the pragmatics, especially in the realm of economics. The Deficit Myth is really excellent for understanding the Modern Monetary Theory - but it is light on social programs and politics. 

Stiglitz hits them all - and well

And the book is not that dense - more than 20% of the pages are references to other authors and research on how this stuff works. This is not an extended opinion piece.

Highlights

Here are a few highlights from the introduction to tempt you. I started to write my own summary - but the author's is much better. 
---------------------------------

First, markets on their own will fail to achieve shared and sustainable prosperity. Markets play an invaluable role in any well-functioning economy and yet they often fail to produce fair and efficient outcomes, producing too much of some things (pollution) and too little of others (basic research). And as the 2008 financial crisis showed, markets on their own are not stable. More than 80 years ago, John Maynard Keynes explained why market economies often have persistent unemployment and taught us how government could maintain the economy at or near full employment.
. . . 

Capitalist economies have thus always involved a blend of private markets and government—the question is not markets or government, but how to combine the two to best advantage. When applied to the subject of this book, there is a need for government action to achieve an efficient and stable economy with rapid growth, and to ensure that the fruits of that growth are shared fairly.
. . . 

Secondly, we need to recognize that the wealth of a nation rests on two pillars. Nations grow wealthier—achieving higher standards of living—by becoming more productive, and the most important source of increases in productivity is the result of increases in knowledge. Advances in technology rest on scientific foundations provided by government-funded basic research. And nations grow wealthier as a result of good overall organization of society, which allows people to interact, to trade and to invest with security. The design of good societal organization is the product of decades of reasoning and deliberation, empirical observations on what has worked and not. It has led to views about the importance of democracies with the rule of law, due process, checks and balances, and a host of institutions involved in discovering, assessing, and telling the truth.

Third, one must not confuse the wealth of a nation with the wealth of particular individuals in that country. Some people and companies succeed with new products that consumers want. That is the good way to become wealthy. Others succeed by using their market power to exploit consumers or their workers. This is nothing more than a redistribution of income; it does not increase the nation’s overall wealth. The technical term in economics is “rent”—rent-seeking is associated with attempting to get a large share of the nation’s economic pie, in contrast with wealth creation, which strives to increase the size of the pie. Policymakers should zero in on any market in which there are excessive rents because they are a sign that the economy could perform more efficiently: the exploitation inherent in excessive rents actually weakens the economy. A successful fight against rent-seeking results in redirecting resources into wealth creation. 

Fourth, a less divided society, an economy with more equality, performs better. Particularly invidious are inequalities based on race, gender, and ethnicity. This is a marked shift from the view that was previously dominant in economics, which held that there was a trade-off, that one could only have more equality by sacrificing growth and efficiency. The benefits of reducing inequality are especially large when inequality reaches the extremes that it has in America and when it is created in the ways that it is, for instance, through exploitation of market power or discrimination. Thus, the goal of increased income equality does not come with a bill attached.

Fifth, government programs to achieve shared prosperity need to focus both on the distribution of market income—what is sometimes called pre-distribution—and redistribution, incomes that individuals enjoy after taxes and transfers. Markets don’t exist in a vacuum; they have to be structured, and the way we structure them affects both the distribution of market income and growth and efficiency. Thus, laws that allow abuses of corporate monopoly power or that enable CEOs to take for themselves large fractions of corporate income lead to more inequality and less growth. Achieving a fairer society requires equality of opportunity, but that in turn requires greater equality of incomes and wealth.
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OK. You are on your own now. Give the book a shot. Get it at the library. Ask me for a copy. Whatever works. 


Saturday, March 27, 2021

Book Review and Celebration: The Deficit Myth

 Book Review and Celebration: The Deficit Myth

OK, right to the point - READ THIS BOOK: The Deficit Myth, by Stephanie Kelton.

Buy it, borrow it from the library - read it. It will change your whole paradigm on economics, government, politics, unemployment, developing countries, health care, poverty, etc. If you can’t afford the $18 or so, send me an email - NOW, and I will send it to you:  carl(at)scheiders.com 

If you find reading a challenge - here's a John Oliver YouTube video that will give you a running start. He does not actually understand what these economists do, but it's a start. And it's funny!!

https://youtu.be/yq_E3HquRJY

Then come back here and read the rest of this. Our national debt is NOTHING like a home or business.


Paradigm Shift

How to persuade you to do this before your attention span quits?

Perhaps a story would help. Have you ever had a total paradigm shift? That is when your view of the world totally shifts and you know you can never go back there. Like when you learned about sex! Had your first child. Your first grandchild. Learned about a plant based diet? That is what happened to me with this book. 


What is Wrong with People

The election of 2016 hit me like a ton of bricks. And the one in 2020 was worse. 1/3 of the country voted for a person that I saw as a narcissistic idiot. 1/3 voted for a middle of the road, really old guy. And 1/3 DID NOT VOTE! In 2020, even more people voted for the “weird” one. Are we all crazy? I spent a lot of time reading, trying to figure out how humans actually work, since we are clearly not the rational beings I have assumed all of my life. One of my good friends, and some of my family members are in the “other” camp. I wrote about that here. I love these people. How can I get my arms around them and this idea that they are ill or crazy?

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman also did that to my brain. I wrote about that here. He persuaded me with a few simple experiments that we are somewhat less than rational beings.

How Emotions are Made  by Lisa Feldman Barrett did that for my understanding of “emotions” - those things we think are in control of us, but are actually learned responses, culturally created social tools. 


Read a Short Paper

Read this short piece, which nicely summarizes the book, and the critics as well. 

https://www.jhinvestments.com/viewpoints/investing-basics/what-is-modern-monetary-theory 


Watch a Video Explanation

I could go on, and I will if you give me a chance. But just take a few minutes and watch this video. The author uses the graphic symbols from the book to help shift your paradigm. https://youtu.be/3QYJjisPMQY 


Author’s Credentials

The book’s author, Stephanie Kelton, is a PhD, one of the leaders of the Modern Monetary Theory “school” of economics. She is joined by many other economists, including Joseph Stiglitz - a Nobel Prize winner - and his book: People, Power and Politics. She served as Chief Economist for the U.S. Senate Budget Committee (Democratic staff), appointed by Bernie Sanders. She describes her tenure in several interesting stories in the book. She had some very small victories there, and learned a lot about how this might actually work. 


NPR 

If your trusted information sources include NPR, here are some good pieces. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the few elected leaders that gets this. NPR Morning Edition has a balanced presentation:

https://www.npr.org/2019/07/17/742255158/this-economic-theory-could-be-used-to-pay-for-the-green-new-deal  4 minutes.


An NPR Planet Money presentation is here: 

https://www.npr.org/2021/01/20/958854717/modern-monetary-theory-classic   23 minutes.

The interview was conducted in 2018, and rebroadcast as a “classic”. The time has come!


