seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

Addiction as Moral Failure

I almost always enjoy reading Evgeny Morozov's articles - even when I don't agree, I generally admire his capacity for thought and acerbic wit. In this case, an article reacting to "mindfulness," he makes a point I have been slowly arriving at - understanding addiction in the modern economy.

Some view it as an illness and many as a moral failure but I continue to think of it as a battle where we are each increasingly outgunned. Take addiction to unhealthy foods, for instance. Those manufacturing the foods have spent billions of dollars, likely hundreds of billions or more, to arrive at just the right combination of fats, carbs, salts, etc. to capture our brain and make it want more more more.

Our brains are not magical - they are hackable. They are very slow to evolve whereas food science progresses incredibly rapidly, leaving us with the incredibly challenging choice of how to deal with temptation.

But more science suggests that we have a limited amount of will power - though we can focus and improve it. But even at best, we find ourselves with worse and worse odds when being surrounded by gadgets, foods, flashing signs, whatever - all calibrated to elicit specific responses from our brains that we are increasingly ill-equipped to deal with.

Enter Morozov's quote:

We must subject social media to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the design of gambling machines in Las Vegas casinos. As Natasha Dow Schüll shows in her excellent book Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, while casino operators want us to think that addiction is the result of our moral failings or some biological imbalance, they themselves are to blame for designing gambling machines in a way that feeds addiction. With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural.

At some point, we have to collectively find a way of dealing with how brain science puts us, as individuals, at a disadvantage relative to those who are pulling the strings and attempting to manipulate us. We do have some agency but few individuals will be able to hold out as further uncover the mysterires of how our brain works.

Now excuse me while I eat another 2 pounds of sour patch kids.

The Great Recession was Caused by Wall Street, Not All of Us

I just finished reading the memoir, Bull by the Horns by Sheila Bair, former head of the FDIC - which insures our bank deposits and is responsible for preventing more banking crises than you can imagine. It is a very good intro to how government regulators failed to stop the incredibly stupid gambling on Wall Street by irresponsible banksters.

A shorter article that overlaps some with the book is helpfully entitled, "No, Americans Are Not All to Blame for the Financial Crisis: Exposing the big lie of the post-crash economy" by Dean Starkman. He nails it and I plan to add his book to my reading list.

In the short article, he debunks the common sentiment that we are all to blame for the Great Recession.

The alleged responsibility that the average American bears for the crisis rests largely on the notion that people knowingly (key word) took out bigger, riskier loans than they could afford—and that they all decided to do it rather suddenly around 2004. Which, see, that’s crazy right there.

...

In 2010, an FBI report drawing on figures from the consultancy Corelogic put total fraudulent mortgages during the peak boom year of 2006 at more than $25 billion. Twenty-five billion dollars is obviously not nothing. But here again, teasing those mortgages out of that year’s crisis-related write-downs of $2.7 trillion from U.S.-originated assets leaves our infamous “cagey” borrowers to blame for only a tiny share of the damage, especially since not all of the fraudulent mortgages were their fault.

Bair's book touches on the notion that spurred the creation of the tea party - that the crisis was created by people who bought too much house. But a stunningly high number of home owners that got into trouble were people who simply refinanced their homes with a company that lied to them and basically committed fraud.

Michelle and I bought our house almost 5 years ago and refinanced it last year. We chose banks we believed we could trust because it simply is not possible for the average home owner to understand all the forms we have to sign. We did the best we could and trusted the bank to the do the rest.

In a modern country with basic oversight, that shouldn't put anyone at risk of losing their home but it did because the regulators failed. The lesson is not to get rid of the regulators but rather to reform our government so powerful interests cannot buy the laws they want to screw us.

Something that comes in the Starkman article reminded me of just how important race still is and how disadvantaged some populations remain despite the progress we have made over the past 50 years.

At the height of the madness, when subprime made up an insane 27 percent of the multitrillion-dollar home-loan market, nearly half of new African American mortgage holders found themselves in one. Black and Latino borrowers with credit scores of more than 660 were more than three times as likely to be in a subprime loan than their white counterparts.

The article finishes strong, reminding us why the narrative that "everyone is to blame" is so powerful.

Sorry, everybody was not to blame. “We” didn’t all do it. “Main Street” didn’t succumb to a new tulip mania, and cheap credit didn’t expose anything but the corruption and immorality of a financial industry that systematically put huge numbers of even credit-worthy borrowers into defective products. Cultural theorizing—especially the evidence-free kind—should be seen for what it is: an exercise in complacency. It’s easy. And it’s what you lean on when you don’t want to take on structural problems, the kind you actually have to do something about.

