Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

Bobo is playing armchair psychologist again.  In “Beware Stubby Glasses” he says a weighty new book is an acknowledgement of the need for public policy to pay more attention to behavioral research. Just waiting on the politicians.  Mr. Cohen has a question in “One Life in One Place:”  What happens to an urban humanity estranged from solitude and silence?  In “Coins Against Crazies” Prof. Krugman looks at that $1 trillion coin and says hey, desperate times call for creative answers.  Here’s Bobo:

If you want to deter crime, it seems that you’d want to lengthen prison sentences so that criminals would face steeper costs for breaking the law. In fact, a mountain of research shows that increases in prison terms have done nothing to deter crime. Criminals, like the rest of us, aren’t much influenced by things they might have to experience far in the future.

If a police officer witnesses the death of his partner, it seems that you’d want to quickly send in a grief counselor. In fact, this sort of immediate counseling freezes and fortifies memories of the trauma, making the aftershocks more damaging.

If you want to get people to vote more, it seems you’d want to tell them what a problem low turnout is. In fact, if you want people to vote, tell them everybody else is already voting and they should join the club. Voting is mostly about social membership and personal expression.

These are three examples of policies and practices that are based on bad psychology. The list of examples could go on and fill this page. That’s because we spend trillions of dollars putting policies and practices into place, but most of these efforts are based on the crudest possible psychological guesswork.

Fortunately, people in the behavioral sciences are putting policies to the test. I know of groups at Duke and Penn that are applying behavioral research findings to policy issues. Eldar Shafir of Princeton has edited a weighty new book, “The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy,” which is a master compendium of what we know.

One of the things we know is that seemingly trivial changes can have big effects. People who are presented with a wide variety of choices of, say, yogurt, will eat more than people who are presented with a small array of choices or no choice. People who were randomly given a short, wide 22-ounce glass, poured 88 percent more juice or soda into it than people who were offered a tall, narrow 22-ounce glass, but they believed they only poured in half as much as they actually did.

Sometimes the behavioral research leads us to completely change how we think about an issue. For example, many of our anti-discrimination policies focus on finding the bad apples who are explicitly prejudiced. In fact, the serious discrimination is implicit, subtle and nearly universal. Both blacks and whites subtly try to get a white partner when asked to team up to do an intellectually difficult task. In computer shooting simulations, both black and white participants were more likely to think black figures were armed. In emergency rooms, whites are pervasively given stronger painkillers than blacks or Hispanics. Clearly, we should spend more effort rigging situations to reduce universal, unconscious racism.

The research is also leading to new policy approaches. The most famous involve default settings. Roughly 98 percent of people take part in organ donor programs in European countries where you have to check a box to opt out. Only 10 percent or 20 percent take part in neighboring countries where you have to check a box to opt in.

In one clever program, dieters were told to phone in their weight to a nurse daily. Every day they called, they got an encouraging text and a lottery ticket, with a chance of winning a small amount. These dieters lost three times more weight than people who didn’t get tickets. Another ingenious program automatically diverts some money into your savings account every time you buy a state lottery ticket.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s government in Britain has gone furthest in implementing these sorts of programs. Personalized text messages were found to be six times more effective in getting people to pay fines than warning letters. If you tell people what percentage of their neighbors has already paid their taxes, you are more likely to get late filers to actually pay than if you nag them another way.

My problem with these efforts is that they are still so modest. What about the big problems? How do we get people to restrain government commitments now so that debt down the road won’t be so ruinous? How do we calculate the multiplier effects of tax cuts or spending increases among different subgroups of the population, or under different emotional conditions? How do we rig the context of budget negotiations so participants can actually come to a deal? How are people in different cultures likely to react to drone strikes? How do we structure sanctions against Iran to cause the greatest psychic humiliation?

These are the big questions, and most of our policies rely on crude folk psychology from a few politicians. But there’s hope. As Brian Wansink notes in Eldar Shafir’s volume, the 20th century saw great gains in sanitation and public health. The 21st century could be a great period for behavior change.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Llangurig, Wales:

I came up to this small Welsh village the other day to celebrate one life lived in one place over 83 years at one with the land and with God — the kind of life that is dying out in a restless world.

The life belonged to Alun Jones, born in 1929, the youngest of seven children, on a farm in central Wales called Ystradolwyn. He never moved from there. He knew every inch of the dales and, it seemed, every one of his sheep. He loved the lambing season. London, a five-hour drive away, was a remote universe. He liked a bit of banter in his cheery voice. But, as his Presbyterian minister Jenny Garad put it at his funeral service, he believed above all that, “You got on with it.”

Jones died last week after his lungs, the source of that voice so often raised in joyous song, gave out. He was a neighbor of sorts. My father bought the next-door farm 40 years ago. His amazement at my wandering never abated. “Well, boyo,” he would say, and shake his head; and when once again after a couple of days I made the unwise decision to leave those dales, he would bid me “Tara” with a wave of his stick.

I was talking to his son Tony, who runs the farm now, a couple of days before the funeral service. We mused on Alun’s life and his loss. Then Tony brought the conversation to a close saying he had to finish building a fence up in the wood. “You got on with it.”

Urban livers wallow in emotion — about death among other things — because of a dearth of necessity. Cut off from natural patterns of life and death, they become sentimental. Reality shows take the place of the realities of life. You do not find heroes among the dales. The word would be considered indulgent. You do what has to be done.

A vast human experiment is under way: What happens to humanity when it is cut off from the anchors of rural life? As early as the 11th century a French cleric named Marbod noted that, “Town takes a man out of the truth of himself.”

One of the scariest things I have read recently was this: “Owing to rapid urbanization in the developing world, the volume of urban construction for housing, office space and transport services over the next 40 years could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history.”

