2/14/2014

The Difference Between 'Big Law' & 'Big Medicine'

 
An interesting article was published in The Atlantic this week warning the medical profession of the mistakes that led to the collapse of 'Big Law' and the entire legal profession. The article makes two main points: First, the job market for lawyers is terrible, with "more than 180 of the 200 US law schools unable to find jobs for more than 80% of their graduates" and, second, the collapse of the legal profession is the result of self-inflicted wounds caused by the legal profession's new-found obsession with metrics like the PPP (i.e. profits per partner) and law school rankings.

But the article fails to point out the ways in which Law and Medicine differ. And these differences help underscore the true problem with health care. 

First, Medicine and individual physicians are not suffering from the same terrible job market that is plaguing the legal profession. There are huge projected shortages of primary care physicians as well as specialists such as general surgeons. Even more worrisome; we currently have fewer physicians-per-capita than most OECD countries (and sit far below the OECD average), yet we are faced with a continually aging population, a worsening obesity epidemic, and an influx of newly-insured Obamacare enrollees.

Source: OECD Library
These realities will only create further demand for physicians moving forward. This is in contrast with the legal profession which in the U.S. has the highest lawyer-per-capita in the world. Simply put, the legal profession is suffering from too many lawyers, while health care in the U.S. is suffering from too few physicians. 

Secondly, medicine is moving away, not towards, the individual earnings model implemented by 'Big Law.' Every year, more-and-more money is spent on therapy-specific cost-effectiveness research, cost containment delivery models, and integrated systems that work to contain costs. Unlike lawyers in the legal profession, physicians play a much smaller role in the rising costs of medicine. The vast majority of the rising cost of health care can be explained by the aging population, health factors such as obesity, expensive and often wasteful end-of-life care, and new technologies in the form of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Instead of warning doctors to be less like lawyers, perhaps we should be addressing the real issues at hand. 

9/29/2013

Why You Should Pay Attention to the U.S. Budget Crisis

Judging from some of the reactions I’ve seen and heard over the last week, it’s clear that many of you are happily unaware of the ridiculous battles taking place in the United States Congress, or, if you are aware, don’t really understand what the whole fuss is about. Let me begin by saying that what is currently taking place is very, very serious, and even if you couldn’t normally give a hoot about politics, you should be paying attention right now.

(As an aside, some might accuse me of having some kind of partisan bias. While I do hold a preference for liberal policy prescriptions on a number of issues, on this particular issue it makes no difference what your political orientation is. On this issue, objectively, one side is completely to blame. My political leanings have absolutely no effect on my reading of this matter).

There are two main issues at stake. The first is the “continuing resolution”, which is basically a bill that authorizes the government to spend money over a certain period of time. The current one is about to expire, and if a new continuing resolution isn’t passed, many government agencies will be forced to shut down on Monday night.

Normally, passing a continuing resolution would not be a problem. The issue this time around is that the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, is refusing to pass a continuing resolution that does not remove funding for the Affordable Care Act, delay implementation of the law, or repeal individual portions of the law.

House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio headed to vote on the latest bill to link further government financing to a weakening of President Obama's health care law.
Source: The New York Times
Some people have defended this tactic. After all, isn’t the House of Representatives the lawful originator of spending bills? Why shouldn’t they be able to refuse to fund a law they don’t agree with, or use their control over the budget to extract policy concessions? But this logic only works if you support the House’s policy position. It is easy to imagine an equivalent scenario in which a Democrat controlled House refused to pass a continuing resolution that did not raise taxes on upper income brackets, or reduce military spending, or any other liberal policy you can imagine. I suspect no one currently defending the Republican House would defend these actions. Taken to its logical conclusion, whichever party controlled the House of Representatives could make any demands it wanted, and bring the government to a standstill if its demands were not met. It quickly becomes clear that this is no way to run a government, and that continuing resolutions should never have “demands” attached to them.

There is a normal political process for passing laws and setting spending levels. The House and the Senate both pass bills, which are then merged into a single compromise bill in a conference, and this bill is sent to the President to be signed. Through this process, the Affordable Care Act could be defunded or repealed, but it would require Republicans to control the Senate and the White House (or to have enough votes in Congress to override the president’s veto). In the 2012 election, Republicans failed to capture the White House or the Senate. Thus the Affordable Care Act cannot be repealed, defunded or delayed through the normal political process, and that should be the end of the story. What the Republicans are currently doing is attempting to circumvent this process by threatening to stop the normal operations of government unless they get policy concessions that they would be unable to get through the normal political process. This is both irresponsible and outright reprehensible, and even if your political philosophy is conservative, you should oppose the Republicans on this issue.

The second issue at stake, and by far the more important of the two, is the debt ceiling. The United States has a legal limit on the amount of debt it can take on. In practice, this debt ceiling serves no purpose, because annual expenditures are agreed upon in bills that have no relation to the debt ceiling, and Congress frequently passes appropriations bills that compel the government to exceed the debt ceiling later in the year. Indeed the debt ceiling has constantly been raised 99 times since 1940, or an average of once every nine months. Usually this is done as a matter of course, but in 2011 Republicans seized on the idea of refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless they were granted policy concessions. Again, these were concessions that they would have been unable to achieve through the normal political process.

Using the debt ceiling as a policy lever is particularly insidious because the consequences of breaching the debt ceiling would be disastrous. If the United States were unable to borrow, it would immediately become unable to pay its bills. The nation’s credit rating would be destroyed, interest rates would soar, and the nation could easily slip into another recession just as severe as the one in 2008. Although the United States does have a huge amount of outstanding debt, financing that debt is quite cheap because investors regard U.S. debt as a sure thing. By refusing to raise the debt ceiling, the House of Representatives would force investors to price the very real (and entirely self-imposed) risk of default into their bond purchases, which would send bond rates soaring and make the cost of financing our debt far more expensive than it needs to be. This would actually increase the annual deficit by tens of billions of dollars.

