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The Perils of Free Choice

By Shlomo Maital  

    Today’s New York Times (August 18 – int. edition) has an opinion piece by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, scholars at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-wing conservative think tank in Washington.  The title:  “The art of choosing what to do with your life.”

    They include a quote by Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed that people who have freedom and plenty but lack the art of choosing will be restless in the midst of their prosperity.”  This French aristocrat turns out to be the leading interpreter of American politics and society, in his books   Democracy in America (1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856).  Outsiders always have keen insights on the behavior of insiders.

    Conservatives are big fans of freedom of choice.  There is even a House caucus, the House Freedom Caucus, with far-far-right members.  And they are supported by economists, whose mathematical theories prove that more choice is better than less – because you can always decline an option, so more choices can only improve life.

    But psychologists know this is false.  Choice brings anxiety, regrets (damn, I picked the wrong cereal box), and wastes time.  I once published a research paper, showing that people often constrain themselves, and improve their wellbeing by doing so – less is more. 

     The authors of the opinion piece recommend that “colleages…prioritize initiating students into a culture of rational reflection”.  Really?  What about educating capitalist CEO’s against filling the shelves (to muscle out more space) with endless varieties of salad dressing, cereals and shampoos, of basically the same damn product. 

  And as for choosing what to do with your life:   At age 18, I had to choose a major in college. I chose economics, randomly, because I did well on an exam.  It was a profession for which I was unsuited.  But after a Ph.D., it was too late.  And I did not realize how unsuited I was for economics until mid-life.   Economics has changed – it has become behavioral.  I had a minor role in this, with my psychologist wife. * But I wish I had made a better choice at age 18.

  • See Minds Market and Money (Basic Books:  New York 1982).
  • B. Storey, J. S. Storey, “The art of choosing what to do with your life”. NYT Aug. 18/2022.

Right to (a Good) Life?!

By Shlomo Maital   

  A heartbreaking piece of news earlier this year:  “For millions of children, January has been the cruelest month, thrusting them back into poverty and leaving their families uncertain about how they will keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table.   The temporary expansion of the child tax credit expired Dec. 15 and is expected to increase childhood poverty from 12 percent to 17 percent in January, the highest since December 2020, according to research by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. Black and Latino children will be hit harder, with poverty rising to 1 in 4 kids”.  (NBC News).

    I have a question for the right-to-life supporters, many deeply religious Christians,  who claim that a fetus is a life, at any age in the womb.  Your beloved Republican representatives, and senators, prevented the Child Tax Credit, enacted by the Biden Administration, which at a swoop cut child poverty in half !!, from being renewed.

      Let me understand.  You believe the fetus, every fetus, no matter how created, now matter what the mother’s desire or need is,  has a right to life.  OK.  Now – does that fetus have the right to a good life?  A proper life?  To education, food, healthcare?    When it becomes a viable child?

       If so – how come your political party has blocked the single measure that has hugely improved children’s lives?  Why?  How do you justify it? How do you support it?

        How in the world can intelligent, moral, value-driven people support that destruction of a single measure, CTC, that had such a powerful and tragically short-lived impact on the lives of children?  Including new-borns.

        Want to find consistency and logic among Right to Life?  You will need an electron microscope. [1]


[1] The American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) of 2021 significantly expanded the child tax credit for one year, allowing qualifying families to offset $3,000 per child up to age 17 and $3,600 per child under age 6. It also made the credit fully-refundable and offered the option of receiving half of the credit as six monthly payments. 39 million households, covering 88% of children in the United States, began receiving these payments automatically beginning July 15, 2021.  The child tax credit has a significant effect on child poverty. In 2016, it was estimated to have lifted about 3 million children out of poverty. In 2021, a Columbia University study estimated that the expansion of the CTC in the American Rescue Plan Act reduced child poverty by an additional 26%, and would have decreased child poverty by 40% had all eligible households claimed the credit.