That sentence appeared in a study of the future published late last year by the U.S. National Intelligence Council. This spreading gridlocked concrete jungle will cater to the 60 percent of the world population (4.9 billion people of a projected 8.3 billion) who will be living in cities by 2030, up from about 50 percent today. In 1950, less than a third of humanity was urban.

The problems arising from this rapid transformation are usually framed in economic terms — water and energy supply, transportation challenges, housing. But the deeper question is moral.

Once most of humanity is estranged from nature, rootless, unfamiliar with the rhythms of the seasons and the cycle of passing and renewal, bound by material considerations alone, uncomfortable with solitude and silence and darkness, jostled by the crowd and the hum and the neon, the danger is that some essential ethical ballast and reference is lost.

The funeral was about essentials. It was held in an unadorned chapel. The minister related how Jones did not talk much about his faith but expressed it in the hymns he loved to sing. “Faith gave him joy in living and courage in dying,” she said.

She quoted from John, Chapter 10: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. But he that is a hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees.”

The minister did not talk about a contemporary culture of hirelings — here was a faith that would never hector, that was not angry, that was intrinsic to community. An all-male choir raised their beautiful Welsh voices. The roof might have lifted off to the heavens.

Afterward, at the graveside, there was a last hymn: “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”

Back at Ystradolwyn, there was news: A January lamb! It never happens but had. Last year a ewe fell on her back and when that happens she cannot get up. The crows come and always go straight for the eyes. Why, nobody knows. The ewe usually dies, infected through her eyes.

Jones had put the ewe in with the rams for protection just in case she survived — and this one had. In fact she had not merely been kept safe but pestered by the rams. And here — in the form of a January lamb from a blinded ewe — was the fruit.

“Look after the stock and the stock will look after you,” Jones once told me. Now over in the sweet by and by, he would have liked this story of near-death and life.

Last but not least here’s Prof. Krugman:

So, have you heard the one about the trillion-dollar coin? It may sound like a joke. But if we aren’t ready to mint that coin or take some equivalent action, the joke will be on us — and a very sick joke it will be, too.

Let’s talk for a minute about the vile absurdity of the debt-ceiling confrontation.

Under the Constitution, fiscal decisions rest with Congress, which passes laws specifying tax rates and establishing spending programs. If the revenue brought in by those legally established tax rates falls short of the costs of those legally established programs, the Treasury Department normally borrows the difference.

Lately, revenue has fallen far short of spending, mainly because of the depressed state of the economy. If you don’t like this, there’s a simple remedy: demand that Congress raise taxes or cut back on spending. And if you’re frustrated by Congress’s failure to act, well, democracy means that you can’t always get what you want.

Where does the debt ceiling fit into all this? Actually, it doesn’t. Since Congress already determines revenue and spending, and hence the amount the Treasury needs to borrow, we shouldn’t need another vote empowering that borrowing. But for historical reasons any increase in federal debt must be approved by yet another vote. And now Republicans in the House are threatening to deny that approval unless President Obama makes major policy concessions.

It’s crucial to understand three things about this situation. First, raising the debt ceiling wouldn’t grant the president any new powers; every dollar he spent would still have to be approved by Congress. Second, if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, the president will be forced to break the law, one way or another; either he borrows funds in defiance of Congress, or he fails to spend money Congress has told him to spend.

Finally, just consider the vileness of that G.O.P. threat. If we were to hit the debt ceiling, the U.S. government would end up defaulting on many of its obligations. This would have disastrous effects on financial markets, the economy, and our standing in the world. Yet Republicans are threatening to trigger this disaster unless they get spending cuts that they weren’t able to enact through normal, Constitutional means.

Republicans go wild at this analogy, but it’s unavoidable. This is exactly like someone walking into a crowded room, announcing that he has a bomb strapped to his chest, and threatening to set that bomb off unless his demands are met.

Which brings us to the coin.

As it happens, an obscure legal clause grants the secretary of the Treasury the right to mint and issue platinum coins in any quantity or denomination he chooses. Such coins were, of course, intended to be collectors’ items, struck to commemorate special occasions. But the law is the law — and it offers a simple if strange way out of the crisis.

Here’s how it would work: The Treasury would mint a platinum coin with a face value of $1 trillion (or many coins with smaller values; it doesn’t really matter). This coin would immediately be deposited at the Federal Reserve, which would credit the sum to the government’s account. And the government could then write checks against that account, continuing normal operations without issuing new debt.

In case you’re wondering, no, this wouldn’t be an inflationary exercise in printing money. Aside from the fact that printing money isn’t inflationary under current conditions, the Fed could and would offset the Treasury’s cash withdrawals by selling other assets or borrowing more from banks, so that in reality the U.S. government as a whole (which includes the Fed) would continue to engage in normal borrowing. Basically, this would just be an accounting trick, but that’s a good thing. The debt ceiling is a case of accounting nonsense gone malignant; using an accounting trick to negate it is entirely appropriate.

But wouldn’t the coin trick be undignified? Yes, it would — but better to look slightly silly than to let a financial and Constitutional crisis explode.

Now, the platinum coin may not be the only option. Maybe the president can simply declare that as he understands the Constitution, his duty to carry out Congressional mandates on taxes and spending takes priority over the debt ceiling. Or he might be able to finance government operations by issuing coupons that look like debt and act like debt but that, he insists, aren’t debt and, therefore, don’t count against the ceiling.

Or, best of all, there might be enough sane Republicans that the party will blink and stop making destructive threats.

Unless this last possibility materializes, however, it’s the president’s duty to do whatever it takes, no matter how offbeat or silly it may sound, to defuse this hostage situation. Mint that coin!


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