So Secretary Eric Shinseki is now ex-secretary Shinseki, and cleaning up the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care mess will now be someone else’s job. But there’s a good chance that no matter who is in charge, the cleanup will be, basically, impossible. That’s because the VA is government health care….
Now that the VA has erupted in scandals involving phony wait lists, and people dying because of treatment delays, an audit reveals a “systemic lack of integrity" in the system. According to the auditors, "Information indicates that in some cases, pressures were placed on schedulers to utilize inappropriate practices in order to make waiting times appear more favorable."
In other words, they cooked the books. And what’s more, they did it to ensure bigger “performance bonuses.” The performance may have been fake, but the bonuses were real. (One whistle-blower compared the operation to a “crime syndicate.”)
And that captures an important point. People sometimes think that government or “nonprofit” operations will be run more honestly than for-profit businesses because the businesses operate on the basis of “greed.” But, in fact, greed is a human characteristic that is present in any organization made up of humans. It’s all about incentives.
And, ironically, a for-profit medical system might actually offer employees less room for greed than a government system. That’s because VA patients were stuck with the VA. If wait times were long, they just had to wait, or do without care. In a free-market system, a provider whose wait times were too long would lose business, and even if the employees faked up the wait-time numbers, that loss of business would show up on the bottom line. That would lead top managers to act, or lose their jobs.
In the VA system, however, the losses didn’t show up on the bottom line because, well, there isn’t one. Instead, the losses were diffused among the many patients who went without care — visible to them, but not to the people who ran the agency, who relied on the cooked-books numbers from their bonus-seeking underlings.
And, contrary to what Klein suggests, that’s the problem with socialism. The absence of a bottom line doesn’t reduce greed and self-dealing — it removes a constraint on greed and self-dealing. And when that happens, ordinary people pay the price. Keep that in mind, when people suggest that free-market systems are somehow morally inferior to socialism.
In 1969, Playboy published a long, freewheeling interview with Marshall McLuhan in which the media theorist and sixties icon sketched a portrait of the future that was at once seductive and repellent. Noting the ability of digital computers to analyze data and communicate messages, he predicted that the machines eventually would be deployed to fine-tune society’s workings. “The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness,” he said. “Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways.” He acknowledged that such centralized control raised the specter of “brainwashing, or far worse,” but he stressed that “the programming of societies could actually be conducted quite constructively and humanistically.”
The interview appeared when computers were used mainly for arcane scientific and industrial number-crunching. To most readers at the time, McLuhan’s words must have sounded far-fetched, if not nutty. Now they seem prophetic. With smartphones ubiquitous, Facebook inescapable, and wearable computers like Google Glass emerging, society is gaining a digital sensing system. People’s location and behavior are being tracked as they go through their days, and the resulting information is being transmitted instantaneously to vast server farms. Once we write the algorithms needed to parse all that “big data,” many sociologists and statisticians believe, we’ll be rewarded with a much deeper understanding of what makes society tick….
Deciphering people’s behavior is only the first step. What really excites Pentland is the prospect of using digital media and related tools to change people’s behavior, to motivate groups and individuals to act in more productive and responsible ways. If people react predictably to social influences, then governments and businesses can use computers to develop and deliver carefully tailored incentives, such as messages of praise or small cash payments, to “tune” the flows of influence in a group and thereby modify the habits of its members. Beyond improving the efficiency of transit and health-care systems, Pentland suggests, group-based incentive programs can make communities more harmonious and creative. “Our main insight,” he reports, “is that by targeting [an] individual’s peers, peer pressure can amplify the desired effect of a reward on the target individual.” Computers become, as McLuhan envisioned, civic thermostats. They not only register society’s state but bring it into line with some prescribed ideal. Both the tracking and the maintenance of the social order are automated….
Even if we assume that the privacy issues can be resolved, the idea of what Pentland calls a “data-driven society” remains problematic. Social physics is a variation on the theory of behavioralism that found favor in McLuhan’s day, and it suffers from the same limitations that doomed its predecessor. Defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but it ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice…. Politics is messy because society is messy, not the other way around…. What big data can’t account for is what’s most unpredictable, and most interesting, about us.