We didn't all do it. The truth doesn't always lie in the middle of competing claims. Sometimes you have to work to understand something and when you don't, democracy fails.

Vaclav Smil

This guy is sharp. Vaclav Smil.

Smithsonian Mag - Bunker Hill and Women in the Middle East

Both Michelle and I have been loving the Smithsonian magazine, which we became acquainted with after Uncle Seanly gifted a subscription to us. We've been renewing every since - one of the few magazines we both read regularly.

Of the many article that have captured my attention, the true story of Bunker Hill and the issues women face in a changing Middle East.

I've heard several interviews with Nathaniel Philbrick and already planned to get the book but the article only increased my interest. I thought the piece on women in the Middle East was thoughtful and a reminder that the radical Islamists are afraid of women, not unlike the conservative "Christians" in this country that want to shackle women as well. Of course, our radical "Christians" are not blowing themselves up to make their point, but then the radical Islamists don't have Fox News working for them, giving them an outlet for their insanity.

End of digression. I recommend those articles...

Why Wall Street Got a Pass from Democrats

Very good article from The New Republic: "A Wasted Crisis?" by Paul Starr. The subtitle is "Why Democrats did so little to change Wall Street.

He reviews several books discussing the Democratic Party response to the economic crisis and Wall Street, each of which I put on my reading list. All of it reinforces my very strong belief that if we do not reform the campaign finance system, our Republic will remain beyond our reach. Support the Rootstrikers!

From the Paul Starr piece:

Finance-friendly government has also resulted from the industry’s increased lobbying and political contributions in an environment where countervailing pressure from consumer groups is negligible. Even in the latest battle, the imbalance has been staggering. According to Kaiser, a consumer coalition in 2009 announced it would raise $5 million to support financial reform; in comparison, the lobbying expenditures by the finance industry in 2009 and 2010 totaled around $750 million. Wall Street political contributions, McCarty and his co-authors point out, have gone to both Democrats and Republicans, though not indiscriminately. “The more conservative wing of each party (moderate Democrats and conservative Republicans) garners substantially more contributions than the more liberal factions.” The finance industry is bipartisan in the sense that it pushes both parties to the right.

Former Senator and present lobbyist, Chris Dodd was a chief author of the effort to ensure Wall Street didn't once again kill our economy. From the article:

Dodd, whom Connaughton describes as “Machiavellian,” readily made concessions to Republicans who were not going to vote for the bill, while ignoring his own Democratic colleagues. “Dodd and the Treasury Department wanted a squishy bill,” Connaughton writes, “and the Republicans were willing to work with Dodd to weaken it.”

Where have we seen this before with Democrats? The stimulus is the first thing that comes to mind - where the stimulus was watered down and included major non-stimulative tax cuts to woo Republicans than never supported it. The problem is that Democrats can't even count on the middle-of-the-road Democrats to vote for a bill unless they give major concessions to Republicans who will never vote for it anyway.

And why is that? Probably because those Democrats come from districts where Republicans are far better at winning elections with deeply flawed talking points that nonetheless play well on television. So Democrats have to avoid doing anything that Republicans can easily demagogue (often by lying and recognizing no one will call them on it).

Great Sand Dunes

In 2012, Michelle and I took an AWESOME road trip through the southwest, stopping first at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. We spent the night in a tent, with lows around 15-18 or so. Hard to tell at that temperature. Full gallery here.

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Economics of Equality

Published on January 23, 1915, in The New Republic by Walter E. Weyl, an early economist of the 99%.

There can be no equality nor any approach to equality except among men economically independent and economically comparable. You may talk of equality and fraternity of equal civil rights of equal political rights of the brotherhood of man and all the rest but unless your man has a secure economic position a chance to earn his living in dignity and honor he has no rights whatsoever. Political equality is a farce and a peril unless there is at least some measure of economic equality.

Read the full article here.

Hiking and Hanging in Texas

After a work trip to San Antonio, Klinkers met me in Austin and we headed a bit west for some hiking and relaxing. We went to Enchanted Rock state park, did some hiking, found some great pit bbq, and had an all-around swell time. Full gallery here.

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Out Back in Chaska

I think Adele is something like 4x older now than she was when I took these, but here are photos from 2012 at Gina and Perry's place. Full gallery here.

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September Boating on the Saint Croix

Yes, still more photos from 2012 are waiting to be published! Here is another gallery of boating on the Saint Croix with John.

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