Benjamin Choi: 17-Year-Old Invents Pathbreaking Prosthetic Arm

By Shlomo Maital

Benjamin Choi & His Invention

  On Ira Flatow’s Science Friday podcast, Benjamin Choi was interviewed this week.

   This amazing young man will enter Harvard this Fall.

    Flatow observed:  “Artificial limb technology has come a long way since the first prosthetic—a big toe made of wood and leather developed in ancient Egypt.   Today’s cutting-edge robotic limbs use mind-control and even give users a sense of touch, helping them feel sensations like a warm cup of coffee or a mushy banana. Still, these state-of-the-art prosthetics often involve invasive brain surgeries and can be exorbitantly expensive.   Hearing of these issues, one teenager set out to create a solution. Seventeen-year-old Benjamin Choi has developed a non-invasive, affordable prosthetic arm. His Star Wars-inspired technology reads a user’s mind with only two sensors—one on the forehead and the other clipped to the earlobe. And he doesn’t plan on stopping there. He sees his work in artificial intelligence expanding to help ALS patients, wheelchair users, and beyond.”

   So what exactly is the advantage of Choi’s prosthesis?   Today prosthetic arms exist that are moved and operated by the brain. But this involves brain surgery, to insert electrodes in just the right spot.  Expensive, a bit risky.

    Choi had a different approach.  He places an electrode on the forehead, externally. No surgery. Then he prepared an artificial intelligence algorithm (!) that reads the massive brain signals and interprets which are directed toward moving the arms and fingers.  It is 95% accurate, he observes.  Because it learns, and learns quickly.  And this electrode communicates with the prosthetic arm and moves it. 

    Choi already has some funding from a hi-tech firm.  He is seeking more.  I look forward to tracking his career and observing how he changes the world. 

Desiderata

By Shlomo Maital  

. Taken from the wall of Old St. Paul’s Church, in Baltimore, dated 1692, posted on my own wall:

   Go placidly amid the noise & haste & remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.  Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is perennial as the grass.  Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.  Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.  But do not distress yourself with imaginings.  Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.  Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.  Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.  Be careful.  Strive to be happy.

Solutions Journalism: Looking on the Bright Side

By Shlomo Maital    

  I regularly sent my magazine columns to my late mother.   Often, she would tear a strip off me.  “Doom and gloom, doom and gloom!” she would say.

  She was right.  I had fallen prey to the endemic virus of modern journalism – looking for doom and gloom, as sensational as possible. 

   I mended my ways.  I tried hard to find stories of people who change the world with creativity and hard work.  Not every column is ‘happy talk’ – but certainly more than one in two. 

    And now, comes “Solutions journalism”,  which I just heard about thanks to CNN.  Solutions journalism is defined as “focuses on the response to social issues, as well as on the problems themselves”.  The idea?  Give people a more complete view of these issues, to “drive more effective citizenship”.

    Example?  Journalists David Bornsstein and Tina Rosenberg created the “Fixes” column for the New York times Opinionator section.  Weekly it reports on the response to an urgent social problem.  Bornstein cofounded the Solutions Journalism Network, seeking to make “solutions journalism a part of mainstream practice in news”.

    So what’s so hard about this?   Sure, report urgent social problems.  But out there, there are people of skill and will trying hard to find solutions.  Cover them too.  Don’t ignore the solutions part of the challenge.  There will be dividends.  You will have more readers.  And the word will spread – for instance,  “harm reduction” (measures that reduce the harm from drugs, for addicts) got strong publicity from a successful radical experiment in Vancouver, BC – and I now heard that word, harm reduction, all over the US, especially Public Radio.  

    Like many people, I’ve found that turning off Cable News is highly favorable for mental health. It need not be so.  An informed citizenry is crucial.  Journalists —  open your windows.  With a little effort, you can tell us about solutions – and not just deep-rooted intransigent problems. 

 What Do You Know That Others Can Use?