“ At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V-sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blame-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, a victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience. There is an entire victim-culture, ranging from private counselors to international loans. The professed goal of this network notwithstanding, its net result is that of lowering one’s expectations from the threshold, so that a measly advantage could be perceived or billed as a major breakthrough. Of course, this is therapeutic and, given the scarcity of the world’s resources, perhaps even hygienic, so for want of a better identity, one may embrace it — but try to resist it. However abundant and irrefutable is the evidence that you are on the losing side, negate it as long as you have your wits about you, as long as your lips can utter “No.” On the whole, try to respect life not only for its amenities but for its hardships, too. They are a part of the game, and what’s good about a hardship is that it is not a deception. Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels. ”
On December 18, 1988, twenty-five years after his writing had been denounced as “anti-Soviet” in his native Russia and mere months after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature “for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity,” prolific poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky took the podium at Ann Arbor and addressed the graduating class at the University of Michigan with one of the most beautiful and timeless commencement speeches ever given, offering six invaluable pieces of wisdom on good-personhood and the meaning of life. (via brain pickings)
When your playlist strikes all the right chords, your body can go on a physiological joyride. Your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate. Your body temperature rises. Blood redirects to your legs. Your cerebellum—mission control for body movement—becomes more active. Your brain flushes with dopamine and a tingly chill whisks down your back.
About 50 percent of people get chills when listening to music. Research shows that’s because music stimulates an ancient reward pathway in the brain, encouraging dopamine to flood the striatum—a part of the forebrain activated by addiction, reward, and motivation. Music, it seems, may affect our brains the same way that sex, gambling, and potato chips do.
Strangely, those dopamine levels can peak several seconds before the song’s special moment. That’s because your brain is a good listener—it’s constantly predicting what’s going to happen next. (Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a handy habit to have. Making good predictions is essential for survival.)
But music is tricky. It can be unpredictable, teasing our brains and keeping those dopamine triggers guessing. And that’s where the chills may come in. Because when you finally hear that long awaited chord, the striatum sighs with dopamine-soaked satisfaction and—BAM—you get the chills. The greater the build-up, the greater the chill.
“We’ve got, for example, 16 different agencies that have some responsibility to help businesses, large and small, in all kinds of ways, whether it’s helping to finance them, helping them to export. . . . So, we’ve proposed, let’s consolidate a bunch of that stuff. The challenge we’ve got is that that requires a law to pass. And, frankly, there are a lot of members of Congress who are chairmen of a particular committee. And they don’t want necessarily consolidations where they would lose jurisdiction over certain aspects of certain policies.”
The dawn is coming up like thunder as Obama notices the sociology of government. He shows no sign, however, of drawing appropriate lessons from it.
Big government is indeed big, and like another big creature, the sauropod dinosaur, government has a primitive nervous system: The fact of an injury to the tail could take nearly a minute to be communicated to the sauropod brain.
Obama, of whose vast erudition we have been assured, seems unfamiliar with Mancur Olson ’s seminal “The Rise and Decline of Nations,” which explains how free societies become sclerotic. Their governments become encrusted with interest groups that preserve, like a fly in amber, an increasingly stultifying status quo. This impedes dynamism by protecting arrangements that have worked well for those powerful enough to put the arrangements in place. This blocks upward mobility for those less wired to power.
Obama, startled that components of government behave as interest groups, seems utterly unfamiliar with public choice theory. It demystifies and de-romanticizes politics by applying economic analysis — how incentives influence behavior — to government. It shows how elected officials and bureaucrats pursue personal aggrandizement as much as people do in the private sector. In the public sector’s profit motive, profit is measured by power rather than money.
Obama’s tardy epiphanies do not temper his enthusiasm for giving sauropod government ever-deeper penetration into society. He thinks this serves equality. Actually, big government inevitably drives an upward distribution of wealth to those whose wealth, confidence and sophistication enable them to manipulate government.
The day before Obama shared with MSNBC his conclusion that big government defends its irrationalities but is insufficiently big, his speech du jour deplored today’s increasing inequality and distrust of government. He seems oblivious to the mutual causations at work.
Of course Americans distrust one another more as more and more factions fight one another for preferential treatment by government. Of course government becomes drained of dignity, and becomes corrosive of social cohesion, as it becomes a bigger dispenser of inequality through benefits to those sufficiently clever and connected to work its levers.
Obama correctly says that not only do we “tend to trust our institutions less,” we also “tend to trust each other less.” Of course there are parallel increases in distrust: Government’s dignity diminishes as government grows to serve factions of those sophisticated at manipulating its allocation of preferences. Social solidarity is a casualty of government grown big because it recognizes no limits to its dispensing of favors.
… Suppose there were not 16 government agencies “to help businesses, large and small, in all kinds of ways.” Suppose there were none. Such barnacles on big government institutionalize the scramble for government favors; these agencies are a standing incitement to bend public power for private advantage. Hence they increase distrust of government, diminish social solidarity and aggravate the most indefensible inequality — that driven by government dispensations.