It should be apparent that raising the debt ceiling is not a concession to anyone. It is a necessary part of keeping the government functioning. Decreasing our annual deficit and stabilizing the national debt is an important priority, but the debt ceiling is not a policy lever with which to achieve this goal.

What the Republican party is doing at this moment is reckless behavior completely unworthy of any governing party. Threatening government shutdown or an economic catastrophe unless President Obama and Senate Democrats accede to policy demands that Republicans could not otherwise obtain through the normal political process is despicable behavior, and no one, not even the most ardent right-wing voter, should support this behavior.

7/04/2013

The Next 237 Years


Today, as we mark the 237th anniversary of our nation's birth, we have an opportunity to look around us and to evaluate our success at living up to the ideals that the country was founded upon. Just as importantly, we have the opportunity to consider what kind of nation we want to be as we move forward.

Do we want to be a nation where a full-time job enables you to meet your basic needs and live with dignity, or do we want to continue to allow millions of Americans to live in poverty despite their hard work?

How can we fix a criminal justice system that incarcerates more people than any other country in the world and forces us to pay to lock up thousands of people who in a different system could make valuable contributions to society?

Do we want to continue to burden young adults with student loan debt that prevents them from owning homes, starting families or making the purchases that help our economy grow? Or will we recognize that an educated and skilled populace bestows incalculable benefits on society as a whole, and that forcing young people to start their working lives with overwhelming levels of debt will slowly cripple our economy in the coming years?

What can we do to restore the dream of economic mobility that our nation was founded upon, a dream that has become increasingly illusory in recent years?

Will we ensure that no one should face economic ruin due to health problems beyond their control? This ideal may become reality in the next few years as we move towards universal coverage, but there is still much to be done.

Will we recognize that gay, lesbian and transgendered people are our brothers, sisters and children who deserve the same respect and dignity afforded to anyone else? On the same note, can we finally become a society in which racism and bigotry are no longer tolerated?

Can the American people come to understand that sex education and universally-available contraception can reduce abortion rates, reduce unplanned pregnancies, and in the long run reduce poverty, crime and incarceration? Or will many states insist on rigid, unrealistic abstinence education and restricted birth control coverage that only increase all these negative outcomes?

There are many other problems to consider, and discussing even the basic alternatives for addressing any of these problems is far beyond the scope of this post. But what is absolutely critical is to realize that many millions of Americans do not even agree that these problems are problems. Many more are simply unaware of how these problems cause real harm to their fellow citizens. For culture to change, public opinion has to change, to the point where the majority will not accept the status quo. And while public opinion on many of these matters is changing, slowly, every day that we can speed up the process represents thousands of people who will not have to needlessly suffer.

Is there anything you can do to help change the minds of people around you who, through ignorance, apathy, or lack of exposure to these issues, contribute to the persistence of these problems in American society? One simple conversation that helps someone see these abstract issues as real human problems can change a mind.

This is a great nation, but it can become greater still.

Happy Independence Day.

6/16/2013

Exploding Student Debt: The Next Big Bubble?

The Calculated Risk Blog — one of the econometric blogs that I follow regularly — posted this graph last month:


Recently, many pundits and politicians have warned of a student debt crises that will dwarf the recent mortgage crises. The next time you hear someone issue these types of warning, make sure to keep the above graph in mind. Student debt is bad but it has never come close to the shear magnitude of household mortgage debt.

Also, since the onset of the recession, the majority of student debt is now owned by the Federal Government — not held by private investment banks or individuals, the way mortgage debt and property assets are distributed. This means, if a student debt crisis ever happens, private banks and individual investments will be relatively shielded, unlike the mortgage crises that caused our recent recession.


Why does this matter?

Because there are people that claim that student debt is the next big bubble. Bubble, they warn! And while there is a well-reasoned argument for this position, the majority of people issuing these tyes of warnings are advocating for policies that will only make the problem worse. Their solutions: more restrictions on issuing student debt, higher interest rates for existing student debt to recoup the cost of delinquency, and less federal and state spending on higher education, which they believe has fueled the increasing cost of higher education. These people are missing the point.

We should be focused on mitigating the factors that caused the dramatic increase in student debt over the past five years, rather than making debt more costly and harder to attain. The question of why college costs have increased over the past three and half decades is complicated, but most of the recent changes in public university costs can be explained by this graph:


Since the beginning of the recession, states have defunded public universities, shifting the cost from the taxpayers to low and middle income students in the form of student debt. Not surprisingly, the amount of debt issued by Sallie Mae since the beginning of the recession has more than quadrupled. The recent increase in student debt is not a symptom of the long-term increases in college costs as much as it is an effect of the recent defunding of public universities by the states.

Joseph Stiglitz said it best in a recent post:
With costs soaring, incomes stagnating and little help from government, it was not surprising that total student debt, around $1 trillion, surpassed total credit-card debt last year.
Some wonder how the American ideal of equality of opportunity has eroded so much. The way we finance higher education provides part of the answer. Student debt has become an integral part of the story of American inequality. Robust higher education, with healthy public support, was once the linchpin in a system that promised opportunity for dedicated students of any means. We now have a pay-to-play, winner-take-all game where the wealthiest are assured a spot, and the rest are compelled to take a gamble on huge debts, with no guarantee of a payoff.
The answer to the student debt crises should include: restoring state and federal funding to public intuitions so tuition becomes affordable again, implementing easier refinancing measures allowing students to benefit from today's ultra-low borrowing rates, at the same time working on long-term solutions to curb the cost of higher education.

