June 11, 2015

The Pope and the Planet

Habemus problem! In an encyclical letter due next week, Pope Francis himself will intervene in the global story of climate change, bringing scientific and moral authority into alignment. The Pope will argue that human beings and high-tech capitalism have “slapped” nature and all creation “in the face."

A week before the big release, this show had us excited about Pope Francis’s full-throated challenge to the status quo — the text in full of Laudato Si is now available on the Vatican’s website. But what he’s challenging (behavior that turns Creation, more and more, into “an immense pile of filth”) ended up sounding a lot like our guest Sally Weintrobe‘s psychoanalytic scolding of the wasteful parts of humanity:

It doesn’t go deep enough to say that this is a problem with capitalism. It’s a much, much older problem, the problem of the fantasy of the inexhaustible breast: that the earth is really a kind of a breast/toilet that provides endlessly in an ideal way and then receives all our waste. So I think the human race is being encouraged to grow up.

Meanwhile, our guest Naomi Oreskes got the celebrity-lightning-rod treatment in The New York Times — read more here.


Habemus problem!

In an encyclical letter, Pope Francis himself will intervene next week on the global story of climate change, bringing scientific and moral authority into alignment. The Pope will argue that human beings and high-tech capitalism have “slapped” nature and all creation “in the face.”

Trade deals and drilling permits are booming while the Kyoto spirit limps along. No wonder world leaders, eco-crusaders, and atheist scientists are all so hungry for some Good News. It’s time to kick the climate problem upstairs, but can a letter from Rome change things?

We’ll be speaking to Naomi Oreskes, who’s advising the Vatican on climate and turning scientific knowledge into a political message. Her 2010 book Merchants of Doubt indicted the tactics that oil companies cribbed from the tobacco titans and became a film phenomenon last year. As with tobacco smoke and acid rain, science isn’t enough to win an argument against opponents with a modest but dangerous specialty: getting people to question certain unpleasant realities.

Sally Weintrobe, our psychoanalyst of climate change, will put late capitalism on the couch and explain why we’re so eager to ignore the real world of droughts, floods, and our own climate change complicity. Dr. Weintrobe says a little more climate guilt is what we need in the global North, and maybe that’s where the church comes in.

But Francis is expected to take us back to bigger ideas than guilt. Awe of creation and care for “the least of these,” are the old values that welcome (even prefigure) the most complicated climate science. Dorothy Boorse, a biologist who combines love of nature with love of God — and who’s been pitching American evangelicals on climate as a moral issue for years — will let us in on a faith-science alliance that’s well underway and ready to save all of us gas-guzzling sinners.

We hear the most bracing telling, not in the skeptical speeches of Rick Santorum, even, but in the doomsaying of Paul Kingsnorth, a former eco-activist who has lost his faith in the ability of people to change. Here he is on the broken myths of our society too late to change:

Tell us: are you waiting to hear what the pope has to say about the environment and justice next week? And what will it take to move the needle toward real collective action on climate matters?

May 28, 2015

What Money Can’t Buy

It’s graduation time in Boston, and the Class of 2015 is asking “Now what?” If our young ones need help choosing, the market is back and ready to nudge them toward a gilded path. A new survey ...

It’s graduation time in Boston, and the Class of 2015 is asking “Now what?” If our young ones need help choosing, the market is back and ready to nudge them toward a gilded path. A new survey of Harvard seniors says that, after a dip in money jobs, fully a third of them will go to work in consulting or finance this year.

This week, we dared to enter the market for grad wisdom, rounding up a justice thinker, an historian, an entrepreneur, and a novelist to offer some last-minute commencement advice — and the latest installment in our capitalism series.

8467881527_34514ccc62_o (1) Harvard’s own rockstar philosopher Michael Sandel said that the high-dollar scramble for young minds is part of a phenomenon he sees the world over. What used to be a market economy has morphed and spread over 30 years into a market way of everything:

Because we fear the disagreement, the controversy that would result from engaging in that kind of that debate, because we worry about the majority coercing or imposing on the minority their values, we reach for what seems to be a neutral way of deciding hard public questions. Markets and market thinking have played that role, I think, mistakenly. The result is we have a kind of emptiness, a void, in public discourse and people everywhere are frustrated about it.


How did a nation of yeoman farmers and proud producers financialize its economy, and then its civics and its morality? Our historian of capitalism, Julia Ott, said that the process began in World War I when the Woodrow Wilson, desperate “to demonstrate the consent of the American population towards the war effort,” became bond salesman to the nation. War bonds and war savings campaigns encouraged Americans to see “the ownership of federal debt as a way of demonstrating that they not only support the war, but that they support a democracy, they support the foundational principle of private property rights.”

