Category Archives: economics

Robert Frank: Putting peer pressure to work to save the planet

Video below. Here’s the blurb:

Psychologists have long understood that social environments profoundly shape our behavior, sometimes for the better, often for the worse. But social influence is a two-way street—our environments are themselves products of our behavior. Author Robert Frank joins us with insight from his book Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work, identifying ways to unlock the latent power of social context—perhaps even on a level that could save the planet.

Frank draws our attention to the threat of a changing climate, asserting that robust measures to curb greenhouse gases could help us curtail droughts, flooding, wildfires, and famines. He draws our attention to new research that shows how the strongest predictor of our willingness to support climate-friendly policies, install solar panels, or buy an electric car is the number of people we know who have already done so. Frank explains how altering our social context could help us redirect trillions of dollars annually in support of carbon-free energy sources, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. Join Frank to learn how fostering more supportive social environments could lead individuals everywhere to make choices that benefit everyone.

Robert H. Frank is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Economics at Cornell University, where he has taught since 1972 and where he currently holds a joint appointment in the department of economics and the Johnson Graduate School of Management. He has published on a variety of subjects, including price and wage discrimination, public utility pricing, the measurement of unemployment spell lengths, and the distributional consequences of direct foreign investment.

Winter 2020 discussion prompts

  • What is humanity’s situation with respect to surviving long-term with a good quality of life? (Frame the core opportunities and obstacles.)
  • What attributes of our evolved, experientially programmed brains contribute to this situation? (What are the potential leverage points for positive change within our body-brain-mind system?)
  • What courses of research and action (including currently available systems, tools, and practices and current and possible lines of R&D) have the potential to improve our (and the planetary life system’s) near- and long-term prospects?

Following is a list of (only some!) of the resources some of us have consumed and discussed online, in emails, or face-to-face in 2019. Sample a few to jog your thoughts and provoke deeper dives. Please add your own additional references in the comments below this post. For each, give a short (one line is fine) description, if possible.

Cracking the code of rapid social transformation

If interested sign up for this free one-hour presentation on Wednesday, January 15. The blurb:

Terry Patten and other activist leaders facing the grim implications of climate chaos are seeing surprising glimpses of evolutionary emergence in culture around the world.

Are we capable of making a huge, visible difference? How could each of us live differently to actually make it happen? Which cutting-edge communities and collectives are emerging to catalyze rapid social transformation?

Questions Terry will address include:

  • What is our best real-world evidence of change agents and spiritual practitioners around the world rapidly advancing culture?
  • What are the new potentials for technological breakthroughs that can open a window of opportunity for fundamental systems redesign?
  • What catalytic work is being done already by volunteers and organizers around the world, and particularly in the USA, leading up to the 2020 election?
  • What are the scientifically-grounded, realistic, transformative potentials disclosed by quantum social theory?
  • How might the emerging field of intentional cultural evolution already be setting the stage for rapid social transformation — visible now only in thousands of seemingly insignificant but daring conscious social experiments?

How cooperatives are driving the new economy

See this Evonomics article on the topic based on Tomasello’s research in this article. You can also see his latest research in his 2019 book Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. You can find a free copy here. It supports that cooperatives are much more in line with our evolutionary heritage than the corporate structure, thus highlighting the different focuses in evolutionary theory itself.

“New peer-reviewed research by Michael Tomasello, an American psychologist and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has synthesized three decades of research to develop a comprehensive evolutionary theory of human cooperation. What can we learn about sharing as a result?

“Tomasello holds that there were two key steps that led to humans’ unique form of interdependence. The first was all about who was coming to dinner. Approximately two million years ago, a fledgling species known as Homo habilis emerged on the great plains of Africa. At the same time that these four-foot-tall, bipedal apes appeared, a period of global cooling produced vast, open environments. This climate change event ultimately forced our hominid ancestors to adapt to a new way of life or perish entirely. Since they lacked the ability to take down large game, like the ferocious carnivores of the early Pleistocene, the solution they hit upon was scavenging the carcasses of recently killed large mammals. The analysis of fossil bones from this period has revealed evidence of stone-tool cut marks overlaid on top of carnivore teeth marks. The precursors of modern humans had a habit of arriving late to the feast.

“However, this survival strategy brought an entirely new set of challenges: Individuals now had to coordinate their behaviors, work together, and learn how to share. For apes living in the dense rainforest, the search for ripe fruit and nuts was largely an individual activity. But on the plains, our ancestors needed to travel in groups to survive, and the act of scavenging from a single animal carcass forced proto-humans to learn to tolerate each other and allow each other a fair share. This resulted in a form of social selection that favored cooperation: ‘Individuals who attempted to hog all of the food at a scavenged carcass would be actively repelled by others,’ writes Tomasello, ‘and perhaps shunned in other ways as well.’ […]

“The second step in Tomasello’s theory leads directly into what kinds of businesses and economies are more in line with human evolution. Humans have, of course, uniquely large population sizes—much larger than those of other primates. It was the human penchant for cooperation that allowed groups to grow in number and eventually become tribal societies.

