Alan Krueger and ‘mind fixers’

Gary Greenberg’s review of the book, ‘Mind Fixers’ by Anne Harrington is not just a review but also an indictment of the profession of psychiatry. He indicts Anne Harrington for not indicting the profession enough for not acknowledging the limitations of what it knows about psychiatric illnesses and the vastness of what it does not know yet, of the origins of psychiatric illnesses. In other words, the psychiatric professionals have a psychiatric problem or two: hubris and denial. Well, in that, they have a much larger company: the entire humanity.

That this book review caught my attention today in the aftermath of the sad and sudden death of Prof. Alan Krueger in the United States is entirely coincidental. He took his own life apparently and that he was suffering from mental depression. I had listened to him twice in Singapore during the Annual ABFER Conferences in the last few years. He was a good looking man and appeared confident and positive. He had done quite a bit of empirical work and was on the Council of Economic Advisors for President Obama. His suicide and his depression actually proves the point Gary Greenberg makes.

We do not know much about mental illnesses and we refuse to admit it. That is so typical of us.

I seldom agree with Martin Sandbu’s economics because of his steadfast refusal to allow empirical evidence to influence his pet theories of policy prescriptions for the post-crisis economy in the world.

But, I will readily concede that he has written a very good and a very apt tribute to Alan Krueger. Martin Sandbu focuses on Krueger’s work on minimum wage. It had re-shaped the pet, ideological views of many that a higher minimum wage necessarily lowers employment. It is not the case. Alan Krueger took interest in questions of economics that had a public policy dimension and public utility. That makes his demise all the more sadder and untimely. There are many useful links in Martin Sandbu’s piece. One of them is this.

President Obama had reportedly said, in his moving tribute, that Alan Krueger had a smile even when he was critical – something for all of us to keep in mind.

Also, the last paragraph of the article is very important:

“If someone has positively shaped your life and work, let them know,” Susan M. Dynarski, a professor of public policy, education, and economics at the University of Michigan, wrote on Twitter. “No one is too famous or accomplished to be lifted by your kind words.” [Link]

Why do you want to become an ‘insider’?

I had long wanted to write a detailed review of Yanis Varoufakis’ book, ‘Adults in the Room’ which I finished reading some six months ago. But, never got around to doing it. I shall post separately a long review of ‘Adults in the Room’ – a simplified and shorter version of which appeared as a MINT column. It appeared in MINT in April 2018.

As my good friend Gulzar Natarajan remarked recently, the drawback of YV seems to be that he does not seem to admit to any mistakes or frailties or failures on his part.  In fact, some in Europe have claimed that he failed not so much because the ‘Troika’ (European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) did not agree with him but that his personality was abrasive and somewhat insufferable. We will not know which version is true.

But, one of the first things that strikes you from the book is the question that Larry Summers poses to YV:

There are two kinds of politicians: insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes. So Yanis, which of the two are you?

This is a very profound statement. In the context of Greece, both Alex Tsipras and Varoufakis were outsiders who became insiders. But, Alex internalised his ‘insider’ role too much while YV retained his ‘outsider’ spirit and could not continue and came out to become an outsider, again. That Alex Tsipras chose to agree to the demands of the Troika after the referendum he called gave him the mandate to reject the EU conditions was a dramatic about-face. Notwithstanding everything that must have gone on before, including possibly YV’s personality playing a role in the debacle of negotiations with Europe,  this must be a sad moment for all those who harbour romantic notions of challenging power and coming out the better for it.

Actually, Larry Summers’ quote above might sound utterly cynical but is very close to the truth. All change agents succeed only when insiders permit them to. Otherwise, most end up as rebellions without success. Even if they succeed in overthrowing a particular regime and come to office and then turn into ‘insiders’ themselves, did their cause or the ordinary citizens who trusted them succeed?

‘Insiders’ are those who control the discourse, the narrative, wield power, influence and usually benefit smaller power centres and narrow interests than serve large interests. ‘Outsiders’ are like Don Quixote tilting at the windmills.

If you become an ‘insider’ by accident as YV did and if the ‘insiders’ already inside permit you – assuming that you retain the spirit of the ‘outsider’ in you, you may be able to achieve a few things that are consistent with your ideals. That is the bitter reality of the balance of power. All democracy in that sense is a fig leaf for the balance of power that rests firmly with the powerful. The power of power is powerful!

A rising tide might turn some boats into giant steamers andin the process may lift some boats. But, we mistake it for the power of our ideas, power of our persuasion and the triumph of the underdog, etc. It might simply be the case that you were allowed to succeed for various reasons.

