By Scarlett Howard, Adrian Dyer & Aurore Avarguès-Weber
When it comes to bees, it seems that nothing really does matter.
As shown in a paper published today, our research demonstrates that the honeybee can understand the quantitative value of nothing, and place zero in the correct position along a line of sequential numbers.
This is the first evidence showing that an insect brain can understand the concept of zero, and has implications for our understanding of how complex number processing evolved. More broadly, it may help us design better artificial intelligence solutions for operating in complex environments
Stage one: Understanding zero as the absence of something, such as no food on your plate. This first level is likely enabled at an early stage of visual processing.
Stage two: Understanding zero as “nothing” vs. “something”, such as the presence or absence of light in a room. “Nothing” is thus treated as a meaningful behavioral category.
Stage three: Understanding that zero can have a numeric value and belongs at the low end of the positive number line. For example: 0 < 1 < 2 < 3 etc. (where < means “less than”).
Stage four: Understanding that zero can be assigned a symbolic representation which can be used in modern mathematics and calculations, for example: 1 – 1 = 0.
Our new study shows honeybees have achieved stage three of understanding the concept of zero.
The honeybee now joins the elite few species which have demonstrated an understanding of zero to this advanced level. While rhesus monkeys, vervet monkeys, a single chimpanzee, and one African grey parrot have demonstrated the ability to learn or spontaneously understand the concept of zero, this is the first time that such a high level of cognitive number processing has been observed in an insect.
Chinese counting rods used a blank space to help represent a place holder in values, however zero went unnoticed as a number with a quantitative value for centuries. For example, Roman numerals do not have a symbol for zero.
It was not until 628AD that zero had a written record which noted it as a number in its own right by Indian mathematician Brahma Gupta in his book Brahmasputha Siddhanta. This is the first written record to provide rules to use when doing calculations with zero.
The earliest record of the symbolic zero (0) we are familiar with today is from an Indian inscription on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, India (AD 876). Arabic numerals, along with the modern idea of zero, did not reach the West until 1200 AD.Interestingly, while it took centuries for the concept of zero to be fully understood and utilised in human culture, honeybees have learnt to apply previous number knowledge to demonstrate an understanding of zero within a day when presented with training to promote numerical cognition.
In our research, we tested number processing in bees by individually training them with special apparatus to collect a sugary reward, and learn the rules of “less than” considering the numbers 1 – 6.
An individual bee would need to choose between two numbers each time it returned to the experiment. For example, a bee would be presented with two new numbers (3 vs. 4; 1 vs. 2; 2 vs. 5, etc.) until it had reached, over many learning events, at least 80% accuracy for landing on and thus choosing the lowest number.
Once the bee achieved this, it would be presented with the previously unseen stimulus of “an empty set” representing zero.
Surprisingly, bees trained to the “less than” rule preferred to visit the empty set rather than any other higher value number. This means bees understood an empty set was lower in number than a set containing actual elements.
In further experiments, other bees were able to place zero at the low end of the numerical continuum and demonstrated numerical distance effects. Numerical distance effects are demonstrated when accuracy increases as the difference between two numbers increases. The study showed that while bees could differentiate between zero and one, they performed better when the numbers were further apart, such as in the case of zero vs. six.
The next step for research on the processing of zero is to understand how small and seemingly simple brains (like those of bees) represent zero in a neurological sense.
Andreas Nieder, an expert in numerical competency in animals from the University of Tübingen in Germany writes:
The advanced numerical skills of bees and other animals raise the question of how their brains transform “nothing” into an abstract concept of zero.
This new research on bees has created many new questions in the field and also makes it clear that brain size and complexity does not fully determine intelligence and, in particular, numerical ability.
“We are masters at structuring our physical and social worlds so as to press complex coherent behaviors from these unruly resources. We use intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence. Our brains make the world smart so that we can be dumb in peace! Or, to look at it another way, it is the human brain plus these chunks of external scaffolding that finally constitutes the smart, rational inference engine we call mind. Look at that way, we are smart after all- but our boundaries extend further out into the world than we might have initially supposed”
Varieties of Capitalism approach by Peter Hall and David Soskice argues that:
“Different national cultures have different motivational systems, different relationships to authority and capitalism. Germany, for example, has tight interlocking institutions like work councils. It also has labor markets that make it hard to hire and fire people. These arrangement mean that Germany excels at incremental innovation – the sort of steady improvements that are common in metallurgy and manufacturing. The United States, on the other hand, has looser economic networks. It is relatively easy to hire and fire and start new businesses. The United States thus excels at radical innovation, at the sort of rapid paradigm shifts prevalent in software and technology.”
Do you agree / disagree? Sure cant explain the whole Silicon Valley phenomena, but interesting perspective, huh?