As I wrote earlier, the overall cost at some public institutions has remained constant over the past twenty years. The only thing that has changed is the amount the state contributes and the tab that is picked up by individual students. It's time to reverse these changes.

4/13/2013

TED's Silent Revolution



Since its inception in 1984, TED has become synonymous with its unique platform, wherein "convention-breaking mavericks, icons, and geniuses" and "inspired thinkers" give, in 18 minutes or less, the "talk of their lives" billed under the heading "ideas worth spreading".  The TED network boasts views in the billions, and thousands of licensed TEDx events are held around the world each year.

In December of 2012, however, TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) posted this letter to the TEDx community, in which expanded standards targeting "bad science" were revealed.

The gesture was in part inspired by mounting outcry from the organized skeptical community over a handful of controversial talks.  One talk, given by Jim Vieira, was taken down after it provoked criticism for advancing a "well-known and widely discredited fringe theory" that deviated from mainstream archaeological consensus.  Another, by Randy Powell, drew comparisons to the infamous 1996 Sokal hoax.

Earlier, in May, TED's curatorial policy came under fire when a talk on income inequality by venture capitalist Nick Hanauer was refused publishing for being "explicitly partisan" (despite other partisan talks, some even more extreme, being made available on the TED main site).

TED again courted controversy, last month, when it initiated a conversation about potential "factual errors" regarding Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx talk.  TED cited popular polemicist bloggers Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers as influencing their decision to flag the presentation, in which ten common philosophical dogmas endemic to modern science were identified.

Despite widespread support for Sheldrake from community members, TED decided to proceed in withdrawing the talk to the "naughty corner" of its blog, along with another talk titled "The War on Consciousness" by Graham Hancock, from the same TEDxWhiteChapel event.

As the debate continued, TED grew increasingly mum.  It became apparent that the mollifying approach taken with Hanauer was the exception rather than the rule, when, prior to the discussion's end, TED revoked the license for TEDxWestHollywood a mere two weeks before it was to be held.  TED cited concerns over "pseudoscience" and the event's "overall curatorial direction" as reasons for the decision.

Several commentators observed that TED seemed to be aligning itself with the ideology of philosophical materialism, and expressed concerns that, given TED's extensive list of corporate sponsors, critical alternatives might be suppressed for political or economic reasons.

Others pointed out that TED is perfectly entitled to do whatever it wants with its brand, whether that be making its content freely accessible through the web, or taking an active role in curation and ensuring said content aligns with its core values.

This, however, begs the question: What are the values TED uses to determine if an idea is worth spreading?

Despite TED's recent infatuation with "radical openness" (in a revealing move, TED redacted the familiar preamble in one of several later edits to the "open for discussion" blog entry), the organization has not been especially forthcoming about the rationale behind its curatorial process.  It's not clear, for instance, why comparable talks are not similarly removed: Elaine Morgan, like Sheldrake, also protests established doctrine in academia, and Roland Griffiths, like Hancock, also references the immense healing potential of psychedelics, to cite just two examples.

After detailed refutals from both Sheldrake and Hancock, TED struck its initial complaints, but, in a classic example of backfire effect, maintained its verdict despite an unwillingness, or inability, to venture valid replacement criticisms.  In addition, TED revealed that it defers to a secret science advisory board and, in the spirit of radical openness, divulged it's in everyone's interest that the board remain anonymous.  Inasmuch as TED is dedicated to the transformative power of transparency, how does one interpret such a profound disparity?

On the one hand, TED is committed to showcasing innovative ideas for the benefit of humanity; but if TED is the emissary that heralds a humanistic new age, how are these recent decisions upending its aims?

One Quora commenter expressed this tension well:
At some point, ... a communal aspiration can become a civic habit.  When I've seen this civic amnesia happen, it's usually when the community forgets.  Forgets why they're talking about it, why it's important, or why they started doing it.  Then, the ritual itself becomes the catechism.  One goes to TED....well, because it's TED.
-∞-


Watch the live stream of the independent West Hollywood event April 14, 11am-7pm PDT.

After nearly a year of preparation, the West Hollywood license was axed with two weeks to go.  The event is slated to go forward without TED's imprimatur.

Two invited guest speakers have spoken out about the revocation of the TEDxWestHollywood license.

In cancelling the TEDx event in West Hollywood, it appears that I was accused of "using the guise of science" to further spooky claims (or some such). People on this blog have asked what I was going to talk about. That's easily answered. I was co-founder of a 23 year research program investigating psychic abilities at Stanford Research Institute. We were doing research and applications for the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, Air Force and Army Intelligence, NASA, and others. In this $25 million program we used "remote viewing" to find a downed Russian bomber in North Africa, for which President Carter commended us. We found a kidnapped US general in Italy, and the kidnap car that snatched Patricia Hearst. We looked in on the US hostages in Iran, and predicted the immanent release of Richard Queen, who was soon sent to Germany. We described a Russian weapons factory in Siberia, leading to a US congressional investigation about weakness in US security, etc. We published our scientific findings in Nature, The Proc. IEEE, Proc. AAAS, and Proc. American Institute of Physics. I thought a TED audience would find this recently declassified material interesting. And no physics would be harmed in my presentation.
I can add my name to those of Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock as speakers who find themselves in TEDx’s crosshairs.

I was scheduled to speak at the West Hollywood event. But my scientific credibility was questioned by TED's science advisory board in their decision to withdraw support and revoke the license of TEDxWestHollywood.

I’ve lectured at dozens of top-tier medical schools and hospitals all over the U.S. for two decades. Although my colleagues don’t always agree with my points of view, this is the first time my scientific credibility has ever been questioned. 
My TEDx talk would have dealt with the correlations between spirituality, health, and longevity, for which there is immense evidence; and recent experimental findings that point toward a nonlocal view of consciousness for which, again, there is strong and abundant support. In view of our lack of understanding of the origins and destiny of consciousness, and considering the demographics of the TEDx followers, I thought this information would have been of considerable interest.