If you are of a mind to endure a longer audio program, there is an NPR On Point interview with Kelton and Stiglitz here: Stiglitz comes in at the end. 

https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2020/09/02/rethinking-americas-deficit-myth-with-economist-stephanie-kelton  47 minutes


More Detail

If none of the above persuaded you, and you are still reading here - below is my elevator pitch on this. It is also my tool for understanding. I cannot keep several hundred pages in my head!


Background

Economics is more of a religion or philosophy than a science. If you are an economist, you are of this school, or that school. You have deeply held beliefs about how finances work, and you interpret everything in those terms. We have the Austrian school, the Keynesian school, etc. Only in recent years has economics adopted a more scientific approach - look at the data, try an experiment, and see what happens. It’s called Behavioral Economics. Richard Thaler built some of it on the research by Kahneman. Nobels both. It is as difficult to shake people out of their “schools'' as it is to persuade a Christian that a Moslem has the correct world view - or the reverse. And those two schools have the same monotheistic roots!


The Gold Standard is gone.

Nixon dropped it in on 8/15/1971. The US currency is no longer tied to any standard. The dollar is solely supported by the United States Government. The U.S. government and similar governments that control their own fiscal currency, are completely in charge of their currency. It need not exchange dollars for anything else. Dollars are supported by the productive capacity of the U.S. economy. This is only true of governments that issue their own currency, tied to no standard. Nixon never understood this when he created it, but many governments are beginning to grasp what it really means. 


The Federal Reserve CREATES currency.

Money is not really printed - it is created as an entry on a balance sheet. You may have heard of quantitative easing - what the Fed was doing during the great Recession. They created more and more liquidity, trying to encourage banks to loan more money to the public. We avoided an inflationary disaster because it did not work - but you get the picture. 


The government creates debt in its own currency. 

US debt is called government bonds. The green money, dollars, are converted into yellow money, government treasuries. This allows the U.S. government to pay interest, thus moving funds across the balance sheet.


The U.S. Government Cannot Be Forced Into Insolvency.

Given the above, there is simply no way for the government to be insolvent. In this world, currency is a simple balance sheet entry - not a true debt that needs to be repaid.

When the U.S. government creates debt, it moves funds to the general public and to foreign nations. Those funds can be used to generate products and services.

When the U.S. government collects taxes, it moves funds OUT of the general public, and deletes them! That removes public liquidity, and slows down economic expansion. 


There is No Free Lunch

This is not a free lunch. The U.S. economy must be able to produce the goods and services that are being fueled by the insertion of credit. It if it cannot grow to accomplish that, then the balance sheet is balanced by inflation - making the U.S. dollar worth less in terms of trade for goods and services.


Automatic Brakes Are Possible.

If Congress ever figures this out, the risk of inflation is one of the worst things that could happen. There are already some natural brakes on this, but the MMT group recommends that we construct others. One good one would be an automatic government guarantee of a good job. When the economy is thriving and growing, and does not need and could not support any additional growth, so this government employment option would automatically decline. When the economy is lagging, and there is room for growth, it would automatically expand, by hiring willing workers for public sector jobs. This arrangement would also allow us to establish a true minimum wage, without any legal enforcement required. 


A Test

The author described this exchange, which she managed with each member of the Senate Budget Committee. What if you could wipe out the federal deficit with one stroke. Would that be a good thing. The universal answer was YES. Later, another point in time, she would ask, what if we canceled all of the US treasury bonds - basically by paying the holders green dollars for their yellow dollars. Would that be a good thing. The universal answer was NO! 

They are two sides of the same coin. 

And the NO is a better answer. If the treasury is holding ALL of the cash, then there is nothing in the hands of the public and other countries to use to invest, buy, promote, etc. A zero deficit would be a zero economy. That will not work either. 


This is not a theory

The book is full of graphs and numbers and charts, experiments, etc. Look at what Japan is doing if you don’t believe this. They may not have figured it out any better, but they are in fact doing it. Their debt ratio to GDP is 238%. The U.S. one is 105%. We have a way to go before we are going to stretch the capacity of our economy. 


I’ll quit. Read the book. Tell your congress person to read the book. Make it a MEME, please. Thanks.


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Wait, Wait, I had that all wrong - listen to this guy

I Was Wrong 
I had it all wrong. You are not going to see many blog entries with that title!

I have been working on the premise that we need to all agree on what is true, and rational, etc. If people disagree, they are clearly mistaken, and we can work on their information, understanding. We can even work to overcome their built in bias, and error prone thinking.

NOPE - not going to happen. Just let it go. There is a small mountain of research that says normal people go with their instinct most of the time. It's the FAST brain, the gut, the mechanism that evolution gave us to make snap decisions to protect us. It might be possible to train people to work hard with their SLOW brain, spend some time, understand their own bias, etc. But it is uphill, and a lot of work.

The other force at work is CULTURE. Our fast brain goes where our cultural mindset sends it. We are literally not in charge of that If I think I am in charge of my life - that is how things are. If you think that a demon is in charge of yours, or that no one is in charge of your life - that is how things are. It is almost impossible to change that. Our western culture of WEIRD people has us firmly in its grasp. Most of the rest of the world do not share our weird ideas. Trust me on this. 

So  . . . what you need to do is go with the flow, where we are. Understand it. Adapt to it. And maybe, just maybe, you can nudge it a bit.  For a command lesson on this, watch this pair of interviews with Frank Luntz. He is a "communications consultant" with a very insightful view of the American people. It is based on a lot of methodical research, and he is constantly tuning it. Historically, he has represented the GOP, the more conservative portion of our society. Of late, he has moved to a "in defense of truth" position. 

There are two interviews that were part of the FrontLine series on our political world, that are particularly telling. They are long - but I will guarantee that you will come out of there a changed person. He changed my mind. And that is quite an accomplishment! Ask anyone. 

He understands how people work. He reads people. He interviews them, he runs ideas by them. 
This is my shorthand description of what he does: 

  • Listen to understand fully
  • Empathize with the emotion being expressed. You do not need to agree - but express understanding and empathy for the person and what they are sharing.
  • Respond to that - not what you think is a good idea, or even what science and facts tell you is the right thing to do. Go with their feelings.
  • Words are very important. Research what words resonate with your audience. Use those. Avoid ones that get a negative or critical response.  Try to nudge them a bit to a different perspective.
He uses an "Instant Response" focus group technique to read the tone of a group.

