Category Archives: CONGRESS WATCH

How evil happens

BOOK REVIEW

Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, Author: Noga Arikha.
Eichmann in Jerusalem, Author: Hannah Arendt.
The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Author: Simon Baron-Cohen.
Home Fire, Author: Kamila Shamsie.

By Noga Arikha – The ‘sapiens’ in Homo sapiens does not fully describe our species: we are as violent as we are smart.

This might be why we are the only Homo genus left over in the first place, and why we have been so destructively successful at dominating our planet. But still the question nags away: how are ordinary people capable of such obscene acts of violence?

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behavior, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.

The social neuroscientist Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig in Germany defines empathy as the ability to ‘resonate’ with the feelings of the other. It develops from babyhood on – as imitation at first, then joint attention – into the ability to adopt the point of view of another, along with a shift in spatial perception from self to other, as if one were literally stepping into another’s shoes.

This requires an ability to distinguish between self and other in the first place, an aspect of the so-called ‘theory of mind’ that one acquires over the first five years of life.

But while empathy ensures the cohesion of a group or a society, it is also biased and parochial. Revenge thrives on it. more>

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The Temp Economy and the Future of Work

BOOK REVIEW

Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary, Author: Louis Hyman.

By Gabrielle Levy – The way people work is changing. Machines and computers reduce the need for labor. Companies have shifted to hiring relatively few permanent staff and opting instead to strike temporary contracts with outside workers.

Uber, the ride-sharing behemoth, is perhaps the best known of these modern companies, with its thousands of drivers operating as independent contractors, but it did not invent the form. The roots of the gig economy go all the way back to the years after World War II, with the creation of the first temp and consulting agencies, including Manpower Inc. and McKinsey & Co.

We will see work become less tied to a particular employer in lots of ways. For some people, that’s fantastic, If you’re a consultant or independent contractor and you have lots of control over your life and you get paid pretty well, then this is a fabulous turn. And if you are a gig worker and you are running errands for somebody else, it’s kind of a nightmarish turn.

Do people really want full-time work? Do they want secure work? And the answer is, yes and no.

Everybody likes to work when they want to work, just like every employer wants workers who will start and stop as needed.

How do we create a system where work can be flexible but we can still have a baseline level of security for our health and our families that allows us to take risks and be entrepreneurial and explore new economic possibilities? more>

Looking Past GDP to Measure Economic Strength

By Sophie Mitra – GDP has many limitations. It captures only a very narrow slice of economic activity: goods and services. It pays no attention to what is produced, how it is produced, or how it might improve lives.

Still, many policymakers, analysts, and reporters remain fixated on the GDP growth rate, as if it encapsulates all of a nation’s economic goals, performance, and progress.

The obsession about GDP comes, in part, from the misconception that economics only has to do with market transactions, money, and wealth. But the economy is also about people.

Despite the media’s obsession with GDP, many economists would agree that economics considers wealth or the production of goods and services as means to improve the human condition.

One approach is to have a dashboard of indicators that are assessed on a regular basis. For instance, workers’ earnings, the share of the population with health insurance, and life expectancy could be monitored closely, in addition to GDP.

However, this dashboard approach is less convenient and simple than having one indicator to measure progress against. A wide set of indicators are, in fact, available already in the U.S.—but attention remains stuck on GDP. more>

The Progressives’ Plan to Win in 2018

By Elaine Godfrey – Democrats have been grappling with key questions about coalition building since the 2016 election: Should they prioritize winning back the voters they lost to Trump?

Should they attempt to woo the white voters gradually fleeing the party?

Progressives this weekend said, emphatically, no. It’s a genuine attempt to remake the Democratic Party at a time when racial and class tensions are the highest they’ve been since the 1960s—and it’s also put them on a collision course with party leaders and other Democrats.

That doesn’t mean ignoring whites and Trump voters, she says. Instead, “it’s rejecting the notion that our way to victory is having a centrist, moderate right-leaning strategy that feels like we could peel off Romney Republicans, versus investing in communities of color, marginalized groups, and progressive white people,” Anoa Changa said. “There is this notion that … we can’t address the issues of race, systemic oppression, because we don’t want to piss these voters off. We have to find a way to do both.” more>

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What’s More Dangerous, Immigration Or Russian Meddling?

By Robert Reich – What’s the most worrisome foreign intrusion into the United States—unauthorized immigrants, Chinese imports, or interference in our democracy?

For Trump, it’s immigrants and imports. He doesn’t care much about the third.

Yet Trump continues to assert that talk of Russian meddling in American elections is “a big hoax.” And his White House still has no plan for dealing with it.

In fact, Trump has it backwards.

Illegal immigration isn’t the problem he makes it out to be. Illegal border crossings have been declining for years.

And if the Chinese want to continue to send us cheap imports that we pay for with U.S. dollars and our own IOUs, that’s as much of a potential problem for them as it is for us.

But Russian attacks on our democracy are a clear and present threat aimed at the heart of America. more>

Are Stock Buybacks Starving the Economy?

