Monkeys Do Math as Expected

Rhesus Macaque MonkeySusannah Locke over at Vox wrote a very interesting article, Watch Out—Monkeys Can Now Do Math. It’s about a recent study that showed that rhesus macaques do math symbolically. This isn’t combining one group of dots with another group of dots. The monkeys were taught number symbols. For example, they associated the numeral “5” with five banana slices. Then they started combining numbers. The monkeys were trained that they would get as much food as the numbers on the screen. So one screen displays 5 and 4 while the other displays 8. The monkeys chose the 5 and 4 because that gave them 9 instead of only 8 for the other screen.

Now you are probably thinking that that monkeys just memorized the symbols. That is: they didn’t know that 5 + 4 = 9; they just knew that the symbols “5” and “4” together gave them nine bits of food. So the researchers trained the monkeys to know a different set of symbols. So, for example, the “^” character might represent the number 6. As soon as the monkeys had learned the new symbols, they were able to do the math. There was no learning curve.

None of this surprises me. What does surprising me, and annoys me as well, is that scientists especially tend to be really skeptical about this. We run into the same thing with Koko, the gorilla master of sign language. Scientists always want to say that we just can’t know for sure and all this kind of stuff might be simple stimulus and response. Scientists have so internalized the danger of anthropomorphizing that they now make the same mistakes that creationists do: they think that humans are utterly different from other animals.

How could that be? It implies a discontinuity between other animals and us. Doesn’t it make more sense that there is a gradual process—that as our brains got bigger we simply built on things that already existed. After all, all animals communicate. There is nothing fundamentally different between a fish changing color to attract a mate and my writing this article right now. Similarly, Locke’s article mentions a study that showed that a particular species of fish could count up to four. Rhesus macaques are evolutionarily a lot closer to humans than to fish. I think if you drew a line representing mathematical ability between fish and us, the monkeys would come out somewhere around the “basic addition” level.

Another way to look at it is to think that it is stimulus and response for all animals, us included. I’m highly sympathetic to that way of looking at the world. But it still leaves us in the same place. We really aren’t that much different from our animal cousins. We are smarter, but we only value that because it is what makes our species so successful. I’m sure that cows would find our simplistic digestive system quite wanting. Don’t get me wrong: I like being a human and I greatly value my brain. I just don’t think being really smart makes us all that different from other animals.

Why We Idolize Certain Presidents

Ronald ReaganJonathan Bernstein addresses an interesting question with his usual keen insight, Why Reagan Is King of the Conservative Heap. It follows off an article by Jonathan Ladd, Why Are Conservatives Obsessed with Reagan? He Coincided with Ideological Party Takeover Like No Democratic President Did. Ladd’s argument is clear enough from that long headline. But Bernstein argues that it is both simpler and more complex.

In the simplest sense, the conservatives don’t have anyone else. Bush the Younger certainly doesn’t qualify and his father was a one term president who raised taxes. Then you have Nixon, who was not only chased out of office, but who had fairly liberal domestic policies. Even if it weren’t for Watergate, he would at best be the Republican LBJ. Ford hardly exists as a president. Other than that, there is Eisenhower who was no kind of ideologue. Then you have to go back to Herbert Hoover. So Reagan is pretty much the only candidate that the Republicans have who they can worship.

Bill ClintonOn the complex side of the equation, Bernstein mentions two other factors that have helped Reagan: he has had an industry dedicated to improving his reputation and his decade after office living with dementia made it so no one wanted to attack him. And on the Democratic side, there are lots of notable people—most especially Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton. Republicans could, of course, go all the way back to Lincoln. But the reason they don’t is not so much that he died a century and a half ago. It is more that since the 1950s, the conservative movement has come under the grip of John C Calhoun. And even if they may think that slavery was bad, they are now deeply uncomfortable with the very idea of the Civil War. (That’s the nicest reading of where they stand.)

I tend to think that the reason Republicans worship Reagan is simpler still. When he left office, the economy was roaring along. Now this had absolutely nothing to do with his policies. But that’s the way it is. Liberals and conservatives alike now admire Clinton for the same reason. And I don’t see any more reason to give Clinton credit than I do Reagan. So the modern love of both presidents has more than anything to do with the American cult of success.

This is very interesting. Because I believe this, I’ve long thought that Obama was delusional. Carter’s time in office was actually rather good. He accomplished big things, including the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty. Yet the economy was doing poorly at the end of his term. This had nothing to do with him. Paul Volcker had raised interest rates at the Federal Reserve in order to fight inflation. So the reason that Carter is held in low opinion is the exact same reason that Reagan is held in high opinion. Obama has accomplished remarkable things in his term. And he’d like to accomplish more. But regardless of what he accomplishes, people are not going to worship him. Unless, of course, the economy suddenly starts roaring.