Importance of emergent systems to understand human behavior:
“Emergent systems dont rely upon a central controller. Instead, once a pattern of a interaction is established, it has a downward influence on the behavior of the components.
Emergent systems are really good at passing down customs across hundreds or thousands of generations. As Deborah Gordon of Stanford discovered, id you put ants in a large plastic tray, they will build a colony. They will also build a cemetery for dead ants, and the cemetery will be as far as possible from the colony. They will also build a garbage dump, which will be as far as possible from both the colony and the cemetery. No individual ant worked out he geometry. In fact, each individual ant may be blind to the entire structure. Instead individual ants followed local dues. Other ants adjusted to the cues of a few ants, ant pretty soon the whole colony had established a precedent of behavior. Once this precedent has been established, thousands of generations can be born and the wisdom will endure. Once established, the precedents exert their own downward force.
The brain is an emergent system. A marriage is an emergent system. Cultures are emergent systems.
Social capital is a term that Robert Putnam used in his book to explain how economic actors in a local region develop trust from their shared history and experience. Network of Civic Engineering is the process making economic process in those local areas easier due to trust and cooperation among players.
But when these two concepts are applied on Silicon Valley, they fail to explain what has been going on in Silicon Valley or how this region has become somewhere so special and successful. Since the notion of social capital is supposed to be coming from trust through out shared history, Silicon Valley is far from having that kind of a ‘history’. Valley is a place where strangers all around the world is coming and did not know each other or have much in common etc. Silicon Valley is not an isolated place, always open to new comers and there is nothing like a community whether new comers will be accepted or not.
Thus, we need something different from Putnam’s classic social capital description to explain Silicon Valley’s social capital. Network environment in Valley is resulted from collaborations among entrepreneurs for innovation. Collaboration among those people, institutions like universities and firms created a commercialized innovative technology production. Starting with microelectronics and semiconductors, Silicon Valley is now specialized in hardware and software computer networking.
Main social capital networks in the area are composed of productive interactions among universities, venture capital firms, law firms. Also, labor market is attractive in terms of highly qualified people from all around the world and headhunters actually look for them and Valley offers opportunities to entrepreneurs even if they fail in their start-ups.
Another issue is link between economic performance and social capital as Putnam claims that there is a strong positive correlation. Social capital is a pre-condition for a region to have good economic performance. Marshall advocates that since concentration of firms in a specific region creates proximity and therefore those firms can easily find skilled labor, supplier and know-how from each other when they become clustered. Veblen goes one step further, evolutionary perspective in economic development of firms; whether they stay same or adapt to the environment. Adaptation enables innovation and brings economic development, she argues.
Michael Piore and Charles Sabel worked on Italian districts and come up with the comparison between former mass production and new trend of small companies operating in specialized areas. They support the idea small size companies are more innovative and flexible. Also Sabel claims that trust comes from mutual confidence they no one will ever exploit other’s vulnerability. Silicon Valley has been able to build trust due to mutual confidence to each other’s performance. So, trust is open to be extended and people are welcomed even they have different ideas, roots or cultural backgrounds in Silicon Valley
Son dönemde sıkça düsünmeye basladıgım konulardan biri, her is yerinde dominant, hırslı, hatayı kolay kabul etmeyen, agresif mizaca sahip kisiler vardır degil mi? Hatta bu özelliklerin bir kısmının basarı icin gerekli oldugu da düsünülür cogu zaman. Fakat yukarıda bahsettigimiz bu kisinin bir kadın oldugu durumda onunla ilgili algımız ne oluyor? “Bitchy”
Evet calısma hayatım boyunca farklı is ortamlarında nadiren de olsa bir kadının özgüveni, lider potansiyeli, ikna kabiliyeti, hırsı ile öne cıktıgını görüldügü an tepkiler söyle olurdu “kıza bak ne kadar da bitchy” ya da “bu ne kadar hırs böyle?” “hayır anlamadım periyodunda sanki?” ve en güzeli geliyor bekleyin “menopoza girmis galiba”
Kimi zaman sexist ve ageist bu söylemlerin yanına kadının marital statusu de girer ve denir ki “hala evlenemedigi icin kendini böyle ise güce kaptırmıs, hırsı ondan”
Kesinlikle abartmıyorum, bu söylemler kahvehanelerde taksi duraklarında duymaya alısık oldugumuz söylemler degiller, bilakis en büyük sirketlerin en genis plazalarında, hepsi universite mezunu eril kisilerce ve bazen de ne yazık ki kadınlar tarafından havaya savruluyor. Erkekler yüzyıllardır domine ettikleri ve finansal özgürlüklerini kısıtlayarak ehlilestirdikleri(!) kadınları 2020’lere yaklasırken de bu söylemler ile bastırmaya devam ediyor, icinde bulundukları yarıstan kadınları tamamen eleyip kazanma sanslarını kendilerince artırıyorlar.
