Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Variations on a Theme

I keep looking for new sources of information on the state of the Economy, with mixed results.  I was interested recently to see that Bill Moyers was interviewing the Marxist economist, Richard D. Wolff.  That turned out to be quite a disappointment as he seems to me to be a self-absorbed clown.  There may be a modernized Marxist critique of capitalism that is worth reading, but I don't think it is going to come from Wolff.

I was more pleased to see that there are quite a few columnists worth paying attention to in the Economix blog at the NY Times.  They cover a wide range of economic topics from a variety of viewpoints.  Of course, not all of them offer perspectives that I like.  For instance, Binyamin Appelbaum's article, The Rise of Disability, seems to me to be just another variation of the Romney/Republican 47% story about how the lower classes are ripping off America.

"The share of working-age Americans receiving federal disability payments has roughly doubled in recent decades. It rose from 23 of every 1,000 workers in 1980 to 47 of every 1,000 workers in 2011. Put differently, 5 percent of the potential work force is more or less permanently out of action. That’s not good. 

The government likes to describe the increase mostly as the result of two demographic trends. Americans, on average, are getting older, and old people are less healthy. Also, as more women have entered the labor force, the share of female workers with health problems has climbed closer to the male average.

Independent experts, however, see substantial evidence that disability insurance increasingly serves as a safety net for people who cannot find jobs – people, that is, who might still have the ability to perform at least some kinds of work..."

And, here is his conclusion:

"...As the San Francisco Fed note puts it, disability insurance “is likely to keep expanding unless program rules and incentives are fundamentally altered.”"

First off, Appelbaum implies that the "government view" and that of "independent experts" are somehow mutually exclusive, which is clearly not the case.  More importantly, though, the conclusion he adopts from the San Francisco Fed ignores the implications of the facts which Appelbaum deems most significant.

To rephrase the "Independent Experts" view a bit:  when the economy gets bad, any kind of disability becomes a bigger barrier to employment because of job competition.  Appelbaum's prescription in this situation would be to tighten up eligibility requirements so that it is harder to get the benefits.  This seems to me to be just a variation on the Republican effort to pare away Social Security and other safety net measures.  With the economy in its currently depressed state, what that line of action really means is that you would be taking a bad situation and making it worse by applying inappropriate austerity constraints to the most beaten-down segment of society.  It is the same line of thinking that recognizes that there has been a big increase in the food stamp rolls and then goes on to suggest that the proper response is to make program entry more restrictive.  In short, find the people that are suffering the most in the economy and make their situation worse.

Before any kind of safety net programs get slashed in the name of restructuring, it seems like a more appropriate response given the dismal state of the economy is to first make a serious effort to improve the jobs situation.  A lot of the problems people see with government benefit programs disappear when unemployment goes down.  As is the case with concerns about deficits and debt, the time to identify and tackle real problems with anti-poverty programs is during times of prosperity.

Monday, June 24, 2013


I'm going to start today to look for another on-line course.  The Coursera Macroeconomics course I did recently was a useful introduction to the subject and to some of the potential and the problems with on-line education.  I'm thinking what I would like to do now is to find a course that is more mature in terms of development.  I would also be very pleased to find one that deals with some subject in the humanities as an additional way to compare the medium's potential across subjects.

What I would really like would be to find something on Spanish and Latin American literature, particularly one open to non-native speakers such as myself.  I took a sit-down-with-a few-other-warm-bodies-literature-course a year ago with Tony Mares that was very satisfying in many ways.  The course gave me a chance to read some things I probably would not have tackled otherwise, as well as being able to tune into other people's ideas on the subject.  Tony is an inspiring teacher and the course, which was offered at Albuquerque's Hispanic Cultural Center, was well worth the time I put into it.

The course taught by Tony could also have been improved.  With so few students, and none of us native speakers other than Tony, it was difficult at times to overcome disparities in language facility.  I'm sure it was frustrating at times for each of the students as well as for Tony, whose skills could have profitably been shared with a bigger and more diverse group.  It seems like putting the course on-line would have offered everyone a better experience.