As a board-certified physician of internal medicine, former chief of staff of a major hospital, author of twelve books and scores of papers on these subjects published in peer-reviewed journals, a recipient of many awards, a frequent lecturer at medical schools and hospitals, and executive editor of the peer-reviewed journal, Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, I’d be interested in knowing from TED where I came up short. 
“A clash of doctrines is not a disaster, it is an opportunity,” Whitehead said. It should not be a reason for censorship.

4/11/2013

Peter Schiff is Wrong About Everything


“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” 
― Stephen Hawking

A libertarian friend of mine who — like most libertarians — subscribes to the Austrian school of economics sent me a video, convinced that I would no longer think about inflation the same way after watching it. The video is of well-known libertarian pundit, investor, and self-proclaimed Austrian economist, Peter Schiff.

In the video, Peter Schiff responds to his critics who attacked him for a prediction he made at the end of 2009 about hyperinflation:
You know, look, I know inflation is going to get worse in 2010. Whether it’s going to run out of control or it’s going to take until 2011 or 2012, but I know we’re going to have a major currency crisis coming soon. It’s going to dwarf the financial crisis and it’s going to send consumer prices absolutely ballistic, as well as interest rates and unemployment.
According to Schiff, the reason we haven't seen hyperinflation yet is because the CPI is flawed, "deliberately designed" by the government to hide the true rate of inflation.

The video was so bad, it compelled me to write this post. First, watch the video above. Then read about what Schiff gets wrong:

1) "I never said the money printing would cause inflation. I said the money printing is inflation."

Any student who has taken macroecon 101 knows this is an overly-simplistic view of inflation. It's hard to believe that an "economist" holds this view.

Schiff's view doesn't take into account inflationary expectations, the rate of money exchange, or where said money ends up in the economy (e.g. M1, M2, M3, etc). If the treasury printed $1T and buried it in a hole the money would not exert the same inflationary pressure as it would if the printed $1T were distributed to the nation's poor and middle class. The former would have a much smaller inflationary effect than the later. Schiff, at least, ought to acknowledge the fact that while the Fed has expanded the monetary base from $0.87 to $2.92 trillion, it is holding on to $1.62 trillion of excess private bank reserves. That's $1.62 trillion sitting in a hole, not being circulated, exerting no inflationary effect. This money parked at the Fed is not inflationary.

This is not a difficult concept to grasp, but Schiff fails to grasp it nonetheless.

2) "But Krugman would say that Peter Schiff is wrong because prices haven't risen. But, again, the proof that he offers, and that other Keynesians offer, are government-created statistics that purport to measure inflation like the CPI."

For someone like me that has been following this narrative closely, it's plain to see that Schiff is misrepresenting Krugman's critique. I'll explain.

First, Krugman has criticized Schiff's predictions of hyperinflation, not normal levels of inflation (i.e. "rising prices"). According to Schiff's predictions in 2009, we should have sky-rocketing prices by now, but we don't. And this is exactly why people like Krugman say Schiff's predictions haven't panned out.

Furthermore, in Krugman's most recent post about Schiff, he doesn't offer the CPI as proof that inflation is under control because he knows that Austrians don't care for "government-created statistics". Instead, Krugman offers MIT's Billion Prices Project as a third-party estimate of inflation. This project monitors the daily prices of over 5 million online transactions in over 70 countries. Guess what? This metric only varies slightly from the CPI and it tells the exact same story — namely, that inflation is not a problem.

According to my calculations, from the end of 2009 when Schiff made his prediction, until the beginning of 2012 when this video was made, inflation has increased by the following:

CPI less food and energy ~5.1%
PCEPI ~5.5%
CPI ~6.4%
MIT's BPP ~7.1%
Monetary Base ("money printing is inflation")  ~32.9%
Gold ~51.2%

The first three metrics are "government-created statistics", the 4th is a third-party estimate of inflation, and the 5th and 6th are the Austrian metrics of inflation. Ask yourself: Which of these measures of inflation is inconsistent with reality? Has your cost of living gone up 30-50% since late 2009 or has it increased somewhere on the order of 5-7%?

3) "The CPI does a lousy job of measuring inflation. And I think it deliberately does so by design."

By design? Evidence?

4) "In fact, I'm not the only one that's convinced that inflation is a lot higher than the government admits."

Schiff's support for this claim? No, not a third party mathematically driven model like MIT's or some other equivalent   a FOX News poll. The poll referenced, however, does not support Schiff's claim that the CPI underestimates inflation. All the report states is that 41% of people polled felt that rising prices were their primary concern.

5) "Well, if the government is correct, if the CPI is accurate, then why are so many people worried about inflation that doesn't exist?"

First, nobody said inflation doesn't exist (see point #2).

Second, this poll does not support the notion that the CPI is inaccurate. Inflation is real and people who are out of a job or underemployed ought to be concerned about rising prices. As a student, I am concerned about rising prices, but this does not mean that I believe the CPI is inaccurate. Nor does my concern mean that I think there is ongoing hyperinflation.

6) "Afterall, what makes more sense? That the government can print all this money, and prices not rise? Or that prices are rising and the government is just not being honest?"

Arguments of incredulity are not only weak, but they often-time reveal a lack of knowledge or understanding in the person that uses them. Also, once again, nobody is saying that prices aren't rising (i.e. see point #2).

Schiff doesn't understand that printing money against the zero-lower bound — the point at which the federal funds rate is zero — does not have the same inflationary effects that it would in times of economic prosperity. I'll outsource the explanation as to why this happens but, in a nutshell, "if interest rates are near [or at] zero, money printed now just gets hoarded, and monetary policy has no traction on the real economy."