Interviews
This one is after the January 6, 2021 insurrection and invasion of the capital. It is remarkable. He explains how the GOP lost Georgia.   
Trump's American Carnage: Frank Luntz 1/27/2021 
It is part of this FrontLine documentary: Trump's American Carnage, 1/26/2021 

https://youtu.be/BVUs4dS30c0 53 minutes


This one is also excellent. It was 9 months before the 2020 election.
America's Great Divide: Frank Luntz Interview 1/13/2020
The FrontLine documentary: America's Great Divide 1/13/2020

For excellent examples of the use of language, watch this one which talks about how to address the current pandemic:  https://youtu.be/HgInPdK3pB0

For more on Frank Lutz, Ted Talks, etc.: https://www.filuntz.com/




Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Reflective Cognition - Metacognition - and Conspiracy Theories

Are We All Crazy?
If you are anything like me, the political world of the past 4 years has been unbelievable. How is it possible that 72 million people support an obvious narcissistic idiot? How can they believe outlandish conspiracy theories spawned by and for him? I have spent a lot of time reading the research literature to make some sense of this. I recently got a major insight into this. This entry is a brief summary. It will be updated as I learn more. You can also contribute - note the comment section at the end.  Thanks for that. 
We are all in this together and I am counting on you.

I want to keep this short and simple, so the main body is bullet points. There are more details in the annotated references. If you are really interested in this, take a look at those. OR, if you are the typical LAZY thinker - never mind. There is nothing here for you. Just move on. 

We are Normally Fast Thinkers
People fall into these illusions for one primary reason - they are NORMAL, and normal people are FAST thinkers. (The research literature actually refers to "lazy thinkers", but that seems derogatory to me.) There are many studies that show that there are other influences at work to meddle with our decision making, but this one seems to be primary. The others have influence, but I think that a lack of reflective cognition is the top one, and we should focus on that one. Just discovering that terminology opened a whole new set of research for me. A short list of some of the theories: 

  • Fast thinking
    A more technical description is a lack of "reflective cognition", or "metacognition". It's from the Greek. It means thinking about thinking. People who pay attention to how their brain and / or gut works, are much more likely to avoid the instant, intuitive responses that most of us are prone to, most of the time. This was evolution's gift. We decide rapidly, and for safety. We recognize a face without any thought process. It is the same for friend or enemy. Fast thinking is our normal mode of operation. Slow thinking, reflective thinking is slow, and takes a lot of energy.
  • Motivated reasoning.
    This is where we leap to accept quick answers that fit out needs for belonging, for being correct, to maintain our self esteem. 
  • Confirmation bias
    A very similar approach - we tend to believe what is consistent with what we already believe. We have a resistance to ideas which attack our existing beliefs. This tendency is so strong that data which is offered that appears to be contrary to our existing belief system, actually serves to shore that up as a defensive mechanism. 
  • Identity protective cognition
    This is confirmation bias to the extreme. When our self identity is wrapped up in a group, our sense of purpose and meaning, any attack on that must be resisted strongly. 
  • Heuristics -
    "Rules of thumb" such as Availability, Representativeness, Anchoring, Affect. These are some of the shorthand intuitions we use. For more see Dwyer. Given that we are primarily intuitive or "lazy" thinkers, understanding these shorthand leaps can be helpful to persuade an audience.
  • Satisficing
    This is a heuristics or rule of thumb identified by Simon to explain how we make irrational economic decisions. We tire easily, and we settle for "good enough". Just imagine trying to make a truly rational choice in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. Nutrition, cost, flavor, size, texture, etc. You just go with one that feels right at the moment. TP is another good example - imagine shopping for TP by the price per sheet.
  • Tribal identity
    We are fundamentally social animals. We need to belong, to be part of, to be held close. As our society fragments more and more, our sense of self is tied to less groups and smaller ones. If that small group moves one way, we do not have other social ties to fall back on, so we must go along. See the research by Lilliana Mason

How the Brain Works
I have written about this elsewhere, but here's the shorthand. Our brain or gut (they are the same) is a non stop stream of events. It's like James Joyce's Ulysses on steroids. We have a sense of self because we follow just one of these never ending chains. The challenge is to recognize that there are many, many options going by, and we can choose which one to follow. We are not blindly driven to just go with the flow. We can opt to control it. See Bargh on this. But this takes considerable time and energy.

Information from Current Technology is Overwhelming 
Facebook and the like present us with so much information that our normal filtering mechanism for what can be trusted cannot keep up. Our brain is already taxed with the normal stuff of life - family, friends, work, getting food, shelter, friendship. Taking the time and energy to engage in thinking about our thinking is not an intuitive practice. For things like elections, the actual return on our effort is miniscule - our vote barely counts - so the energy expended is usually commensurate.

Training in MetaCognition and Reflective Cognition Might Help
The jury is out on this, but one possibility seems most likely to my lazy brain. Some research indicates that people who are prone to reflective cognition are better able to discern what is objectively true, and can temper their rapid intuitional response. It seems that some small percentage of us (Pareto) do this fairly consistently, and that a larger percentage might be able to be educated in this practice (mindfulness). The normal curve would say that another small percentage are never going to be able to do this. That does not mean that they are evil or stupid. They are just lacking this skill, like someone with dyslexia. For them, we have to come up with other infrastructure assists. For the bulk of us, hopefully some program of education might suffice.

How to Educate All of Us
If this is true, and it is just the beginning of a theory for a solution, how in the world do we alert the broad swath of humankind about this? Just being open to looking at our thinking process would de facto require that we are already well versed in Reflective Cognition. Piling another bit of information on top of the already overwhelming load is simply not going to work. There is not much available in the literature on this. We could try:
  • Mindfulness education from pre-school to graduate school. We used to do something called mental hygiene, which introduced us to the world of psychological research. Something similar might help get this into common parlance and thinking.
  • Infrastructure "nudges" to move the general populace in the way most beneficial to a positive outcome. Make the most desirable outcome the first one, the default one. Rank choice voting - open up the visible choices. 
  •  Can you identify a few more? 
A Universal Meme to the Rescue
One more thought. There are two research studies by Pennycook that hit me between the eyes with ideas on this. The Podcast, You are Not So Smart, highlighted the most recent one. What if this became a THING, a MEME? What if we had a MEME expressing this, a symbol, an acronym that succinctly put it all together? What if that meme was the topic of the evening news. of the Saturday Night Live cold open? What if it was mentioned in every TV sitcom, movie and mystery? Harvard School of Public Health did just that to get the idea of a designated driver in front of the general public. And I am persuaded, my fast thinking part, that this is exactly how gay marriage so quickly became an accepted cultural shift.

You Can Help
My problem is that I have zero artistic and cultural sense about what meme might work. And I have less than zero ability to get it in front of anyone. Can you help? Stop and Think about it. Be Aware of your brain. Look It UP first. Your Gut is Wrong - Check it out. My Brain Feeds on Facts, does yours? No FAST Thinking Zone. Slow down. Etc.

Technology to the Rescue
I have hope that we will eventually understand how we think and communicate well enough that we can build some infrastructure to help. We need software and tools that enable us to communicate and negotiate, and to come to a consensus on what is true, what is real, and how to best move humakind forward. The internet and social networks got us into this mess by accident. Bring that technology to bear on the problem. We need some fancy "software" that will help us communicate, and negotiate creative alternatives that we can all support. If you want to read a purely fictional account of how this might work, look at the reference for (Finn), and the book Hieroglyph. It's a great story from Canada, and it gave me a lot of hope that this is doable. The story is about an indigenous tribe negotiating with a political leader about their role in Canada. They use all kinds of tools and methods to clearly understand his position, and to explain their position in the best framework that he will most likely understand. 