By Shlomo Maital

    In an era when the key resource is knowledge (wisdom, skill, insight, creativity) – much of it is being wasted. I’m talking about pensioners, those over 65, who are warehoused, marginalized, the day after turning 65.  I know someone who was a key assistant to a bank CEO – his phone never stopped ringing, until the day after he retired, and then it fell silent. 

     In an era when life expectancy is in the mid-80’s, we are wasting 20 productive years, on average, in which those with wisdom can help solve the world’s pressing problems.  And problems?  Climate crisis, inequality, assault on democracy, violence, poor schools, wars, fascism, ..and that’s just a start.

     I have a friend who is sharing his insights through…poetry, weekly poems, that each has deep meaning regarding how we live.  There are myriad ways to do this. 

     What do you know about life, that you have learned the hard way at times, that others can use and learn from?  And how can you share it?  There are so many ways.  It need not  be ‘at scale’ – one friend at a time. 

     I have a friend who has self-published wonderful poetry books and a superb book about management and business.  And others, who are building a great startup.  

     We used to say, life begins at 40.  Today, make it begin at 65.  Use the adage “the adjacent possible” – what can you do that is a bit different than what you have done in the past, but not so different it is unfeasible.    

Economic Forecast: Thick Fog

By Shlomo Maital

   Few economists can see as far and as clearly as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, a longtime New York Times columnist.  His latest column is headed “The Humbug Economy”.  His key point:  He cannot recall a time when the economic fog surrounding the data was thicker or more pea-soup.  Recession? Sure.  No recession?  Of course. 

   Why the thick fog?  And why can economists not reach a conclusion (even if, as G.B. Shaw once said, you lined them up all up, they still would not reach a conclusion).  

    Here is Krugman’s reasoning.  There is a long lag with GDP data. When we do get 2nd quarter data, it may show another decline –the 2nd.  Technically, that’s a recession?  But no – that call is made by an independent committee, and they are unlikely to announce a recession despite two quarterly declines.

    GDP is measured on two sides:  output and income.  And Krugman notes, the two measures differ more than they ever have.  GDP production?  Weak.  GDP income:  strong.  Hmmm.  

    Wage price spiral?  No.  wage increases have slowed. Job creation:  Strong.  Not a signal at all of recession. 

    The global pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into the global and US economies.  The US dollar, for instance, is now at virtual parity with the Euro…first time in two decades.  Strong dollar does not indicate recession.

   But the stock market does.  It is officially a bear market, with some 20% plus decline. 

    So what does an ordinary person do?

    Set aside some saving for a rainy day.  Fasten your seat belt.  And prepare for heavy fog for some time to come.

Radical-Right US Supreme Coart and Oakland A’s

By Shlomo Maital   

   How can we understand the recent 6-3 radical-right rulings of the US Supreme Coourt, overturning Roe v. Wade, environment, gun restrictions, and more?

    Here is my take.  Consider Justice Samuel Alito who wrote the abortion opinion.  He was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bush on October 31, 2005, and served since January 31, 2006.   So for over a decade, Alito, a Roman Catholic, has been on the losing side of the Supreme Court, which had a liberal majority – until Trump’s three anti-abortion radical-right appointees.

     Humiliation.  Anger.  Decision after decision, Alito loses.   But not any more.

    Consider baseball.  The worst team in Major League Baseball is he Oakland Athletics, who play in a rundown crummy stadium, with mediocre or worse players, and average crowds of 8,000 – lower than their minor league AAA team gets.  Now imagine, impossibly, that Oakland acquires ace pitcher Max Scherzer and Yankee home run ace Aaron Judge!   They humiliate teams they used to lose to, and win the World Series. 

   As they do – do they behave with grace and gentlemanly courtesy to other teams?  No way.  They drub them, humiliate them, get even for the years of scorn they absorbed, and leading 10-2 in the ninth inning, they go for six more runs. 

