A surprising new warning on robots and jobs

When even the Economist starts hemming and hawing

about automation and labor markets, it’s time to get worried

A surprising new warning on robots and jobs
(Credit: josefkubes via Shutterstock)

When the Economist magazine starts warning about the threat of robots, it’s high time to grab your survival gear and light out for the back country. Journalism’s preeminent defender of the market wisdom of Adam Smith’s invisible hand rarely questions the forward march of innovation. But in a special report on our fast-arriving robot future published in the print edition this week, the Economist does just that. Kind of.

As headlines go, the warning is hardly definitive: “Job destruction by robots could outweigh creation.” The story itself is hedged so thickly one can barely see the central thesis: Robots might be threatening our jobs, but we’re not really sure. Globalization is also a problem — as is the arrival of women in the workforce. Pick your poison men: women or robots!

But just the fact that the Economist is even asking the question of whether robots could conceivably have a negative impact on labor markets is worth taking notice of. It’s a reflection of a shift in opinion on the part of people the Economist takes seriously — credentialed economists.

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, has seen a big change of heart about such technological unemployment in his discipline recently. The received wisdom used to be that although new technologies put some workers out of jobs, the extra wealth they generated increased consumption and thus created jobs elsewhere. Now many economists are taking the short- to medium-term risk to jobs far more seriously, and some think the potential scale of change may be huge.

The Economist also mentions the work of MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who argue that “technological dislocation may create great problems for moderately skilled workers in the coming decades.” (Salon’s interview with Brynjolfsson and McAfee can be found here.)

But the magazine doesn’t go much further than pointing out that there are some new concerns. Far more ink is lavished in this special report on the wonders of the new technology coming down the pike than the potential dangers. There’s even a wave of the hand at everyone’s favorite utopian technological dream: Once robots are doing all the work, our main problem will be figuring out what to do with our abundance of leisure time.



It is even conceivable that the fruits of greater productivity will be distributed so as to allow people to work less and spend more time doing other things. After all, the humor in the double meaning of the message that “Our robots put people to work” depends on understanding that people do not necessarily want to work, if they have better things to do.

Wouldn’t that be nice! The real question is: distributed by whom? The benefits of a potential robot utopia are unlikely to be widely distributed without strong political leadership. Unfortunately, so far, there’s very little evidence to support the notion that governments, anywhere, have a clue on how to steer us through a robot future.

A Better Yardstick for Measuring Inequality

 

Too Much
THIS WEEK
How many of America’s most awesomely affluent would have to come together to create a group with enough combined wealth to equal $1 trillion? Phoenix tax lawyer Bob Lord posed that question last fall. His initial answer, based on an analysis of the September 2013 Forbes list of America’s 400 richest: just 51.

Those 51 deep pockets, Lord calculated in the Arizona Republic, held 1.5 percent of America’s wealth. Back in 1982, the year the annual Forbes 400 list began, that same 1.5 percent share sat in the hands of about 1,500 rich Americans.

And what about today? Bob Lord last week updated his figures, based on the latest available billionaire data. We now need to gather together, he notes, just 37 super-rich Americans to reach the $1 trillion threshold. And to hit $1 trillion 20 years from now, if current trends continue, we’ll likely need only five.

What would have to happen for current trends not to continue? We have some statistical ideas on that score. More on them in this week‘s Too Much.

GREED AT A GLANCE
First we had primaries, contests where candidates chased after real voters. Then came what reporters dubbed the “money primary.” In an ever more unequal America, candidates were first chasing after billionaires, to raise enough cash to prove their “viability.” Now comes what the Washington Post is calling the “Sheldon primary.” The nation has become so top-heavy that candidates today need only corral one billionaire to prove their mettle. For Republicans, Sheldon Adelson, the casino king who spent over $92 million on the 2012 election, has emerged as that one. Adelson is now looking for a horse to back in 2016, and “a lengthy list” of Republican presidential contenders, says the Post, is “jockeying” to win his affections. Last week, four top GOP hopefuls joined Adelson for a VIP dinner at the Las Vegas hangar where Adelson keeps his private jet fleet . . .

Richard GonzalezAmerica’s pharmaceutical giants had a real problem a dozen years ago. Their monopoly power had raised drug prices so high that Americans couldn’t afford their prescriptions. But to the rescue came the Bush White House, with legislation that gave seniors taxpayer subsidies to pay for drugs that cost Americans as much as five times what people elsewhere in the world are paying. The latest beneficiary of this generous subsidy: Richard Gonzalez, the CEO of AbbVie, an Abbott Labs spinoff. Gonzalez took in $18.2 million last year, after hitting, says AbbVie, all his “performance targets,” including one goal of getting the firm’s 25,000 employees fired up about the new company’s mission. Hitting that target must have come easy. Nothing, after all, gets employees fired up more than working for a CEO making $18.2 million . . .

Luxury Swiss watchmakers, reports Reuters, have come up with a new way to separate the financially fortunate from tidy chunks of their fortunes. Innovators in the fine timepiece industry are now letting the uber wealthy personalize their wrist wear with just about anything from diamond stars to engraved images of their nearest and dearest. The jewelers at Buccellati, for instance, are offering “a bespoke service where the customer has a say on everything: the material, the case, the dial, the hands.” The cost for this bespoking: a minimum of 100,000 Swiss francs, about $113,000. What’s driving the new personalization push? Industry analyst Mario Ortelli has an explanation: “Customers will pay more if they feel a stronger emotional link to the product.”

Quote of the Week

“The rich can buy more of everything. More food. More cars. More houses. More vacations. More boats. But for a democracy to function properly, they should be forbidden from buying more votes.”
Leo Gerard, president, United Steelworkers, Our Plutocracy Problem, March 25, 2014

PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK
Howard SchultzHoward Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, doesn’t think much of the emerging national movement to establish a $15 minimum wage, an effort that’s running particularly strong in his own Seattle backyard. Schultz told reporters earlier this month that “most companies, especially small and midsized companies, would not be able to afford” a minimum set at $15 an hour. Added the billionaire: “I wouldn’t want to see the unintended consequences of job loss as a result of going that high.” Activists at the “15 Now” campaign quickly noted that the billionaire Schultz makes $9,637 an hour. The campaign is urging the Starbucks chief to “stop hiding behind small businesses and pay your own workers 15 now!”

IMAGES OF INEQUALITY
Cook Islands

Sand, palms, breezes. None of these wonders are attracting the world’s wealthy to the Cook Islands, tiny flyspecks halfway across the Pacific. What is? The Cooks, says the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have become “a global pioneer in offshore asset-protection trusts,” devices that can shield the assets of the rich from nasty lawsuits back home. Island officials had a Denver attorney write their nation’s trust law, and so far Americans have parked the most money in Cook Islands accounts. Among them: wealthy doctors convicted of Medicaid fraud and execs who’ve bilked employee pension funds.