Of course, it is set in Canada, and you know that they are really different. They seem to be much more community oriented. And if you figure out how they got that way - let me know. It may be just the colder climate - think of all the Nordic countries. BUT  . . . then we also have Russia and the like. 

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WAIT - This may be a waste of time and energy
This post had only been up a few hours, and I learned something that makes me think this is a total waste of time. This interview with Frank Luntz on PBS's Frontline is really telling. He conducts polls and focus groups to find out what people want, what they fear, what they respond to. Then he proposes a way to present an idea to people in a frame of reference that they will buy. He is talking about the Trump and Republicans and the riot that invaded the Capital on 1/6/2021. He seems to be without personal scruples, a gun for hire. But he seems to know how to get a read on his intended audience, and how to reach them.   https://youtu.be/xT3hPuY8w5M 

I know "reframing" works - there is a lot of research on that.
Luntz learns enough about groups of people to determine the terminology that will reach them where they are. He does not give a damn how they think, or how they get their ideas. He just wants to persuade them to go his way, or your way - if you are paying him. E.G. - don't call it a "wall", call it a "barrier". Do NOT call it an "insurrection". "Riot", maybe.

He gets it, and my guess is most politicians do as well. There is simply no way to have people really think and respond to rational arguments. The thing to do is to figure out where the wind is blowing and get in front of it. With some tuning and talking points, you can hopefully steer the craft a bit with the wind. In this realm, there is no known way to sail upwind. No one has yet come up with a keel deep enough.

This from the Wikipedia entry: 
Luntz frequently tests word and phrase choices using focus groups and interviews. His stated purpose in this is the goal of causing audiences to react based on emotion. "80 percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. ... If I respond to you quietly, the viewer at home is going to have a different reaction than if I respond to you with emotion and with passion and I wave my arms around. Somebody like this is an intellectual; somebody like this is a freak."[4]
Luntz's description of his job revolves around exploiting the emotional content of language. "It's all emotion. But there's nothing wrong with emotion. When we are in love, we are not rational; we are emotional. ... my job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion. ... We know that words and emotion together are the most powerful force known to mankind."[4]

I have been, as they say, barking up the wrong tree. Forget about understanding how this works. Use what we know about how people work, and just persuade them to YOUR story. The crazies seem to be in charge right now. Use the same tools and move them the other way. But that does not feel like it is progress. It is just more manipulation and skulduggery. The one with the bigger club or more money wins. Rats. 

BOTTOM LINE
Give up on changing the audience, or the electorate.
  • LISTEN to the audience, to the electorate.
    Find out what their primary concern is. Focus groups, language, ideas. 
  • EMPATHIZE with that view.
    You don't need to agree with it, but listen and empathize. Hold on to them, wish them well. 
  • RESPOND to that - not to what you think is a good idea, or even what science tells you is the right thing to do. Steer the ship a bit - don't fight it. 

REFRAMING
I added some book references on the reframing model, a la Luntz. I apologize for this - I have to go read them and figure out how much of this to just toss.  Again - my apologies - assuming there is anyone who really cares about this. Thanks.

References

  • Bargh, John, Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do.
    This is a collection of the author’s research on how humans actually operate. Most of what we do is an unconscious response to a need, an urge. It is Kahneman’s fast brain, but it operates in all parts of our body. From the introduction:
    “Dr Bargh takes you into his labs at New York University and Yale where his ingenious experiments have shown how the unconscious guides our behaviour, goals and motivations in areas like race relations, parenting, business, consumer behaviour and addiction. He reveals the pervasive influence of the unconscious mind in who we choose to date or vote for, what we buy, where we live, how we perform on tests and in job interviews, and much more. Before You Know It is full of surprising and entertaining revelations as well as tricks to help you remember to-do items, shop smarter and sleep better. Before You Know It will profoundly change the way you understand yourself by introducing you to a fascinating world only recently discovered, the world that exists below the surface of your awareness and yet is the key to unlocking new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.”

  • Bandler, Richard, & John Grinder,  Reframing: Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Transformation of Meaning 
    I have only read the introduction to this book, and I am impressed. This is a scientific analysis of how to use language to persuade people. Not persuade them rationally - but how to speak to their emotions. How have I missed this? I feel like I went down the rabbit hole of rational thinking. My apologies. When exactly does this stop? 

  • Carter, Lee Hartley, Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don't Seem to Matter, Paperback – September 1, 2020, Post Trump election analysis that is telling. I have not read it as yet - the foreword seems focused on one on one persuasion - seek first to understand, etc. I will have to wait until I read more. Donald Trump as the Master Persuader. Scott Adams would understand this well.
  • Cohen, Jeffrey L, Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs
    This study describes 4 experiments in which the subjects were persuaded that their political party supported policies which were, in fact, antithetical to their party, and they said they agreed with them. When asked if they were simply following the party line,  they were insistent that their beliefs were not based on their party allegiance. They composed essays describing in detail how they arrived at these values. The bottom line is that we are almost automatically driven to hold to beliefs that identify us with our group. It is very hard for individuals to step outside of that influence.  You can download a PDF of the study here:
    https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Party-over-policy%3A-The-dominating-impact-of-group-Cohen/5cad54ca73fb0f4d38a8c5795139bac7069f44c8
  • Dwyer, Christopher, 4 Outcomes of Lazy Thinking, Using heuristics to understand why people fall prey to fake news. 02/22/2019, Psychology Today.
    This is basically a commentary on an article in the New York Times about the research of Pennycook and Rand which is cited here. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/19/opinion/sunday/fake-news.html for the original article. He has a decent bibliography attached. His contribution is that he relates this research to some of the original scientific insights by Kahneman, on confirmation bias, and Simon on satisficing, and the heuristics or rules of thumb which they describe. Given that we are intuitive thinkers, if you want to persuade people of that ilk, understanding these tendencies would be important https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/thoughts-thinking/201902/4-outcomes-lazy-thinking