Given Schiff's definition of inflation, I don't blame him for not grasping this concept.

7) "The items that I selected for my basket were eggs, cars, milk, gasoline, bread, rent for a primary residency, coffee, dental services, potatoes, electricity, sugar, airline tickets, butter, store-purchased beer, apples, public transportation, cereal, tires, beef, and prescription drugs."

According to Schiff, the CPI's basket of goods is deliberately misleading, but his own basket of (20) goods is stable, unbiased, and more accurately represents price levels than the CPI? Does anybody buy this? I don't.

First, Schiff's basket is food and fuel-dominant, relying heavily on two factors that are commonly removed from measures of core inflation because of their inherent volatility.

Second, even if we accept Schiff's high-ball basket of goods as being accurate, we are still left with a decade with only 44.3% of inflation. This is odd because it contains the recent post-recession period of hyperinflation (or high inflation) that many Austrians are angry about, yet inflation in this past decade is still well bellow the 117% increase during the 70s. So according to Schiff's calculations, we've still only seen a fraction of the inflation that plagued us during the 70s.

Did Schiff intentionally show that inflation during this past decade was actually much lower than it was during the 70s, or did he do this by accident?

8) "But it actually gets worse because the government numbers are wrong. And I'll prove it..."

Schiff continues by pointing out, what he claims to be, specific "inaccuracies" in the CPI. These warranted a fact-check on my part.

I checked Schiff's claim about healthcare premiums only increasing 4.3% from 2008-2012 according to the CPI. According to the CPI — the CPI that I just looked up  health insurance premiums have increased by almost 20% over this period. The Kaiser report that he references, which by the way only refers to employer provided insurance, shows an increase of 24.2%. This doesn't seem like a contradiction, but it makes me wonder where Schiff is getting his CPI numbers.

It appears that the CPI is actually referring to a 4.3% increase in the healthcare premium costs per year, but Schiff is — either misleadingly or accidentally — implying that according to the CPI, premiums have increased by a total of 4.3% over the entire five year period of 2008-2012, which, of course, is not true.

9) "So if the government is wrong about newspapers and magazines, if they're wrong about health insurance, how should we believe that they are right about anything?"

Wait, how did Schiff prove that the government is wrong?

--

Krugman's description of the Austrian viewpoint sums it up best:
Substance aside — not that substance isn’t important — Austrian economics very much has the psychology of a cult. Its devotees believe that they have access to a truth that generations of mainstream economists have somehow failed to discern; they go wild at any suggestion that maybe they’re the ones who have an intellectual blind spot.
Schiff is wrong, but he's sticking to his guns. And, in the process, he's revealing just how little he knows about economics, policy, and pretty much everything else. Why do people still listen to this guy?

3/16/2013

Making the Case for Idealism: Et Vita Interviews Bernardo Kastrup


Bernardo Kastrup at TEDxBrainport 2011, Vincent van den Hoogen.
As the political climate of our world comes to be defined by the secularizing influence of science, there exists a vital obligation to revisit and inspect its foundational axioms to ensure their soundness.

Bernardo Kastrup, one of the more notable philosophers of science to emerge from the Internet age, speaks about this need quite cogently.  I recently was able to sit down and have a chat with him over email.



Et Vita: Can you briefly explain your conception of idealism and how you came to entertain it?

Bernardo Kastrup: The materialist worldview entails that matter is the primary medium of reality, and that subjective experience is somehow generated by matter in the form of a brain. The implication of materialism is that everything you experience is actually a kind of hallucination generated by your brain, and resides solely inside your head. This way, when you see the stars at night, materialism states that your skull is actually beyond the stars.

The 'real' reality, according to materialism, is not what you see, hear, and feel everyday, but an abstract world of subatomic particles and energy fields fundamentally beyond direct empirical verification. This is highly inflationary, unprovable, and extremely counterintuitive.

When I reached a point in my life when I actually thought about this, I couldn't help but conclude that materialism is absurd. There is no need to create a whole universe outside of experience, since experience is the sole carrier of reality that anyone can ever know. Instead, I think that subjective experience is the only reality. The stars you see at night are the actual stars, not a copy created inside your brain. If this is correct, then reality itself is subjective experience. In philosophy, this position is called idealism.

EV: What do you see as the relative strengths and weaknesses of realism and idealism?

BK: The strength of materialism is that it can explain the consistency of experience across observers. People seem to agree that they all share the same world. Materialism can explain it by postulating that the 'real' world is outside of anyone's mind, and modulates each person's experience of it. But the price materialism pays for this explanation is that unprovable, counter-intuitive universe outside of mind that I spoke of above.

Now, the strength of idealism is that it does not need to postulate such unprovable universe, granting reality only to what we can verify empirically and directly: subjective experience itself. As such, idealism is more skeptical. Its challenge is to explain the consistency of experience across observers. People tend to ask how our minds can conspire to create the illusion of a shared reality under idealism. Yet, this very question is based on a misunderstanding: If idealism is correct, then it is our bodies -- including our brains -- that are in mind, not mind in our bodies.

You could think of your body as an avatar in a collective dream, like in the movie Inception. The brain, in my view, is just an image of a mental process, analogously to how flames are just an image of the process of combustion. For the same reason that flames aren't the cause of fire -- but the image of fire -- the brain isn't the cause of mind, but an image of a mental process.

This neatly explains the ordinary correlations between mind states and brain states that neuroscience has found. But then, if brains are in mind -- instead of the other way around -- there is no reason to think that there are separate minds; there is no need to require any conspiracy. Reality can be a projection of a single 'collective unconscious,' similarly to how a part of your mind generates the universe of your nightly dreams.