Obama’s solution to the problem of the 16 is to “consolidate” them, replacing 16 small subtractions from good governance with one big one. Progressives consider this progress.
The oldest known stone-tipped projectiles have been discovered in Ethiopia. The javelins are roughly 280,000 years old and predate the earliest known fossils of our species, Homo sapiens, by about 80,000 years.
These javelins are some 200,000 years older than previous examples of similar weapons, suggesting that modern humans and their extinct relatives had the know-how to create these sorts of complex thrown projectiles much earlier than often thought.
Scientists investigated stone tools unearthed at the Gademotta Formation on the flanks of an ancient, large collapsed volcanic crater in central Ethiopia’s Rift Valley….
"We were only interested in testing the hypothesis that these tools were definitely used to tip spears," Sahle said. "The eureka came much later as we did the analysis and found out that the features we were dealing with were the result of throwing impact, not thrusting."
When pointed artifacts are used as weapons, V-shaped fractures, called fracture wings, can form at the moment of impact; the apexes mark where the cracks started. Past experiments in materials such as obsidian have shown that the narrower the V-shapes of fracture wings, the higher the speed of the fracturing that created them.
The researchers discovered that the fracture wings seen in a dozen of these obsidian points suggest that the fracture cracking sped faster than 1,820 miles an hour (2,930 kilometers an hour). In experiments with thrusting spears, that’s the maximum velocity seen in fracturing. And some of these artifacts apparently developed fractures after impact at speeds of up to 3,345 miles an hour (5,385 kilometers an hour), close to the maximum velocity seen with fracturing in thrown spears.
A number of these artifacts are among the oldest at the site, suggesting that javelins were used as early as 279,000 years ago. Such weapons are considered signs of complex behavior and were pivotal to the spread of modern humans.
"The implication is that certain behavioral traits that are considered complex and mostly only the domains of anatomically modern humans—such as the capacity to make and use projectiles—were not only incorporated into the technological repertoire of the African early Homo sapiens, but also had earlier roots and were present in populations ancestral to Homo sapiens,” Sahle said.
According to an article published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, there are five types of boredom—which is one more than the research team expected to identify. The boredom varieties range from a calm and pleasant experience to something more like depression….
Indifferent boredom: This is a pleasant form of boredom, said Goetz, giving as an example a student who has had a really long day. “You go to a class, you are tired, and the class is boring. However, the boredom is experienced as rather relaxing and even positive. It is still boredom, but you like being bored.” Another example? Zoning out on the couch in front of a marathon of trashy reality TV.
Calibrating boredom: Do you let your thoughts wander? If you are open to new ideas but don’t feel any motivation to actually get up and do something, that’s calibrating boredom. “It is like daydreaming,” said Goetz, “but not actively searching for new actions.”
One of the most exciting findings to emerge from neuroscience in recent years underlines the brain’s inherently social nature. When neuroscientists monitor what’s going on in someone’s brain, they are typically interested in what happens in it when people are involved in an active task, like doing a math problem or reaching for a ball. But neuroscientists have looked more closely at what the brain does during non-active moments, when we’re chilling out and the brain is at rest. Every time we are not engaged in an active task—like when we take a break between two math problems—the brain falls into a neural configuration called the “default network.” When you have down time, even if it’s just for a second, this brain system comes on automatically.
What’s remarkable about the default network, according to Lieberman’s research, is that it looks almost identical to another brain configuration—the one used for social thinking or “making sense of other people and ourselves,” as he writes: “The default network directs us to think about other people’s minds—their thoughts, feelings, and goals.” Whenever it has a free moment, the human brain has an automatic reflex to go social. Why would the brain, which forms only 2 percent of our body weight but consumes 20 percent of its energy, use its limited resources on social thinking, rather than conserving its energy by relaxing?
“Evolution has made a bet,” Lieberman tells me, “that the best thing for our brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready for what comes next in social terms.”
Evolution only makes bets if there are payoffs—and when it comes to being social, there are many benefits. Having strong social bonds is as good for you as quitting smoking. Connecting with other people, even in the most basic ways, also makes you happier—especially when you know they need your help.
Oakley defines pathological altruism as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” A crucial qualification is that while the altruistic actor fails to anticipate the harm, “an external observer would conclude [that it] was reasonably foreseeable.” Thus, she explains, if you offer to help a friend move, then accidentally break an expensive item, your altruism probably isn’t pathological; whereas if your brother is addicted to painkillers and you help him obtain them, it is.