Web Gem

PolicyShop/ This site, hosted by the Demos think tank, frequently features inequality-related resources, like this chart pack on how “class haunts people from womb to grave, limiting their ability to flourish and pursue the good life as they define it.”

PROGRESS AND PROMISE
Sanjay SanghoeeLawmakers love business tax credits. They hand them out all the time, ostensibly to encourage investment and innovation. Why not use tax credits instead, asks former Lazard Freres banker Sanjay Sanghoee, to rein in CEO pay? Sanghoee has spelled out one approach toward that end in the business magazine Fortune. Under his proposal, a 3,000-worker firm with a 250-to-1 CEO-worker pay ratio would get a credit that equals $1,000 multiplied by 3,000 multiplied by 1/250, the inverse of the pay ratio. Total credit: just $12,000. But if that company’s CEO-worker pay ratio dropped to 25:1, the credit would jump to $120,000, the sort of incentive that might encourage companies to moderate their CEO pay. How to pay for the credits? Start closing, says Sanghoee, the offshore corporate tax loopholes that run $150 billion a year.

Take Action
on Inequality

Tell the nation’s top lawmakers that inequality in the United States has gone “too damn high.” Sign this new petition that proposes a progressive wealth tax and more.

inequality by the numbers
Penthouse prices

Stat of the Week

Business income in the United States sits increasingly in the hands of a few. In 1979 the top 1 percent of America’s households accounted for 17 percent of the nation’s business income, notes economist Paul Krugman. By 2007: 43 percent.

IN FOCUS

A Better Yardstick for Measuring Inequality

We always get what we measure. And if we measure inequality with a yardstick that only wonks can decipher, we’ll end up with a society too confused about inequality to do anything meaningful about it.

Just 85 of the world’s billionaires, the anti-poverty group Oxfam reported earlier this year, hold as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people in all.

Seven of every ten people on earth today, Oxfam added, live in nations where inequality has jumped since the 1980s. Our richest global 1 percent currently own a whopping 46 percent of the world’s wealth.

Corrado GiniWe can’t blame Corrado Gini for this incredibly extreme global divide. He never set out to create inequality. He just tried to measure it.

This eminent Italian sociologist once ranked as one of the world’s premiere statisticians. Almost exactly a century ago, he developed what would become the most widely accepted default statistic for measuring inequality, a yardstick now commonly known as the “Gini coefficient.”

In Gini’s formulation, a society where one person grabbed all the income would have a value of one. A society with all income shared evenly would have a value of zero.

No nation, of course, has ever had either absolute income equality or absolute income concentration. Most nations end up with Gini numbers like 0.57, the Gini rating for the United States last year, or 0.49, the Gini for Japan.

These numbers tell statisticians a great deal. A rise or fall of a mere 0.1 in Gini values can be a big deal and signify a major change in income distribution. But these abstract numbers mean nothing to the general public and, consequently, essentially do nothing at all to raise inequality’s political profile.

The Gini numbers have other problems as well. Gini ratings say a good bit about a society’s overall level of inequality, but offer no clue about what’s driving changes in that level. Are the rich grabbing more or less of the income pie? Are the poor losing ground? Or households in the middle?

On questions like these, note inequality-watchers Andy Sumner and Alex Cobham, “the Gini won’t be a great deal of help.”

Gabriel PalmaSumner, the co-director of the International Development Institute, and Codham, a Center for Global Development researcher, have been beating the drums for a new inequality yardstick based on the work of Gabriel Palma, a Chilean economist now based at Cambridge University.

In almost every society, Palma’s research shows, the income share of people who make less than the most affluent 10 percent and more than the poorest 40 percent tends to remain fairly stable. Substantial shifts in income share typically only turn up in that top 10 and bottom 40.

The “Palma ratio” addresses this volatility at the edges by defining income inequality as a ratio between the top 10 and bottom 40. In a society with a Palma ratio of 4, the top 10 percent is grabbing four times the income of the bottom 40 percent.

This simple relationship gives every Palma ratio figure a readily understandable meaning. In a society where the Palma ratio has gone from 2 to 3, households in the top 10 percent have gone from making double the income of that society’s poorest 40 percent to making triple the bottom 40′s income share.

Last March 90 noted social scientists urged a key UN economic development panel to place the Palma ratio front and center. The top 10-bottom 40 inequality that Palma stats measure, they argued, really matters. Nations with shrinking Palma ratios, as researchers have detailed, turn out to be three times better at reducing extreme poverty and hunger than nations with rising Palma ratios.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has just added to this growing push for the Palma yardstick. In a new co-authored paper, he’s asking world leaders to add a new ninth goal — eliminating extreme inequality — to the eight adopted at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000.

Top-heavy income distributions, Stiglitz and his colleague Michael Doyle observe, “undermine both political equality and social stability” and generate chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and other public goods that make for “long-term economic prosperity.”

Stiglitz and Doyle, a former UN assistant secretary-general, suggest a specific target for ending these top-heavy distributions. By the year 2030, the two analysts advise, all nations should have their top 10 percents taking in no more income than their bottom 40 percents, a Palma ratio of just 1.

Scandinavian nations already at or near this Palma ratio level, the pair adds, are benefiting from an “equality multiplier” that has left them not just more “equitable and stable” economically but more “efficient and flexible” as well.

“Sustainable development,” Stiglitz and Doyle sum up, “cannot be achieved while ignoring extreme disparities.”

And shoving Gini aside for Palma might make that ignoring all the harder.

Want to learn more about Palma ratios? Check this two-minute video.

New Wisdom
on Wealth

Ryan Cooper, Free Money for Everyone, Washington Monthly, March/April 2014. In an unequal America, the old tools for managing the economy no longer make much impact.

Doug Henwood, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, BookForum, March 25, 2014. An important review of Thomas Piketty’s new take on the long-term reign of the 1 percent.

Helaine Olen, Self Help is no help for inequality, Reuters, March 25, 2014. How the self-help industry is poisoning our politics.

Tony Atkinson and Salvatore Morelli, The chartbook of economic inequality, Vox, March 26, 2014. A new summary of changes in inequality for 25 countries over more than 100 years.

Paul Caron and James Repetti. Revitalizing the Estate Tax: Five Easy Pieces, Tax Prof, March 27, 2014. The estate tax could again make a difference.

Dan Rodricks, With Democrats like these, who needs GOP? Baltimore Sun, March 27, 2014. A Democratic-dominated legislature is throwing millions at millionaires.

Paul Krugman, America’s Taxation Tradition, New York Times, March 28, 2014. The demonization of anyone who talks about really taxing concentrated wealth reflects a misreading of both the past and the present.

Stein Ringen, Is American democracy headed to extinction? Washington Post, March 29, 2014. In Athens, democracy ended when the rich grew super rich and undermined the polity, a point the United States has now reached.