I think we all have to accept that we do not have good reasons for revering the presidents we do. Clinton and Reagan were just president at the right time. Carter and Bush the Younger were presidents at the wrong time. This isn’t to say that Bush the Younger wasn’t a horrible president. But if instead of the financial crisis, the economy had kept growing through 2008, Bush would likely be the object of much adulation among conservatives. There’s nothing surprising or meaningful here.

Very Serious Conspiracy Theorists

Fred HiattFred Hiatt is one of the Very Serious People (VSP) we so like to mock around here. And like all VSP, he is very concerned about the deficit. He is one of the cheer leaders for the Grand Bargain: Democrats cutting Social Security and Medicare in exchange for Republicans raising taxes on the wealthy. What’s so terrible about people like Hiatt is that they always talk about shared sacrifice, but that sacrifice never seems to include themselves. Such people always want to cut social security benefits, never raise the payroll tax cap that would increase their taxes.

Yesterday, Hiatt published an editorial, How Obama’s Poll-Testing Misfires. It’s about how Obama should have shown “leadership” and tried to push through Congress that holy grail of VSP everywhere: the Simpson-Bowles plan. (Note: Haitt refers to it as the “Simpson-Bowles commission plan” but the commission could never agree on a plan, so it never released one.)

Jonathan Chait made a great point about these people today, America’s Most Powerful Conspiracy Theorists. His point is that people who believe in standard conspiracy theories like the 9/11 Truthers owe their beliefs to being estranged from establishment information sources. And the people who argue that the Grand Bargain is just a question of both sides compromising are similarly cut off from reality. He calls them Tax Truthers.

Tax Trutherism sustains itself among elite political and business circles through constant repetition by fellow believers, creating a cocoon, much like the Alex Jones listening audience, where the preposterous becomes mundane. Unfortunately, that cocoon includes large sections of the seat of government of the United States.

The problem is not the Grand Bargain itself. That’s a bad idea, but reasonable people could be for it. The thing about the Tax Truthers is that they believe that if only Obama and the Democrats offered up cuts to the entitlement programs, the Republicans would follow and match them with tax increases for the rich. The problem is that, much to the consternation of liberals like myself, Obama has been giddy for just such a deal. He’s been incredibly visible in his embrace of Social Security cuts. But the Tax Truthers refuse to accept this.

They are committed to the idea that the problem must be that neither side will compromise. This actually goes back to what I discussed yesterday, David Brooks Plays Centrist. It is this idea of the VSP and the professional centrists (who are mostly the same people) that what they believe is just The Truth or at very least the objectively correct policy. Therefore obviously the only reason it isn’t policy is just because of all those ideologues on both sides who, unlike the the VSP, don’t care about getting things done.

Chait noted that what it really all comes down to is the fact that this is the issue that is most important to the VSPs. It is no surprise that elite opinion just happens to be what they think is in the best interest of their own class:

Interestingly, the Tax Truthers don’t believe that “leadership” could persuade Republicans to change their position on, say, climate change, or abortion, or financial regulation. The conviction that Obama could talk Republicans into supporting policies they forcefully oppose is limited to the issue that they care about more than any other.

There’s a very big difference here between being for a Grand Bargain and thinking that the reason we don’t have one is because both sides just won’t compromise. In the former case, it would just be elites looking out for what they think is their own interest. I have no problem with that. It strikes me as greedy and shortsighted, but there is nothing especially wrong with being guided by your own personal interests. But the latter case shows a group that just can’t see reality.

Of course, this is why I’ve long argued against all of Obama’s attempts to seem reasonable. It would be one thing if people like Fred Hiatt would write editorials proclaiming that Obama was being reasonable and the Republicans were not. But it never goes like that. All such attempts at reasonableness do is push the playing field further to the right. And that’s where we get all the calls for “leadership” from Obama. Hiatt must know that Obama has offered up entitlement cuts. I’m sure it has been pointed out to him many times. But when he is faced with such facts, he just retreats into his argument that while Obama may have offered up the compromise, he hasn’t done it with enough force or intelligence or panache. The fact that Obama put such cuts into his budget matters not at all. Both sides do it. Both sides always do it. That is the immutable truth for the VSP.

The Case for Soaking the Rich

Matt YglesiasI used to work with this young engineer. I remember him primarily because he was an annoying conservative who listened to Michael Savage every day. But he was an okay engineer, nothing special but competent. Since that time, he stopped working as an engineer and went into sales. Why? Because he could make a lot of money. In his case, that’s probably fine. But it does speak to a very big problem in our economy: people are given incentives to leave socially important but relatively low paying jobs like teaching and engineering. And they are incentivized to go into less socially useful fields like law or sales.