Arastırmalar kadınların erkeklere kıyasla cok daha az & yavas yükselmelerinin major sebeplerinden birinin zam,terfi istemek konusundaki cekinceli tutumları oldugunu söylüyor. Öyle ya, bitchy gözükmeden hakkınız olanı (sizle es deger konumdaki erkek is arkadasınızın sahip oldugu hakları) nasıl isteyebilirsiniz ki? Calıstıgınız sirkette “likeable” biri olmanız mı yoksa hakettiginize inandıgınız haklara sahip olmanız mı daha önemli? Eger kadınsanız bazen secim yapmak zorundasınız.
Her ne kadar globalde büyük sirketlerde gender gap ve gender inequality konusunda calısmalar yapılmaya baslandıysa da sonucları görebilmek ya da bunların samimiyetine inanmak icin henüz erken. Dolayısıyla sistemin yine eril kisilerce yukarıdan düzeltilmesini beklemek yerine bizim birey olarak aksiyonlar almamız en etkili degisim aracı diye düsünüyorum. Ben kendi kücük etki alanımda, cok basarılı ve cok ilham verici kadın arkadaslarıma bu yönde psikolojik destegi vererek bir seyleri degistirecegime inanıyorum. Belki siz de terfi istemekten cekinen ya da maruz kaldıgı sexist bir sakayı/söylemi icine atan bir kadın arkadasınızı sesini yükseltmesi konusunda cesaretlendirebilirsiniz. Ya da bilemiyorum belki de insanın en önce cesaretlendirilmesi gereken kisi kendisidir.
Günün sonunda yaptıgınız is, gösterdiginiz basarı ile degil de ne kadar “bitchy” bir karakter oldugunuz algısıyla sizi anımsayacak eril kisiler degil, sizin hakkınızı aramaktan korkmamıs ve iyi seyler basarmıs olmanız önemli bence. Cünkü o etiket daha uzunca yıllar kullanılmaya devam edecek gibi görünüyor.
The best movie I’ve seen this year. Wicked love story with great acting, perfect costume design and unexpected ending. Must see, a cult.
The Post: 9/10
The lecture on how acting should be by two legends. Great story of Katherine Graham and cover up of US secrets during WW2
Ready Player One : 7/10
It was not a torture exactly but below expectations especially for a Star Wars fan
Deadpool 2: 6/10
I adore you Ryan Reynolds but the most funny thing in the movie was fat New Zealander boy’s accent
Definitely not the best among the series but still good enough to watch on a weekend night
Except for the ending, good dooms day scenario with interesting visuals. Director must have taken a decent amount of lsd before preparations.
Isle of Dogs: 8/10
Perfect Wes Anderson work, watched it during a flight and made the journey bearable.
Mission Impossible Fallout: 7/10
Another classic, above average in the series but too many twists to make script a bit smarter. It was unnecessary
The story of young Han Solo, acting was ok visuals are above average. Still good enough until a good SW is on theather
Oceans 8: -3/10
I don’t even know how to start.. Just skip this one.
The first time I went to see a Turkish horror movie and I was so disappointed. Even one of the brightest directors are far from producing a unique/worth to watch, not cliche movie once for the sake of Turkish cinema.
Girisimciligi gereginden fazla mı romantize ediyoruz?
Ilk medium post’umu cıkarken ilk celiskim elbette ki konu, sonrasında ise icerigin diliydi. Simdilik mevcut secimlerimle ilerleyip ana dilimiz Turkce’miz ile yazıma baslıyorum.
Bu konuyu sectim cunku bu sene konuk oldugum bir derste bir gozlemde bulunmustum. Benim Bogazici sıralarında okurken karsılastıgım/anlatılan girisimcilik dunyası ile su anki ekosistem(!) aslında cok farklı. Ana akım medya kanalları dahil oyle bir pazarlaması yapılıyor ki konunun, sanırsınız ulke silikon vadisine dogal sınırlarından komsu olmus, ne ise elinizi atsanız birkac seneye exit garanti…
Herkes bu kadar yere göğe koyamazken ben biraz moral bozayım, eger hala gönlü olan varsa öyle girissin ise derim. Böylece funnel’ın ilk kısmındaki “kurumsalı bırakıcam ya soyle bir internet isi yapsak”cıları eleriz belki zamanla?
Elinizde bir MVP (minimum viable product) yoksa kapısına gideceginiz yatırımcılardan cok fazla beklentiniz olmasın. Fikir her sey degil maalesef.
