We Bet on Technology

We Bet On Technology

I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now and he makes a good case for being optimistic about human progress. In an age when it is popular to write about human failures, whether it is wealthy but unhappy athletes wrecking their cars, the perilous state of democracy, or impending climate doom, the responsible message always see ms to be warning about how bad things are. But Pinker argues that things are not that bad and that they are getting better. Pinker’s writing directly contradicts some earlier reading that I have done, including the writing of Gerd Gigerenzer who argues that we unwisely bet on technology to save us when we should be focused on improving statistical thinking and living with risk rather than hoping for a savior technology.
In Risk Savvy, Gigerenzer writes about the importance of statistical thinking and how we need it in order to successfully navigate an increasingly complex world. He argues that betting on technology will in some ways be a waste of money, and while I think he is correct in many ways, I think that some parts of his message are wrong. He argues that instead of betting on technology, we need to develop improved statistical understandings of risk to help us better adapt to our world and make smarter decisions with how we use and prioritize resources and attention. He writes, “In the twenty-first century Western world, we can expect to live longer than ever, meaning that cancer will become more prevalent as well. We deal with cancer like we deal with other crises: We bet on technology. … As we have seen … early detection of cancer is also of very limited benefit: It saves none or few lives while harming many.”
Gigerenzer is correct to state that to this point broad cancer screening has been of questionable use. We identify a lot of cancers that people would likely live with and that are unlikely to cause serious metastatic or life threatening disease. Treating cancers that won’t become problematic during the natural course of an individual’s life causes a lot of pain and suffering for no discernable benefit, but does this mean we shouldn’t bet on technology? I would argue that it does not, and that we can see the current mistakes we make with cancer screening and early detection as lessons to help us get to a better technological cancer detection and treatment landscape. Much of our resources directed toward cancer may be misplaced right now, but wise people like Gigerenzer can help the technology be redirected to where it can be the most beneficial. We can learn from poor decisions around treatment and diagnosis, call out the actors who profit from misinformation, uncertainty, and fear, and build a new regime that harnesses technological progress in the most efficient and effective ways. As Pinker would argue, we bet on technology because it offers real promises of an improved world. It won’t be an immediate success, and it will have red herrings and loose ends, but incrementalism is a good way to move forward, even if it is slow and feels like it is inadequate to meet the challenges we really face.
Ultimately, we should bet on technology and pursue progress to eliminate more suffering, improve knowledge and understanding, and better diagnose, treat, and understand cancer. Arguing that we haven’t done a good job so far, and that current technology and uses of technology haven’t had the life saving impact we wish they had is not a reason to abandon the pursuit. Improving our statistical thinking is critical, but betting on technology and improving statistical thinking go hand in hand and need to be developed together without prioritizing one over the other.
The Mental Scaffolding for Religious Belief

The Mental Scaffolding of Religious Belief

Yesterday’s post was about our mental structure for seeing causality in the world where there is none. We attribute agency to inanimate objects, imbue them with emotions, attribute intentions, and ascribe goals to objects that don’t appear to have any capacity for conscious thought or awareness. From a young age, our minds are built to see causality in the world, and we attribute causal actions linked to preferred outcomes to people, animals, plants, cars, basketballs, hurricanes, computers, and more. This post takes an additional step, looking at how our mind that intuitively perceives causal actions all around us plunges us into a framework for religious beliefs. There are structures in the mind that act as mental scaffolding for the construction of religious beliefs, and understanding these structures helps shed light on what is taking place inside the human mind.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes the following:

 

“The psychologists Paul Bloom, writing in The Atlantic in 2005, presented the provocative claim that our inborn readiness to separate physical and intentional causality explains the near universality of religious beliefs. He observes that we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. The two models of causation that we are set to perceive make it natural for us to accept the two central beliefs of many religions: an immaterial divinity is the ultimate cause of the physical world, and immortal souls temporarily control our bodies while we live and leave them behind as we die.”

 

From the time that we are small children, we experience a desire for a change in the physical state around us. When we are tiny, we have no control over the world around us, but as we grow we develop the capacity to change the physical world to align with our desires. Infants who cannot directly change their environment express some type of discomfort by crying, and (hopefully) receiving loving attention. From a small age, we begin to understand that expressing some sort of discomfort brings change and comfort from a being that is larger and more powerful than we are.