What stays with us for the rest of the 20th century and up until today are the ideas that property ownership are fundamental to American citizenship, that financial securities markets play a handmaiden to the realization of that goal, whether it’s through your 401k plan or through your house which you need a mortgage for.

Entrepreneur Semyon Dukach arrived from Russia celebrating those principles of American financial capitalism. Dukach told us he sees (and lived) the greed, but it’s trumped by good old fashioned business ethics.

Marilynne_Robinson (2)Customer-first ethics seems a thin substitute for a morality, though. And what of the older, pre-commercial American values? Novelist Marilynne Robinson said they’ve been crowded out and replaced by “this weird, ideologized ‘capitalism,’ which is not a phrase that ever occurs in our early literature.”

…The word “value” has been narrowed in its meaning so that it sort of means “profit,” something you can put in the bank. But value historically, value culturally, has always meant the enhancement of people’s lives. It has always meant the arts and the sciences and all these things that we have still implicit in the culture but are turning on, because they’re anomalous in terms of this novel, mindless ideology that so many people have been persuaded of… These spectacular universities and so on that we ought to be just enjoying! This idea that everything is monetizable. You know, the sort of thing where you take the little freshmen aside and say “not everything is monetizable!”

Now that the seniors are leaving — jobs offered and accepted (hopefully) — what are the “little freshmen” to think about markets and morals? If money doesn’t buy or point to the good life, what does?

Leave a comment, and let us know what you think.

Podcast • November 12, 2010

Kwame Anthony Appiah: How to Make a Moral Revolution

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code is inviting all of us to pick the “moral revolution” of our dreams and let him show us how to get big results fast. His exemplary case histories ...

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code is inviting all of us to pick the “moral revolution” of our dreams and let him show us how to get big results fast. His exemplary case histories start with the end of dueling in England, which came swiftly on the news in 1829 of pistol shots between the Duke of Wellington (victor at Waterloo and by then Prime Minister of England) and the Earl of Winchelsea. In the same quarter century, England got out of the English slave trade and abolished slavery in the English colonies. And from the East, Appiah recounts the sudden, shamefaced end of female footbinding in China — the collapse of a thousand-year tradition within a generation after 1900. In each instance, a persistent, noxious openly immoral practice died of ridicule, as much as anything else. Appiah makes it a three-step process. First, “strategic ignorance” gets overwhelmed by a very public confrontation with an evil tinged with absurdity. Then the stakes of “honor” get redefined; no longer a prop of support, the idea of honor (as earned respect) becomes a battering ram of opposition. And finally group lobbying and popular politics seal a shift in values and practice.

Professor Appiah, the Ghanaian-English-American philosopher now at Princeton, the author of Cosmopolitanism, is talking about some of his dream crusades, and mine, maybe yours: how’s to kick the props of “honor” out from under mega-wealth and permanent war? How’s to end the routine torture of feedlot animals, the soulless warehousing of good parents and grandparents? Who is to take the “honor” out of “honor killings” today of Pakistani women and girls who’ve been raped or sexually compromised?

In our own recent American experience, torture is one window Appiah’s process, still in motion:

In both the officially, centrally sanctioned torture and the things that it led to, like Abu Ghraib… I think it’s terrible that we focused so much on the poeple at the bottom of the heap who were doing it, at the sharp end, so to speak; and didn’t focus enough on how we had created an atmosphere that made it possible… When Americans know that these things are being done in their name, or face up to the fact, unless they don’t care about our country they can’t feel anything but shame. And that’s because they understand that you’re not entitled to respect if you do things like that.

So that’s an example of the mechanism in operation. That’s why a government that wants to do these things has to do them in the dark… You refer to the values of philosophical Pragmatism. One of the values of Pragmatism which we completely lose when we behave like this is that we take our eye off what we’re actually doing. This is so counter-productive. Nothing that we’re trying to do in the world is advanced by being seen as the country that does this thing. We used to be seen as a country that wouldn’t do these things. It was understood that Syria would do these things, or that old Iraq would do these things. We understand that the Saudis, you know, stone people and beat people up. But we used to be able to claim that we were trying not to do these things; that if we found them done we would punish them; that we would go to the U.N. and the Human Rights Commmission and complain when other countries did them. We can’t do that anymore. We look ridiculous when we when we do…

So I think: an element of “soft power” is honor. And if you lose your honor (…you don’t lose all your honor; you only lose a certain dimension of it each time), then you have to regenerate it. You have to earn it back in order to be able to use that sort of soft power, which is the most powerful political resource we have in the world as Americans, I think. It’s the respect that we have sometimes earned and sometimes not earned that makes all kinds of people who disagree with us about all kinds of things nevertheless have a kind of sneaking admiration for the United States.