The question, at a personal level, is whether one wishes to remain an outsider or an insider. IF one wanted to become an insider for the sake of ‘doing good’, then it is important to remember Summers’ advice. IT is sound, practical and true. The risk is that one might become a quintessential ‘insider’ oneself. The system digests you completely.

Or, one retains the spirit or remains loyal to it, remains untouched by the trappings of becoming an insider and achieves whatever possible. At the margin, he or she would have made the world a better place. It is possible theoretically but happens relatively rarely or to a few. It is possible for policy advisors and some technocrats but less so for politicians and for those who hold political office.

Or, one comes out; becomes an outsider again and remains true and loyal to one’s beliefs and values and sleeps soundly. If one were lucky, a crisis occurs and one’s ideas are sought and one pushes them through in a crisis. Otherwise, insiders would never permit them. One’s ideas see the light of the day and make a positive impact and one remains an outsider. That is the ultimate success story. But, it needs a lot of luck or divine will.

In India, many political parties started out as outsiders. The DMK in the South, the All Assam Students’ Union come to mind. Laloo Prasad Yadav started out as a Lohia-ite socialist. Tamil movie, ‘Achamillai, Achamillai’, is the story of how the insiders turned an outsider into one of them – a school teacher who joined politics to do good; becomes a politician, engineers a caste conflict and killings. His wife does not ‘recognise’ him any more and kills him in the end.

Tamil Novel, ‘Mayaman Vettai’ by Indira Parthasarathy is another tragic tale of a returning non-resident Indian becoming an insider – part of the system that he sets out to change.

Just right now, notice how in the tragic turn of events in Sri Lanka, Arjuna Ranatunga, the hero of their World Cup victory in 1996, has been arrested as his bodyguards fired at demonstrators or opposition supporters. He was the leader of the underdog team – an outsider – that challenged  ‘status quo’ powers.

One of the most brilliant articles I had read this year was about the current Pakistan Prime Minister and the brilliant cricketer cum captain, Imran Khan, who led his team to victory in 1992 World Cup. The story is that of an outsider for whom becoming the insider became an end in itself.

Very few remember why they became insiders in the first place. IF they do not truly become insiders – at least, they forget their original ideals and settle for their personal career advancement. That is, becoming part of the system becomes an end in itself. They may not be as harmful as true insiders usually are but they drift far away from their ‘outsider’ spirit. Very little of it stays with them. There is little public welfare gain from them becoming insiders. There are many in this category.

Personally, I feel very comfortable imagining myself as an outsider. I must consider myself lucky that, in my corporate career, I was allowed free reign of my ‘outsider’ spirit. That was partly a matter of luck for my role never really threatened the insiders and my research calls, predictions and views – out of consensu as they were – did not turn out to be systematically and persistently wrong. In fact, they were right, for the most part. It was a lucky confluence of many things that helped me remain an ‘outsider’ for most of my corporate innings.

Things became difficult in more ways than one, after 2009, with the engineered economic recovery. I never could come to terms with it, until today. No wonder I quit in 2011, feeling confused about many things! I still am.

[Cross-posted in]

Jordan Peterson

Peggy Noonan has an interesting article (ht: Venugopal Ramakrishnan) on the interview of clinical psychologist and social philosopher Jordan Peterson by a British television journalist. From what she writes, I think Peterson’s work resonates with me. I listened to the interview he gave to Cathy Newman of Channel 4. He handled himself exceptionally well.

If you want to be shocked by how someone could so deliberately distort the interviewee’s words and if you do not want to watch the interview, you can read an article in ‘The Atlantic’.

I got to know of Jordan Peterson as the person who had interviewed the Google employee James Damore. Sunder Pichai fired him for posing important questions on the culture at Google. Now, Mr. Pichai says he stands by his decision. Well, I suppose, it is too early for a mea culpa. Julian Baggini has a review of his book at FT.

The sub-title of the review is: ‘A YouTube intellectual’s advice on how to live emphasises order and tradition’. That is enough to put any objective reader off. The arrogance of some of these self-styled intellectuals is blinding them to the obvious reality that it is not helping but hurting the very causes that they claim to espouse – so-called liberal values. There is nothing very liberal or liberating about putting down another person. It is cheap and vulgar. It is intolerance. There are far better, more effective and more persuasive ways of critiquing a book’s content or the lack of it.

Cathy Newman of Channel 4 and Julian Baggini have done the greatest disservice to genuinely liberal values and principles.

Peggy Noonan has an answer for Julian Baggini:

When cultural arbiters try to silence a thinker, you have to assume he is saying something valuable.

So I bought and read the book. A small thing, but it improved my morale.

As many readers-commentators in FT have said, the article in ‘The Guardian’ on his book is far more insightful. I could also read what Professor Peterson had to say about the backlash his interviewer from UK’s Channel 4, Cathy Newman, faced.