O startup workshop’lari, türlü cesit eventlere biraz süpheci yaklasin. Bence en önemli kaynak olan zamanınızı buralarda harcıyor iseniz bir yerde hata yapıyosunuz demektir.
Kaynak demisken en sevdigim söz öbegi “Scarcity of resources” girdi devreye. Aynı anda üc tane is yapıyorum diyen girisimci var, hayret Zuckerberg bile tekiyle ugrasırken siz masallah? Bir tane secin ilerleyin onun bile gelecegi mechul.
Tum pazarlama planını dijital üstüne kuranlar. Hani exchange rate’e hic girmiyorum bile ama bir hesapladınız mı acaba o bir app download icin vereceginiz para vs customer life time value, acaba kac senede kullanıcı kendini amorti edebilecek? Kaldı ki bir de buyuk internet sirketleri her gecen gun bid’leri artırırken, acaba dogru mu o pazarlama planı?
Her seyi outsource edemezsiniz. Hele yazılımı ediyorsanız buyuk risk kapınızda. Ben tek satır kod yazamam, yazılımevine verdik üc aya cıkaracaklar uygulamayı diyenlerin basına cok iyi seyler gelmiyor. Evet girisimcilik manual birinci madde coding bilmek degil ama, siz veya core ekipten birinin konuya hakim olmasi lazim.
Bir önceki maddenin devami; bilmediginiz öyle cok sey cıkacak ve bunları bilen kisilere ödeme yapacak bütceniz olmayacak. Online course alın, product management okuyun, google sertifikaları toplayın vb. Hayatta bundan daha fazla calısmanızı gerektirecek bir döneminiz muhtemelen olmayacak.
Takdir edilmeyi beklemeyin, ulkede ne son kullanıcısı, ne diger sektör calısanları yaptıgınız isi & cıkardıgınız ürünü bir deger olarak (by default) gormeyecek. Hic bir hizmet bedeli ödemeden kullandıgı uygulama icin bile 2 sn gec acıldı diye store’a zehir zemberek yorum yazan insanların var oldugu bir dunyadayız.
Uzunca bir süre para kazanmayacaksınız. Girisimciligi blogger ya da vloger olmakla ve sponsorlukla kendini gecindirmekle karıstırmamak lazım. Break even bile kolay gelmiyor oyle. Aman neyse is olsun da diyip pozitif dusuneceksiniz.
Work-life balance en sevdigim diger söz öbegi. Neden mi yazdım? Cünkü yok arkadaslar, öyle birsey yok unutun.
Kadın girisimci adayları, diger tum sektörlerde oldugu gibi burada da isiniz zor. Ekosistem öyle erkek egemen ki, kendinizi mühendislik fakültesindeki tek kız gibi hissedebilirsiniz cogu zaman.
Okudugunuz haberlere biraz skeptical yaklasın, o degerlemeler yatırımlar bazen ücle besle carpılıp veriliyor, aman diyeyim.
Hala demotive olmadıysanız hadi senlikler baslasin
What are you doing? I don’t mean what are you doing with your life, or in general, but what are you doing right now? The answer, in one respect, is simple enough: you’re reading this magazine. Obviously. From a certain economic perspective, however, you’re doing something else, something you don’t realize, something with a sneaky motive that you aren’t admitting to yourself: you are signalling. You are sending signals about the kind of person you are, or want to be. What’s that you say—you’re reading this in the bath, or on your phone in bed, or otherwise in private? Well, the same argument applies. You are acquiring the tools for a “fitness display.” This, the economist Robin Hanson and the writer-programmer Kevin Simler argue in their new book, “The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life” (Oxford), is an advertisement of “health, energy, vigor, coordination, and overall fitness.” Fitness displays “can be used to woo mates, of course, but they also serve other purposes like attracting allies or intimidating rivals.” So there you go: that’s what you’re doing, there in the bath with the magazine. Your rivals are right to feel intimidated.
Wait, though—surely signalling doesn’t account for everything? Hanson, in a recent podcast interview with Tyler Cowen, a colleague at George Mason University, was asked to give a “short, quick and dirty” answer to the question of how much human behavior “ultimately can be traced back to some kind of signalling.” His answer: “In a rich society like ours, well over ninety per cent.” He was then asked to cite a few voluntary human activities that “have the least amount to do with signalling.” The example Hanson came up with was “scratching your butt.”