Mind may be, and probably is, just one. Our personal psyches may be just split-off complexes of a single mind, similarly to how someone suffering from Multiple Identity Disorder can host multiple split-off complexes in his or her psyche.

EV: What is the relationship of materialism to realism?

BK: All materialists are realists, in that they postulate that reality is outside of mind. Materialism adds another notion: Mind itself is supposedly created by matter. There are realists who are not materialists: For instance, dualists are also realists, but not materialists.

EV: While discussing this topic with others, I've run into this barrier where someone will say something like, "There's no reason to assume realism can't account for everything in the future." What would you say to this?

BK: Let's suppose that realism could account for everything in nature. That still wouldn't make it the best explanation, for realism requires many unprovable assumptions. For instance, it requires that there be a whole universe fundamentally beyond experiential knowledge, and that processes in this unprovable universe actually generate consciousness by some magical step. If one could explain nature without making these extraordinarily inflationary and unprovable postulates, one would certainly have a better explanation.

Now, having said all this, it is not true that realism can explain the whole of nature. For one, it cannot explain the most obvious and overwhelming aspect of reality: conscious experience itself. There is simply no explanation for how dead matter, under certain circumstances, can suddenly light up with awareness, which is called the 'hard problem of consciousness' in philosophy.

In its 125th anniversary edition, Science magazine has selected the 'hard problem' as the second most important unanswered question in science. It should have been the first.

EV: What was the first?

BK: The first was: "What is the universe made of?"[1]

EV: Is this debate relegated to the field of philosophy, or can we devise tests to refute one or the other? Do you have any suggestions how that might be accomplished?

BK: It's both science and philosophy.

The ultimate question of the underlying nature of reality is a philosophical question. After all, science can only model the patterns and regularities of nature. It can only explain one aspect of nature in terms of another, as Bertrand Russell cogently argued decades ago. Science cannot shed light on the underlying nature of reality as such, which is a question best left to the methods of philosophy.

But the insights of science do inform philosophy. For instance, it is extremely relevant for philosophy that there are correlations between brain states and mind states. No metaphysics purporting to explain reality -- materialist or otherwise -- can ignore this fact.

EV: How would the adoption of something like idealism be significant for scientific inquiry?

BK: As I discussed above, I don't think it is. Science, if done right and interpreted right, is ontologically-neutral. In other words, science should simply find and model the patterns and regularities of reality without making statements about its fundamental nature. This way, science can be done just as it is done today, even if idealism is finally recognised as obviously true.

The key, though, is to separate scientific inquiry from philosophical arguments. It has become fashionable today for scientists to feel that they are philosophers, which leads some well-known scientists to making preposterous pseudo-philosophical statements.

Now, where the adoption of idealism would really make a difference is in how we live our lives and relate to the rest of the world. Under idealism, physical death means simply a change in your state of consciousness, not the end of it. After all, under idealism, your body exists within mind, not mind within your body. Thus, there is simply no reason to believe that the decomposition of the body means the end of mind. The body is an image of a process in mind, so if the body dies, that's a clear sign that a mental process is changing or ending, which must correlate to a significant alteration of one's state of consciousness.

EV: Which would you say is more intuitive, idealism or realism?

BK: Idealism is far more parsimonious and intuitive: It does not require a whole unprovable universe outside of experience, and it does not suffer from the 'hard problem of consciousness.'

The problem is that our culture has played a game of steal-and-switch: Most people tend to think of idealism as entailing that reality is inside our heads, while believing materialism to say that the world we experience is outside of ourselves. Well, it’s exactly the other way around! It is materialism that states that the world we experience is hallucinated and entirely within our heads, stars and all. And it is idealism that states that the world is not inside our heads. How it came to pass that our culture could reverse the logic of the situation so dramatically baffles me.

EV: I'm of the opinion that there is a practical infinitude of energy available for us to access, but when I mentioned this to a friend he countered that Universe is finite and that there will always be resource scarcity. What are your thoughts regarding this dilemma? Can the issue be framed alternatively under idealism?

BK: I don't think an ontological interpretation of reality under idealism changes the question much. Energy is a very difficult and abstract concept associated to how the patterns and regularities of reality unfold. As such, it is a scientific question.

EV: I noticed on your blog that you are interested in social issues like environmental health, the commitment to acknowledging our own psychological processes, and so on. To what extent are these considerations informed by your understanding of idealism?

BK: I think we face two enormous crises as a civilisation today: One is the environmental crisis; the other, a psychological crisis. Idealism certainly informs my position here, particularly regarding the latter.

You see, materialism, as the reigning metaphysics informing society today, has a number of pernicious consequences: It tells you that only matter exists, so there can be no other truly valid goal in life but the accumulation of material goods; it tells you that you are going to die anyway, so you better plunder while you can, for you have nothing to lose afterwards; it tells you that existence is meaningless anyway, so it spares you the weight of all responsibility for achieving something meaningful in life; and so on. As a result, most people live in deep anxiety for the inevitable oblivion that awaits them; they are depressed because they lack meaning in their lives; and they act irresponsibly towards others and the world, because what have they got to lose anyway? In this manner, materialism makes a significant contribution to psychological imbalance and social irresponsibility.

Now, if materialism were indeed the best explanation for what's going on, then so be it; let's bite the bullet. But it is not. We do not need to pay this price as a society, because materialism is wrong. You aren't going to die; your life isn't meaningless; and plundering the stuff of the Earth is not what this is all about. 

EV: People seem to make much of "the law of attraction" made famous in books like The Secret. Can you speak a little to how that does or does not fit into the idealistic worldview?

BK: Under either materialism or idealism, I do not see sufficient empirical evidence to take the so-called 'law of attraction' seriously. To say that all reality is in mind does not entail that the ego -- a tiny, localised process of mind -- can change the empirically-observed patterns and regularities of nature. This way, I don't think that idealism gives any more substance to the 'law of attraction' than materialism.