  • Farias, Miguel, Are the Brains of Atheists Different to Those of Religious People?, 01/30/2021,
    And the answer is, it appears so. The interesting thing about this piece is that it is from a group funded by the John Templeton Foundation, who are adamantly opposed to any disparagement of religion by science and scientists. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, seems to be resistant to mystical experience, and his brain waves indicate why. “With Dawkins, though, the experiment failed. As it turned out, Persinger explained, Dawkins’ temporal lobe sensitivity was “much, much lower” than is common in most people.” There also appears to be a cultural dimension to all of this. “ The results confirmed that a cognitive analytical style was only linked to atheism in three countries: Australia, Singapore and the USA.” https://neurosciencenews.com/atheist-brains-17640/
  • Finn, Ed; Cramer, Kathryn, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, This is a remarkable little book of short stories about the potential near term future. The first one is by Neal Stephenson, who always makes me think. The book is the result of a project at the University of Phoenix to put scientists in touch with creative authors, to try to project what their research might actually accomplish. It kind of raises the bar for the medium and the researchers. One story is particularly relevant here, Degrees of Freedom. It is about a political dispute in Canada between indigenous peoples and a politician. The genius of it is that it uses many things we understand about how humans communicate, how we make decisions, how we influence each other, and brings them all to bear to help this politician and the tribe communicate, and find a common ground. I found it absolutely brilliant. AND . . . it does give me hope that we might actually be able to understand how we work, and how we might assist our communications enough to be able to effectively negotiate results that will benefit all of us. You can read a bit of the discussion here: https://hieroglyph.asu.edu/2014/08/response-to-degrees-of-freedom/ "What I found most interesting was the attempt by Karl Schroeder to really think about how the future of new media technologies can have an explicit impact on the way we do politics – specifically deliberative and democratic politics. There’s a lot of science fiction that relates to how technologies might encourage authoritarian politics, but not a lot about how they might bring about more positive ways that democratic deliberation might occur."
  • Greenway, Tyler S., & Barrett, Justin L., Intuitive and Reflective Cognition,
    "Cognitive science has distinguished between two types of thinking: intuitive and reflective. Intuitive cognition is fast and automatic, whereas reflective cognition is slow and deliberate. These two types of cognitive systems mutually influence each other. Together, intuitive and reflective cognition may determine how cognitively natural or unnatural certain thoughts may be, thereby influencing the likelihood that particular ideas and practices may become shared enough to be recognized as cultural. The distinction between intuitive and reflective cognition also has theoretical and methodological implications for the study of human thought and behavior, including cultural expression."
    https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1906 or https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1906

  • Lakoff, George, Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, 2014, I had read this a few years ago, and I thought the author had some real insight into how to use language to persuade people. But it did not occur to me at the time, that persuading people rationally was a waste of time and energy. The key is to figure out what they are tuned to want and like, and then reframe your ideas along those lines. Forget about facts and focus on emotions.
  • Luntz, Frank, Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, 2008, I would never read this book, based on its title. But understanding where the author is coming from, it is a very important book. More later after I read it! To get a good feel for this guy and what he can do, watch this interview on PBS Frontline: https://youtu.be/xT3hPuY8w5M This is an older interview, but it explains the difference this guy found between Obama and Trump - and his sense of when it started: https://youtu.be/ii9DCfTUiUw BUT - he describes it, he does not offer any wisdom on what the bleep we can do about it.
  • Mason, Lilliana, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, 2018, This author's research indicates that our sense of tribal identity is more at risk today because we have become so polarized. In the past, people had many different social contexts that gave meaning and purpose to life. With our great divide, many people now have only one or two significant groups that give them that sense of self. If data is offered that seems to threaten that sense of belonging, they are much more prone to reject it out of hand. I found the book helpful, but not 100% persuasive.
  • Mcraney, David, Podcast: YANSS 198 – The psychological mechanisms that led to the the storming of the Capitol, an event that sprang from a widespread belief in a conspiracy theory that, even weeks later, still persists among millions  January 29, 2021
    This is an interview with Lovecraft about his most recent research, and the finding that cognitive reflection may actually help with “fake news” and conspiracy theories.
    https://youarenotsosmart.com/2021/01/29/yanss-198-the-psychological-mechanisms-that-led-to-the-the-storming-of-the-capitol-an-event-that-sprang-from-a-widespread-belief-in-a-conspiracy-theory-that-even-weeks-later-still-persists-among-2/
  • PennycookGordon, & David G. Rand, Examining false beliefs about voter fraud in the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election, 01.21.2021, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review. https://doi.org/10.37016/mr-2020-51 This is a pre-published research article on the false beliefs that were spread among Republican supporters after the 2020 presidential election. The amazing thing is how many people this impacted - millions of people were deceived by multiple conspiracy theories.
    “Despite a lack of any meaningful evidence of systemic election fraud, a majority of Trump voters believed that fraud is common in U.S. elections (>77%), and that Trump won the 2020 election (>65%).”
    Relevant to our topic, one of the findings is that more reflective voters were less likely to be persuaded by the groundless claims. They tested for this attribute with the standard “reflective cognition” test.
    “Thus, political knowledge and engagement were associated with increased political polarization, rather than accuracy. In contrast, cognitive reflection – a measures of one’s ability and disposition to think analytically (Frederick, 2005; Toplak et al., 2011) – was associated with a reduced belief that Trump won among Trump and Biden voters (these correlations are more robust among Trump when the analysis is restricted to individuals who passed the attention check questions; see supplement).”
    “Across two studies with 3446 participants, we found consistent evidence that analytic thinking plays a role in how people judge the accuracy of fake news. Specifically, individuals who are more willing to think analytically when given a set of reasoning problems (i.e., two versions of the Cognitive Reflection Test) are less likely to erroneously think that fake news is accurate.”
    “Thus, our evidence indicates that analytic thinking helps to accurately discern the truth in the context of news headlines. More analytic individuals were also better able to discern real from fake news regardless of their political ideology, and of whether the headline was Pro-Democrat, Pro-Republican, or politically neutral; and this relationship was robust to controlling for age, gender, and education.”
    “Contrary to the popular Motivated System 2 Reasoning account of political cognition, our evidence indicates that people fall for fake news because they fail to think; not because they think in a motivated or identity-protective way. This suggests that interventions that are directed at making the public more thoughtful consumers of news media may have promise.”

    There is hope! If you are interested in more on this topic, the bibliography here is excellent.
  • Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2019b). Lazy, not biased: Susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning. Cognition, 188, 39–50.
    This is an extensive collection of research on this topic - how we actually DECIDE what we know. The problem is not that people are stupid, or uneducated - the problem is that our normal behavior is simply lazy. As Kahneman indicated, our fast brain, our gut reaction is automatic. Our slow brain, our reflective cognition takes a lot of energy and time - and we are not prone to do it.
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2018.06.011

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Future of U.S. Politics - what went wrong and how to fix it

I just read two remarkable books (Andersen, Heinrich), from very different disciplines, and the convergence gives me some hope. But that will only be true if our "fearless leaders" understand how this works. The argument is stated very briefly below. Normally I also create a longer version - who has time to read that stuff these days? Let me know what you think.

For a jump start on this, listen to this PodCast. Trust me on this! It's a great start on a scientific analysis of the Jan.6, 2021 insurrection. One key finding was that people who practice "cognitive reflection" are much more likely to have more accurate beliefs. See the study itself here: https://psyarxiv.com/szdgb/
The author is psychologist Gordon Pennycook. See the reference at the bottom for more details on his research.