That made me laugh, and also shake my head. Economists often do. I started reading up on economics twelve years ago. I was in the early stages of writing a novel about contemporary London, and had come to the realization that frequently hits you when you are writing fiction, which is that there is a story behind the apparent story. Partly because I didn’t grow up in London, I felt that I could see just how much it had changed in the past few decades. What had seemed a drab, provincial, gray place in the nineteen-seventies was by the two-thousands unmistakably a world city, a hub of great energy and color and brashness. When I was trying to write my first draft, I realized that I was missing an answer to the question, Why? What were the driving forces behind all the change? The answer turned out to be that after the deregulation of financial services, in October, 1986—known in the City (the financial center) as the Big Bang—London had become a capital of global finance. This was true not in a distant, abstract way but in a manner that literally determined who our neighbors were. In my part of South London, a street that was once economically rather eclectic was becoming increasingly homogeneous, with new arrivals drawn entirely from finance and its ancillary professions. I realized that to understand my city and to write my novel I would have to start trying to understand the world of money.
Books such as “The Elephant in the Brain” show why the experience has been stimulating and fun, and also frustrating and intermittently demoralizing. There is something thrilling about the intellectual audacity of thinking that you can explain ninety per cent of behavior in a society with one mental tool. Many of the details of Hanson and Simler’s thesis are persuasive, and the idea of an “introspective taboo” that prevents us from telling the truth to ourselves about our motives is worth contemplating. (That taboo is the Elephant.) Citing a seven-year study by the rand Corporation in which participants who used more free medical care didn’t become significantly healthier, the writers argue that the purpose of medicine is as often to signal concern as it is to cure disease. They propose that the purpose of religion is as often to enhance feelings of community as it is to enact transcendental beliefs.
Some of their most provocative ideas are in the area of education, which they believe is a form of domestication. “One of the main reasons so few animals can be domesticated is that only rare social species let humans sit in the role of dominant pack animal,” they write. “And we, too, naturally resist submitting to other humans.” They cite a study showing that unschooled workers from less-developed parts of the world aren’t nearly as productive as rich-world workers, even at repetitive manual labor that you might not think demands much education. According to Hanson and Simler, these unschooled workers “won’t show up for work reliably on time, or they have problematic superstitions, or they prefer to get job instructions via indirect hints instead of direct orders, or they won’t accept tasks and roles that conflict with their culturally assigned relative status with co-workers, or they won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before.” In the rich world, we have learned to do all those things, and mostly we learned to do them at school, where “an industrial-era school system prepares us for the modern workplace.” Hanson and Simler explain:
Children are expected to sit still for hours upon hours; to control their impulses; to focus on boring, repetitive tasks; to move from place to place when a bell rings; and even to ask for permission before going to the bathroom (think about that for a second). Teachers systematically reward children for being docile. . . . In fact, teachers reward discipline independent of its effect on learning, and in ways that tamp down on student creativity. Children are also trained to accept being measured, graded, and ranked, often in front of others. This enterprise, which typically lasts well over a decade, serves as a systematic exercise in human domestication.
Having watched one son go all the way through secondary school, and with another who still has three years to go, I found that account painfully close to the reality of what modern schooling is like.
Hanson is a free-range thinker. His previous book, “The Age of Em” (2016), was a startlingly original speculation about a future world dominated by humanoid-robot intelligences. But the deliberately value-free and judgment-free nature of his thinking can cause trouble. After the death of ten people in Toronto, apparently at the hands of a self-described “incel” (or involuntary celibate), he wrote on his blog, “One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met.” This led to an article in Slate which posed the question “Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist?,” and to a subsequent Twitter pile-on. “The Elephant in the Brain” is not creepy. But the book has moments of laughable wrongness. We’re told, “In One Thousand and One Nights, for example, Scheherazade uses her artful storytelling to stave off execution and win the affection of the king. Maya Angelou, in contrast, managed not to woo Bill Clinton with her poetry but rather to impress him—so much so that he invited her to perform at his presidential inauguration in 1993.” The idea that Maya Angelou’s career amounts to nothing more than a writer shaking her tail feathers to attract the attention of a dominant male is not just misleading; it’s actively embarrassing.
More generally, Hanson and Simler’s emphasis on signalling and unconscious motives suggests that the most important part of our actions is the motives themselves, rather than the things we achieve, such as writing symphonies, curing diseases, building cathedrals, searching into the deepest mysteries of time and space, and so on. The last sentence of the book makes the point that “we may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.” With that one observation, acknowledging that the consequences of our actions are more important than our motives, the argument of the book implodes.
The issue here is one of overreach: taking an argument that has worthwhile applications and extending it further than it usefully goes. Our motives are often not what they seem: true. This explains everything: not true. After all, it’s not as if the idea that we send signals about ourselves were news; you could argue that there is an entire social science, sociology, dedicated to the subject. Classic practitioners of that discipline study the signals we send and show how they are interpreted by those around us, as in Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” or how we construct an entire identity, both internally and externally, from the things we choose to be seen liking—the argument of Pierre Bourdieu’s masterpiece “Distinction.” These are rich and complicated texts, which show how rich and complicated human difference can be. The focus on signalling and unconscious motives in “The Elephant in the Brain,” however, goes the other way: it reduces complex, diverse behavior to simple rules.