John Cassidy, Forces of Divergence: Is surging inequality endemic to capitalism? New Yorker, March 31, 2014. Another solid write-up on Piketty’s new blockbuster.

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class cover

Now online: the full Introduction to Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati’s new history of the triumph over America’s first plutocracy.

NEW AND notable

Must Taxpayers Pay Tribute to Wall Street?

No Small Fees reportNo Small Fees: LA Spends More on Wall Street than Our Streets, A Report by the Fix LA Coalition, March 25, 2014.

Wall Street banks handed out $26.7 billion in bonuses last year, the New York state comptroller recently informed us, to some 165,200 execs and staff.

This same $26.7 billion, an Institute for Policy Studies analysis noted earlier this month, would have been “enough to more than double the pay” of all 1,085,000 Americans who work full-time at the current federal minimum wage.

And where did all those bonus billions come from? A hefty share came directly from America’s taxpayers, this clever new study makes outrageously plain.

No Small Fees drills down deep into the finances of a single city, Los Angeles. L.A. city officials, the study details, are annually passing Wall Street at least $204 million in financial fees, for everything from managing the city’s pension funds to selling the city’s bonds.

Some perspective: Last year L.A. spent only $163 million on its own streets.

The difference between what Los Angeles pays for its own streets and to Wall Street actually runs wider than these numbers suggest. The Wall Street total doesn’t include city dealings with private equity and hedge funds, exchanges, notes the Labor Institute’s Les Leopold, that don’t have to be publicly disclosed.

Nationwide, estimates Leopold, “the fees Wall Street extracts from public entities could total more than $50 billion a year — enough to provide free tuition at every public college and university in the country.”

We have, adds Leopold, distinct alternatives to Wall Street’s gouging of America’s public entities. State public banks — with modestly salaried executives — could save localities big-time on fees. North Dakota already has one.

The Federal Reserve could also “directly purchase municipal bonds from cities and states,” as the Fed is already doing with the toxic mortgage securities held by Wall Street’s largest banks. That move would save states and localities billions in fees and also “dramatically reduce municipal interest rate costs.”

Conclude the labor, religious, and community groups in the Fix LA Coalition: “City leaders have a choice: invest in our streets or Wall Street.”

Climate change: Apocalyptish

“THE four horsemen of the apocalypse”: that was the disparaging appraisal by Richard Tol of the University of Sussex of a report published in Yokohama on March 31st by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of scientists (including Dr Tol) who provide governments round the world with mainstream scientific guidance on the climate. Every six or so years, the IPCC produces a monster three-part encyclopedia; the first instalment of its most recent assessment came out last September and argued that climate change was speeding up, even if global surface temperatures were flat. The new tranche looks at the even more pertinent matter of how the climate is affecting the Earth’s ecosystems, the economy and peoples’ livelihoods.

Profoundly, is the headline answer, even though temperatures have warmed by only 0.8°C since 1800. They are likely to warm by at least twice that amount (and probably much more) by 2100. The report—the first since the collapse in 2009 of attempts to draw up a global treaty to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions—argues that climate change is having an impact in every ecosystem, from equator to pole and from ocean to mountain. It says that while there are a few benefits to a warmer climate, the overwhelming effects are negative and will get worse. It talks of “extreme weather events leading to breakdown of…critical services such as electricity, water supply and health and emergency services”; about a “risk of severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding”; and sounds the alarm about “the breakdown of food systems, linked to warming”.

Behind such headline scares, though, lies a subtler story, in which the effects of global warming vary a lot, in which climate change is one risk among many, and in which the damage—and the possibility of reducing it—depends as much on the other factors, such as health systems or rural development, as it does on global warming itself.

Compared with previous IPCC reports—the last was in 2007—the new one is confident about its assessment of damages, and more willing to attribute the harm to human influence on the climate. Take the rise in sea levels, which (pushed up by thermal expansion) has been increasing more in the 14 years of this century than it did from 1971 to 2000. The report reckons that, at current rates, average sea levels could rise by another half a metre or more by the end of the century, if greenhouse gases are not significantly curtailed. That is nothing but bad news for the people living in cities vulnerable to flooding from the sea: they now number 271m, and may increase to 345m by 2050, says the IPCC (some estimates put the figures higher). Nor are there any benefits from ocean acidification (caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide in seawater) which the report calls “a fundamental challenge to marine organisms and ecosystems”.

Equally stressed are terrestrial ecosystems facing sudden and irreversible change: climate “tipping points”. In the Arctic, for example, which is warming faster than any other large environment on earth, new shrubs and plants are invading formerly inhospitable areas. The vast boreal forests or Siberia and Canada are dying back faster than was expected in 2007, and may be more sensitive to warming than was then thought.

On the other hand, there are substantial areas where the influence of the climate is modest compared with other factors. Health is one. Pollution from factories adds to global warming and causes health problems directly: a new report by the World Health Organisation linked around 7m deaths to air pollution. In a warmer world, some diseases, such as malaria, will spread their range. Heat-related deaths will rise but cold-related ones will fall. In parts of the world where there are more cold-related than heat-related deaths, such as northern Europe, warmer temperatures could actually reduce the number of early deaths. By and large, the report says, the negative impacts will outweigh the positive ones but, for good or ill, the climate is not the dominant influence on mortality and morbidity. Public health and nutrition matter more.

Something similar is true for civil conflicts. Poverty and economic shocks help cause conflicts and are themselves influenced by climate change. Global warming can bring about changes in land use, reduce water supplies, and push up food prices, all of which contribute to riots (arguably, all this happened in Darfur). But it is hard to show that climate change has had a direct impact on levels or patterns of violence. If anything, it is the other way around: conflict reduces peoples’ ability to cope with climate change by, for example, laying mines in farmland. Surprisingly, global warming does not seem to be the culprit in most extinctions, either. With the exception of some frog species in Central America, no recent extinctions have been attributed to climate change.

So climate change has been powerful (in the oceans) and secondary (in health). But there is a third category: areas where the climate has had a large distributional effect, which may be good or bad, but usually appears to be negative. Fish are the most mobile of creatures and as the seas warm, marine animals and plants follow the cooler waters, migrating from the tropics to temperate latitudes. Benthic (bottom-feeding) algae are moving polewards at a rate of 10km per decade; phytoplankton are moving at over 400km a decade. The result, says the report, is that by 2055, fish yields in temperate latitudes could be 30%-70% higher than they were in 2005 (assuming there are any fish left by then) whereas the tropical fish yield will fall 40-60%. A similar distributional change, the scientists argue, is affecting the hydrological cycle: the rate at which groundwater is recharged is likely to increase in temperate climes and fall in tropical ones, leading to further drying of the soil in the dry tropics.