Background

  1. Evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have recently taught us a great deal about how humans operate as individuals and in groups.
  2. Historical and cultural research has given us a much better understanding of how large groups of people operate over time.
  3. The combination of these and other disciplines gives us an insight into how we got to this point, and how we might better manage it into the future.
  4. We are at a critical juncture where focused actions can make a huge difference in the future of our nation and our species.

Rules of Thumb for political discourse

  1. Humans are not rational.
    You have to let go of that pervasive belief. And it is a belief, as much as faith in God or eternal life is a belief. Most of your ideas are based on beliefs, and you need to examine them a bit in the light of reason. But that is hard work, and most people just avoid it. (Kahneman
  2. Decisions are 90% automatic.
    Trust me on this - or look at the research. We operate from our gut, our fast brain, our instinct, for 90% of what we do. It works. It is evolution's protective mechanism. We decide friend or foe before we are even aware of the decision. (Barge)
  3. Most people (80%) are "lazy" thinkers.
    We are not stupid, we are not emotionally persuaded - we are just literally NOT thinking about our thinking. We need training in "cognitive reflection". (Pennycook)
  4. Modern technology (Facebook) overwhelms our normal filters.
    We have so much information coming at us (Facebook), that it takes an enormous amount of mental energy to filter it to determine what is true. Most of us spend no energy on that most of the time. We just go with what "feels" right to us. (Pennycook)
  5. Humans are easily persuadable in groups or tribes.
    We have a kind of social identity and interdependence in our genetics. It was built into us by evolution to protect the species, and it works brilliantly. But it is not amenable to rational control. Music, dance, powerful speakers, dominant personalices, act on us and generate an almost automatic response. They can persuade us to act against our individual best interests. We can be persuaded to give our life for our tribe. Or be persuaded to uncritically believe utter falsehoods that are on "our side". I am not making this up - it is well documented. (HaidtWilson)
  6. Our world view or "culture" guides how our larger society operates.
    We think we are in charge of our personal lives, but it is clear to all of us that the larger society does not follow our wishes. The larger social group has its own rules of "culture" or worldview.  This is well documented. (Heinrich)
  7. Cultures around the world are very different.
    We think that other humans operate from the same framework as we do. That is definitely not true. Humans are not all like those in the west. And the differences are quite amazing. East Africans think that life just happens to them. Westerners think they are in charge of life. Nordics think the king is no big deal. Most other societies put our leaders on tall pedestals. Asian societies hold relationships more important than individual achievement or honesty. (Hofstede)
  8. The culture that dominates our social world is formed over long periods of time.
    It does not change easily. But it does change. In the past, it seemed to require a hundred years or more for a society to adopt major changes in its world view. That seems to be accelerating. (Harari)
  9. Key actions influence the direction that culture takes.
    This is good news. It means that we can be in charge of our future - but it also means we have to become aware of and overcome the historical beliefs or cultural mindsets that control our society. (Heinrich)
  10. The Roman Catholic Church marriage rules laid the cultural foundations for democracy and capitalism.
    Sounds crazy, right? But it is well documented, clear as day when you look at the history as Joseph Heinrich explains in his book The Weirdest People in the World. The Church unwittingly fostered more trust of strangers, more risk taking, more skepticism, and made larger human societies possible. (Heinrich)
  11. Culture or worldview is the "invisible hand" that guides our society.
    Western culture laid the foundation for the invention of modern democracy, and economic development. Countries or cultures without that cultural base have a very difficult time supporting democracy and economic development. It can be done - but it is very uncommon. Witness most of Latin America and Africa. 
  12. The U.S. culture was intentionally persuaded over the last 40 years to be:
    1. Less trusting of government.
    2. Less supportive of the social investment that is taxation.
    3. More tolerant of massive national debt that defers the pain to future generations.
    4. More supportive of large business and large profits.
    5. Less supportive of organized labor.
    6. Less supportive of free trade.
    7. Less concerned about income disparity.
    8. Less trusting of science.
      (AndersenEvil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History)
      This is not another "conspiracy" theory - it is documented fact.
      Our rich  elite class has schemed to make this so - and it was not done in secret. You and I watched it happen in real time. It is only in hindsight that we can see how effective it was. 
  13. If Conservatives can move the culture, then Progressives can as well.
    This is good news. If "they" did it to "us", we can change it. We may need an inflection point, a major disruption to energize us, but we can do it. And we may have the crisis at hand  - the joint disaster of Covid-19 and the complete collapse of the Republican Right could be the tipping point. If we are fortunate, the "insurrection" of dedicated Republicans that happened on 1/6/2021 will move enough sentiment to initiate real change. (Andersen)
  14. The Nordic or Scandinavian culture provides a good model for society for the near term.
    These countries, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, are not socialist economies - they are managed capitalism - taking all the best parts, and controlling the greed and corruption which the U.S. culture has been persuaded to ignore. They are also not without flaws - and the genius of the U.S. culture might advance us even further, if we can ever manage to catch up to them.
    Most of western Europe and Canada are ahead of us here. (Andersen, Harari
  15. We have to move our culture - not just copy their laws.
    We cannot simply enact laws that replicate what the Nordic governments have done. Without the supporting cultural mindset, that will cause more division and frustration. But how do we intentionally move the U.S. culture? I have no idea - YET. But I am persuaded that this must be our ultimate goal.
  16. We are at a critical juncture.
    This is certainly debatable, but that is how it appears to many people. If not now, then when? The near term future holds even more risk. (Harari, Helmore)
  17. How to proceed?
    The authors cited have a few hopeful todo's. Here is my short summary:
    1. Get money out of politics. Reverse Citizens United. Corporations and PACS are not "persons" - they are legal fictions. House Bill #1 of the current and prior congress. (HB1)
    2. Improve every aspect of our election system. House Bill #1 as noted. Security, uniformity, fairness, gerrymandering, discrimination, etc. Expand participation instead of restricting it. Make that the rallying cry. (HB1)
    3. Education. Understanding how limited our rationality is would be a huge step. If we could get this to the level that Freud's theory of the unconscious has achieved, we might have a shot at this.
    4. Mindfulness. Or Reflective Cognition. Many see this as a basic requirement. It should be part of our preschool, grade school and higher education curricula. Unless we can STOP and THINK, we will forever respond solely with our gut. Congressman Tim Ryan raised this flag in 2012. (Ryan, Pennycook)
    5. Income inequality. We must address this or we will have no civil society. Clearly cutting taxes for the rich and corporations is not the way to raise the income of the masses. Items: minimum wage, basic income, a social protection net for income, education, health care as a right, higher education as the social norm. When the COVID crisis hit, most of Europe did not need to enact emergency support measures for workers - their normal safeguards kicked in automatically. The US is borrowing heavily from our future to try to stay alive. (Harari, Stiglitz)
    6. Labor movement. This appears to be the only weapon available to the non elitist among us. Change the laws to reinvigorate this engine, and help move it toward a win / win approach with research like the Harvard Negotiation Project. The few labor organizers I have met are not even aware of this research. 
    7. Health Care. Fix it. Get rid of the health insurance companies, adopt Medicare for all. Manage the cost of the care, not how it is provided. Bring anti-trust to bear on the large non-profits that restrict competition. Restrain large pharma's profitability from old drugs.
    8. Create a Sovereign Wealth Fund. Like Alaska, Norway, UAE. China, etc. Use the power of the market to fund our long term future. Look it up!
    9. Universal Basic Income - work toward this. Long term, this wealth sharing is the ultimate answer. My guess is that it is this or anarchy. 
    10. Lower National Borders. Raise the dream of freedom of movement for economic and other reasons. Europe almost succeeded at this after 50 years of persuasion. Make this the long term solution for our southern border. What would Mexico have to become for us to simply lower our border? We could do it with Canada tomorrow. 
  18. Infrastructure Changes
    Government itself is an "infrastructure" that supports us in what we are trying to accomplish. It can be assisted by some additional tools. THIS piece is a longer essay on the same topic. Here are some of the ideas mentioned there, with more detail. These are "kludges" that can assist society. 
    1. Teach our children Cognitive Reflection or Mindfulness.
      There is good research on this. See: https://psyarxiv.com/szdgb/
    2. Redistricting done by a truly independent state demographer. 
    3. Rank Choice Voting. Allow more independent, non party members to compete.
    4. Make political lying a crime, or at least an actionable offense with damages.
    5. Create a new forum of Civility in Political Discourse.
    6. Adopt a social value scorecard for candidates, with an independent non profit to monitor it, like the the expert economics panel, IGM Forum. Give candidates a score. Think "credit score", reflecting their integrity, honesty, sound reasoning, etc. If economics professors can do this, political science can't be too difficult. 