This intellectual overextension is often found in economics, as Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro explain in their wonderful book “Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities” (Princeton). Morson and Schapiro—one a literary scholar and the other an economist—draw on the distinction between hedgehogs and foxes made by Isaiah Berlin in a famous essay from the nineteen-fifties, invoking an ancient Greek fragment: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.” Economists tend to be hedgehogs, forever on the search for a single, unifying explanation of complex phenomena. They love to look at a huge, complicated mass of human behavior and reduce it to an equation: the supply-and-demand curves; the Phillips curve, which links unemployment and inflation; or mb=mc, which links a marginal benefit to a marginal cost—meaning that the fourth slice of pizza is worth less to you than the first. These are powerful tools, which can be taken too far. Morson and Schapiro cite the example of Gary Becker, the Nobel laureate in economics in 1992. Becker is a hero to many in the field, but, for all the originality of his thinking, to outsiders he can stand for intellectual overconfidence. He thought that “the economic approach is a comprehensive one that is applicable to all human behavior.” Not some, not most—all. It was an emphasis he was often to repeat:
All human behavior can be regarded as involving participants who maximize their utility from a stable set of preferences and accumulate an optimal amount of information and other inputs in a variety of markets. If this argument is correct, the economic approach provides a unified framework for understanding behavior that has long been sought by and eluded Bentham, Comte, Mark, and others.
That’s human society and history, solved. Becker analyzed, in his own words, “fertility, education, the uses of time, crime, marriage, social interactions, and other ‘sociological,’ ‘legal,’ and ‘political problems,’ ” before concluding that economics explained everything. In his work on the family, he studied “marital-specific capital”—that’s something you would probably call “children.” The utility of this form of marital-specific capital is to provide “child services.” Children are not “normal goods”—that is to say, demand for them does not rise as income rises. Child services are “the commodity that provides the utility a couple receives from having a child,” in Morson and Schapiro’s paraphrase. “The child is merely an input, and when combined with lots of other factors, such as educational and psychological investments and of course time, a couple produces something that gives it, in the best case, joy.”
Morson and Schapiro actually think that Becker’s arguments are useful, and explain why rich people tend to have fewer children than poor people do—their time is more expensive, so “child services” cost them more, and therefore they invest more in a smaller number of children to get the same utility for their buck. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s also a colossal shortcut through all kinds of other cultural and psychological and human realities. The story of Abraham and Isaac, of obedience to God in terrible conflict with parental love, is, as Morson and Schapiro argue, difficult to file under the heading of “child services,” and, of course, there is no moral dimension to this economic analysis: utility is a fundamentally amoral concept.
Their example of what that amorality can look like in practice has real bite. In the nineteen-eighties, Schapiro—who today is the president of Northwestern University, as well as a professor of economics—was part of a team that put together publications for the World Bank. One of their books had a chapter on onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness. It is a parasitic disease that has cost millions of people their eyesight, and is endemic in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In 1974, seven West African nations got together, contacted donors, and set out to create the Onchocerciasis Control Program, overseen by the World Health Organization. The program was a huge success, in that it prevented hundreds of thousands of people from going blind, but there was a problem: the economists involved couldn’t show that the venture was worth it. A cost-benefit analysis was “inconclusive”: the people who were being helped were so poor that the benefit of saving their eyesight didn’t have much monetary impact. “There are humanitarian benefits associated with reducing the blindness and suffering caused by onchocerciasis,” the World Bank report allowed. But “these benefits are inherently unmeasurable, and we will not account for them here.” In other words, the very thing that made the project so admirable—that it was improving the lives of the poorest people in the world—also made it, from an economic point of view, not really worth doing.
That story has a happy ending: in 1987, the pharmaceutical company Merck, which held the patent for ivermectin, a drug that prevents river blindness, decided to give it away, in perpetuity, to countries that needed it. Yet it’s hard to sidestep Morson and Schapiro’s argument about the limits of a narrowly economic assessment: “A traditional cost-benefit analysis could easily have led to the discontinuation of a project widely viewed as being among the most successful health interventions in African history.”