 

This is an idea I heard years ago on a podcast. I don’t remember what show it was, but the argument that the guest presented was that humans have a capacity for imaging a higher being with greater power than what we have because that is literally the case when we are born. From the time we are in the womb to when we are first born, we experience larger individuals who provide for us, feed us, protect us, and literally talk down to us as if from above. In the womb we literally are within a protective world that nourishes our bodies and is ever present and ever powerful. We have an innate sense that there is something more than us, because we develop within another person, literally experiencing that we are part of something bigger. And when we are tiny and have no control over our world, someone else is there to protect and take care of us, and all we need to do to summon help is to cry out to the sky as we lay on our backs.

 

As we age, we learn to control our physical bodies with our mental thoughts and learn to use language to communicate our desired to other people. We don’t experience the build up action potentials between neurons prior to our decisions to do something. We only experience us, acting in the world and mentally interpreting what is around us. We carry with us the innate sense that we are part of something bigger and that there is a protector out there who will come to us if we cry out toward the sky. We don’t experience the phenomenological reality of the universe, we experience the narrative that we develop in our minds beginning at very young ages.

 

My argument in this piece is that both Paul Bloom as presented in Kahneman’s book and the argument from the scientist in the podcast are correct. The mind contains scaffolding for religious beliefs, making the idea that a larger deity exists and is the original causal factor of the universe feel so intuitive. Our brains are effectively primed to look for things that support the intuitive sense of our religions, even if there is no causal structure there, or if the causal structure can be explained in a more scientific and rational manner.
Health Care Supply

Health Care Supply

Dave Chase makes an argument in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call that healthcare has a substantial supply side drive, not just a demand side drive. This argument doesn’t align with standard pictures of healthcare, the idea that people seek care when they are sick, and don’t use care when they are well. Its troubling, but evidence does support the idea that the healthcare market is in some very important ways a supply driven market, meaning that as supply and capacity increases, demand also increases.

 

I’m not completely sure I understand this idea, but it is important for us to acknowledge and think about, especially if we live in growing cities, gentrifying regions of the country, and areas of the United States that have real opportunities for reinvention. When looking to the future of healthcare in the United States, Chase includes many elements from Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book The New Localism and thinks there is an important role for new models of city and local government to play in shaping local healthcare ecosystems. He is also heavily influenced by Jim Clifton’s book The Coming Jobs War and the importance that local communities invest in sectors that are likely to be highly productive in the future. Chase writes,

 

“Sooner rather than later, we can expect other developments along the same 3.0 spectrum [More info on Economic Development 3.0 here]. Cities will incorporate true health needs into mater planning and review building permit applications with a deep understanding that health care is a supply-driven market. The more supply there is, the more demand will increase, with little regard for value and community well-being. Approving more health care build-out virtually guarantees a massive burden on local citizens.”

 

It is important that we think about what it is in healthcare that actually provides value. If simply adding more healthcare capacity will lead to greater demand and utilization, then we need to take steps to ensure that an uptick in services is actually accompanied by improvements in health. When communities are redeveloping and growing, they should be focused on upstream social determinants of health rather than just hospitals and healthcare service buildings. Designing communities that will have ample green space for outdoor activity, that will control noise, and will have well lit parks and outdoor areas will help build healthy communities. Plopping a hospital in a space that doesn’t include these elements might give people a place to go when they are stressed, overweight, and injured by debris in the streets, but it will not help people actually live healthier, it will capitalize on a broken environment that fails to support health.

 

I think that is part of the idea that Chase argues for. We should maintain the healthcare capacity and services which actually improve health, and we should be weary of systems that provide healthcare but fail to demonstrate real health improvements for citizens and communities.

Helping Infants Get a Good Start

In his book When, Dan Pink writes about the importance of getting a good start. Timing is incredibly important in our lives, and getting a good start can make a huge difference down the road in terms of the outcomes we want to see (or avoid). I wrote about the importance of getting a good start in a career and matching ones skills with a position that values and rewards those skills, but Pink also addresses the importance of getting a good start in life as a baby. Specifically, Pink writes about programs that send nurses into homes to help low income and often low education families and mothers with caring for newborn children. The policies make a huge difference in getting little ones off to a good start.

 

“Nurse visits reduce infant mortality rates, limit behavior and attention problems, and minimize families’ reliance on food stamps and other social welfare programs. They’ve also boosted children’s health and learning, improved breast-feeding and vaccination rates, and increased the chances mothers will seek and keep paid work.”