  19. We can do this!
    The more I learn about this, the more I despair. But I remain persuaded that the long arc of history is indeed bending toward justice and fairness. We have been through this as a society many times. We managed to bounce back each time - the plague, the spanish flu, the great war, the great depression all engendered a new thrust toward the progress of humankind. I am fearful that if we do not understand this, and we do not act now, we will become the largest failed state to this point in history - a wreck like Venezuela. Read this stuff, call and write your legislator. Join a group. Read the books. Donate to the cause. We are all in this together - do your part. I'm counting on you.
References
  • HB1 - 2019 and 2021 Congress.
    https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1
    If this link disappears, send me a note and I will send you a copy of the analysis. This first bill of the 2019 Congress is a complete revision of our electoral system. It covers finance, security, registration, gerrymandering, etc. Read the summary. Tell your congressional representatives to reenact it in both houses. It never even got a hearing in the Senate in 2019-2020.

  • Anderson, Kurt, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History 
    You really have to read this - the foreword is a decent summary which you can read at Amazon, and the wikipedia entry is also pretty good.
    The author is primarily a journalist, and he has also written fiction and non-fiction. This book is a collection of notes and research on how the GOP and big business intentionally worked to alter the mindset of the U.S. public with regard to how business and government operate. And they were enormously successful. The "reign" of Donald Trump has become their nadir of success - and, hopefully, of failure. I found the book very depressing to read. I was aware of every one of these despicable individuals and acts as they occurred - yet I did not see the big picture - the way it moved our whole public culture to be "conservative" rather than progressive. I say "conservative" in quotes, because what they created is a far cry from real conservatism. It is a contrived doctrine that supports the view of the wealth and big business. 

  • Banerjee, Abhijit V., and Esther Duflo, Good Economics for Hard Times
    This nobel prize winning couple has applied this understanding of human psychology and culture to research into how we make economic decisions. This is tangential to our topic here, but it is illuminating in that it is possible to determine how to help a large segment of society by studying carefully just how they respond to problems and opportunities. They do not make the "rational" decisions that we might predict. They make decisions that are beneficial from their perspective. And the common wisdom about economics is almost always wrong. For a simple example, there is virtually no evidence that immigration reduces opportunities for the host country. Immigrants generally enhance the local economy, and provide additional opportunities and wealth creation. 

  • Bargh, John, Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do
    An analysis of the evidence that most of what we do occurs without our conscious participation.  From the Amazon review: "Dr Bargh presents an engaging and enlightening tour of the influential psychological forces that are at work as we go about our daily lives - checking a dating app, holding a cup of hot coffee, or getting a flu shot. Dr Bargh takes you into his labs at New York University and Yale where his ingenious experiments have shown how the unconscious guides our behaviour, goals and motivations in areas like race relations, parenting, business, consumer behaviour and addiction. He reveals the pervasive influence of the unconscious mind in who we choose to date or vote for, what we buy, where we live, how we perform on tests and in job interviews, and much more".
    And from the book: "Back in the lab, we set to work to test this idea, designing a research program with the premise that there was, in addition to relatively slow conscious thought processes, a faster, automatic, and not-conscious way in which people dealt with their social worlds. This was a radical premise, because at this time much of psychology continued to assume that everything we decided and did was the result of intentional, conscious thought."

  • HaidtJonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,  
    This book describes more research to help understand how humans make decisions, primarily with their gut instinct. I have written about this book in a couple of entries in this blog. The author has premised a kind of "hive" gene, or an "ultrasocial" attribute that makes us respond to our tribe before logic or reasoning. The key thing to realize is that we are all self righteous hypocrites. We are not rational beings in any way. Our gut instinct makes our moral decisions, and our thinking self spends all of its energy working to justify those. It is what kept us safe in evolutionary history. This is not a problem – it is what we are. He uses the analogy of the elephant and the rider. Our gut is the elephant, and the rider is just there to help the elephant. When the elephant leans one way, the rider sets about preparing the way, finding reasons for going that way, and helping the elephant move on to where it is going anyway. 

  • Harari, Juval Noah, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
    Harari is a remarkable historian and fully aware of the potential and dangers of our most modern technology. He managed to get ALL of human history in a few hundred pages in his book, Homo Sapiens, and then pushed the trends into the future in Homo Deus. This one, the 21 lessons, points to the potentially disastrous future of our economy and social order, if we do not take some focused actions to change direction. He predicts that our future will have frew elitists with most of the wealth and power, and then the rest of us. When THEY no longer need US, what leverage will we hold? In many ways, this is the scariest book I have ever read, and the most hopeful. What humans are about has more potential for lasting harm or good than at any point in history. He brings this perspective from studying thousands of years of history and different cultures. He manages to surprise me in every chapter. The potential downside of the advancing technology we have unleashed is enormous. The potential upside, and the fact that we are where we are is similarly amazing.

