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“We Need Pleasure to Survive…”

By Shlomo Maital  

Enjoy!

    Today’s New York Times has an Op-Ed by Jessica Grose, titled “We need pleasure to survive.”   Here is her main point:

      “…does the joy we get from two glasses of wine over dinner with friends offset the physiological drawbacks in any way?…Does the pleasure from a rich meal…nourish your soul even if it raises your cholesterol?”

     Yes!

     My own theory:  If it makes you happy, go for it, within reasonable bounds of moderation.  Why?  Because the worst thing for your health is not cholesterol but —  unhappiness and depression.  The latter will kill you faster than cholesterol. 

     And even if it doesn’t —   if you abstain from everything you enjoy, just so you live longer,  you will probably not live longer, but it will SEEM like forever.  I have witnessed this first hand.

    So why do it? 

    I believe that in living, quality overcomes quantity.  Enjoy life.  I believe you will live longer.  And even if you don’t – it was worth it. 

Debt Ceiling Insanity

By Shlomo Maital

   OK – another blog about Republican insanity/fanaticism/obstructionism.  Skip it, if you wish.

   The US govt. debt ceiling is now $31 trillion. About 1.5 times GDP.   The actual debt has reached that amount. An act of Congress is needed to raise it.  A small junta of crackpot Republicans is blocking that act.  This threatens an unthinkable result:  the US government defaults on its debt (i.e. cannot pay its bills).

    Who is responsible for the mountain of debt?  A journalist reporting on the NY Times podcast The Daily, led by Michael Babaro, reports this:  Since George Bush (2000), $12.7 tr. of the debt came from Republican Administrations (mainly defense spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, especially under Trump),  and $13 tr. comes from Democrat Administrations (e.g. expanded health care insurance).  50/50.

     So why are Republicans blocking raising the debt ceiling, threatening global financial markets, and virtual suicide for their own country (patriots all?)…. When they are equally responsible for the debt,  most lately the unfunded Trump tax cuts?  When was the last balanced budget?  In 2000, under Clinton, a Democrat,  just before Bush took over. 

      Ask Marjorie Taylor Greene, the whacko Congresswoman.  She will doubtless have a brilliant analysis of why it is wise to blow up global financial markets.

The T(Predictable) ragedy of the Darien Gap

By Shlomo Maital

Darien Gap

    My Ph.D. thesis, written 55 years ago, showed how the hordes of baby boomers, born 1947-65, moved through the age cohorts like a deer through a python, totally predictable – yet at each stage, public officials were surprised.  Result: Crowded kindergartens, schools, universities, and now —  pressure on social security as they retire.  Surprise!  Yet predictable with 100% certainty.

    Same goes for the hordes of migrants now pushing across the Rio Grande.  In 1944 at Bretton Woods, NH, the US and allies created a marvelous global trading system that generated massive wealth – for some.  For countries able to capitalize, like China, Korea, Singapore.  And for the already wealthy.  For countries with corrupt governments, their citizens were left out, left behind.  Massive misery.  In South and Central America and Africa.  Result:  Huge waves of migrants, seeking a better life, or even life itself.

     Predictable?  You bet.  Just as negatively charged particles are drawn to positively charged ones,  so are the poor drawn toward the wealthy.  Sure as shooting.  It is not rocket science.

    Yet the world chose to ignore the problem.  And the result:  For example, the many thousands who cross the Darien Gap on foot,  66 miles of hostile steamy jungle between Colombia and Panama.  Including small children.  And many die doing it.

       On the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, journalist Julie Turkewitz recounts how she made the trek herself, to research it, and recounts her journey.  She notes, “Almost three years after a deadly pandemic began ravaging the world, a devastating combination of pandemic fallout, climate change, growing conflict and rising inflation exacerbated by the war in Ukraine is creating a seismic shift in global migration, sending millions of people from their homes.  The United Nations says there are now at least 103 million forcibly displaced people around the world, a record number that is only expected to grow.”