Today, I found an excellent discussion about on-line learning at the Los Angeles Review of Books site, entitled "MOOCs and the Future of the Humanities: A Roundtable by Ian Bogost, Cathy N. Davidson, Al Filreis and Ray Schroeder".  The participants are college professors with considerable on-line experience; I was quite a bit more optimistic about the future of the medium after reading their contributions.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Art, Science and Economics

The negative impacts of wealth and greed on human behavior have come under close scrutiny in the literature of the western world for a long time. One finds the subject in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, in the Bible, and in countless novels. It also does not appear to be a subject that will go away any time soon. Economic inequality in the U.S. has taken on epidemic proportions, driven by social and political forces that seem increasingly to propel the direction of large institutions into the hands of sociopaths.

The increasing concentration of wealth under the control of a diminishing proportion of the population is easy to demonstrate, as is the increasingly dysfunctional national economy. Curiously, the people at the top of the heap seem not to have a very clear view of how all this transpires.

At least, that is the way it appears to me when I attempt to discuss socio-economic issues with well-off acquaintances.  The responses I get in regard to concerns about the state of the nation always lead to the rather bizarre notion that it is the people at the bottom who are primarily responsible for dragging down the economy.   They are portrayed as moochers, sucking the life out of the national spirit -- basically, Mitt Romney's 47% argument.  Of course, that assessment didn't play too well in the last election, but the wealthy are undeterred in their allegiance to the proposition.  The corollary to the moral decay of the lower classes idea is that the upper class has achieved its ascendancy through moral superiority and hard work.

An alternative view of the world was explored recently by PBS economics correspondent, Paul Solman, in  a Newshour presentation entitled "Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, 'Pernicious' Effects of Economic Inequality."  Solman interviewed a Berkeley psychology researcher, Paul K. Piff, who had recently completed an extensive study which focused on the differences in ethical behavior associated with economic and social class status.

Here is the Abstract of Piff's paper which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) under the title, "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior":

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

I thought the PBS program did quite a nice job of illustrating the issues brought up in the research, but the PNAS article is also quite clear in its presentation and can be read in its entirety on line*.  While the study authors don't pull any punches, they also are not dogmatic in their conclusions.  They acknowledge that there are obviously many altruistic rich individuals who don't fit the patterns described.  Additionally, some of the traits of greed and selfishness were invoked experimentally in test subjects regardless of class affiliation.

One thing that suggests is that the personality profiles of privileged, greedy people may be somewhat malleable, at least in the early stages.  There are any number of other interesting implications of the study which seem worthy of pursuit, such as cross-cultural and international comparisons, or perhaps some of the ways in which such behavioral patterns become entrenched and dominant at the institutional level.

(*Note: The full PNAS article is available on line at the time of this post, probably because it is in the current issue.  According to the site information, full articles are available only to subscribers for the first six months after publication.  However, I was able to download a pdf copy of the article.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Nubosidad Variable

Carmen Martín Gaite stepped away from the writing of novels for fourteen years after the publication of El Cuarto de Atras in 1978, three years after the death of Francisco Franco.  In the interim, she published scholarly essays, poetry and some stories for children.  In Nubosidad Variable, published in 1992, Martín Gaite confronted a new society in Spain which had largely put Franco and the War behind it.

Back in the 1960s when she wrote Ritmo Lento, there were signs that the dictatorship would ultimately crumble because of it own rotten core as well as
the inevitable seepage in of new ideas from a rapidly changing wider world beyond Spain's borders.  For individuals who did not fit the regime's mold, however, there was no clear path at that time to a freer future, and many like David, the main charcter of Ritmo Lento, and his father found themselves in fatal dead-ends.

By the 1990s there were few real political barriers left to impede individual development and expression, but those who had reached adulthood during Franco's four-decade reign still found themselves constrained by custom and habit in such a way that they were unable to easily grasp the new opportunities that a freer political and economic system were offering.  Two such people are the principle characters of Nubosidad Variable, Mariana and Sofía, both aspiring writers who renew a friendship through a chance meeting.  They are unable to meet again for some time, but a single exchange of letters allows each of them to form an image of an ideal interlocutor with whom they can share their memories and use them to construct a way forward toward more rewarding lives.