The most important distributional change, the IPCC reckons, concerns food, especially cereal crops. A warmer climate, in principle, should lengthen the growing season, since it becomes warm enough to plant seeds earlier. More carbon in the atmosphere should increase the rate of photosynthesis. Both these influences should mean that some plants will do better in a world with higher temperatures and more carbon dioxide. The previous IPCC assessment thought the world’s main cereals—wheat, rice, maize and soya—would see improved yields in temperate climates, offsetting yield declines elsewhere. Some climate sceptics have used this to argue that, at least until the middle of the century, a modest amount of global warming might be good for the world.

The new report pours cold water on that. It confirms that tropical cereals suffer declining yields when temperatures rise 2°C but finds that the benefits to temperate-climate crops are smaller than was thought. Rainfed or water-stressed crops, which were once thought to respond well to higher levels of carbon dioxide, now seem not to. Plants—especially maize—may like a long growing season but they hate temperature spikes more: even one day above 30°C may be enough to damage them. And it turns out that rates of photosynthesis in maize, sorghum and sugarcane are not responsive to changes in concentrations of CO2, so the effect of more carbon on temperate crops is patchy. Whether more heat and carbon produce yield increases seems to depend mostly on local conditions.

Meanwhile, the impact of other negative influences is more important than was thought. Weeds seem to benefit more than cereals at temperate latitudes, so they provide more competition to food crops for water, sunlight and nutrients. Greater concentrations of ozone are more damaging than was thought: the new report reckons high ozone levels cause an 8-15% reduction in yields compared with normal crops. Perhaps most important, higher CO2 concentrations reduces the quality of cereals, that is, their protein and starch content, taste and mineral components (and hence nutritional value). This is particularly significant for forage crops: with poorer quality grains, animals are smaller and less healthy. Cattle are suffering anyway because they are being bred for meat yield alone, which, in practice, has made them more heat-sensitive: a double burden.

At the moment, the report concludes, wheat yields are being pushed down by 2% a decade compared with what would have happened without climate change; maize is down 1% a decade; rice and soyabeans are unaffected. Over time, though, this could worsen. If you look at studies of likely cereal yield in the next decade, roughly half of them forecast an increase and half a decline. But for the 2030s, twice as many studies are forecasting a fall as a rise.

So how much might all these influences affect the world economy? The IPCC’s surprising answer to that is: hardly at all. A 2°C rise in temperature, it says, could result in worldwide economic losses of only 0.2% to 2% of GDP a year. The trouble is, as the IPCC also says, this figure is misleading. GDP is a bad measure of climate impacts and the economic models used are hopeless (“completely made up”, said one recent critic). GDP does not account for catastrophic losses, which may be the most important kind. As an income measure, it gives less weight to the poor—but the poor are more vulnerable to climate change than the rich. That is true both between countries (Bangladesh is more vulnerable to floods than the Netherlands) and within them (richer Bangladeshis live in safer areas). The models do not take account of things like “tipping points”; do not care if carbon concentrations go sky-high and assume that if an economy were ravaged by drought or floods, it would suddenly have lots of “spare capacity” that could be redeployed.

But in some ways, the IPCC’s new assessment also explains why all this does not really matter. Models are useful for calculating costs and benefits: you invest this much in new capacity and earn that much as a result. But, as the report implies, climate change is not a problem just because its costs outweigh its benefits. Rather, it matters because it increases risk, causes unpredictable interactions between climate and social or factors and because it manifests itself as extreme events (floods, heat waves) which inflict huge damage in a flash. Previous IPCC reports are looked at particular parts of this picture. The new assessment for the first time looks at climate change not just as a problem in its own right but as something that is merely part of an even bigger context.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/newsbook/2014/03/climate-change-0?fsrc=nlw|newe|3-31-2014|8191566|37449986|

Daylight Saving Time Linked To Heart Attacks

http://i.huffpost.com/gen/962414/thumbs/o-HEART-ATTACK-WOMEN-facebook.jpg

 

Switching over to daylight saving time, and hence losing one hour of sleep, raised the risk of having a heart attack the following Monday by 25 percent, compared to other Mondays during the year, according to a new U.S. study released on Saturday. By contrast, heart attack risk fell 21 percent later in the year, on the Tuesday after the clock was returned to standard time, and people got the extra hour of sleep. The not-so-subtle impact of moving the clock forward and backward was seen in a comparison of hospital admissions from a database of non-federal Michigan hospitals. It examined admissions before the start of daylight saving time and the Monday immediately after, for four consecutive years. Researchers cited limitations to the study, noting it was restricted to one state and heart attacks that required artery-opening procedures, such as stents.

~Slashdot~

Bitcoin is legally property, says US IRS.

 Does that kill it as a currency?

The cryptocurrency was struck a blow by the powerful Internal Revenue Service. Is it as bad as some fear?

Bitcoins are now property, according to the IRS.
Bitcoins are now property, according to the IRS. Photograph: Alamy

The news that bitcoin is to be treated as property by the IRS has sparked fear among fans of the cryptocurrency. But many of the concerns are overblown.

America’s Internal Revenue Service ruled on Tuesday that bitcoin should be treated more like stock than cash. On the one hand, that means that people who buy bitcoin and then sell it at a profit are potentially liable for lower taxes than they would otherwise be.

On the other hand, it renders bitcoins significantly more difficult to use as a currency. Spending bitcoin on a product counts as cashing out, and so there would potentially be a capital gain to record in the user’s accounts. In the simplest terms, if a bitcoin bought for $5 appreciates in value enough to be used to buy a $1,000 PC from Overstock.com, the customer would have to declare and pay tax on a $995 profit.

That’s concerning, but not the end of the world for bitcoin’s hopes as a currency. But some fear that this ruling is even more damaging than it first seems.

Adam Levitin is a law professor at Georgetown University, and he believes that the ruling means that bitcoin can never be treated as “fungible” – a term from economics which refers to the fact that particular instances of a good are interchangeable. So, for instance, crude oil is fungible, because if a trader buys a gallon of it, they don’t care which gallon they get. Fine art is not fungible, because which work they get matters a huge amount.

After the ruling, “the price at which a particular Bitcoin was acquired (and this is traceable) determines the capital gains on that particular bitcoin when spent,” Levitin argues. “If I spend bitcoin A, which I bought at $10, but is now worth $400, I’ve got a very different tax treatment than if I spend bitcoin B, which I bought at $390.

“This means Bitcoins are not fungible, and that makes it unworkable as a currency. If I have to figure out which particular Bitcoin in my wallet I want to spend and what the tax treatment will be, Bitcoin just doesn’t work as a commercial medium of exchange.”