By Annie Lowrey – Stock buybacks are eating the world. The once illegal practice of companies purchasing their own shares is pulling money away from employee compensation, research and development, and other corporate priorities—with potentially sweeping effects on business dynamism, income and wealth inequality, working-class economic stagnation, and the country’s growth rate. Evidence for that conclusion comes from a new report by Irene Tung of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and Katy Milani of the Roosevelt Institute, who looked at share buybacks in the restaurant, retail, and food industries from 2015 to 2017.

Buybacks occur when a company takes profits, cash reserves, or borrowed money to purchase its own shares on the public markets, a practice barred until the Ronald Reagan administration.

The regulatory argument against allowing the practice is that it is a way for companies to manipulate the markets; the regulatory argument for it is that companies should be able to spend money how they see fit.

In recent years, with corporate profits high, American firms have bought their own stocks with extraordinary zeal.

Federal Reserve data show that buybacks are now equivalent to 4 percent of annual economic output, up from zero percent in the 1990s. Companies spent roughly $7 trillion on their own shares from 2004 to 2014, and have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on buybacks in the past six months alone. more>

Towards The Disappearance Of Politics?

BOOK REVIEW

The Human Condition, Author: Hannah Arendt.

By Valerio Alfonso Bruno – Today, erosion of the public sphere is once more a harsh reality, as is particularly evident in the current weakness of “Western Democracies.”

The substantial risk of leaving democratic institutions only formally alive, but significantly lacking any content, is encouraging a deep reflexion on the reasons behind this erosion of the space for public debate and active political action.

However, some frequent arguments are employed by different people (belonging to political parties, policy-makers, academia, analysts, media) to justify the impossibility of developing a comprehensive political debate within contemporary democracies. At least four main orders of arguments can be identified that are used to justify the shrinking of the Vita Activa:

  1. technical complexity,
  2. global issues,
  3. trivialization of politics and
  4. ideological taboo.

Open, pluralistic, debate within democratic societies is unfortunately the first victim of the current political environment, as seen recently in the US and Italy.

The limitation of the public debate by reason of technical complexity and growingly global issues, or trivial generalization and ideological taboos, is dangerously forcing democracies’ citizens into political passivity, narrowing de facto the window of alternatives to an extreme degree, and resulting is an increased polarization. more>

The Globalization Backlash: It’s Both Culture and the Economy, Stupid

BOOK REVIEW

Euroscepticism and the Future of European Integration, Author: Catherine De Vries.
Globalization represents a “trilemma” for societies, Author: Dani Rodrik.

By Catherine De Vries – While many thought the process of greater cross-border cooperation to be irreversible, in part because it was expected to lead to a universal acceptance of liberal and capitalist values, isolationism, nationalism and protectionism are back on the political scene with a vengeance.

While Donald Trump’s slogan to “Make America Great Again” is at the heart of his campaign and current administration, Nigel Farage’s mantra of taking back control (“we will win this war and take our country back”) dominated the Brexit campaign.

A fierce debate has developed about the origins of these developments. Are they the result of economic grievances of those who feel threatened by globalization (a term for increasing international cooperation and increasing interdependence), or do current developments represent a cultural backlash based on immigration fears and prejudice.

Opposition to globalization is gaining such a foothold in the political and public domain in advanced industrial democracies, precisely because processes of economic interdependence have coincided with increasing migration flows.

Although current societal and academic debates are mostly framed in either economic or cultural terms, it is important to realize that these types of explanations are not mutually exclusive. We should focus more of our efforts on trying to understand how cultural and economic fears interact and fuel the recent popular backlash against globalization. more>

Six Lessons That Society Must Learn About Agile

By Steve Denning – The article isn’t suggesting that firms embracing Agile are either angels or devils. I have yet to see a firm espousing Agile that has no flaws: those flaws must be seen for what they are and they need to be addressed.

If not addressed, they will cause serious financial, economic or social problems. Some of the flaws need to be addressed by the firms themselves and will be reinforced by the marketplace. Others may require government intervention.

Among the flaws for which the marketplace will by itself tend to generate corrective action are:

  1. Failure to continue innovating
  2. Sweat-shop workplaces
  3. Short-termism
  4. Share buybacks
  5. Rethink “maximizing shareholder value”
  6. Abuse of monopoly power and privacy

We need to see Agile by the clear light of day, neither through rose-colored spectacles in which everything is kumbaya, nor through a glass darkly in which everything is evil.

The saying “you can’t have it both ways” doesn’t mean that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. more>

The Western Crack-Up

By Javier Solana – After the recent G7 summit in Quebec, there can no longer be any doubt that the West is in crisis.

Yes, “Western” countries have often pursued divergent foreign policies (as illustrated by the Iraq War), and “the West” is itself a vague concept. But it is one that rests on a set of common ideological pillars, which are now crumbling under the weight of US President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

Trump and his co-religionists’ incessant slandering of allies – “we cannot let our friends take advantage of us” – is leaving its mark.

Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the US to refuse to sign a joint G7 communiqué. Nor would anyone have thought that an American administration could attack a Canadian leader using the language that Trump and his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, recently directed at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

If bad manners were the only issue with the Trump administration, we could all rest easier. But that administration is also pursuing concrete policies that are undercutting America’s most important alliances. more>