Sofía maintains a close and nurturing relationship with her three grown children, but shares neither values, interests nor affection with her husband.  The written narrative Sofia constructs with a combination of her memories of a brief but more passionate attachment, and the imagined empathetic connection to her friend  allows her to clarify her feelings about her present predicament and points her toward resolution.  Sofía's progress toward self-realization is signaled by a dream in which she overcomes the conflicting aspects of her relationship with her long-dead, domineering mother.  She takes the final step into independence with the help of her children who have left the old ways behind to embrace the new with all its opportunities and risks.

Mariana has sidestepped some traditional constraints through devoting herself to building a career as a psychiatra.  We are given little information about the specifics of her techniques, but it appears that she employs a psychoanalytic methodology with her patients.  Mariana appears to have achieved a level of success in her practice, but she finds it increasingly unrewarding and devoid of any real value to herself or her patients.  Part of her career building has been accomplished through avoiding personal commitments, and she ultimately finds herself trapped in a profession she no longer believes in and with no chance of retrieving viable relationships from the wreckage of the past.  Like Sofia, she uses the development of a journal, addressing her thoughts to her friend, as a tool to search the past for answers to a possible future.

The two women do ultimately have the opportunity to meet again and to share the journals they have written.  The story thus ends on a much more optimistic note than was the case for the doomed characters in Ritmo Lento who could find no way out of Franco's labyrinth.  Sofía's blossoming self-awareness seems both credible and admirable.  She is an appealing character who seems to embody the intelligence, directness and quirky spontaneity that contemporaries of Martín Gaite admired in the author.

Mariana's is a very different story, from a character whose behavior is enigmatic.  She is able to articulate her complex inner thoughts and feelings in a manner that seems consistent with the orientation of a psychotherapist.  At the same time, she seems nearly devoid of any sense of empathy or compassion.  She also demonstrates a disconcerting absence of any ethical code that one might expect from a psychotherapist.  Her story begins, for instance, with the unraveling of an intimate relationship with one of her patients, Raimundo, who she describes in a letter to her friend as having  issues with homosexuality.  When Raimundo narrowly survives a suicide attempt, Mariana severs the relationship as he lies in his hospital bed, and then she flees the city to recuperate from the experience.

Martín Gaite clearly had a low opinion of psychoanalysts, which was already apparent in her much earlier work.  Mariana's egregious blurring of the lines between the personal and professional, however, strains believability, as does her failure to recognize it explicitly anywhere along her journey of self-discovery.  It is conceivable that a person caught in such a dilemma as hers might be willing to abandon a long-nurtured  commitment to a profession, but Mariana seems to be left with little to build on in the end beyond raw intelligence and the attachment to a better-grounded old friend.

Perhaps the intention of Martín Gaite in telling this story is to demonstrate the possibility of reconstructing  a single new life from the disparate pieces of two lives retrieved from the past through the written down memories of the two women.  That seems consistent with literary evaluations of her work, as well as with statements the author made in interviews. Or, maybe the author was offering a glimpse of how she might bring together two sides of her own personality.  A whole academic industry has been constructed around such speculations.  I'm not qualified to sort out any of it at this point, but I am looking forward to reading more of Carmiña's stories.

Monday, June 10, 2013


I was pleased recently to find I could acquire a used copy of Krugman's Macroeconomics, 2nd Edition for $11. That is quite an improvement over the new price at Amazon of $163. I bought mine right near the end of the school year when there was only one available on line.  Had I had waited a week or two, I could have got the book at half my price. There is now a third edition, though it is only a couple years newer, and the new price is about the same as the second edition.

 Textbook prices in general seem obscene, as does the general cost of higher education these days. One possibility in regard to text prices might be to make professors pay for their student's texts out of their own salary. That would put some upward pressure on professor salaries I suppose, but it does seem likely it would cut down on the issuance of new editions with inconsequential revisions as well. Also, if the texts are genuinely well produced as is the case with the Krugman book, some consideration might be encouraged in regard to the role of professors in the teaching and learning process.

