Sunday, June 20, 2010

Warner in NYT re “Dysregulation”

Judith Warner has a short article in the NYT Mag today on "Dysregulation Nation". The idea of our failing to regulate ourselves as a nation isn't new, as Warner knows by citing Christopher Lasch's classic from the late 70's, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Era of Diminishing Expectations (1979). Let me offer some quick thoughts on her article:

  1. The issue of self-regulation and of social & political regulation is one of the oldest problems to vex humankind. The Greeks thought a great deal about it, the Old Testament is full of the issue, starting with the story of Adam and Eve, and I think (here I'm getting a bit out of my league), this is what Confucius was largely about.
  2. A great analytical consideration of the problem comes from Thomas Schelling in an article entitled "The Intimate Contest for Self-Command", which I read many years ago, but which has stuck with me because of it's a compelling metaphor and applicability to my life. Schelling, a Nobel prize winning economist and author of a great book, Arms and Influence, used the story of Odysseus binding himself to the mast so that he could hear the Sirens' song and yet not be drawn irresistibly to them (and thereby death). Jon Elster gives an extended treatment of these issues in his book, Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality (1985), which (like all of Elster), is brilliant and insightful.
  3. Modern brain research is giving us better insight into the physiological basis of how different brain structures and systems allow for this shortcoming. However, I think that psychiatrist and Christian spiritual writer Gerald May got it right even before the current bounty of brain research allowed us greater insight into brain functioning and structure. May posits that our reasoning brain, our most unique and human (and weak) characteristic, works by saying "no" to impulses from the other parts of the brain, such as the emotional brain or the hunger signal, to give but two examples. Let me quote from May:

    The vast majority of feedback that naturally occurs in the brain is inhibitory. The cell systems that initiate activity are, for the most part, in a constant state of readiness and potential activity, so the higher systems of the brain must maintain balance and function primarily by inhibiting them. The cerebral cortex inhibits deeper centers; the right and left sides of the brain mutually inhibit each other; ceils in the brainstem inhibit cells in the spinal cord. Effective action primarily takes place thought selective inhibition.

    I have often marveled at this arrangement of things. It seems to indicate that human beings . . . are inherently active, dynamic, vibrant. Maybe it is in the nature of sentient life not to have to be stimulated in order to act, but to be always ready to go. It means we are not simply passive responders to external stimuli. In the very essence of our being, we are initiators. Perhaps, in the image of our Creator, we ourselves are endless creators.

        Addiction & Grace: Love & Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions (1988), pp.74-75.

  4. Just as individuals seem to ebb and flow on issues of self-control (well, I do anyhow), so, I think, do societies. In fact, this may be the greatest challenge for any democracy. The problem that I perceive with democracies comes from the fact that they seem to gravitate toward a lowest common denominator. Low taxes, high spending, disregard for long-term consequences: these problems may be worse for democracies, although all forms of political organization suffer from these problems. (Exhibits: Greece, California.) It's just that other systems, more tightly controlled by elites, can inflict pain (present loss of some sort) for some anticipated future (and current) gain. Of course, non-democratic political systems inflict pain primarily for the benefit of the rulers, but something like defense (e.g., the Soviet Union) can be argued to be necessary for the long-term survival of the regime. Perhaps I'm too hard on democracies, but we need some forms of self-binding. Jon Elster, at least at one time (Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and Constraint (2000)), suggested that constitutions in a democracy were a form of self-binding. I think that he later recanted that argument, but I'm not sure why. For instance, the Iowa constitution, like many constitutions, requires a balances budget. (N.B.: This would probably not prove a good addition to the federal constitution.)
  5. Many religious directives come in the form of "thou shalt not", or prayers like "lead us not into temptation". NNT, coming out of a Greek Orthodox and ancient Mediterranean tradition, endorses such thinking as a way of maintaining our robustness and of dealing with our blindness to Black Swans. NNT argues that the cultures of the Mediterranean, including Islamic culture, wisely put limits on debts. This is also a form of self-binding. Some debt, however, is certainly good; however, if it's for current consumption, probably not so good.
  6. Warner suggests that contemporary culture may be worse that other times in dealing with the challenge of delayed gratification. Comparisons of this sort are, I think, very tricky, yet I think that they provide us with a worthwhile ideas. We are, I'd wager, significantly different from the New England Puritans of the 18th century. Warner does a good job of identifying possible mechanisms (hope I'm using Elster's term correctly here) for our seeming lack of self-control. It's an interesting—and as you can discern from this post—thought-provoking article for me.

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