 

Programs to help young children are expensive up-front, but have a huge amount of benefit down the road. There is a lot of inequity in our society, and while we like to believe that the outcomes we see are purely the results of our own hard work and effort, that isn’t always the case. Having a caring home with enough nutritious food and positive role models makes a big difference in our early development. Getting a good start is key for building good behaviors and becoming successful down the road. The important piece from Pink’s emphasis with this program, is the social nature of the program and how bringing mothers and families that might otherwise be economically and socially isolated into society helps them ensure their kids get a good start.

 

Pink continues, “Instead of forcing vulnerable people to fend for themselves, everyone does better by starting together.” I’ve written about the importance of social groups for our happiness, and here Pink shows that more social connection and helping create social bonds of support for early mothers leads to the positive outcomes we want to see for young children. There are policies we can put in place that would reward these types of social connections and make them more available, and the studies that Pink highlights suggest that the benefits of those programs would be huge for the children who get a better start in life, and would also flow to the rest of society. The programs might not be obvious at first, and the beneficiaries (in terms of the parents of the young children) might not seem deserving at first, but it is worth remembering that the people who will benefit in the long run includes all of us, and not just those initial families and children who receive the good start.

A Public Purpose Mandate

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak advocate for new governance structures to help encourage innovation and lead to dynamic growth for cities and metropolitan regions. Katz and Nowak believe that current structures and institutions are inadequate to respond to global challenges that demand multisectoral action, technological innovation, and network approaches to problem-solving.

 

One of the recommendations from the authors is to produce new systems and structures for the effective management, use, and development of public assets. The authors are critical of public management strategies that often lead to politicized decision-making and cronyism. At the same time, the authors don’t suggest that public assets should simply be sold to the highest bidder from the private sector for their own profit maximization. Public assets can play a huge role in city revitalization and growth if managed properly, and the authors recommend that cities and metros look to Copenhagen for examples of better public asset management.

 

The City of Copenhagen has created publicly owned private corporations for the management of public assets and economic development spaces. An insulated private company is responsible for maximizing public benefit through the use of the city’s assets. In regard to transferring this system to cities in the United States, the authors write, “The United States also has to come to terms with the fact that public assets can be effectively managed by the same private systems and principles that build private wealth and productivity, but with a public purpose mandate.”

 

We like to think that there are either public systems, like say the DMV, or private businesses. Our debates and discussions generally center around the pros and cons of each, with people trying to reach an impossible conclusion that one system is inherently better than the other. Katz and Nowak show that Copenhagen took a different path, looking at how a private corporation could be established with public ownership and an ultimate purpose of maximizing public returns rather than private financial returns. The result has been an entity that can think long term, coordinate with both public and private organizations for responsible and equitable growth, and make decisions that focus on improving the city of Copenhagen in a realistic way that responds to actual economic trends, pressures, and forecasts. This blend of public and private is more robust than either pure private development or public management. The result of finding a third path is a new structure that can actually address problems in rational manners and sidestep the pitfalls that are so common in American city governance.

A Fresh Take on Public Asset Management

An area that I did not understand very well, since I have no real experience with city government, from Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book The New Localism has to do with the management of publicly owned assets. According to Katz and Nowak, public infrastructure, public land, and locally owned buildings and spaces are underutilized and the value of these assets is poorly managed. Part of the reason for this is that much of government is split and segmented. One agency has control over a piece of land, and another agency has ownership of another near by asset. This fragmentation makes it hard for the city government to consider unified programs or projects that would utilize both of the nearby assets in a uniform manner.

 

Another issue the authors discuss with public asset management is elected political officials holding veto power over the use of public assets. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow describes our risk avoidance tendencies, and I think these tendencies can easily be viewed in our elected officials and their veto power. Elected officials, like everyone else, is more worried about potential losses than they are excited about potential gains from the use or sale of assets. What is worse with elected officials however is that they ware worried about the loss of an electoral base, and the loss of a job from decisions regarding the use of public assets.

 

The authors write, “The removal of the political class from public asset management has a salutary effect on democracy by transitioning politicians from asset gatekeepers to consumer and citizen advocates on behalf of public asset productivity and quality.”

 

Instead of having elected officials be the ones in control of public assets, the authors suggest transferring ownership to quasi-governmental organizations that blend public, private, and civic actors. The authors envision new forms of port authorities or development organizations that would control public assets with a focus on maximizing public benefit. Elected officials would then be responsible for helping develop innovative uses for public assets rather than being responsible for the failure of projects and programs that use public assets. This is the essence of the point  that the authors make in removing the political class from public asset management. A rational organization that controls such assets can defragment them, and put them to better and more productive uses.

