Monday, October 24, 2011

Our Lizard Brains: how do we stop thinking of ourselves?

Great article from Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair about the economy and the society that bred it:
The people who had power in the society, and were charged with saving it from itself, had instead bled the society to death. The problem with police officers and firefighters isn’t a public-sector problem; it isn’t a problem with government; it’s a problem with the entire society. It’s what happened on Wall Street in the run-up to the subprime crisis. It’s a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences. It’s not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans. Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They’d been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences....

Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. [has] a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America’s society is a by-product of America’s success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. “Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited,” he says cheerfully. “We’ve got the core of the average lizard.” Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. “The only problem,” he says, “is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food.” ...
Of course this isn't true of everyone. Many of us here try to live without the greed of grasping for more, more, more, and in self-awareness of our desires. I think there'a a liberal idealism that is a "two candy bars later" instead of "one candy bar now". In academe, I figure this explains why liberals are over-represented....we could have made more money on Wall Street or medicine, but there is more than those financial measures of success. THe scientists I least like amongst my colleagues are those who have fallen in love with their fame.

But we are definitely swimming against the tide.

I am tired to death of Californians who want someone else to pay for what they want...and prison guards unions and public sector employees do have some responsibility here, as much as some corporations. No politician is willing to tell the truth or do what's best; the hyper-partisanship of our political system is inevitable when the purpose of politics is not Doing Stuff but Being Elected.
What happens when a society loses its ability to self-regulate, and insists on sacrificing its long-term interest for short-term rewards? How does the story end? 
“We could regulate ourselves if we chose to think about it,” Whybrow says. “But it does not appear that is what we are going to do.” Apart from that remote possibility, Whybrow imagines two outcomes. The first he illustrates with a true story, which might be called the parable of the pheasant. 
Last spring, on sabbatical from the University of Oxford, he was surprised to discover that he was able to rent an apartment inside Blenheim Palace, the Churchill family home. The previous winter at Blenheim had been harsh, and the pheasant hunters had been efficient; as a result, just a single pheasant had survived in the palace gardens. This bird had gained total control of a newly seeded field. Its intake of food, normally regulated by its environment, was now entirely unregulated: it could eat all it wanted, and it did. The pheasant grew so large that, when other birds challenged it for seed, it would simply frighten them away. The fat pheasant became a tourist attraction and even acquired a name: Henry. “Henry was the biggest pheasant anyone had ever seen,” says Whybrow. “Even after he got fat, he just ate and ate.” It didn’t take long before Henry was obese. He could still eat as much as he wanted, but he could no longer fly. Then one day he was gone: a fox ate him.

The other possible outcome was only slightly more hopeful: to hit bottom. To realize what has happened to us—because we have no other choice. “If we refuse to regulate ourselves, the only regulators are our environment,” says Whybrow, “and the way that environment deprives us.” For meaningful change to occur, in other words, we need the environment to administer the necessary level of pain.
But will that be enough?


dr.primrose said...

Your comments reminded me of the famous Stanford marshmallow study in which small children were given one marshmallow and essentially told that they could eat it now or, if they waited 15 minutes, they would given another one so they would have two to eat. The test became a fairly accurate predictor of success in later life -- those who could better exercise delayed gratification were more successful than those who needed immediate gratification. Only 30% of the children could excercise deferred gratification. You can read about the study in Wikipedia here and a New Yorker article (which is where I first heard about the study) here.

One of the great problems with our current economic system is that it rewards only short-term gain and not long-term investment and planning. Everythng depends on the quarterly report. Many of the obituaries of Steve Jobs mentioned his frustration during his exile from Apple that the Apple executives during that time were much more interested in stuffing their pockets in the short-term rather than doing the long-term work of figuring out how to make really good products.

The same thing is true in politics. Everything depends on the short-term fundraising for the next election or promising things between now and then. Things that require long-term planning -- energy, climate change, infrastructure -- just don't get the same attention. This is particularly problematic in states like California that have term limits -- elected officials can vote for anything now with the realization that they will not be around when the piper becomes due.

Counterlight said...

I don't agree with Mr. Lewis. Who is prosperous depends on where and what you are. I resist the whole "we're all responsible" line because it absolves people who deliberately gamed the economy to line their pockets, and the public officials and politicians who enabled them. Even worse than greed, the people who gamed the markets broke faith with millions upon millions of small stakeholders in the national and global economies, robbing them of their savings and their livelihoods. If everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible, and I'm not buying it.