But in the absence of further advice from the IRS, some called foul on Levitin’s claim. Even stocks and bonds, the archetypal financial property, are allowed to be accounted for on an “average cost” basis, which involves paying tax on the profit made from the average purchase price of the financial instrument. Such a measure, if applied to bitcoin, would restore fungibility to the currency.

However bitcoin is unique in that, even if average cost accounting weren’t allowed, it could be technologically forced. Similar to the way “tumblers” allow users to spend bitcoins without being traced, by mixing hundreds of bitcoins together in the same wallet before passing them on to merchants, it is trivial to exchange one bitcoin for another.

A user with two bitcoins, bought for $5 and $10, could simply hand them both over to pay for a good worth one bitcoin, and receive one bitcoin as change. That would force both the spent bitcoin and the one received as change to be accounted for at the average cost of $7.50, since it would be impossible to tell which was which.

The treatment of bitcoin as property will still have some irritating effects for those who want to use it as currency, requiring much better record-keeping and raising the prospect of having to include a coffee purchase in your tax return.

But the really interesting problems will come when a similar treatment is applied to criminal law.

In many legal systems, receipt of stolen property is treated very differently to receipt of stolen money. If a pawn shop accepts a stolen bike, its operators are expected to return it to its rightful owner if discovered, without reward. If a coffee shop takes a stolen fiver, it can keep it.

Until someone brings a case to court, it’s impossible to say definitively which version would happen with bitcoin. But the IRS ruling suggests that, in America at least, it could be the former.

In other words, if you think the hassle of having to file taxes on your bitcoin is bad, just wait til the shop you’re spending them in has to check to make sure they aren’t stolen before you can make a purchase at all.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/mar/31/bitcoin-legally-property-irs-currency

 

Is Single-Serving Coffee Really Worth All the Waste It Creates?


Nearly 1 in 5 coffee drinkers is too lazy to make coffee, and those little serving pods they discard add up.

Photo Credit: Rob Hainer / Shutterstock.com

I know I shouldn’t be, but I am shocked by Americans’ laziness.

We look for the closest parking spot to the gym so that we don’t have to walk those extra few steps. We indulge in watching more cooking shows, yet actually cook less than ever. We invented the drive-thru.

Now, nearly one in five American coffee drinkers is too lazy to make coffee.

There are foods that are very complex and difficult to make. Coffee isn’t one of them. I understand why someone wouldn’t want to make homemade butter or those little French macarons. I get why my mom only made her cheese blintzes for very special occasions. That stuff takes work.

I dread my annual tomato sauce canning marathon, and I only do it because the amazing sauce that results makes easy, delicious meals all year long. And once I put all that work in, I don’t share my sauce with just anyone.

But, coffee?

I make it several times a day. And I’m pretty lazy — I’ve been known to eat whole unpeeled carrots Bugs Bunny style to avoid cutting and cooking them. If I can make coffee, anyone can.

A traditional drip coffee maker requires a few steps. Add water. Measure coffee. Grind coffee. Add filter. Place grounds in filter. Press “on.” Wait. Your coffee is ready.

You can further reduce the required work by purchasing pre-ground coffee, or – better yet –getting a coffee grinder that does the measuring for you.

For lots of folks, that’s still too much work.

Nearly 20 percent of coffee drinkers now use coffee pods. With specialized coffee makers and compatible “pods” of individual serving sizes of pre-ground coffee, one reduces the task of making coffee to: Add water, insert pod, press start, throw pod away. Fancier machines also let you add milk to make various espresso drinks.

These newfangled coffeemakers don’t come cheap. A Keurig will run you $80 or more, and Nespresso makers start at $149. Once you’re invested, you have to buy the related brand of pods — K-cups for Green Mountain Coffee’s Keurig or Nestle’s Nespresso. That alone would be my deal-breaker, because I don’t like either brand of coffee.

In their defense, Keurig offers a refillable pod for $15 (the price of my entire coffee maker) so you can add your preferred type of coffee. Which puts the onerous work of measuring and grinding back into your coffee-making process.

While it’s easy to make fun of Americans’ drive to save time in the kitchen, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. In fact, sometimes time-saving steps constitute efficiency and ingenuity, not laziness. But in this case, the new pod systems result in a staggering amount of waste and may potentially harm your health.

According to a recent Mother Jones article, all of the K-cups sold in 2013 could circle the earth 10.5 times. And every single one now resides in a landfill. Nespresso’s pods are aluminum. They have a program to collect and recycle used pods, but unless their customers actually take them up on this, it’s little more than good PR.

Then there are the health questions generated by making your coffee in little plastic pods (in the case of K-cups). The cups are made of #7 plastic, a catch-all category of “Other” plastics not included in numbers 1 through 6. Keurig refused to tell Mother Jones what type of plastic it used, or whether or not it contained possibly-carcinogenic styrene.

These new brewing systems are little more than a clever method a few companies have discovered to sell more of their own crappy coffee, without regard for the trash they create and their potential impacts on their customers’ health.

Let’s take the waste and potential health hazards out of our coffee. We don’t need to trash the planet just to get a morning buzz.

 

New evidence of US intelligence links to Boston Marathon bomber

http://static5.businessinsider.com/image/517135c6ecad04a75a000001-483-362/tamerlan-tsarnaev.png

By Nick Barrickman
31 March 2014

Last Friday, lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect charged with detonating pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of last year’s Boston Marathon, alleged in a court statement that FBI agents had attempted to force Dzhokhar’s older brother Tamerlan to inform on the Chechen and Muslim community in the Boston area, contributing to the latter’s decision to carry out the attacks on April 15 last year.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is facing capital charges in connection with the bombing, which killed three people and wounded an estimated 264 others. His older brother Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police four days after the bombings.

“The FBI… asked [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] to be an informant, reporting on the Chechen and Muslim community,” said defense lawyer David Bruck, adding that he had “reason to believe that Tamerlan misinterpreted the visits and discussions with the FBI as pressure [that had] amounted to a stressor that increased his paranoia and distress.”

Bruck based his allegations “on information from our client’s family and other sources that the FBI made more than one visit to talk with (Tamerlan’s parents) and Tamerlan, questioned Tamerlan about his Internet searches, and asked him to be an informant.” The attorneys for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev added that Tamerlan had previously been under investigation by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force due to a warning sent by Russian intelligence officials in 2011 concerning the older brother’s links to Islamic extremists.

Just days prior to this legal brief from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s attorneys, the House Committee on Homeland Security released a report noting that Russian officials had urged the “mandatory” detention of Tamerlan Tsarnaev should he attempt either to leave or reenter the US. The report states that this warning was ignored by federal officials.

Lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev requested all information pertaining to the FBI’s investigation of Tamerlan as well as attempts to recruit the older Tsarnaev brother as an informant. The government is objecting to any release of such documents to the defense.