The last line of that article tells me that he is a liberal:

If Cathy is interested, maybe we could model a conversation. That would be a good thing.

That is the way to foster a dialogue.

The right leadership

… While capitalism at last stands electorally victorious and philosophically without serious rival, its performance has become manifestly unsatisfactory. Its core credential of steadily rising general living standards has been badly tarnished: a majority now expect their children’s lives to be worse than their own. It is time for “The Future of Capitalism”. Unfortunately, nobody has yet successfully written that book. In its absence, I will try to weave something from the strands of recent contributions to the field.

Whatever emerges will not be a new ideology. If Levinson is not enough to convince you, try Jonathan Tepperman’s The Fix. His title refers not to our current mess, but to ten case studies of how some political leaders really have transformed situations for the better. Tepperman searches for the formula by which these people have remedied serious problems. The cases are valuable in their own right: many leaders could learn from how Lee Kwan Yew drove out corruption in Singapore, how Pierre Trudeau defused Québécois separatism, and how Paul Kagame rebuilt cultural identities in Rwanda. But for present purposes it is Tepperman’s conclusion that is valuable: eschew ideology; focus on pragmatic solutions to core problems, adjust as you go, but be as tough as is necessary. A viable future for capitalism will cut across the ideological baggage of the twentieth century: forget Left versus Right, set aside the familiar pious moralizing and start from the problems. As Tepperman argues, the leaders who stuck rigorously to this approach initially faced intense criticism. Pragmatism is guaranteed to offend the ideologues of every persuasion and they are the people who dominate the media. [Link]

Did Paul Collier forget Nelson Mandela?

Among the global leaders of today, who comes close to this pragmatic centre?

Studying natural stupidity

Read the ‘New Yorker’ Review of Michael Lewis’ book on Kahneman and Tversky. The review by Sunstein and Thaler offered glimpses into the relationship between both the men than about the book by Michael Lewis – whether it is readable, worth reading, its strengths and weaknesses, etc. In passing, yes.

Some lovely glimpses into Tversky’s personality:

He was an optimist, not only because it suited his personality but also because, as he put it, “when you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.

When asked about artificial intelligence, Tversky replied, “We study natural stupidity.” (He did not really think that people were stupid, but the line was too good to pass up.)

From the review, it does appear that it would be interesting to read the portions of Michael Lewis’ book after the duo – Tversky and Kahneman – moved to America. Even the most perceptive scholars and students of human minds are not exempt from the common afflictions of human minds, it seems.

I do have a personal anecdote to share. I shared with Professor Kahneman my review of his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. He replied:

Thank you very much for sending me these very perceptive notes.
Best wishes,
Daniel Kahneman

This was on 21st August 2012.

Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’- a review

When I met my friend Nitin Pai in July in his office at Takshashila Institution on a Sunday evening, at the end of the conversation, he recommended the book, ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt who teaches at the New York University (NYU). I read some reviews. Ordered it on Kindle then and finished it recently. I am glad I read it. I am thankful to Nitin for recommending it. He has done a very good job. I wrote an article based on the book for MINT last Tuesday. You can find it here. This blog post is largely based on that.

Why are the Indians still supportive of the decision of the Indian government’s decision to demonetize currency notes without replacement as Prof. Indira Rajaraman had called it, despite their inconvenience and hardship?

Why is it likely that Ms. Merkel’s decision to contest for an unprecedented fourth term after her liberal decision on refugees could turn out to be a crowning failure on her illustrious career?

Why is ‘unity in diversity’ not a slogan that has only one conventional interpretation that diversity is to be celebrated, unquestioningly? Put differently, why the case for federalism and devolution in a country as large and diverse as India from a governance perspective has its limits too?

If you want answers to these questions and more, the best place to start would be Jonathan Haidt’ book, ‘The Righteous Mind’.  The book is an important read for many, especially those who believe that they are liberals and are open-minded. But, that is an oxymoron.

That is what the author, a self-confessed lifelong liberal, atheist and scientist, establishes. He had equated conservatism with orthodoxy, religion, faith and rejection of science. But, he sees things somewhat differently now. His open mind and the spirit of inquiry disqualifies him from being admitted to the ranks of modern-day ‘Liberal’.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part shows that reason is not the one that drives intuition but it is the other way around. That portion must sound familiar to those who have read the works of behavioural science researchers such as Professor Daniel Kahneman, for example. Without the heart, the head drops dead. Jonathan Haidt writes:

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. Reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth. As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion.