IT said...

Well, at some level we ARE all responsible, being in a shared society. I mean, it's not going to get fixed unless we are all involved in some way.

I do think that those who perpetrated this have tapped into a very basic urge of greed, and bypassed the part of their intellect that governs social interaction as well as abstract concepts like morality.

And that's definitely a choice.

We all have those animal instincts, but we can override them. it's what we choose to do that defines us as people and not as animals.

The current society has stripped off the morality and social contract and left nothing but the greed. And this is what happens when we let our basic instincts rule.

JCF said...

public sector employees do have some responsibility here, as much as some corporations

I'm sure you can cite horror stories, IT, but when I think of "public sector employees" (and pensions thereof), I think of my modestly-benefitting father.

He put 40 years into the Cal Dept of Fish&Game and, because he always lived healthily, he's gotten almost 30 years of pension (thus far!). He hasn't gamed anybody's system, he's just led a good life.

Something's seriously wrong if someone could hold up his example and say "See what we have to prevent happening Ever Again? Take away his collective bargaining and guaranteed benefits!" [Of course I'm biased: if he wasn't getting by comfortably, *I* would be homeless! :-0]

Counterlight said...

I'm a public sector employee and a union member myself. My take home pay works out to about $600 a week, chickenfeed by New York City standards.

I'm afraid that I stand by my original comment. The current economic crisis is the creation of a small powerful class of people who deliberately broke faith with their customers and their employees in order to enrich themselves.

IT said...

Counterlight, JCF, i'm a firm supporter of public sector unions. I abhore union busting efforts. I consider the major cause of the current crisis to be EXACTLY what Doug points out.

But I think that we need to acknowledge that there have been contributing effects that have not helped. Many of these have been driven by the quest for power and money. That's not limited to the fat cats on Wall Street.

In San Diego, irresponsible politicians bribed the city unions with unaffordable pension schemes that have decimated city finances since well before the current economic crisis. Basically both politicians and union leaders knowingly "kicked the can down the road" with disastrous results. We've been dealing with seriously underfunded city services for at least 10 years.

In California generally, the incredibly powerful prison guards' union plays a disproportionate role in politics and the building of prisons and a culture of incarceration on every freaking ballot.

And if you actually READ Lewis' article, you will find other examples of the problem, in San Jose, for example, where city services are being cut and cut and the number of city employees is falling, because they can't afford the pensions, and especially in Vallejo:

Back in 2008, unable to come to terms with its many creditors, Vallejo declared bankruptcy. Eighty percent of the city’s budget—and the lion’s share of the claims that had thrown it into bankruptcy—were wrapped up in the pay and benefits of public-safety workers.....

Since the bankruptcy, the police and fire departments have been cut in half; some number of the citizens who came to Phil Batchelor’s office did so to say they no longer felt safe in their own homes. All other city services had been reduced effectively to zero. “Do you know that some cities actually pave their streets?” says Batchelor. “That’s not here.”

Sorry, but unions do not get a walk here. Neither does anyone else, as I will show you in my next comment.

IT said...

What about the rest of us? Are we culpable too? Communally, yes. We have also played a role.

Again in California, let me point out the greed of the local taxpayers. In San Diego, voters refused to fund a fire helicopter, despite two massive, destructive wild fires, because they would have to pay a few dollars more in property tax. The attitude of the folks downtown was "fires don't hit the city center, so not our problem."

Californians' greed led to the passage of the infamous Prop13 decades ago, which dealt with the problem of increasing home values and increasing property taxes by draconian cuts to taxes, as long as you don't move. Our schools and university system have been in steep decline for DECADES because of this taxpayer greed.

We can't blame Wall Street for this. But we can say that these choices left us much much more vulnerable to the current crisis.

One of our friends bought in a lovely house in an older neighborhood a few years ago, where none of the other homes have changed hands for years. His property taxes as a new homeowner account for about 80% of the taxes on his street. He's basically the one funding the local schools. (IRonic since he and his partner are childless).

I could go on.

Lewis' article is not simply to bash unions. But it does point out that the culture of short term greed is not restricted to Wall Street, and that decisions made by all of us to look out for ourselves rather than the broader community, have lasting ramifications.