These developments, adding to evidence pointing to extensive contacts between US intelligence and security agencies and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, have come in the aftermath of both federal and Florida state reports released last week whitewashing the FBI in the May 22, 2013 killing of Ibragim Todashev, a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and, like Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen.

Todashev was shot multiple times and killed by an FBI agent [whose name has never been released] who was interrogating Todashev in the latter’s Florida apartment (see: “Florida prosecutor’s report whitewashes FBI killing of Ibragim Todashev”).

The US government seized on the Boston Marathon bombing and the police manhunt for the suspects to impose a lockdown and virtual martial law on Boston and its surrounding communities. In a chilling dry run for the establishment of a dictatorship, civil liberties were effectively suspended, residents were ordered to stay in their homes, and police conducted house-to-house searches of entire neighborhoods without warrants. For several days, Boston was occupied by thousands of troops and riot police, accompanied by machine gun-mounted armored vehicles and police helicopters.

FBI officials have denied the claims made by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers. The bureau released a statement reiterating a talking point from a memo issued last year, declaring that “Members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force did not know their [the two bombing suspects’] identities until shortly after Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s death, when they fingerprinted the corpse.”

The allegation that the FBI sought to recruit the older Tsarnaev brother as an informant provides a highly plausible explanation for an otherwise inexplicable—and to date unexplained—failure of federal, state or local authorities to monitor the activities of the Tsarnaevs in the run-up to the marathon, an international event that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators to downtown Boston—a prime target for a potential terrorist attack.

It also would explain the failure of the FBI, the CIA and the Homeland Security Department to heed the urgent calls from Russian authorities in 2011 to prevent Tamerlan Tsarnaev from leaving the US. In early 2012, Tsarnaev was allowed to travel unhindered to Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus region, where he made contact with known Islamist separatist terrorist leaders. He was allowed to return to the US without being stopped or questioned later in the year. This was despite his being named on a US government terrorist watch list.

There is also the official claim that the FBI investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 but could find no derogatory information and gave him a clean bill of health. But the FBI also claims, in connection with the killing of Todashev, that both Todashev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were involved in a triple slaying in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Massachusetts that occurred on September 11, 2011. There has been no attempt by officials to square these contradictory claims.

The Tsarnaev brothers also had family connections to both Chechen rebels and the US intelligence apparatus through an uncle, Ruslan Tsarni. For years, Tsarni ran an organization that funneled funds and equipment to Islamist separatists in Russia’s Caucasus region. Tsarni based his operation in the home of Graham Fuller, former vice-chairman of the US National Intelligence Council and ex-CIA station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Last May, the Boston police commissioner and a top Massachusetts Homeland Security official told a congressional panel that local and state police were never informed by the FBI or the federal Homeland Security Department in the lead-up to the April 15 marathon of the FBI investigation of the Tsarnaevs or the warnings from Russian intelligence. This was despite the presence of the Boston police commissioner and Massachusetts state police officials on a joint terrorism task force alongside FBI officials.

The author also recommends:

FBI, Homeland Security withheld information on Boston bombing suspects from local, state police
[11 May 2013]

Questions mount about Boston bombers’ links to US intelligence agencies
[26 April 2013]

Mood Science and the Evolutionary Origins of Depression

The Unaddressed Business of Filling Our Souls

by

What language and symbolism have to do with mood and how light exposure and sleep shape our mental health.

“Depression is a disorder of the ‘I,’ failing in your own eyes relative to your goals,” legendary psychologist Martin Seligman observed in his essential treatise on learned optimism. But such a definition of depression, while true, appears somehow insufficient, overlooking the multitude of excruciating physical and psychological realities of the disease beyond the sense of personal failure. Perhaps William Styron came closer in his haunting memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, where he wrote of “depression’s dark wood,” “its inexplicable agony,” and the grueling struggle of those afflicted by it who spend their lives trying to trudge “upward and outward out of hell’s black depths.” And yet for all their insight into its manifestations, both the poets and the psychologists have tussled rather futilely to understand depression’s complex causes and, perhaps most importantly in terms both scientific and humanistic, its cures.

That’s precisely what psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg sets out to do in The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic (public library) — an ambitious, rigorously researched, and illuminating journey into the abyss of the soul and back out, emerging with insights both practical and conceptual, personal and universal, that shed light on one of the least understood, most pervasive, and most crippling pandemics humanity has ever grappled with. (A sobering note to the hyperbole-wary: At any given point, 22% of the population exhibit at least one symptom of depression and the World Health Organization projects that by 2030, depression will have led to more worldwide disability and lives lost than any other affliction, including cancer, stroke, heart disease, accidents, and even war.)

Rottenberg takes a radical approach to depression based not a disease model of the mind but on the evolutionary science of mood — a proposition that flies in the face of our cultural assumptions that have rendered the very subject of depression a taboo. He puts this bind in perspective:

Because depression is so unpleasant and so impairing, it may be difficult to imagine that there might be another way of thinking about it; something this bad must be a disease. Yet the defect model causes problems of its own. Some sufferers avoid getting help because they are leery of being branded as defective. Others get help and come to believe what they are repeatedly told in our system of mental health: that they are deficient.

[…]

People still feel inclined to whisper when they talk about depression. Depression has no “Race for the Cure”; this condition rarely spawns dance marathons, car washes, or golf tournaments. Consequently, the lacerating pain of depression remains uncomfortably private.

 

 

Illustration by artist Bobby Baker from ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me.’ Click image for details.

 

Rather than subscribing to this broken deficiency model of depression, Rottenberg argues that affective science — the empirical study of mood — lies at the heart of understanding the condition. Defining moods as “internal signals that motivate behavior and move it in the right direction,” he argues that our bodies are “a collection of adaptations, evolutionary legacies that have helped us survive and reproduce in the face of uncertainty and risk” and paints the backdrop of understanding depression:

The mood system … is the great integrator. It takes in information about the external and internal worlds and summarizes what is favorable or unfavorable in terms of accomplishing key goals related to survival and reproduction.

[…]

Once a goal is embarked upon, the mood system monitors progress toward its attainment. It will redouble effort when minor obstacles arise. If progress stops entirely because of an insuperable obstacle, the mood system puts the brakes on effort.

Under this model, mood has an evolutionary function as a mediator of survival strategies. Rottenberg cites a number of experiments, which have indicated that negative mood incites one’s psychoemotional arsenal when a task becomes too challenging. For instance, when study participants are deliberately put in a negative mood and asked to perform a difficult task, their blood pressure spikes — a sign that the body is being mobilized for extra alertness and effort. But if the task is made insurmountably difficult, so much so that success stops being possible, the spike no longer occurs and the mood system dials down the effort. In that sense, mood — the seedbed of depression — isn’t an arbitrary state that washes over us in a whim, but a sieve that separates the goals worth pursuing from those guaranteed to end in disappointment.