As the latter example suggests, the idea of “codependency” is a subset of pathological altruism. “Feelings of empathic caring . . . appear to lie at the core of . . . codependent behavior,” Oakley notes. People in codependent relationships genuinely care for each other, but that empathy leads them to do destructive things.
Yet according to Oakley, “the vital topic of codependency has received almost no hard-science research focus, leaving ‘research’ to those with limited or no scientific research qualifications.” That is to say, it is largely the domain of pop psychology. “It is reasonable to wonder if the lack of scientific research involving codependency may relate to the fact that there is a strong academic bias against studying possible negative outcomes of empathy.”
In an epic case of unintended consequences, government-mandated anti-bullying programs are actually increasing bullying by teaching kids how to bully, according to a new study published in the Journal of Criminology:
The study concluded that students at schools with anti-bullying programs might actually be more likely to become a victim of bullying. It also found that students at schools with no bullying programs were less likely to become victims.
The results were stunning for Jeong [the author]. “Usually people expect an anti-bullying program to have some impact—some positive impact.”
The student videos used in many campaigns show examples of bullying and how to intervene. But Jeong says they may actually teach students different bullying techniques—and even educate about new ways to bully through social media and texting.
America’s lockups are its new asylums. After scores of state mental institutions were closed beginning in the 1970s, few alternatives materialized. Many of the afflicted wound up on the streets, where, untreated, they became more vulnerable to joblessness, drug abuse and crime.
The country’s three biggest jail systems—Cook County, in Illinois; Los Angeles County; and New York City—are on the front lines. With more than 11,000 prisoners under treatment on any given day, they represent by far the largest mental-health treatment facilities in the country. By comparison, the three largest state-run mental hospitals have a combined 4,000 beds.
Put another way, the number of mentally ill prisoners the three facilities handle daily is equal to 28% of all beds in the nation’s 213 state psychiatric hospitals, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute Inc.
"In every city and state I have visited, the jails have become the de facto mental institutions," says Esteban Gonzalez, president of the American Jail Association, an organization for jail employees.
Correctional systems define mental illness differently. Generally, the term is used to describe prisoners who require medication for serious issues ranging from major depressive disorders to schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Also included are inmates with diagnoses that warrant overnight stays in a mental hospital or who demonstrate serious functional impairment.
To get a snapshot of how the U.S. is grappling with such an explosive societal issue, The Wall Street Journal surveyed all 50 states about issues of mental health within their prison populations. Of the 22 states that provided detailed responses, their mental-health patient ratios ranged from one in 10 inmates to one in two. Inmates in all 23 responding states account for 55% of the prisoners in the U.S. under state jurisdiction….
The picture echoes the past. Two centuries ago, reformers were disturbed to find large numbers of the mentally ill in jails, paving the way for the development of state-run institutions. In the 1950s and 1960s, complaints about abuses, advances in medication and a push to give the patients more independence led to another change, this time toward community settings. The weaknesses of that concept—a lack of facilities, barriers created by privacy laws and tightened local and state funding—has brought the picture full circle.
"Society was horrified to warehouse people in state hospitals, but we have no problem with warehousing them in jails and prisons," says Thomas Dart, sheriff of Cook County.
Then there are the supposedly high rates of suicide, post-traumatic stress and sexual aggression, all of which tempt one to regard the military itself as a dehumanizing institution in need of therapeutic intervention.
Soldiers, in this view, are no longer seen as models of self-control, courage and patriotism. Instead they are victims and should be treated as patients. Yet the links between combat, the military and mental health are more complex than the war-as-disease construct allows.
Begin with suicides by servicemen and women, which have increased in recent years—but by dozens of deaths, not in the epidemic fashion that news coverage sometimes seems to suggest. That said, the 349 military suicides in 2012 did exceed the 295 deaths of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The question is: why?
A major study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that factors such as substance abuse, depression, financial and relationship problems accounted for the rise in soldier suicides—in other words, the same factors that influence civilians to take their own lives. “The findings from this study,” the authors concluded, “are not consistent with the assumption that specific deployment-related characteristics, such as length of deployment, number of deployments, or combat experiences, are directly associated with increased suicide risk.”
Nor does the rate of military suicides differ significantly from suicides in the general population….
Combat stress is a complex phenomenon. But research has confirmed what military commanders have long known: It is possible to identify those who are most prone to stress problems, and that has more to do with nonmilitary issues—again, substance abuse, money and family problems are the culprits—than with the experience of combat or deployment to a war zone.
Compared with other countries, the United States diagnoses PTSD cases at improbably high rates….