“Humans, more than any other primate, developed psychological adaptations that allowed them to quickly recognize members of their own group (through unique behaviors, traditions, or forms of language) and develop a shared cultural identity in the pursuit of a common goal. ‘The result,’ says Tomasello, ‘was a new kind of interdependence and group-mindedness that went well beyond the joint intentionality of small-scale cooperation to a kind of collective intentionality at the level of the entire society.'”

The dirty secret of capitalism

And the way forward. Granted it’s not full-blown collaborative commons but more like a healthy social democracy of the kind Sanders promotes and Scandinavia has. But I think it’s a necessary stepping stone on that road. The blurb:

“Rising inequality and growing political instability are the direct result of decades of bad economic theory, says entrepreneur Nick Hanauer. In a visionary talk, he dismantles the mantra that ‘greed is good’ — an idea he describes as not only morally corrosive, but also scientifically wrong — and lays out a new theory of economics powered by reciprocity and cooperation.”

Bezos projects capitalism into space

Yes, space exploration is critical but we need to do it for the right reasons. And Bezos and other futurists want it without awareness or regard for the socio-economic system that has created hell on earth. So dump the earth and take our destruction into space? How about we change our worldview and socio-economic system and do it for the right reasons? And invest most of our time, energy and money into saving this world?

“The saying ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’ is very clear in Bezos’ future imaginings. He is unable to challenge the capitalist system from which he’s derived so much wealth. Thus the only positive future he can imagine involves leaving the only planet habitable to human beings. […] We don’t need space colonies; we need to get rid of billionaires and let the future be decided collectively, instead of letting a few powerful men rule the world.”

Their are alternatives to capitalism consistent with the above. As but one example see “From capitalism to the collaborative commons” in this journal issue.

Book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David J. Epstein investigates the significant advantages of generalized cognitive skills for success in a complex world. We’ve heard and read many praises for narrow expertise in both humans and AIs (Watson, Alpha Go, etc.). In both humans and AIs, however, narrow+deep expertise does not translate to adaptiveness when reality presents novel challenges, as it does constantly. 

As you ingest this highly readable, non-technical book, please add your observations to the comments below. 

Book: Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff

Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff investigates the impacts of current and emerging technologies and digital culture on individuals and groups and seeks ways to evade or extract ourselves from their corrosive effects.

After you read the book, please post your thoughts as comments to this post or, if you prefer, as new posts. There are interviews and other resources about the book online. Feel free to recommend in the comments those you find meaningful. Also, the audiobook is available through the Albuquerque Public Library but may have a long wait queue (I’m aiming for a record number of ‘q’s in this sentence).

Please use the tag and/or category ‘Rushkoff’ in your new posts. Use any other tags or categories you want. To access categories and tags while composing a post, click ‘Document’ at the top of the options area on the right side of the editing page.

How to add a category to a post in WordPress sites using the Gutenberg editor

Any comments you add to this post should inherit the post’s categories and tags. Add any additional ones as you like.

Last, this site includes a book reviews app for registered site members. To use it, log in and select Review under the New menu.

Starting a new book review

Running on escalators

Ideally, automation would yield a Star Trek reality of increasing leisure and quality of choice and experience. Why isn’t this our experience? An article on Medium offers insight into why this is not occurring on any significant scale.

Evolved behavioral strategies explained by the prisoner’s dilemma damn the majority of humans to a constant doubling down. We exchange the ‘leisure dividend’ (free time) granted by automation for opportunities to outcompete others.

Apparently, the sort of reciprocal social learning that could lead us to make healthy choices with our leisure opportunities depends on us and our competitors being able to mutually track our outcomes across consecutive iterations of the ‘game’. That ‘traceability’ quickly breaks down with the complexity inherent in vast numbers of competitors. When we conclude that any viable competitor may use her leisure dividend to further optimize her competitive position, rather than to pause to enjoy her life, we tend to do the same. Each assumes the other will sprint ahead and so chooses to sprint ahead. Both forfeit the opportunity to savor the leisure dividend.

The prisoner’s dilemma shows that we (most humans) would rather be in a grueling neck-and-neck race toward an invisible, receding finish line than permit the possibility a competitor may increase her lead.

Any strategy that’s so endemic must have evolutionary roots. Thoughts?

Test determines approximate year of death

Age-at-death forecasting – A new test predicts when a person will die. It’s currently accurate within a few years and is getting more accurate. What psychological impacts might knowing your approximate (± 6 months) death time mean for otherwise healthy people? Does existing research with terminally ill or very old persons shed light on this? What would the social and political implications be? What if a ‘death-clock’ reading became required for certain jobs (elected positions, astronauts, roles requiring expensive training and education, etc.) or decisions (whom to marry or parent children with, whether to adopt, whether to relocate, how to invest and manage one’s finances, etc.)?