Rottenberg argues that our relationship to the mood system is shaped by the way we talk about it and is mired in toxic cultural constructs that bleed into our language:

One of the amazing things about the mood system is how much of it operates outside of conscious awareness. Moods, like most adaptations, developed in species that had neither language nor culture. Yet words are the first things that come to mind when most people think about moods. We are “mad,” we are “sad,” we are “glad.” So infatuated are we with language that both laypeople and scientists find it tempting to equate the language we use to describe mood with mood itself.

This is a big mistake. We need to shed this languagecentric view of mood, even if it threatens our pride to accept that we share a fundamental element of our mental toolkit with rabbits and roadrunners. Holding to a myth of human uniqueness puts us in an untenable position. For one thing, it would mean that we deny mood to those humans who have not yet acquired mood language (babies) or have lost mood language (Alzheimer’s patients). Toddlers, goats, and chimps all lack the words to describe the internal signals that track their efforts to find a mate, food, or a new ally; their moods can shape behavior without being named. Language is not required for moods. All that is needed is some capability for wakeful alertness and conscious perception, including the perception of pain and pleasure, which is certainly present in all mammals.

Still, Rottenberg cautions, “what we say about our feelings is only one window on mood” — we need, instead, to examine a variety of evidence in the mind, brain, and behavior to paint a dimensional picture of mood and depression. In fact, part of the puzzle lies in the crucial difference between feelings, or emotions, and moods — emotions are more instantaneous and short-lived responses compared to moods, which take longer to germinate and longer to wither out. Moods, Rottenberg explains, “are an overall summary of the various cues around us [and usually] are harder to sort out.” Our deeper reliance on moods rather than feelings is one of the things that make us human and different from other species, a difference empowered by our use of language and symbolism:

Our heavy reliance on symbolic representation also makes the precipitants of low mood more idiosyncratic in our species than in others. We become sad because Bambi’s mother dies, because there are starving people a continent away, because of a factory closing, because of a World Series defeat in extra innings. Though there is a core theme of loss that cuts across species, humans’ capacity for language enables a larger number of objects to enter, and alter, the mood system.

 

 

Illustration by artist Bobby Baker from ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me.’ Click image for details.

 

And yet for all our emotional sophistication, we remain strikingly blind to many of the real triggers and causes of moods, instead falling back on our penchant for psychological storytelling. Rottenberg ties this back to depression:

Despite our deep yearning to explicate moods, the average person cannot see many of the most important influences on mood. As the great integrator, the mood system is acted on by many potential objects, and many of the forces that act on mood are hidden from conscious awareness (such as stress hormones or the state of our immune system). Left to our own devices, the stories we tell ourselves about our moods often end up being just that. Stories.

[…]

We must understand the ultimate sources of depression if we are ever to get it under control. To do so, we need to step back and replace the defunct defect model with a completely different approach. The mood science approach will be both historical and integrative: historical because we cannot understand why depressed mood is so prevalent until we understand why we have the capacity for low mood in the first place, and integrative because a host of different forces (many hidden) simultaneously act on people to impel them into the kinds of low moods that breed serious depression.

But before we are tempted to file away low moods as an affliction to be treated, Rottenberg offers a necessary neutrality disclaimer, pointing out that both high and low moods have their advantages and disadvantages:

We are born with the capacity for both high and low moods because each has, on average, presented more fitness benefits than costs. Just as being warm blooded can be a liability, high moods are increasingly understood as having a “dark side,” sometimes enabling rash, impulsive, and even destructive behavior. Likewise the capacity for low mood is accompanied by a bundle of benefits and costs. Seen this way, depression follows our adaptation for low mood like a shadow — it’s an inevitable outcome of a natural process, neither wholly good nor entirely bad.

So what might be the evolutionary advantages of low moods? Several theories exists. One proposes that low moods help dampen agitation in confrontation, thus de-escalating conflicts — when a loser yields rather than fighting to the death, he or she is able to survive rather than perish. Another paints low mood as a “stop mechanism” that, just like the task studies suggested, prevent the person from exerting effort towards a goal that is either unattainable or dangerous. A different theory conceptualizes low mood as a tool for making better decisions, putting us in more contemplative mindsets better suited for analyzing our environment and solving particularly hard problems.

In fact, the latter is something repeatedly confirmed by experiments, most notably in the pioneering work of psychologists Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy, who termed this role of low mood depressive realism. Their work has inspired multiple other experiments, including this 2007 study:

Australian psychologist Joseph Forgas found that a brief mood induction changed how well people were able to argue. Compared to subjects in a positive mood, subjects who were put in a negative mood (by watching a ten-minute film about death from cancer) produced more effective persuasive messages on a standardized topic such as raising student fees or aboriginal land rights. Follow-up analyses found that the key reason the sadder people were more persuasive was that their arguments were richer in concrete detail [suggesting that] sad mood, at least of the garden variety, makes people more deliberate, skeptical, and careful in how they process information from their environment.

These positive uses of negative moods may seem at first counterintuitive, but Rottenberg reminds us that “multiple utilities are the hallmark of an adaptation.” He puts things in perspective:

One way to appreciate why these states have enduring value is to ponder what would happen if we had no capacity for them. Just as animals with no capacity for anxiety were gobbled up by predators long ago, without the capacity for sadness, we and other animals would probably commit rash acts and repeat costly mistakes.

In support of this conception, Rottenberg cites a wonderfully poetic passage by Lee Stringer from his essay “Fading to Gray,” found in the altogether fantastic 2001 volume Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression:

Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.

(What gorgeous language, “the unaddressed business of filling our souls” — rather than an affliction, isn’t that the ever-flowing lifeblood of human existence?)

 

 

Cover illustration for P.M. Hubbard’s ‘Picture of Millie’ by Edward Gorey. Click image for details.

 

Still, Rottenberg is careful to point out that severe depression, far from being evolutionarily beneficial, is absolutely crippling, marked by “distorted thinking that appears to be the polar opposite of depressive realism.” In fact, what is perhaps most perplexing about the condition is that scientists don’t yet have a litmus test for when low mood tips over from beneficial to perilous, no point on the mood spectrum that clearly delineates the normal from the diseased. Rottenberg proposes that mood science is the key to honoring the nuance of that spectrum. He differentiates between milder periods of low mood, which he terms shallow depression, and periods wherein the low mood is both long-lasting and severe, which he calls deep depression, and writes:

Shallow depression is adaptive, whereas deep depression is a maladaptive disease.

The strongest evidence for this spectrum model, rather than a binary division between wellness and disease, comes from the fact that shallow and deep depression share a set of risk factors, suggesting that mood, which varies along a continuum of intensity, is the common denominator. Rottenberg puts it elegantly:

Ignoring this would be like a weather forecaster using separate models to predict warm days and very hot days rather than considering general factors that predict temperature.