Think of it this way: When you dream at night, there is a part of your psyche that generates the environment of your dream, and another part that generates your dream character. You only identify yourself with the latter. Your dream character lives in the dreamed-up environment but cannot control it, even though the environment is generated by the very same psyche that generates the character! Similarly, a schizophrenic patient cannot control his own visions, despite their being generated by his own mind, because they are generated by a part of his mind that lies outside his ego. Thus, to say that all reality is in mind does not imply that our egos -- small parts of mind -- can control reality.

I believe that a 'collective unconscious' is the part of the medium of mind that generates our shared, ordinary reality. Our egos clearly have little or no control over this 'collective unconscious.' Moreover, it is empirically clear that the 'collective unconscious,' unlike our egos, can operate according to the strict patterns and regularities that we've come to call the 'laws of nature.' Idealism gives no more credence to a possible violation of the laws of nature than materialism does.

EV: The collective unconscious is a concept originally proposed by C. G. Jung. Can you tell us a little how his work has influenced yours?

BK: Jung has influenced me significantly. He showed that the same empirical method used by science to investigate the patterns and regularities of the 'world outside' can also be turned inwards, to make discoveries about our psyches. Through his empirical investigations with countless patients, Jung discovered a deep region of the psyche that we all seem to share: the 'collective unconscious.' As such, the bottom of our psyches seems to be a common substrate unifying all conscious beings. Our egos seem to arise, through differentiation, from this common substrate, like different stalks arising from a common root.

For idealism, the discovery of the 'collective unconscious' is very relevant: It shows that, at bottom, mind is only one, so no 'conspiracy' of different psyches is needed to create the experience of a common, shared reality. It is the 'collective unconscious' that creates this shared reality, analogously to how a deep part of the psyche of a dreaming person creates the environment of his dreams.

EV: Can you tell us a little about your new book?

BK: I've written a new book -- my fourth -- tentatively titled Why Materialism is Baloney: How True Skeptics Know There Is No Death and Fathom Answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything. In it, I not only provide a sharp critique of materialism substantiated with both philosophical arguments and hard scientific data, but also propose an alternative metaphysics that is consistent with all science and explains more of the phenomena of nature than materialism.

The key argument is that materialism isn't skeptic enough, and that a more skeptic metaphysics can be even more powerful than materialism in its explanatory power. Currently, the manuscript is being shared with different publishing houses. I hope it will be published towards the end of this year, or early next year.

EV: What are some salient examples that you discuss of data comporting with idealism?

BK: For one, idealism does not suffer from the 'hard problem of consciousness,' since it does not artificially create a new ontological category outside of subjective experience. Under idealism, matter is simply a particular category of the flow of experience.

Moreover, under my formulation of idealism, the brain is merely an image of certain mental processes -- like flames are an image of the process of combustion-- which localize and restrict awareness. But in the same way that not all details of the process of combustion are visible in the flames, the brain is a partial image of the mental localization processes it represents. This means that we can explain why, in non-ordinary states of consciousness, there is clearly a break of the correlation between brain states and mental states.

For instance, it is now proven that psychedelics only decrease brain activity, despite leading to an unfathomable increase in subjective experience.[2]

There are many other examples of procedures that reduce brain activity while leading to an expansion of awareness, like hypoxia, or even accidental savant cases in which brain damage leads to genius-level mental skills.[3]

Since I believe the brain to be the image of a process of awareness localizationand restriction, it is only logical that certain reductions of brain activity lead to expanded awareness. Under materialism, however, because brain states are supposed to be (the sole cause of) mental states, these observations cannot be explained. 

As a third, and a little more fringe, example, idealism is conducive to explaining psychic phenomena like telepathy. After all, all psyches are supposed to rise from the same mental substrate (the 'collective unconscious') under idealism, being fundamentally connected. Explaining psychic phenomena under materialism, while theoretically possible, is a lot more cumbersome.

EV: FascinatingThank you, Bernardo.

BK: Thanks for helping promote these ideas. It's time our society woke up from the mad assumptions of materialism, and it is small efforts like this that will help us do that eventually.



1. D. Kennedy and C. Norman (July 1, 2005). "125 Questions: What We Don't Know". 125th Anniversary Issue: Science. Archived from the original on March 16, 2013. Retrieved March 16, 2013.

2. Mo Costandi (January 23, 2012). "Psychedelic chemical subdues brain activity". Nature | News. Archived from the original on March 16, 2013. Retrieved March 16, 2013.

3. Adam Piore (February 19, 2013). "When Brain Damage Unlocks The Genius Within". Pop Sci. Archived from the original on March 16, 2013. Retrieved March 16, 2013.

3/03/2013

Charting Ideology in Two Dimensions


The website Political Compass offers a two-dimensional template for charting political ideology that promises to improve on the standard 'liberal vs. conservative' binary model that saturates contemporary discourse.  Here's a glimpse of the visual design from their website:


The X-axis is representative of the economic spectrum, while the Y-axis indicates social issues.  The website, the developers of which remain anonymous, correlates the far left with collectivism, or communism, and the far right with neo-liberalism, or libertarianism; this is the proposed spectrum in terms of statist intervention per the economy.  The top of the chart is analogous to fascism, and the bottom with anarchism; this would be the breakdown of social issues with respect to personal liberties.

One interesting feature of this model is the potential classification of political attitudes by quadrant location.  Nearly all contemporary political discourse, for instance, seems to be firmly rooted in the blue quadrant.

I'm not, however, satisfied with the axial distinctions, since the X-axis implies relative readings of state authority despite vested executive state power being the major focus of the Y-axis.  To ameliorate possible confusion, I would like to propose an alternate schema to amend this.