    It is hard to grasp big numbers like 103 million. But easy to grasp the story of Sarah, six years old, who crossed the Darien Gap with her mom.  “At least 33,000 of the people who’ve made the journey this year are children,” Turkewitz notes. “Some migrants come from desperately poor families. But many, like Sarah and her mother, Dayry Alexandra Cuauro, were once middle class, and now, thrust into desperation by their homeland’s (Venezuela) financial ruin, have decided to risk their lives in the jungle.”

     The Pan American Highway stretches from Alaska down through South America. But there is a 66 mile stretch, the Darien Gap, so impassable that engineers tried and failed to build a road to cross it. So it has to be crossed on foot.  Dayry, a lawyer, could not make a living in Venezuela, tried in Chile, failed, and in desperation, took her little girl and set out for the US border.   In the trek through Darien, which takes between  6 and 10 days, her feet swelled and she was unable to walk.  She handed her little daughter to a stranger, named Angel, and asked him to care for her on the trek.  She tried to follow later.  The desperation of a mother, entrusting her little daughter to a stranger, is unimaginable. 

     Julie Turkewitz helped reunite mother and daughter.  But only for them to learn that the Biden Administration had revoked the special terms Venezuelan migrants were offered at the border.  They wait in Mexico, as thousands are turned away. 

       Centuries ago, China built a huge wall to keep out the nomads.  It did not always work.  Today, the wealthy nations of the West are essentially trying to do the same.  It is immoral and futile.  Desperate people, like Dayry and her little girl, will keep coming. 

       It is sad, infuriating, unacceptable, that the wealth machine built in 1944, creating huge intolerable gaps between rich and poor, did not have a repairman working to mitigate the terrible inequality.  If you let large countries sink into abysmal poverty, their people will come to your border. 

        My fellow economists, me among them, should have done more to warn what lay ahead.  And what about the Christian evangelical Republicans in the US?  How do they support the xenophobic wall-builders like Trump?  With $65,000 GDP per capita, can Americans not afford to help those who live on less than a tenth of that?  Where are the Christian values?  Simple humanity?!

     Well done, Julie!  If you can, read her account or listen to the Daily podcast.

Scientific Innovation is Slowing Down!

By Shlomo Maital

         Disruptive innovation is a kind of innovation that displaces established market-leading firms, products, and alliances. It was first developed by Prof. Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School in 1995. 

         Science research, too, can be disruptive.  For example, mRNA technology for vaccines has disrupted conventional dead-virus vaccine approaches (except in China). 

         New research, that covered a mind-boggling six decades, 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents, published in NATURE, now shows that “progress is slowing in several major fields.”  *   Meaningful scientific innovation is slowing, despite massive investment of resources.  Disruptive scientific research is measured in this paper by a new measure, CD index, measures whether research is ‘consolidating’ (building on what exists) or ‘disruptive’ (charting brand new directions, contrary to what exists, breaking sharply with past knowledge).  The authors claim this reflects “a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology”. 

       Gene splicing, for instance, was a disruptive breakthrough.  It has generated a huge new field of research.

        As someone who spent 40 years publishing research, albeit in economics, I have a hunch why breakthrough research is in decline.  The incentives are all wrong.

     Tenure involves often counting published papers.  Papers building on what is acceptable have a higher rate of success than papers that clash with conventional wisdom.  What reviewer wants to OK a paper that makes his or her own research irrelevant?

      Scientists spend vast amounts of time writing grant proposals.  Proposals that build on the knowledge created by those reviewing their request stand a better chance of approval.

      Newton said that scientists ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’.  True.  But sometimes, they have to climb the tree all by themselves, without help,  while the neighbors yell at them to get down at once. 

       Fewer scientists seem willing or able to do so.   

*  Park, M., Leahey, E., & Funk, R. J. (2023). Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature, 613(7942), 138-144.   