So what, exactly, seeds low mood? Rottenberg points to three distinct but interconnected triggers: explainability, evolutionary significance, and timing. He writes:

Modern psychological theories postulate that we recover more quickly from a bad event if we can readily explain it. We would expect, then, that events that generate mixed feelings and/or confusing thoughts would be a powerful impetus toward persistent low mood.

[…]

Events that present irresolvable dilemmas on themes that have evolutionary significance — like mate choice — are fertile seeds for low mood.

When the bad things happen also matters. Extensive research demonstrates that early life traumas, such as physical or sexual abuse, lay the groundwork for a slow creep of depression and anxiety.

He cites the example of a middle-aged woman suffering from lifelong “low-grade depression” and anxiety, who grew up with an alcoholic father in a household that vetoed any discussion of feelings. When a neighbor molested her at the age of thirteen, she kept the trauma to herself, believing that her mother would blame her and her father would explode in a rage. Rottenberg explains how these early experiences provide the psychoemotional backdrop for our adult lives:

Jan’s chronic feelings of anxiety and sadness are natural, the product of an intact mood system. In a world in which a child’s primary attachment figures — parents — are emotionally unavailable and unable to help when a trusted neighbor turns into an attacker, the mood system is ever forward looking. It assumes that, if the worst has already happened, it can and will happen again. Best to be prepared. Anxious moods scanning for danger (especially in relationships) and sad moods analyzing what was lost and why serve as the last lines of defense against further ruin.

 

 

Illustration by Edward Gorey from ‘Donald and the…’ Click image for details.

 

Triggers notwithstanding, Rottenberg points out that individual temperament is an essential component in people’s mood responses to the same events. He cites a study conducted after the 9/11 attacks which found that a month later Lower Manhattan residents who had been there on September 11 experienced wildly different degrees of depressive symptoms, ranging from crippling major depression to hardly any symptoms compared to their respective state on September 10.

This variation, once more, can be traced back to early childhood. Rottenberg cites the work of psychologist Jerome Kagan who has spent decades studying infants and found that temperament can be detected as early as in nine-month-olds, who exhibit “reasonably consistent and strong fear reactions to a variety of potentially threatening situations.” These early differences in temperament, Rottenberg argues, are likely to be heavily influenced by genes.

And yet, just like the mood spectrum, temperament isn’t a black-and-white game but an evolutionarily wise strategy:

Experiments by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson also demonstrate that there is no “single best temperament.” In one condition, Wilson dropped metal traps into a pond containing pumpkinseed sunfish. A subset of the fish showed boldness and interest in investigating a novel object. This was a really bad move, as they were immediately caught, and had Dr. Wilson been a real predator, it would have meant the end of their genes. Another group of fish were wary and stayed back from the traps; they were not caught. This situation favored the wary fish.

In a subsequent condition, all the fish were scooped up, brought into a new environment, and then carefully observed. Here the previously wary fish had great difficulty adapting to novelty. They were slower than their bold compatriots to begin feeding, taking five more days to start eating. In this situation the survival of the bold fish was favored.

Noting that the single most indicative depression-prone personality trait is neuroticism, Rottenberg adds:

Like depression itself, temperaments that seed depression are neither wholly good nor wholly bad.

Pointing to two distinct sets of influences on mood — forces that make us vulnerable to long periods of shallow depression and ones that deepen existing shallow depression — Rottenberg makes a poignant observation about our culture’s growing fetishism of happiness:

Our expectations about happiness have changed dramatically, and as they rise, ironically, are making low moods harder to bear than ever before.

 

 

Illustration by Edward Gorey from ‘The Green Beads.’ Click image for details.

 

In fact, a number of our modern fixations have taken a toll on our vulnerability to depression, including our cult of productivity, which accelerated after the invention of artificial light. But while routines may be the key to creative discipline, they may also put us at hazard for depression:

Mood is about the mundane. Day-to-day routines — how we spend our time, how we care for our bodies and minds — continually shape our moods and can have a strong influence on whether low mood persists. Routines that build up physical and mental resources can raise mood. Other routines, woven into the fabric of modern life, are grossly misaligned with evolutionary imperatives and have the potential to seed low mood. Many of our most familiar routines seem almost perversely designed to wreak havoc on the mood system.

We already know that REM sleep is intimately linked with depression and that insufficient exposure to natural light is perilous to our well-being. Rottenberg sheds light on the scale and intensity of the problem:

One mundane influence on mood is daily light exposure. After all, mood evolved in the context of a rotating earth, with its recurrent twenty-four-hour cycle of light and dark phases. Our species is diurnal, and the best chance of finding sustenance and other rewards was in the light phase (think about the challenge of identifying edible berries or stalking a mammoth). Consequently, we are configured to be more alert during the day than at night. Consistent with the link between light and mood, some clinically serious low mood is triggered by the seasonal change of shorter daylight hours. The onset of seasonal affective disorder, a subtype of mood disorder, is usually in winter.

Our newfound reliance on indoor light has effectively turned most people into cave dwellers. Artificial light is much fainter and provides fewer mood benefits than sunlight. When small devices that measure light exposure and duration were attached to adults in San Diego, one of the sunniest cities in the United States, it was discovered that the average person received only fifty-eight minutes of sunlight a day. What’s more, those San Diegans who received less light exposure during their daily routines reported more symptoms of depression.

(My reliance on this light-therapy device, which has gotten me through many dreary New York winters, suddenly seems less trivial and less of a placebo effect.)

 

 

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from ‘The River.’ Click image for details.

 

As a champion of sleep, I especially appreciate the sobering evidence Rottenberg cites from a number of sleep studies:

Mood is lower after even one night of sleep deprivation. Moreover, brief experimental sleep restriction induces bodily changes that mimic some aspects of depression. It’s important to ponder the consequences of sleep deprivation now happening on a mass scale: more than 40 percent of Americans between the ages of thirteen and sixty-four say they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep on weeknights, and a third of young adults probably have long periods of at least partial sleep deprivation on an ongoing basis. Over the last century average nightly sleep duration has fallen. In 1910 Americans slept an average of approximately nine hours; that average had dropped to seven hours by 2002.

Part of the answer to the riddle of low mood, then, lies in contemporary routines that increasingly feature less light, less rest, and more activities that are out of kilter with the body’s natural rhythm.

In the rest of The Depths, Rottenberg, who has battled depression himself for much of his life, goes on to explore how the multiple seeds of the condition cross-pollinate each other, why other species may hold the key to understanding human depression, and what we can do, both as a culture and as individuals, to loosen the grip of this unrelenting oppressor. Complement it with this simple and effective exercise to increase your well-being and lower depression from Martin Seligman, founding father of Positive Psychology, then revisit this provocative read on how antidepressants affect identity-formation.

Thanks, Amelia

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/03/24/the-depths-rottenberg-depression/

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