We'll keep the authoritarian designation at the top of the chart, and pair it with individualism at the bottom.  I intend this distinction to better express the central question of power centralization.  Are individuals empowered to actualize their natural freedoms for good or ill?  Or is that something arbitrated by an instituted state?

Since the Y-axis incorporates a degree of government intervention, we can do our best to eliminate that from the X-axis altogether.  We can instead reference the philosophical underpinnings of economic theory.  The far right is represented by propertarian-libertarianism, in which sovereignty of private property is assumed, and its pursuit considered beneficial through competition and innovation.  Opposite, on the far left, I have put economic-egalitarianism as the opponent doctrine, in which emphasis is placed on an entropic ordering of resource distribution where uniformity, guaranteeing relative security, is preferred.


An alternate way of framing the X-axis dynamic is through a discussion of alterity.  The far right and far left are thus self-regarding and other-regarding, respectively.

I believe this is comprehensive enough to begin identifying political ideology by quadrant.

The red quadrant above, in the Northwest, I have as tending toward state socialism.  The communism of Stalin, for instance, would fall into this category.

The purple Southeast quadrant, opposite state socialism, corresponds with market anarchism, in which the functions of the state are privately operated on a contractual basis.

The blue sector, in the Northeast, represents a tendency toward corporate capitalism.  As mentioned previously, most governments appear to be moving toward this outcome, including the United States.  Under corporate capitalism, state policy considerations are subsumed by large business interests propped by a populace whom, it is presumed, participate as "trickle-down" beneficiaries through willful perpetuation of those interests.

The green sector, in the Southwest, represents something rather enigmatic, as it does not seem amenable to either the idea of government or preoccupation with economic growth.  It is this sector I tentatively intuit as tending toward neo-potlatchism, or radical liberality.  The idea is an other-regarding economic model based on voluntary associations wherein the individual is empowered to express freedom through volitional acts of shared generosity.  Understanding this particular quadrant may pose some difficulty since it seems to lie opposite our current trajectory.

It does, however, seem to be the one most interesting to me.  Even taking the Political Compass test online exposed a predilection for this particular sector (though the questions themselves may be phrased and/or weighted sub-optimally--it's not entirely clear):


Expect me to commentate further on the ideological implications of radical liberality in the near future.  But for now, I would advise a middle path.  The center of this chart is most certainly representative of the position of the skeptic.

3/02/2013

The Subtle Politics of Video Game Villains


The antagonist of Dead Space 3, Jakob Danik, commandeers an intercom and says to Isaac Clarke (presumably a portmanteau of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke--two influential speculative-fiction authors), our hero:

"You probably think I'm an overzealous crusader... But... I'm a man of science, a man of fact and reason, cause and effect..."

Jakob Danik is the charismatic leader of Unitology in the Dead Space universe, a cult that bears a striking resemblance to Scientology.

It's reasonable to assume the game designers of the Dead Space franchise are no strangers to subtext.  The problem with subtext, though, is that there are no clearly delineated boundaries.  How far does it go?  How can one tell when interpretation of subtext degenerates into full-blown apophenia?

Heading up a fanatical religion cut from New Agey woo-woo, Danikspeaking Queen's English, casts himself as a man of science to anchor his next revelation:

"The Marker exerts a field of influence that guides and grows biological organisms, evolving them over time towards some greater purpose."

While the majority of scientists today probably agree that all phenomena are explainable by reduction to physical and mechanical processes, and that evolution is not ordinarily spoken of in terms of teleology, there is of course some evidence of dissent from consensus.  One of the more outspoken critics of the reductive approach to science is UK native Rupert Sheldrake, whose "morphogenic resonance" is a dead ringer for the "field of influence" in the above caption.

Upon closer examination, additional similarities present themselves.

According to Dead Space lore, Michael Altman, the founder of Unitology, was not a cult leader but a classically-trained scientist, much like Sheldrake.

Just as Altman is credited with discovering the action for the "field of influence" described by Danik, Sheldrake is famously associated with his hypothesis that nonphysical fields guide physical processes.

Just as Sheldrake might have misgivings about his hypotheses being used to justify human abuse, the fictional Altman would likely be bemused to learn himself the central figure of a faith-based cult.

As it turns out, Altman was assassinated and his legacy posthumously distorted to accord with Unitology propaganda.

Sheldrake: Principled scientist or unwitting New Age apologist?

Sheldrake himself had a brush with death in 2008, the year Dead Space was published, when he was stabbed during a presentation.  One could even draw imaginary parallels between his assailant's mental state at the time and the video game's descriptions of paranoid delusion caused by proximity to alien artifacts called Markers.

(It's worth noting that at the two minute mark in the video above Sheldrake makes reference to one Carl Gustav Jung, the father of synchronicity--a concept characterized by its "acausal connecting principle" of "meaningful coincidence" that seems to be at variance with simple descriptions of apophenia.)

It's hard to tell if Visceral Games intended for this kind of subtext.  It would not be the first time that a popular medium looked to fringe members of the scientific community for inspiration.  Max Fleischer's Superman cartoons allegedly used Nikola Tesla's public persona as a basis for their mad scientist villain, an archetype the currency of which continues to endure.

Tesla, inventor of remote control, solicits funding for his Wardenclyffe Tower project (by any means necessary)

This all comes hot on the heels of MoMA's announcement that video games are culturally significant examples of interactive design--art, in other words.  This attention would seem to burden developers with an already substantive responsibility for constructing characters that appeal to one's inner sense of navigable certainty.

But whereas the mechanistic yearnings of yesteryear gave rise to populist suspicion in the form of a magnified man, the villainy of today seems of a different order altogether.  The message being telegraphed may be a reversal of sorts; opposite the likes of Unitology, to what extent are our heroes inadvertent champions of technocratic scientism?