A good example of the problem comes to me via the great book, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. Imagine that we enacted a law that said that no one with an IQ over 70 could be a lawyer. The society would be no different. That’s because lawyers battle other lawyers. It is a zero sum game. On the other hand, if we made such a law concerning engineers, our society would be destroyed: our cars wouldn’t run, our computers would malfunction, our clocks would be right only two times a day.

So we really ought to construct a society in which great computer programers create great things that make our lives better. It is a major market malfunction that software engineers are taken away from productive work to create high frequency trading systems, which cannot by definition help society. Even if you think that high frequency trading helps the markets, the people in the markets don’t need to be our best and brightest. Again: if there was a 70 IQ point maximum for traders, nothing would change.

What can we do about this? Matt Yglesias offered up an excellent idea, Tax Hikes Could Grow the Economy. It is based upon an economic paper “Taxation and the Allocation of Talent,” by Benjamin Lockwood, Charles Nathanson, and Glen Weyl. Without getting into details, the thesis is very simple. By taxing high incomes aggressively, we provide incentives for people to go into socially useful but relatively low paying jobs. The authors suggest that a top marginal tax rate of 70% to 90% would be optimal for a better distribution of talent.

Yglesias cautioned about reading too much into the results, however. First he noted that the finance industry does important work in the economy. Second, he observed that just because someone is a great hedge fund manager doesn’t mean he will be a great school teacher. I don’t buy either of these complaints. We are only talking about disincentivizing these highly paid positions. They would still pay a lot of money and attract a lot of talent. On the second point specifically, I think it proves the need for high taxes. Great hedge fund managers almost certainly would not be great school teachers or engineers. So we are paying them a great deal of money to do something of (at best) limited social value. And if financial speculation is all they are really good at, then they’ll go into that field regardless because no one will hire them for anything else.

I am constantly amazed that we have a political economy set up a certain way. There is absolutely nothing natural about it. We got it almost randomly. Yet the power elite have convinced themselves (and mostly everyone else too) that this is some God given system and if we changed it there would be catastrophe. But the truth is that we aren’t doing as well as many other countries that at least have somewhat different systems. Just look at taxes. Based upon the following graph via David Atkins at Hullabaloo, the OECD countries pay 42% (10 percentage points) more in taxes than the United States does:

Taxes Paid 2011 - OECD

Matt Yglesias wrote another great article today, No, Inequality Doesn’t Help the Economy Grow. It pushes back against this widely held belief that “there are tradeoffs between equality and efficiency.” As he notes, there are grains of truth to this and in the kind of perfect economies that fresh water economists like to model, this is true. But the real world is such that: (1) much wealth is inherited; (2) what people earn is not correlated with their effort; and (3) people are not paid according to their social value. Given this, there is little reason to believe that we need inequality for good economic growth.

Yglesias goes further to argue that inequality is bad for growth:

Indeed, because economic equality is a matter of money rather than of human welfare it is easy to see that inegalitarian distributions are themselves inefficient. A $10,000 a year raise that could be life-changing for a minimum wage worker would be utterly meaningless to a CEO already earning millions a year…

The real appeal of economic inequality is, of course, to those who benefit from it. It would be convenient for them if that inequality was also beneficial for everyone else. But there’s precious little evidence or compelling theory saying that it is.

Unfortunately, we come back to the same reality: the United States really isn’t a democracy. The system we have is not only bad for the vast majority of our citizens, it is bad for the country as a whole. But it is great for the oligarchs. So we change nothing.

Elaine May

Elaine MayBefore we get to the birthdays, I have to share something I wrote last year on this day. James Dobson is a very vile conservative Christian who founded Focus on the Family. To give you some idea of the man, he once said, “It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely.” So last year, I wrote what I think is a wonderful bit of snark, “Since I mentioned Hitler’s birthday yesterday, I guess I have to mention that James Dobson is 77 day.”

The great comedian Elaine May is 82 today. She is a brilliant screenwriter, and not just of funny material. For example, she wrote the screenplay for Primary Colors, which is a really fine film. But comedy is her thing. She wrote one of the funniest screenplays ever, The Birdcage, which really is far better than the original (which is still excellent). And she wrote and directed Ishtar. It’s actually a very good, very funny movie. It seems it got a bad rap because of its budget. Big budgets are fine for action films but not for comedies. But most of all, it is an example of studio infighting. It seems that David Puttnam came in as head of production towards the end of the film, and as is standard, he wanted to kill it because it wasn’t his film. So he put out as much negative stuff on the film as he could. If you haven’t seen the film, you should.

But Elaine May is mostly known as one half of Nichols and May, her short-lived but hugely popular comedy act with Mike Nichols (who also directed The Birdcage and Primary Colors). Here is their classic “Mother and Son” skit:

Happy birthday Elaine May!