Hope & Despair: An Economic Perspective

By Shlomo Maital  

Abhuit Banerjee & Esther Duflo

    Years ago, I lost hope for my profession, Economics.  For more than a century, from 1870 to 1979, Economics was a branch of applied math.  Virtuosity in math was essential for success.  My wife, a psychologist, and I began trying to research people rather than Greek letters, early on, in 1972/3 and wrote and published papers and two books.  But nobody was listening. 

     And then along came two Israelis,  Kahneman and Tversky, and their 1979 Econometrica paper, which persuaded economists of the importance of studying actual behavior (psychologists, not economists; Kahneman is still active and a Nobel laureate, Tversky died of cancer in 1995).  They did so, by shaping a mathematical behavioral model of behavior toward risk – speaking the language of economists, but preaching behavior!  Their model was tested empirically and showed major deviations from purely rational behavior.

      Today, behavioral economics dominates.   I was born too soon.

       Enter Esther Duflo and Abhuit Banerjee.   Banerjee shared the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. He and Esther Duflo, who are married, are the sixth married couple to jointly win a Nobel Prize.

     Esther Duflo is the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics at MIT. They met when Banerjee was her PhD supervisor at MIT in 1999, married in 2015, and have two children together.

    Their breakthrough?  Study policy alternatives by small-scale experiments, in the field, rather than by proving mathematical theorems.  A powerful idea.  See how policy drives behavior, in the real world, and test it.  A revolution.

     The couple has written a lovely New York Times Op-Ed, “Hope and despair in turbulent times”.  Few or no economists of my generation would or could write such a piece.   Here is their opening paragraph:

    “History offers many lessons, but the big picture is always a tangled skein of multicolored wool.  Where it leads says a lot about the particular strand that we choose to follow – the optimist always finds a threat that the pessimist will carefully avoid.”

     Find the strand of hope, they counsel.  There always is at least one.

     Israel’s 37th government was sworn in on Thursday, Dec. 29.  It is far right, homophobic, fanatically ultra-Orthodox, and largely incompetent, with leading ministers having served jail terms or convictions.  But as Duflo and Banerjee counsel, there is hope.  We are a country with incredibly creative young people who continue to launch amazing startups that change the world.  That force is inexorable. Like Niagara Falls, it cannot be shut off.

     Special thanks to Duflo and Banerjee. 

     Economics is back.

What Will 2023 Bring?

By Shlomo Maital   

(The Daily Courier)

   So, what will 2023 bring?

   This is based on listening to Ken Rogoff, Harvard professor of economics and former chief economist of the IMF.  Also based on what the current  IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva just predicted. 

    As I often counsel in this blog – set aside some money.  Spend a bit less. You may need it. 

     Why?   Let’s think of two scenarios.

    One:  The US Federal Reserve recognizes its responsibilities to the world, rejects Trumpian MAGA only-America insanity, and stops hiking interest rates.  Maybe, a bit more inflation for the US. A lot less pain for the rest of the world, forced to hike rates steeply as well.  The US resumes its old role of global locomotive, buying things from other countries and stimulating demand.

      The world economy slows down in 2023, but not that badly.  How likely is this?  The US Fed still seems intent on covering its behind, after pooh-poohing inflation and hiking rates belatedly.  Fed Chair Powell is a Trump appointee. 

     Scenario Two.  US Fed keeps on bashing interest rates higher.  Other countries follow.  And, as wise Rogoff points out, we start to see all the debt dirt swept under the rug, during years and years of near-zero interest rates.  We start to see companies and whole countries struggle to pay back debt.  Like Italy.  We see bad debts emerge from under the rug in places we never knew about or realized.  We see borrowing done at zero interest rates, that made no sense, suddenly become catastrophic at 8 % interest rates.

    Will the EU bail out Italy again? Or will it do an every-country-for-itself saga,  MEUGA, Make EU Great Again, after a cold energy-scarce winter, where Hungary cut private deals with Russia? 