Implementation Matters

One party in the United States seems to continually chide any public sector misstep and only seems to be able to complain about the problems and waste of public sector projects and programs when discussing what the government actually does. While there are undoubtedly challenges and problems in public administration, continually complaining about and criticizing any public agency operation can have further costs to society. Good implementation in public policy matters, and one fear that seems reasonable to me, is that the constant denigration of public service will drive out creative and hard-working individuals, and worsen the very situations being criticized.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about the importance of implementation, and how they view it differently in their system of New Localism. They write,

 

“At a Brookings Institution forum in 2000, [Richard] Shatten stated that, ‘being right is irrelevant to the growth of cities and metropolitan areas. Good ideas are critical, but they have impact only when they are implemented thoughtfully and effectively. And sound implementation only happens when a community develops a civic, corporate, and political culture that can translate good ideas into action and execute with discipline and imagination.'”

 

Two things really stand out from this quote to me. The first is that good implementation is everything. Public agencies need to think about and study what will make the implementation of a program successful and need to be thoughtful of how they do the things they have been tasked with doing. Poor implementation of the perfect solution can ruin public support for that solution and can create even worse problems and greater barriers to achieving the outcomes society wants to see.

 

Second, good implementation relies on a strong political culture that accepts government action and helps align non-governmental actors to make implementation successful. It is not enough for private sector organizations and thought leaders to say that a policy needs to be put in place or run a certain way, they actually need to use their resources, skills, and expertise to be part of implementation. Good ideas require community efforts to become successful policy, and if a group simply stands apart, refuses to help, and cries foul at every opportunity, then implementation will of course fail, as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy of ineptitude. There is room for criticism of government and the failures of implementation should be discussed, but we should not hinder the implementation of a program out of a prejudice against public action. Ultimately, the public action on its own, as the quote suggests, is not enough. We can’t just criticize from the sidelines, we actually need to find ways for more organizations and groups to be involved in the implementation of new programs, specifically tailored to meet the local needs of populations, businesses, and environments. Standing apart and criticizing only snowballs problems. Collaboration and cooperation among civic, private, and public organizations is the only way governance and development will be possible in the future.

City Growth – The Sports Play

I’m a fan of the research and work that comes out of the Brookings Institute, a generally center-left think-tank in Washington DC that I believe does a good job at looking at politics and policy holistically, and is able to get beyond the partisan rhetoric that dominates most of our political landscape. An area of interest for many of the writers and policy experts at Brookings is the area of economic development in metropolitan areas, particularly as related to sports and business retention. Two Brookings experts, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at how Indianapolis used sports to help jump-start the city’s economy, but present the information in a way that shows that reliance on sports alone is not sufficient to develop a thriving middle class and robust regional economy.

 

“A sports-based development strategy,” they write, “can take a city only so far. Sports attract tourism and visitors. Game time enhances demand for lodging and restaurants. Name teams may have an intangible effect on the attraction and retention of innovative firms and talented workers. But in the end, the sports industry thrives on low-wage jobs and does not represent a model of economic growth for a city or metropolis. Beer and hot dogs are not the stuff of a sustainable middle class.”

 

In their book The New Localism, the authors talk about the efforts that Indianapolis took to attract and retain an NFL football franchise and also to attract the NCAA headquarters. They go on to further explain how Indianapolis was not content to simply rest on being a sports headquarters and reinvested the energy and revenue from sports to drive and build new sectors. Sports teams can help be a support for a local economy, but they will never be a major driver, and on their own don’t appear to be worth the enormous tax breaks and stadium construction assistance that many cities and states seem eager to provide.

 

As Katz and Nowak stated, sports can have intangible benefits for communities like city pride and can serve as a hub for local events. But cities need to provide other attractions and benefits for their citizens. The people need additional higher paying jobs than can be found in a stadium and need real innovation to keep pace in our globalized world. If cities and states over-invest on the sports side, they may miss out on developing and investing in the factors that can make cities dynamic and competitive in the long run. Ultimately, sports teams can be a good attraction and can serve as a spark for energy and investment in making a city a good place to live and do business.