The belief in the infallibility and the primacy of reason – in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, Kant and Kohlberg – leads to the primacy of the individual over groups. All human beings are capable of reason and hence all are equal. Anything that harms the individual or is unfair to the individual is not acceptable; is immoral. There is no morality beyond harm or inequality. Social norms and groups do not matter.

The second part of the book prepares the ground for the third part that exposes the limitations and the societal consequences of the mindless application of the above ‘liberal’ principles or concerns. There is more to fairness than equality. The theory of karma is about fairness as proportionality, rewards and consequences consistent with efforts and actions or the lack thereof. Emphasis on equality encourages free riders and severs the link between effort and reward. Sustained over time, it causes societies and economies to weaken and eventually collapse. Thus, what is happening in Indian school education systems across States has dangerous portents. The link between effort and reward must be restored.

Similarly, there is more to morality than merely not causing harm. With the demonetisation move, clearly some people have been caused hardship or harmed. That has raised many a liberal’s hackle. But, even those who are affected are still supportive because they place the immorality of black money above the harm and hardship caused to them. Of course, there are thresholds and trade-offs beyond which the prioritisation can shift. For now, it is possible to explain this dichotomy using Haidt’s framework.

Groups that are cohesive easily defeat those that are not and are fragmented. Group rituals that are dismissed as irrational and inefficient bind members of the group. Think of the Sabarimala pilgrimage. It demands a 45-day preparation from the devotees. It demands abstinence from meat, alcohol and other physical comforts. The more sacrifices that a group demands of its members, the longer the group lasts and better it coheres. That is why externally imposed interference in group norms and rituals are guaranteed to destroy group coherence and identity.

Haidt channels Emile Durkheim to warn that “societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.”

Recognising and respecting differences is, in general, the right thing to do. But, it is a fine line. In principle, federalism is desirable and is effective. But, there are lines in the sand that cannot be crossed and nor should the principle of federalism be invoked to promote differences in all and sundry aspects. Then, unity would slowly unravel. “The process of converting Pluribus (diverse people) into Unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.”

The question is whether Germany has abruptly halted that miracle with its policy on refugees, not to mention the veritable mess that it has created in international politics too. “In a paper revealingly titled “E Pluribus Unum,” Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.” Vielen dank, Frau Merkel.

Jonathan Haidt is walking the talk. With likeminded professors, he has now set up the Heterodox Academy with the goal of promoting viewpoint diversity in the academy, primarily in the United States. He is clearly striving to be open minded. Something that most liberals lack. Indeed, certitude is the hallmark of self-styled ‘liberals’. In my view, there is something inherently contradictory about a liberal’s certitudes.

Some important quotes from the book:

The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.

When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated those expectations, the first moral matrix was born. 57 (Remember that a matrix is a consensual hallucination.) That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing.

Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective.

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it.

It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

John Lennon captured a common liberal dream in his haunting song “Imagine.” Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would “be as one.” It’s a vision of heaven for liberals, but conservatives believe it would quickly descend into hell. I think conservatives are on to something.

On optimism

On Saturday morning, I woke up determined to locate a few sentences on ‘optimism’ that I had used for my ‘signature’ in email messages. I had shown it to a friend few days earlier. I thought I had used them in 2011. Turned out that I had used them in 2010 and hence I could not locate it until I remembered good friend Shekhar Gupta’s email that helped me identify the author of those lines as ‘Julian Baggini’, editor of ‘The Philosophers’ magazine’ and author of a book called ‘Complaint’. I had not read the book. I then searched on ‘Julian Baggini’ and found a page of quotes attributed to him. Several of them were interesting. Sample two below:

Every time we recall an event, we must reconstruct the memory, and with every recollection the memory may be changed … Truth and reality, when seen through the filter of our memories, are not objective facts but subjective, interpretive realities.

Many philosophers have argued that we are constituted by a psychologically continuous web of thoughts, feelings, beliefs and memories. Dementia says, well, okay, let’s pick that web apart, piece by piece and see if anything of you remains.

Then, I found that he has a TED talk on an interesting topic, ‘Is there a real you?’ Must listen to it. Here are his lines on the distinction between being positive in an intelligent sort of way and being positive for the sake of it:

The issue, …., is whether we start with the facts or with our attitudes. What positive psychology gets right is that when we confront reality, we always have some control over how we then respond to it, and that a lot of misery is avoidable if we try to make the best rather than the worst of things. In practice, however, this sensible advice often degenerates into an excessive optimism, in which reality is whatever we think it to be. But you can’t make the best of a bad situation if you pretend it’s really just a good one in disguise.

These lines appear towards the end of an interesting review of four interesting books on the cult of optimism and happiness. The book review is worth a read. I had picked up the book by Ehrenreich some two years ago but yet to read it!

Hence, the Saturday morning hunt for a quote returned a treasure.