    So, Rogoff counsels, keep your eye on Japan and Italy.    As rates rise, try to limit debt.  Get on top of your credit card debt.  It is rising alarmingly.  Think hard about what to do if the US and world recessions are a) mild, b) moderate and c) severe.  All three are possible.  

     We are in a cycle where companies and countries stop paying back what they owe, because they no longer can.  But at the same time, we are seeing inflation erode the real economic value of debt and moderate its pain.  For governments, especially. 

      2023 will be painful and chaotic.  The recession will be moderated, by people eager to spend money and travel after two or three years of pandemic lockdown.  But it could be made worse if they do this by borrowing instead of spending savings. 

      Two words will dominate.  Resilience.  Ability to bounce back from unexpected hits.  Partly, by preparing for it in advance. And Agility.  Ability to respond fast, to unexpected events. 

       That’s my crystal ball.  Not very helpful.  And very very foggy.   

 Marjorie Taylor Greene:  Gazpacho Police

By Shlomo Maital   

      You could not make this up if you tried.

       NBC News reports:   Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has become known for her love of conspiracy theories and angry outbursts at Democratic leaders, apparently meant to accuse House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Gestapo police tactics in an interview Tuesday.

       But it didn’t quite come out that way, and the mistake she made immediately set off a chorus of delighted ridicule from her critics on social media.   Rather than compare Pelosi’s tactics to the Nazi secret police, she instead compared them to a bowl of chilled soup.

       “Now we have Nancy Pelosi’s gazpacho police spying on members of Congress, spying on the legislative work we do, spying on our staff and spying on American citizens,” Greene said on One America News Network’s “Real America” program.   

       MTG is a ‘far-right conspiracy theorist’  who has served as the U.S. representative for Georgia’s 14th congressional district since 2021 and was re-elected in November 2022. This district in Georgia is one of the most heavily Republican in the nation.  The real contest was in the Republican primaries.  She was strongly supported by Donald Trump.

       Next time you buy tomato soup and cucumbers, be sure to look over your shoulder.  MTG may be there, with a warrant.  You are under arrest for…uh, Gespacho? Geshtako? Gustavo? Gesundheit? Gestalt? Gashpachtal? I can’t spell it, she admits; but you’re under arrest anyway.

         Voters of Georgia’s 14th congressional district:  You voted for her.  So, enjoy.  She will be your representative in Congress for many years.  And, lay off the gazpacho.  And chicken soup, which is Jewish (MTG is not fond of us Jews).  And bouillabaisse, which she can’t pronounce.  In fact, lay off soup in general.  Only elitist educated Democrats eat soup. 

       Ignorance is back.  Yeah.

Spotting Kids’ Talents

By Shlomo Maital

  I am listening to an NPR podcast Open Source, hosted by Christopher Leiden, about Mozart.

   Mozart was a wunderkind – a child prodigy.  He was the son of musician Leopold Mozart.  That was fortunate.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s dad spotted his little son’s talent early.  Mozart was improvising, composing, sight-reading well before he was eight years old.  He travelled through Europe with his dad, displaying his talents. 

    What is Mozart had been born to a non-musical family?  Would his genius have been spotted and encouraged, developed, expanded?

     My wife and I have four children and 17 grandchildren – and a little great granddaughter.  Every human being on earth is unique, with unique talents.  But more often than not, people themselves are not fully aware of either their passions or their talents (the two sometimes diverge).  You need to experience the world to find out – yet we are channeled into ‘bins’ at an age few have full self-awareness. 

     So, my wife and I spend time with our grandchildren, helping them identify their passions and talents and opening windows for them.  Sometimes, the process is easy. Mostly, it is a long winding road. 

     Like my own.  I chose at random a profession unsuited for whom I am – economics – simply because I got a good grade in Econ 4.  It has given me a great life.  But at age 80, I am about to write a novel – which is what I wanted to do when I was 18. 

      Mozart died at 36.  He left an incredible legacy for all of us.  That was fortunate.  His brilliant musical light might not have been exposed had he been born to a different dad or mom.  