Competing in a Global Economy

“While competing in this global economy requires new thinking, many cities continue to pursue zero-sum economic development strategies that subsidize stadia and steal businesses rather than incent innovation,” write Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in The New Localism. Our world’s globalized economy scares a lot of people. Add to globalization new technological innovations and the automation of a lot of jobs, and we find threatened people, threatened cities, and threatened industries. The proper response to such threats is adaptation and change, but a more common human reaction is fearful recalcitrance. Rather than go through reinvention, rather than develope new skills, and rather than embrace new changes, cities, states, countries, and the people within them double down on the familiar and the known, using policy to entrench themselves in the familiar jobs of yesterday.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “These strategies are rarely aligned with smart education and workforce strategies that give workers the technical skills they need to succeed in growing occupations. And reinvestment in neighborhoods, downtowns, and water-fronts still has a long way to go to make up for decades of disinvestment, depopulation, and decentralization.” 

 

Stealing jobs, offering tax incentives to get companies/sports teams to move, and passing policy which prevents companies from automating away common jobs is not a strategy built for success in a globalized world of changing technology. To be competitive in a world where companies can move easily, where ideas can take root anyplace, and where jobs and technology are changing the way we work, cities and governments need to find new ways to build human capital and new ways to get innovative ideas into the economy quickly. Approaching the world and the economy as a zero-sum competition prevents innovation and encourages the short term thinking that leads to the poor strategies mentioned above.

 

The only way to truly adapt to the changing globalized world is to innovate. Protectionism leads to eventual disruption and greater anger on the part of the people whose industry and jobs are being disrupted. Those who lose out to automation without any training or skill development to help them adapt are understandably frustrated, but the proper response is not to dig our heels into the dirt to pull back on innovation and change. The proper response is to embrace change and help people innovate and learn alongside new technology, new jobs/industries, and new institutions.

Cities and Environmentalism

Cities can look like dirty places with no greenery or living plants among the concrete, asphalt, and towering buildings. At the same time, however, cities can be much more efficient and environmentally friendly than rural or suburban places. I live in the Western US and we expend a lot of energy just to move things from one place to another. A lot of the energy we produce just goes into moving water around. For us to get from our homes to our places of work can require a lot of driving by ourselves in a car. And because the West has so much open space, we have built large neighborhoods with houses spaced out from one another, requiring more concrete for sidewalks, more asphalt for roads, and more copper for electric lines.

 

The amount of resources needed to build suburban and rural connections between people is much greater than the per capita need within cities. As Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz write in The New Localism:

 

“The linkage between culture and cities also has to do with environmental sustainability and how its associated values translate into imperatives to re-purpose legacy places. Cities are ideal places for environmental stewardship, which is important to the culture: urban dwellers are not as car dependent as people in the suburbs, and urban life can be more energy efficient. Urban dwellers can use public transportation, walk, or ride a bicycle to work. Thus urban civic activism based on retrofitting the older built environment emerged in concert with an environmental ethos.”

 

I live in Nevada which is a state with a lot of rural space. I live in one of the two major metropolitan regions, but in the smaller of the two and toward the outskirts of town where the suburban starts to give way to the rural. I currently have an incredibly long car drive to work. The people I live around generally don’t seem to be as worried about environmental concerns, or if they are, then like me they may chose to ignore them or to accept living with a feeling of guilt because our way of life is in some ways very costly and resource demanding. The challenge is that it is hard to change and do much about our environmental impact, and we like our space, our quiet neighborhood, and our affordable homes.

 

People who live in the middle of a city don’t have as many of the same barriers to living a more energy efficient and environmentally considerate life as I do. When car reliance is less pronounced, it is easy to go without a car and decry the damage done by cars to our environment. When you spend less time in traffic and have more ability to use your time, you can engage in more pro-social and pro-environmental movements. Given the state of climate change, this is a positive aspect to cities. People can live more efficiently and be more inclined to advocate for a more environmentally considerate way of life. A shift in what we view as a good life (away from the picket-fence-two-car-garage-and-a-dog-in-a-yard to a life of greater connections in a city with less individual space) is a change in values, and is something that is leading to a revival of city centers and urban societies across the country. As networks and connections matter more and more, living close to people and having more interactions is becoming more valuable than having one’s own space and things.

 

Another important aspect in Katz and Nowak’s quote is the focus on rebuilding and re-purposing. Cities have existing infrastructure that needs to be updated as people move back into and begin to redifine their cities. This gives cities the chance to establish themselves as cleaner and better versions of what they have always been. The way that streets, buildings, and open spaces are used can be reimagined during this transition, allowing them to become more environmentally sustainable and more economically inclusive. This helps reduce the overall carbon footprint of city residents and helps them become places where people can actually live, work, and enjoy their time.