Kwame Anthony Appiah with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 3, 2010

Podcast • June 10, 2008

Dan Ariely: Confronting Irrationality

Dan Ariely’s genius in Predictably Irrational is for simple social experiments that become giant public parables. Here’s how playing with the taste of beer, for example, takes him to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse: in the student ...

Dan Ariely’s genius in Predictably Irrational is for simple social experiments that become giant public parables. Here’s how playing with the taste of beer, for example, takes him to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse: in the student pub at MIT, where Ariely taught, drinkers much preferred the “MIT Brew” to straight Budweiser — unless they were told in advance that “MIT brew” was Budweiser doctored with a few drops of balsamic vinegar. If they knew beforehand what they were drinking, a sour expectation overrode the pleasure of the experience. Moral: preconceptions rule. Application: since memory and preconditioning are so irremediably different between Israelis and Palestinians, only a strong and fair third-party can lift them to a resolution.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with

Dan Ariely (37 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

Dan Ariely’s measure of irrationality

What could he learn at Duke University from the prolonged test of wills by which “Final Four” basketball tickets were alloted to rabid student fans? When the lottery was over and the tickets awarded, Professor Ariely tried to make a market with students who’d won and others who’d lost out. But there was no price point to be found. Students without tickets wouldn’t pay more than $175 for what they’d missed. Students who had tickets wouldn’t take anything less than $2400 for what now felt invaluable. Moral: we overprice what we already have. Application: commentators and Congress folk are stuck (hopeless, but still stuck) with an Iraq war in which they signed (irrationally) for what are now “sunk costs.”

Neither does war remorse necessarily restore rationality, as Dan Ariely observes in our conversation. The Iraq war has set a new “anchor” price for foreign adventure, just as Starbucks re-set the price of your morning coffee. At $1-trillion or more, the Iraq war could make a sequel look like a bargain. Beware also what Ariely calls the “decoy effect.” We all shop by comparision, and tend to go for the less-flawed version in a pair. The “decoy effect” is the reason why Dan Ariely suggests that for success at a singles’ event: bring along a friend who looks like you but is slightly less attractive. It’s the decoy effect that’s being used to suggest that a mere air attack on Iran, without a ground invasion, would be a cinch compared to Iraq.

Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational reads to me like a catalog of the Bush follies and how a lazy great nation fell for them. In the book and in our conversation there may also be a rough map of the road back to American Pragmatism and the William James test of policies and ideas: how do they work in practice?

On Leaving Iraq: It turns out that the bigger and more effortful thing that you have done – the more attached you feel to it. Partially it’s regret. If we have invested $400 billion dollars and we will just leave it as it is and we haven’t achieved anything, we will feel like it’s a real waste. So what do we do? We keep on investing more and more in the hope that it will achieve something in the future. We can speculate evolutionarily how much [the attachment process] makes sense. You do want a mechanism that gets us attached to our kids, family, community and ideology, but it turns out it’s a very strong force and even when we adapt a wrong path, we have a very hard time overcoming this. This is the place where you can actually think of what the role of democracy is, reflecting people’s opinions versus people’s best interests. If we have people that are extremely attached to the war in Iraq, and the cord was severed, in two months they would not be attached any more. I don’t think people are able to predict how quickly they would get over this feeling of complete waste of this war. Right now, people think that if we stop [the war], it would have all had been for nothing. And how long would it take them to get used to the fact that it will have all been for nothing? I think it’s much shorter than they would have guessed. It’s a real dilemma about who you’re serving for a politician. The people of the moment who think that they will feel that it’s gone to waste or the people in two months who would be relieved that the war is over.

On Obamania: I’ll tell you another thing that worries me about Obama. We wrote a paper about a year ago on online dating. What we basically found was that when people describe themselves in less precise terms, they are more popular. The reason is that when you are vague, everyone can read into them what they want. You say you like music. It turns out that everyone thinks you like the same music that they like. Vagueness translates into liking. It turns out that the same thing happens with pictures, by the way. You put up pictures that are slightly more fuzzy and people think that you are more attractive. The second thing that we discovered is that people get crushed when they meet for coffee… I think Obama has been relatively vague compared to Hillary. We’ve known her for a very long time and she’s been more clear. People can read into Obama what they want, which is one of his appeals. At the same time, I think that we’ll have coffee with Obama at some point. The only question is when will we have coffee with Obama? The truth is that no human being can stand up to the expectations that the public has for Obama. At some point we will get disappointed. The question is how much and when.

Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational, in conversation with Chris Lydon, June 9, 2008