         In general,  there are lots of kid Mozarts out there.  Some get lost in the rigidity of schools.  I had a student in Shantou, China, father of two little girls, who saw this clearly and tried to start a less rigid school so his daughters could fulfill their talents.

           Nietzsche once wrote, “become who you are”.  Are we doing all we can to help our children and grandchildren become who they are?  And what they want to become? 

 Multiple Myeloma:  Some Good News!

By Shlomo Maital

    Multiple myeloma is an incurable blood cancer that affects cells inside a patient’s bone marrow. Nearly all multiple myeloma patients will relapse at some point in their treatment, becoming resistant to first one, then another frontline intervention.  

    Globally, multiple myeloma affected 488,000 people and resulted in 101,100 deaths in 2015. In the United States, it develops in 6.5 per 100,000 people per year and 0.7% of people are affected at some point in their lives. It usually occurs around the age of 60 and is more common in men than women. 

   According to the latest edition of Science Friday, “a new kind of [multiple myeloma] therapy, a bispecific antibody called Talquetamab, has been showing promise in clinical trials—both in treating the cancer, and keeping patients in remission longer. A bispecific antibody works as a kind of bond between a T-cell that might otherwise not be doing its job and the myeloma cell itself, forcing the T-cell to attack the cancer.”   An amazing 70% of patients who got the treatment went into remission, including ones seriously ill. 

  How does it work?  The powerful antibody has a “Y” shape.  One branch of the “Y” latches on to cancer cells (it’s designed to do this – that’s why this technology is called ‘designer antibodies’).  The other branch of the “Y” latches on to the body’s immune system T cells, that kill cancer.  When the T cells and cancer cells are in proximity, the T cells emit chemicals that penetrate the cancer cell and kill it.  Basically, this treatment is like a smart deputy sheriff, who rounds up the bad guys, and puts them in a cell so the sheriff can book them and prosecute them. 

    This approach is promising, because it is far less expensive than the designer CAR-T cell approach and is available at leading academic medical centers. CAR-T has to be tailored to each individual. Talquetamab works on everyone.

      Dr. Ajai Chari led the clinical trials of Talquetamab.   He is in charge of hematology oncology at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City.  For follow-up, go to the Mt. Sinai Hospital website.

Creativity’s Fuel: Motivation

By Shlomo Maital

    A friend and neighbor cleaned out her bookshelves and offered me a book first published in 1953 —  69 years ago.  Except for the classics, not many non-fiction books remain relevant for 7 decades.  This one is, in spades.

    It is Applied Imagination, by Alex F. Osborne.  Osborne was co-founder of what became the leading advertising agency,  BBDO,  or Batten Barton Durstine and Osborn.  His focus is effective creativity – creative ideas that have impact. 

    What truly drives creativity?  Motivation.  Or “mental energy”.  The desire to makes things better.  This is Osborne’s insight.  “The fact is,” Osborne wrote, “is that nearly all of us have far more mental capacity than we ever use.”  

    Osborn explains why New Englanders are so creative.  From early days, the settlers had to deal with famine, drought, winter freezes, rocky soil.  The tough environment, and human evolution, selected the most creative people good at solving problems. Because, creativity, in the end, is solving problems.  Entrepreneurship begins not with technology but with a problem that technology may solve. 

      This is why I am optimistic. The world today is in great trouble.  We have polluted our planet, used up our air and water, engaged in pointless wars, ruined so many species of birds and animals, driven a huge gap between rich and poor, tolerated racism and hatred, and pitted one religion against another.  In the past, when things got really tough, human creativity rose markedly – driven by extra super-duper motivation,  a sparkplug of creativity. 

     After the onset of the Great Depression, there was a huge outburst of creativity.  I think it may happen again.  We will find ways to sequester carbon, desalinate water, and maybe, just maybe,  live together, all of us, in peace, on this beautiful planet, the only one we have.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital

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