    That’s Alito and the Supreme Court.  It’s payback time.  Revenge.  Against common sense?  Against the majority of reasonable Americans?  Who cares.  This is payback for all the years of humiliation.

    Is it really possible that emotions play a role in the highest US court?   You bet.  Read Alito’s Roe v Wade decision, leaked months earlier.  Do you not read “you rubbed my face in it,  now I will do it to yours”?  

    I wrote in an earlier blog that America is broken.  The legislative branch has been broken for years. Now, the judicial branch is broken too.  Two out of three.  And the Executive?  2024 will be crucial.  3 out of 3 will be too much.

Russian Resilience

By Shlomo Maital    

   It physically pains me to write anything positive about Russia, the nation spilling blood, killing civilians, starving people by withholding wheat, ripping off the world by spiking gas and oil prices, and lying daily.  But – truth is truth.

    Russians are resilient.  They suffered 20 million casualties in World War II and starvation.  When the USSR collapsed, there was privation, hunger, hyper-inflation…   Russians have learned to be resilient.

     The ruble was 67 to the dollar on Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.  It spiked to nearly double that, 133 to the dollar – and today is 54 rubles per dollar, stronger than pre-war.     

     Kudos to Russian Central Bank’s governor, the brilliant Elvira Sakhipzadovna Nabiullina. 

      Russia’s inflation rate in May was 17%.  High, true – but the US has 8% inflation, and Europe is not far behind.

      McDonald’s closed all its 850 restaurants in Russia with the outbreak of war.  They are now re-opening, under a different name,  same stuff.

       Russia faced oil and gas embargos – but the higher price of oil gave Russia a windfall of $100 b. in oil sales since the outbreak of war, and it is finding customers in China and India. 

       This Ukraine war will be very long and protracted.  Russia’s economy is hurt by sanctions, but its people are resilient and have known privation before.  It is part of being Russian.

    So do not expect the sanctions to alter Russia’s course.  Do not expect the people of Russia to whine about how hard their lives have become. 

    Long-term, the energy sector in Russia is the most important, it contributes 20-25 percent of GDP, 65 percent of total exports and 30 percent of government budget revenue.  Western countries are shifting away from buying Russian energy.  And the economy is reliant on it.  Let us see how Russia deals with this in the long run.

 YOU CAN be more Creative

By Shlomo Maital    

   I have taught innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship for decades. Often I found my main task was persuading students that they ARE creative, despite their years of doing more or less the same thing in their jobs.   Our brains are like muscles, I claimed;  exercise them, and your creativity muscles get much stronger.  A few, perhaps, bought the idea.

    In the latest issue of the APA Monitor, April-May 2022,  Kirsten Weir offers five simple, practical steps toward being more creative.  Worth a try?  Here they are:

  1.  Put in the work.  My recent book adds “perspiration” to “aspiration” and “inspiration”.  We all know idea-people, who never can muster the persistence and hard work to implement their creativity.  Work at ideation, work at implementation. 
  2. Let Your Mind Wander:   Daydream. But with a purpose.  Define a problem you care about.  Think about it.  Store it.  Let it rest, become dormant. Revisit it from time to time.  Dream.  Let your subconscious work on it.
  3. Practice Remote Associations.  So many great ideas involve X+Y – linking things that nobody else has.  Like, the Japanese engineer atop Mt. Fuji who thought of linking cell phones and cameras – now standard. 
  4. Go Outside.  Open the iwndows. Travel.  Get out into nature.  Talk to people.  Leave your comfort zone, explore unfamiliar things.  You can harvest ideas in remote places.  As in my case study of how a UK hospital children’s emergency room became more efficient by studying Formula 1 pit stop crews.
  5. Revisit Your Creative Ideas:   Keep tweaking, improving, working on your ideas. Make them better.  Revisit them again and again. NEVER fall in love with the idea as it is… only with its ideal form that you strive for.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital

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