  • Heinrich, Joseph The Weirdest People in the World
    This is a remarkable collection of research on how cultures or "world views" change and affect human society on the grand scale. The author began this odyssey by teaching a history course based on the book Guns, Germs and Steel, by Diamond. The basic insight is that the mindset of an entire population are shaped or modified by things like geography, the availability of types of crops, and weather. It can also be altered by large institutions, like the Catholic Church, which gives its members an implicit view of how the world works. We can be grateful to Luther for breaking enough of the mold to give us the Enlightenment. And the church's marriage laws broke down the familial infrastructure enough to generate a trust that supported economic development and technological innovation. I know that sounds fantastical, but Heinrich has clearly shown this. To quote a review: Roughly, we weirdos are individualistic, think analytically, believe in free will, take personal responsibility, feel guilt when we misbehave and think nepotism is to be vigorously discouraged, if not outlawed.
    The rest of the world does NOT really work that way! Honest, they do not!
    See this review in the N Y Times.

  • Helmore, Edward, "We're on the verge of breakdown: a data scientist's take on Trump and Biden", 2021.01.17,
    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/17/were-on-the-verge-of-breakdown-a-data-scientists-take-on-trump-and-biden 
    A summary of Peter Turchin's theory about social collapse. In his view, we are on the verge of becoming a failed state - much like Venezuela. This deterministic, mathematical approach is scary, and it has not gotten a lot of traction among most commentators.

  • Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow
    This was the gateway book for me into this world of irrational humanity. Kahneman's experiments showed that the ideal homo economicus of economics was a fallacy, and led to the development of Behavioral Economics. He was awarded the Noble Prize for Economics for his work. Which led to Thaler's work. If you still think that humans are rational and the stock market makes any sense, you really need to read this book. 

  • Hofstede, Geert, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind,
    This book helped me understand that very different cultural views exist in our various societies. Cultural mindsets are invisible, pervasive, and very difficult to change. They are the air we breathe, the assumptions we make about how everything works. And they are not REAL - they are social constructs that vary greatly by nation, by language, by culture. One is the perceived height of the society, from the top to the bottom. The King of Sweden drives his own car, takes his children to school, does not have a protective entourage. Swedes would not go next door if he were there. Their sense of the "height" of their society is very small - while ours is quite large. That does not change easily. They think they are in charge of their world - not the government, not their leaders. In another measure, I found that people in East Africa have no sense that they are in charge of life - life is something that happens to them. We westerners think we are in charge of our lives. And we are all wrong! 

  • Pennycook,  Gordon, & David G. Rand, Examining false beliefs about voter fraud in the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election, 01.21.2021, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review. https://doi.org/10.37016/mr-2020-51 
    This is a pre-published research article on the false beliefs that were common among Republican supporters after the 2020 presidential election. The amazing thing is how many people this impacted - millions of people were deceived by multiple conspiracy theories.
    “Despite a lack of any meaningful evidence of systemic election fraud, a majority of Trump voters believed that fraud is common in U.S. elections (>77%), and that Trump won the 2020 election (>65%).”
    Relevant to our topic, one of the findings is that more reflective voters were less likely to be persuaded by the groundless claims. They tested for this attribute with the standard “reflective cognition” test.
    “Thus, political knowledge and engagement were associated with increased political polarization, rather than accuracy. In contrast, cognitive reflection – a measures of one’s ability and disposition to think analytically (Frederick, 2005; Toplak et al., 2011) – was associated with a reduced belief that Trump won among Trump and Biden voters (these correlations are more robust among Trump when the analysis is restricted to individuals who passed the attention check questions; see supplement).”
    “Across two studies with 3446 participants, we found consistent evidence that analytic thinking plays a role in how people judge the accuracy of fake news. Specifically, individuals who are more willing to think analytically when given a set of reasoning problems (i.e., two versions of the Cognitive Reflection Test) are less likely to erroneously think that fake news is accurate.”
    “Thus, our evidence indicates that analytic thinking helps to accurately discern the truth in the context of news headlines. More analytic individuals were also better able to discern real from fake news regardless of their political ideology, and of whether the headline was Pro-Democrat, Pro-Republican, or politically neutral; and this relationship was robust to controlling for age, gender, and education.”
    “Contrary to the popular Motivated System 2 Reasoning account of political cognition, our evidence indicates that people fall for fake news because they fail to think; not because they think in a motivated or identity-protective way. This suggests that interventions that are directed at making the public more thoughtful consumers of news media may have promise.”
    There is hope! If you are interested in more on this topic, the bibliography here is excellent.
    https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/research-note-examining-false-beliefs-about-voter-fraud-in-the-wake-of-the-2020-presidential-election/ 

  • Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2019b). Lazy, not biased: Susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning. Cognition, 188, 39–50.
    This is an extensive collection of research on this topic - how we actually DECIDE what we know. The problem is not that people are stupid, or uneducated - the problem is that our normal behavior is simply lazy. As Kahneman indicated, our fast brain, our gut reaction is automatic. Our slow brain, our reflective cognition takes a lot of energy and time - and we are not prone to do it.
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2018.06.011 

  • Ryan, Tim, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit 
    From the Amazon review: "In one of the most optimistic books to come out of Washington during these trying times, Congressman Tim Ryan presents us with an inspiring and hopeful view of our country’s future—and a roadmap for how to get there. Across America, people are feeling squeezed, exhausted, and running faster and faster while falling farther behind. The economy continues to struggle, wars rage on, and every week brings news of another environmental disaster. Everything seems broken and people feel helpless to make a difference. Despite this bleak outlook, there are strands of quiet hope and confidence. People are beginning to take action in a new way: they are slowing down, paying attention, and gaining an awareness of the inner resources at their disposal."

  • Stiglitz, Joseph, The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future
    Fine work by the Nobel Prize winning economist. The current trend will destroy our economy for all parties - even the 1%.

  • Thaler, Richard, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics,
    This is a bit off the current discussion, but it is illuminating as it brings this understanding of human psychology to bear on our economics world. The theoretical rational man used in economic theory does not exist. Instead we have these tribal, emotionally charged individuals making weird choices all the time. Thaler's other work, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, is a concrete example of how the broader society can be moved to healthier, long term better decisions, by applying the right framework or "persuasion". 

  • Wilson, Edward O., The Meaning of Human Existence 
    Brilliant work, by a brilliant man. This is just one part of his remarkable trilogy about human life and the planet we call home. For our current discussion they key thing is Wilson's understanding that the human species is fundamentally tribal. Ants, termites, bees and humans share this trait. We value our social contacts, our membership in our tribe, beyond anything that is rational. This trait enabled us to conquer all of those other humanoids and to displace them. This trait enabled us to build communities. It is also our most dangerous trait since it lets us be persuaded by our tribe, by our sense of identity with our social world, so that we blindly commit to beliefs that are ultimately deadly for us and our society. It worked well in the savannah - but it is poor protection in a competitive capitalistic economy.

  • Wood, Graham, "The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse", Atlantic 11/12/2020.
    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/12/can-history-predict-future/616993/ 
    An interview with and analysis of the work and theories of Peter Turchin. This piece gives a nice summary of his ideas, and some valuable critique.