Economics, Morson and Schapiro say, has three systematic biases: it ignores the role of culture, it ignores the fact that “to understand people one must tell stories about them,” and it constantly touches on ethical questions beyond its ken. Culture, stories, and ethics are things that can’t be reduced to equations, and economics accordingly has difficulty with them. Morson and Schapiro’s solution is to use the study of the humanities, and particularly of realist fiction, to broaden perspectives and to reintroduce to economics those three missing factors. Realist fiction, in their view, is the territory of the fox. It is, they argue, based on casuistry, which gets a bad rap but historically was the idea that the ethics of a situation are based on the specifics of the actual case. The authors’ hero is Tolstoy, who understood in his fiction that abstract principles should not triumph over human realities. It is an old idea in philosophy, clearly spelled out by Aristotle: “About some things it is not possible to make a universal statement which shall be correct.” The way to convey this truth is through the humanities, which, “properly taught”—an important part of their argument, since “Cents and Sensibility” has plenty to say about the defects of the contemporary curriculum—“offer an escape from the prison house of self and the limitations of time and place.”
The idea that there is a gap between the world of economics and the wider world is also a theme in “The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by the Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai. His title is quietly provocative, since wisdom, Morson and Schapiro and many others would argue, is exactly what is missing in the financial realm. Finance has ingenuity, expertise, and dazzling possibilities for earning and losing money, but none of these are quite the same thing as wisdom. “I had long been bothered by the common presumption that markets, and finance in particular, were a crass domain that we had to shelter ourselves from in order to live a good life,” Desai argues. He regrets the chasm between finance and the rest of society, and he sets out to bridge it with a warmhearted and engaging set of stories in which he pairs fundamental principles of finance with parallel examples from the humanities. “Viewing finance through the prism of the humanities will help us to restore humanity to finance,” he writes, making a claim very similar to that made in “Cents and Sensibility.”
The exercise is both entertaining and informative. Desai takes us on a journey through the fundamentals of finance, from asset pricing to risk and risk management, via options, mergers, debt, and bankruptcy. He does this by using examples as diverse as the movie “Working Girl” (which, as all Melanie Griffith fans will remember, “hints at the parallels between the process of merging companies and the process of combining lives in a marriage”), the novels of Jane Austen (risk management), the life stories of Jeff Koons and George Orwell (illustrating different approaches to leverage), and the unconditional love we give our children. That love, Desai argues, demonstrates the concept of “negative beta assets.”
As that example perhaps shows, there are moments when, describing the links between finance and real life, Desai reveals just how far apart they are. “The story of General Motors and Fisher Body”—the company that made G.M.’s car bodies—“in the 1910s and 1920s is, for economists, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, and Jane Eyre all rolled in one—the classic story that explains the nature of flirtation, commitment, marriage, and love,” he writes. I am fairly interested in company mergers (spoiler alert: they often go wrong), but I have to admit to finding that claim inadvertently funny. The humanist response to Desai here is to say, You do you, but please put down the nineteenth-century novels and step away. His account of the invention of formalized bankruptcy is fascinating, but then he compares the story of the American Airlines bust, in 2011, to Aeschylus’ great play “Agamemnon.” Because the company’s stock price had already dropped before the bankruptcy was announced, and, as Desai says, “ultimately individuals who bought American shares and bonds at the filing made five to ten times their investment in two years,” we can draw an analogy with Agamemnon’s tragic decision to sacrifice his beloved daughter Iphigenia. To which the humanist response is: Yeah, no.
Desai explores the intellectual crevasse between the money people and the rest of us in his final chapter, called, trenchantly, “Why Everyone Hates Finance.” One explanation is “the asshole theory of finance”: that finance isn’t inherently bad and neither are the people it attracts, but “finance fuels ego and ambition in an unusually powerful way.” The underlying reason is that finance is full of “attribution errors,” in which people view their successes as deserved and their failures as bad luck. Desai notes that in business, law, or pedagogy we can gauge success only after months or years; in finance, you can be graded hour by hour, day by day, and by plainly quantifiable measures. What’s more, he says, “the ‘discipline of the market’ shrouds all of finance in a meritocratic haze.” And so people who succeed in finance “are susceptible to developing massively outsized egos and appetites.”
We can ameliorate the problem “through works—and work—of imagination, just as Wallace Stevens suggested,” Desai writes. “Finding narratives that allow us to stay attached to what is meaningful in finance can insulate us from the feedback loops of attribution error.”
It is possible to agree with the critiques and admire the proposed fixes in “Cents and Sensibility” and “The Wisdom of Finance” without thinking that anything is likely to change. The gap between economics, finance, and the rest of society would be difficult to fix even if everyone wanted to do so, and it isn’t obvious that everyone does. This point was brought home to me a few years ago, by a private-equity professional who came up to me after a talk I’d given on the language of money at a bookstore in Soho. My preoccupation at that point was with obfuscation and obscurity in the jargon of money, and the way they could be used as a tool to keep laypeople at a distance. The private-equity guy was polite about what I’d said, but added that I had left something out: the way professionals use the language of economics as a tool for dissociating—for switching off their feelings. He gave an example: he and some colleagues had been sitting at a meeting analyzing a company’s balance sheet. They were discussing the business’s “churn,” meaning the rate at which it lost customers and had to acquire new ones, and the resulting effect on profitability. He said that in the middle of the discussion he had a sudden moment of clarity, and had to get up and walk out. The business under discussion was a chain of retirement and nursing homes. “Churn” in this context meant the death of itsresidents. They were sitting around the table, talking about death. That, he said, was what the language was for: to let you talk about human realities without feeling their impact—to ignore death.