[T]he numbers bandied about to show an epidemic of sexual violence in the U.S. military are questionable. In May, Capt. Lindsay Rodman, a judge advocate stationed at U.S. Marine Headquarters in Arlington, Va., reported on this page, for example, that the number of military sexual assaults frequently cited in Congress and elsewhere are based on a badly distorted interpretation of a Defense Department survey. In recent months the American public has often heard that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year. But that statistic comes from an unscientific poll and refers to “unwanted sexual contact,” including touching the buttocks or even attempted touching.
Moreover, as Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego and a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, wrote recently in the Weekly Standard, “there is no evidence that the military has a higher rate of sexual assault than, say, colleges and universities. Indeed, what paltry evidence there is suggests the opposite.”
… [W]ar demands unflinching discipline, courage and loyalty in the presence of our deepest animal passions, and in that sense it is anything but dehumanizing. By regarding soldiers, sometimes condescendingly, as victims and patients, we are in danger of foisting our own, very civilian and very modern, therapeutic pathologies on people who don’t need them and whose ability to do their jobs—that is, keep us safe—is likely to be diminished.
Imagine we rewound the tape of your life. Your diplomas are pulled off of walls, unframed, and returned. Your children grow smaller, and then vanish. Soon, you too become smaller. Your adult teeth retract, your baby teeth return, and your traits and foibles start to slip away. Once language goes, you are not so much you as potential you. We keep rewinding still, until we’re halving and halving a colony of cells, finally arriving at that amazing singularity: the cell that will become you.
The question, of course, is what happens when we press “play” again. Are your talents, traits, and insecurities so deeply embedded in your genes that they’re basically inevitable? Or could things go rather differently with just a few tiny nudges? In other words, how much of your fate do you allot to your genes, versus your surroundings, versus chance? This is navel gazing that matters.
In the absence of a time rewinder, the next best experiment is to do what Julia Freund and her colleagues did in a simple, yet remarkable recent study. These investigators placed genetically identical individuals (mice in this case) in a common environment, and asked whether systematic behavioral differences could still develop between them. An answer of “Yes” would mean that there are sources of behavioral variability – “individuality,” if you will – that aren’t accounted for by the combination of genes and common environment.
A key distinction to make is “tastes” versus “flavors.” In terms of taste—the perceptions of salty, sweet, savory, bitter, sour—humans essentially have the same innate preference the world round. John Prescott notes in his book Taste Matters, “The sweet taste of sucrose in water…is optimally pleasant at around 10-12 per cent by weight (approximately the same as is found in many ripe fruits), regardless of whether you are from Japan, Taiwan or Australia.”
But we do not eat tastes, we eat flavors, and what makes us like flavors, says Small, is “flavor nutrient conditioning.” The upside of this process, she says, “is that we can learn to like the foods that are available to us, and avoid particular foods rather than entire classes of nutrients.” Such learning involves a complex chain of activity in the brain, all oriented around understanding what Small calls “flavor objects.” “Our brain and our behavior are geared toward learning about the object—strawberry, for example—rather than its various components. Did this food make me sick? Did this food give me energy? You learn preferences based on the entire flavor object.” Coffee, for example, is just as bitter the 1,000th time we drink it as the first, but, Small notes, “it becomes coffee. The brain has learned that coffee is not a potentially harmful signal.”
In recently presented work, Small is trying to understand, neurologically, how physiological factors can influence the way we eat: “When does the moment kick in where you like it?” Experimental subjects are exposed to novel flavors that have no calories; over a few weeks, one of the flavors has caloric (but tasteless) maltodextrin added. The “post-oral signal” coming from the gut—which is happily converting the maltodextrin into glucose—can, she suggests, alter the response to a flavor. “These post-ingestive signals are getting into the reward circuits” of the brain, “altering the way reward circuits process the flavor, and doing that quite independently of liking,” she says. In short, our liking grows without our quite knowing why.
Leave quibbling of every kind to lawyers pleading at the bar for the life of a culprit; in society and conversation it is invariably out of place, unless when Laughter is going his merry round. At all other times it is a proof of bad breeding….
Cheerfulness, unaffected cheerfulness, a sincere desire to please and be pleased, unchecked by any efforts to shine, are the qualities you must bring with you into society, if you wish to succeed in conversation. … a light and airy equanimity of temper,—that spirit which never rises to boisterousness, and never sinks to immovable dullness; that moves gracefully from “grave to gay, from serious to serene,” and by mere manner gives proof of a feeling heart and generous mind.
Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness, 1866. I read etiquette handbooks at an impressionable age, and ever since have had a vision of society and proper behavior that is out of step with the modern age. (via Brain Pickings)