While I enjoyed the Coursera on line Microeconomics course I recently completed, I was also reminded in the process that lecturing leaves a lot to be desired as a teaching and learning tool.  If the topic is at all complex, the need to take notes inevitably interferes with comprehension, and even if you have a video recording of the lecture, reviewing the material is still a cumbersome process.  When it is known that the material will be used primarily through an on line presentation, there is really no good excuse for not making a full textual copy available which can be indexed and searched.

In fact, I think it makes good sense to start with a good, thorough text like the Krugman book and build the learning experience outward from that point.  Adding supplemental and updated material on line is a simple matter, and the main text itself could also be made available in electronic form.  Group intereractions can be conducted on line in both real-time with something like Skype, or through less time-constricted forums.  Some of this is being done now, but not in any comprehensive way, primarily because of copyright restrictions, but also because of simple institutional inertia.

I think there is the hope among many proponents of on line education initiatives that it will be possible to create a system that is somehow independent of the existing educational establishment.  Others, including the serious developers of on line content, seem to be aiming at creating a product that will be attractive to educational institutions as a way of cutting costs.  I skeptical about either possibility given the huge amount of resources currently tied up in the existing educational system and the lack of will and planning to undertake serious reforms.  For a good look at just how bad the situation is -- particularly in regard to student loan debt -- take a look at a recent NY Times column by economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Ritmo Lento

Ritmo Lento was an early novel by Carmen Martín Gaite that did not achieve great success when it first appeared in 1963.  For me, however, it seems a better crafted story than La Reina de las Nieves which came along thirty years later.  While the later novel was structured to follow the fable by Hans Christian Andersen of the same title and contained a good deal of fantasy, the earlier novel was firmly grounded in the trying times around Spain's Civil War and closely examined the psychological development of a young man who passed through that period.

The main character, David, was born into a relatively wealthy family which schooled him at home.  His critical faculties and artistic capacities were encouraged, but his emotional development was stunted by conflicted relationships with his mother, father and sister.  The result was that David was never able to form lasting relationships;  he becomes caught up in a perpetual existential dilemma, and is unable to sustain any momentum toward any normal life goals.  One course always seems as good as another, and David can never commit himself to pursuing any interest to a useful conclusion, including work and love.  While he is not without charm and social skills, he ultimately betrays his opportunities for rewarding relationships by his relentless and ruthless honesty, ultimately wearing out his welcome with everyone.

David's family and his society in general see him not only as a social misfit, but also as a person with mental illness issues and in need of psychiatic  treatment.  The treatment is initially prescribed by his psychiatrist father and then carried out by a psychiatrist friend of the father who begins the relationship surreptitiously and pursues treatment in the form of talk therapy of a psychoanalytic nature.  On two occasions, David is subjected to confinement in asylums as a result of episodes of bizarre behavior.  However, it seems significant that the behavior is triggered by severe stress -- once in relation to a bank job for which David is obviously unsuited, and in the final chapter by the suicide of the father.

Nowhere in the account of David's travails is there any indication of disordered thought processes.  He is not paranoid, he doesn't hear voices; if anything, he is excessively rational.  So, it seems that the responses to his behavioral outbursts are couched in medical terms, but that they actually represent a way to exert societal control over non-criminal, non-conformist views and actions.  It seems to me that this view of the society's response to David is intentionally advanced by the author, though I have not seen that directly suggested in the critical assessments or her work that I have found.

I have also not found references in the critical treatments of the novel to the idea that David may be representative of a class of young people whose lives were thrown into disarray by the Civil War.  As a member of a well-off Spanish family, David experienced little pressure to find a path to self-sufficiency.  The war, for wealthy families in areas dominated from the beginning by Franco's forces, was little more than an inconvenience compared to the calamity it represented for people in the contested areas like Madrid.  In the end, though Franco prevailed, everyone throughout the country was subject to the creeping malaise that overtook Spain in the post-war years.  Economic and social transformations that were unforeseen trumped conservative agenda, and people like David and his father just were not able to cope with the changes.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

mother and daughter

Thanks to our friend Liz for this fine picture of Leah and Margaret.

They are at the summit of Tent Rocks National Monument on a fine Spring day.