I thought about that conversation for a long time afterward. My new private-equity friend had clearly been shaken, and yet, on reflection, I wondered what difference his discovery had made. While it might be brutal or insensitive to regard the death of someone’s beloved parent as “churn,” that’s what it is, from a business point of view. The coldness of the language serves a function, and it is a function that society needs, since nursing homes do have to get their funding from somewhere. I was reminded that one of the things I liked about economics, finance, and the language of money was their lack of hypocrisy. Modern life is full of cant, of people saying things they don’t quite believe. The money guys, in private, don’t go in for cant. They’re more like Mafia bosses. I have to admit that part of me resonates to that coldness.
Another part of me, though, is done with it, with the imperialist ambitions of economics and its tendency to explain away differences, to ignore culture, to exalt reductionism. I want to believe Morson and Schapiro and Desai when they posit that the gap between economics and the humanities can be bridged, but my experience in both writing fiction and studying economics leads me to think that they’re wrong. The hedgehog doesn’t want to learn from the fox. The realist novel is a solemn enemy of equations. The project of reducing behavior to laws and the project of attending to human beings in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed. Perhaps I’m only talking about myself, and this is merely an autobiographical reflection, rather than a general truth, but I think that if I committed any further to economics I would have to give up writing fiction. I told an economist I know about this, and he laughed. He said, “Sounds like you’re maximizing your utility.” ♦
A few years ago, I gave a pitch at a startup event and a young man came up to me afterwards.
He was looking to transition from his work in consulting to something in ‘tech’. I’d been a consultant before learning to code and starting Hitlist. He asked if he could buy me a coffee and learn about how I’d made the transition from consultant to founder.
I proposed we grab a beer instead. I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t like taking non-business related meetings during the day. In my previous jobs it had been common to mix business and beer, so I didn’t think much of it.
We ended up having a few beers. We talked about the practical concerns of how to downsize from a consultant paycheck to startup salary, but then the conversation began to branch out.
We talked about our personal goals, our appetite for adventure, our past relationships and how we managed work/life balance.
I realized I was incredibly attracted to him. I felt like I was getting similar vibes from him, though it might have been the beer. And then he asked me if I’d ever consider bringing him onto the Hitlist team.
It wasn’t a total shock. He’d said he was interested in working in startups, I was hiring, and I’d gone into the evening thinking I’d assess him as a potential candidate. I didn’t realize that I was going to end up with a crush on him.
I suggested we meet on a Saturday afternoon to dive into our business model and figure out if there might be a role for him at Hitlist.
That Saturday, we tore apart the pitch deck I’d been using to raise money and came up with something that was, conservatively, ten times better. We got fired up about where Hitlist could go. We laughed, and I wondered whether he was flirting with me, and whether that was clouding my judgment.
I sent one of my advisors the revised pitch deck and he agreed that the young man would make a great addition to the team. I was conflicted because I knew one thing without a doubt: if I offered him a job there was no way I could explore the personal side of our relationship.
And I’m human. We got along well. He had a great butt. Could I have this guy work for me without the attraction side of things driving me nuts?
How is that even a question?
Of course I could. I’m an adult, not an animal. It would have been completely inappropriate for me to hit on someone who had come to me for professional advice and a job.
I knew that it might be distracting to employ someone who I found so appealing but the ethics of making a move on him were so black and white that there wasn’t a choice. And I wasn’t going to let a good candidate walk out the door because he happened to be attractive.
This is what gets me about all these ‘code of conduct’ pieces that have been coming out in recent days: I don’t understand why this is so hard for people to grasp.
If someone comes to you for advice, applies for a job, and/or pitches you for funding, don’t hit on that person.
Am I saying that workplace romances can never happen? No, but if you’re the person in a position of authority, you don’t initiate them, full stop.
If your subordinate makes a move on you, you two can discuss the ramifications like adults and decide whether you want to have a romantic relationship (or be friends with benefits, whatever).
That discussion should happen when you both have clear judgment, i.e. not at 3am at a conference when either or both of you have had alcohol. And that expression of interest from your subordinate should be crystal clear: an invitation to grab a beer is not a date unless he or she explicitly says it is.
In the words Anjali Kumar, founding general counsel at Warby Parker, former senior counsel at Google, and current angel investor: