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Congratulations on winning a second term. I was really pulling for you. I even gave money to your campaign, breaking a lifelong rule. I used to think that the person in the presidency did not make a big difference, but that has changed a lot since your predecessor’s term. I appreciate how well you speak, that you lean a bit left, that you can take and synthesize multiple perspectives, and that I have been at worst less embarrassed and at best quite proud of you as our representative to the world. Thank you.

That said, I am painfully aware how little my vote communicates what I actually think and care about to you and the rest of the world. You, your opponent, your parties, and the media do not talk about it, and I understand why. A small-time blogger can say this stuff in public, but not a viable candidate for the presidency. Still, I thought it better to tell you than not.

As a preface, I’d like you to know that I am a data-analysis and outcomes kind of guy. I couldn’t care less about the size of government, tax rates, or the continued existence of any particular government institutions as long as we get the right outcomes. At the same time, this is not a utopian vision, some infinitely good future which justifies any means. I believe that both narrow, status-quo or partisan thinking, and utopia-through-destruction thinking are naive and inefficient.

Economics

I want the elimination of negative externalities from our economy. Markets do a lot of great things, but they cannot accurately value or even see many of the social and environmental costs of their behavior. It is important to me that people and planet get treated in ethical, sustainable ways, especially when those ways are less efficient and profitable than pure market behavior.

It seems to me, for example, that government has to be the one to set accurate discount rates for non-immediate events, like the value in the future of doing something today about climate change.

One way to accomplish that (and a lot of other good things) is shift our tax revenues completely away from income and profit and largely onto externalities like pollution. Just make sure to jigger it some way to make it progressive.

Some consequences for the behavior that caused the recent crashI’m a rare agnostic on the morality of your bailouts but I’m bummed about how little teeth came with the money. The argument that regulation is bad for the financial industry is completely hollow from people who had to get bailed out by taxpayers and show no consciousness of having personally played a part in the problem. I want one of the following to happen: Either there was a bunch of illegal activity and bunch people should go to jail, or things that they did should become illegal. That might look like resurrecting Glass-Steagall and/or expanding monopoly laws to make too-big-to-fail equal to a monopoly worth busting.

Environment

I want a massive, worldwide conservation effort. Any old growth forest, wilderness and wetlands that remain to us should be sacrosanct. Wherever we have the leverage, I want reforestation and habitat restoration projects. For a good example, look at what John and Margaret Jones are doing in Camp Myrtlewood, Oregon, implementing a multi-century plan to steward the land to old growth forest. You can think of it as a long term carbon sequestration, or you can think of it as a way to increase our resilience through biodiversity during the kinds of large-scale catastrophic events that hit us over thousand-plus year periods. But it is also just the right way to live in relation to our ecology: respectful, with a long-term view.

Solve the engineering problems we have with nuclear fusion. NASA and our other groups of super smart physicists and engineers can go back to their pet projects once they have figured out how to power it all with perfectly clean energy.

In the meantime, efficiency. Put Amory Lovins in charge of efficiency in the US and take it all the way. It’s embarrassing that we are excited about new cars that get gas mileage in the same range that my old 1970s Honda Civic got.

Social

In health care, focus on preventative care, research on prevention, and epidemiology. I’d love for us to be able to cure all of the big diseases, but what I’d love even more is preventing them in the first place. The money is in pills or surgeries for people who have developed emergency-level conditions. The money should be in keeping people from developing those conditions in the first place. 

The elimination of child abuse and neglect. The research has been done and we know what we need to know to largely eliminate child abuse and neglect. This would increase the quality of life for so many of us who are currently children, with a multiplier effect for all generations to come. It would reduce our tome of mental disorders back to the size of a pamphlet. The pilot program for this effort is 90by30, in Lane County, Oregon.

The real availability of education to women, worldwide. This isn’t just a humanitarian issue. It’s an issue of global development, peace, and stability.

If taxpayers pay for research, we should get the data. All of it. For free. As it stands, we don’t even get free access to the journal-articles that are published to summarize it.

Political

Real campaign finance reform, along the lines of Lawrence Lessig‘s $50 tax voucher plus $100 per person, period. Amend the constitution. The current system of campaign finance reduces politicians to extortionists and hobbles their long term thinking and statesmanship, and it is not working.

Not that I need to tell you that, Mr. President. Or maybe any of this–maybe you think about all of this and just don’t see the movement that will allow you to talk about it. I just wanted to let you know that I’m part of the movement and willing to go public about it.

Thanks for reading,

Nathen Lester

 

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I’ve listened to 247 podcasts of Planet Money over the last several years–about 80 hours. This show is the best way I’ve found way to learn about economics in fun, thought-provoking, 20-minute bursts.

I just finished a show called “The No-Brainer Economic Platform,” about six economic reforms that apparently almost all economists agree on, regardless of ideology. The major point of the show was that even though there is agreement, political candidates will not consider running on them. And if they did, they would stand no chance of winning.

One of the major points (though probably unintended) of my 80-hour economics education has been that economists are much closer to political pundits than scientists. The “facts” vary widely depending on their political stance. That’s why this show was so exciting: There actually are six things that economists agree on across the political spectrum!

1) Eliminate the home mortgage interest deduction. It is extremely regressive and distorts the housing market in bad ways. They make it sound here like almost all economists are in favor of eliminating all tax loopholes and deductions, though the point is less clear. Read on, though, and you’ll see that loopholes and deductions would become mostly obsolete under this platform.

2) Eliminate the deduction for employer-provided health insurance. It’s one of the main reasons for high healthcare costs in the US.

3) Eliminate taxes on corporations. If you want to tax rich people, do it directly. The idea is that tax rates serve as incentives/disincentives. Don’t tax things we like. We like American businesses making money.

4) Eliminate the individual income tax and payroll tax. We also like individuals making money and we like businesses creating jobs. Make up for the loss by taxing consumption, I think especially on luxury items–make it progressive in some way.

5) Tax things we don’t like. Use taxes as disincentives for things like cigarettes and pollution.

6) Legalize drugs, or at least marijuana. The war on drugs is basically a massive waste of money that makes drug cartels rich. Without it, we’d have another kind of consumption that we don’t like to tax.

Again, the major point of this show was that these ideas are political non-starters, but I wonder if that is true. Each plank on its own would have entrenched detractors, but as a system of reforms it’s more appealing. Pay more for your mortgage and gasoline, but pay no income tax. You would have to show people a model of it working.

Here’s a challenge for any math-oriented readers: Give us some examples. How much would we need to charge for cigarettes, pot, gambling, fossil fuels, yachts, and mansions to make up for the loss of all income taxes?

I’ve just begun reading Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. I bought the book while I was in grad school, knowing it would be years before I could get to it, but so excited by the title! Consciousness and how it relates to the body and emotions is one of my favorite topics of inquiry. Plus, Damasio is a scientist with a (rare) good reputation as a writer.

In the introduction he describes six facts that a good theory of consciousness will have to take into account. Here are my paraphrases:

1) There will be an “anatomy of consciousness”: Elements of consciousness appear to be associated with activity in certain parts of the brain.

This may be scary to those who believe that consciousness is magical, or that its magic would be somehow diminished if it relied on the brain’s circuitry. I too used to be uneasy about that idea. After diving into brain studies a bit, though, I feel both excited and humbled by it. It’s just neat that our brains apparently produce all the subtleties of our experience. Also, it’s a good reminder that our experiences of feeling, thinking, knowing, and of awareness itself is created by our brains, and is not a direct line on reality.

2) Consciousness is more than wakefulness or attentiveness. Humans can be awake and attentive without being conscious.

Damasio describes patients who are clearly awake and attentive, but not conscious, and promises to devote two chapters to the significance of this phenomenon.

3) You cannot have consciousness without emotion.

I am excited about this point because I’ve thought it both crucial and little recognized since reading The Mind’s I many years ago. It had an essay which convinced me that real artificial intelligence would not be possible without emotion. Without emotion all you have is processing power. And in human intelligence at least, emotion brings in the body. Emotions are not just mental phenomenon. I can’t wait to see how Damasio deals with this.

4) There is a distinction between “core consciousness,” producing a sense of moment-to-moment “core self,” and “extended consciousness,” producing a story-making “autobiographical self.”

This distinction could bring clarity to the debates about consciousness in infants and non-human animals. Core consciousness may be the kind that everyone has, and extended consciousness the kind that we develop as our experience becomes more and more intertwined with language and concepts.

Core consciousness sounds to me like the experience that meditators work to remain in. We live most of our lives in the useful but problematic realm of extended consciousness, judging experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, safe or unsafe, and other ways they relate to the story we have of ourselves. Once we are living this way it is difficult to escape. Meditators find that maintaining awareness of core consciousness can be a welcome rest from all that. This practice may help the autobiographical self have an easier time as well.

5) Consciousness cannot be wholly described by other mental activities. Things like language and memory are necessary but not sufficient for full consciousness.

You can’t leave consciousness out of the discussion. It is more than its parts. I like this because I think a lot of scientists are squeamish of even using the word “consciousness.” It makes you sound like a hippy. Prepare to hear a lot of scientists trying to talk about consciousness without sounding like a hippy.

6) Consciousness also cannot be described wholly by describing how the brain creates our experiences out of sensory and mental data.

I read some famous scientist saying that if he were to be at the beginning of his career, he would be looking into creation of qualia, the “particles” of experience, that this was the next holy grail of psychology. That’s a good one, for sure, but I think an explanation of consciousness is a better holy grail than an explanation of qualia.

A few weeks ago, one of my posts received a comment that was worth a whole post:

I am also a therapist (though I’m still in training). I’m wondering if you would be willing/able to recommend some family therapy books you’ve found helpful. My program is very focused on the individual and I’m trying to fill in some gaps and find your perspective on therapy to be very resonant with my own.

I’d love to recommend some family therapy books! My program was extremely family-systems focused, which I’ve been grateful for since leaving school. If you want to see an exhaustive reading list (I can’t remember having been assigned a real dud), you can see reverse-order lists of everything I read in my first year here and my second year here.

I’ll try to create a bare-bones list for you here—much more useful for you and a good exercise for me. I should warn you before I begin that I am super nerdy when it comes to family therapy reading and I can imagine many in my cohort rolling their eyes at my “must-read” list. If you are nerdy like me, though, here goes:

Pragmatics of Human Communication: A classic and profound book by Bateson’s MRI team, the first and probably still the best attempt to apply system theory to human relationships.

Susan Johnson’s books The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy and Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Trauma Survivors. Johnson combines system-thinking, Rogers-style experiential therapy, and attachment theory, creating one of my most-used therapy models.

John Gottman’s books, especially The Marriage Clinic and The Science of Trust. Gottman has taken up the project started with Pragmatics, largely abandoned by family therapy, and is doing it in fine style, with solid science.

Metaframeworks: This book presents my favorite meta-model of family therapy, combining the best parts of the many family therapy models.

A major work by each family therapy model-builder is also important reading: Haley, Madanes, Satir, Whitaker, Minuchin, Bowen, Selvini-Palazolli/Milan group, Weakland/Fisch/MRI group, deShazer/Insoo-Berg, Epson/White, and Hubble/Duncan/Miller. Keep in mind that their books are presentations of informed opinion, not science. Every one of these folks have got some things right and some wrong. They have also advanced the field significantly, and are the largest part the conversation on how to think about families.

Finally, a couple things that I was not assigned in school, but I found extremely helpful in making sense of the flood of information. First, a grounding in systems/complexity theory: Family therapists think of themselves as system-theory experts and throw around a lot of lingo that they may or may not really understand. It’s easy to get confused in this situation. The best introduction to modern system thinking is still Capra’s The Web of Life (though we’re overdue for an update). Also, check out Bateson’s books Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature. Second, familiarity with Wilber’s integral theory really helped me navigate the heated arguments about modernism vs. post-modernism and intervention at the level of individuals vs. family systems vs. larger systems. Check out Integral Psychology or A Theory of Everything.

I read Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America as a counterpoint assignment in one of the diagnosis classes in my Couples & Family Therapy program. It was an excellent book about the history and science of several psychological problems, both as phenomena and diagnoses, including depression, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and schizophrenia. As a university student, I had the opportunity to check out for free any of the many academic citations in the book that piqued my interest, and each one that I looked at seemed indeed to provide the evidence he claimed. I haven’t read anything like all of them (there are nearly 700), but enough to satisfy myself that Whitaker has done some good journalism here, and that his hypotheses are credible.

Two of these hypotheses is about childhood bipolar disorder, the first of which he calls the “ADHD to bipolar pathway.” The side effects of stimulants such as those used to treat ADHD are substantially similar to bipolar symptoms, as shown in the table below, from p. 238. (The formatting is slightly different than Whitaker’s, thanks to an Open Office/Wordpress interaction.) Multiplying the estimated rate of stimulant-induced bipolar-like symptoms by the 3,500,000 children and teens taking those medications, Whitaker estimates we should see approximately 400,000 “bipolar youth” as a result.

The ADHD to Bipolar Pathway

Stimulant-Induced Symptoms

Bipolar Symptoms

Arousal

Dysphoric

Arousal

Dysphoric

Increased lethargy

Intensified focus

Hyperalertness

Euphoria

Agitation, anxiety

Insomnia

Irritability

Hostility

Hypomania

Mania

Psychosis

Somnolence

Fatigue, lethargy

Social withdrawal, isolation

Decreased spontaneity

Reduced curiosity

Constriction of affect

Depression

Emotional lability

Increased energy

Intensified goal-directed activity

Decreased need for sleep

Severe mood change

Irritability

Agitation

Destructive outbursts

Increased talking

Hypomania

Mania

Sad mood

Loss of energy

Loss of interest in activities

Social isolation

Poor communication

Feelings of worthlessness

Unexplained crying

The second part of Whitaker’s thinking on childhood bipolar disorder is an SSRI to bipolar pathway. Estimates of the rate of the well-know SSRI side effect of mania, multiplied by 2,000,000 children and adolescents on the medications, give us the possibility of producing at least 500,000 SSRI-induced bipolar disorders in young people.

If true, these hypotheses could go a long way to explain the skyrocketing rates of childhood bipolar disorder diagnoses, as most diagnoses of childhood bipolar disorder are made on children who are already taking stimulants and/or SSRIs. The primary alternative, and more mainstream, hypothesis is not that stimulants and SSRIs are iatrogenic, but that since those medications solve the problems of ADHD and depression, the symptoms of bipolar disorder that emerge show that the diagnostician had initially guessed wrong, and that bipolar disorder was the previously-existing and underlying cause of the ADHD and/or depression. This, of course, may be true, but it seems very important to discover for certain whether it is!

John Gottman is best known for his research on couples (which I’ve written a few things about here) but I think that some of his most important work has been distinguishing two distinct parenting styles: emotion coaching and emotion dismissing. I’m reading his new book, The Science of Trust, right now, and he goes over these findings because it turns out these styles of relating to emotions have big ramifications on building or losing trust in one’s partner. I’ll write more about that as I come to understand it better. (And by the way, if you are a serious couples therapy nerd like me, this book is great. Check it out.)

The basic idea is that parents have different reactions to emotions in their children. We call these reactions “meta-emotions” because they are emotions about emotions. “Emotion coaching” means when an emotion shows up in your child, you treat it as useful information, you engage your child around it in a way that tells them it is OK to have that emotion. “Emotion dismissing” is the opposite. You communicate that they are choosing to have this emotion that you find unpleasant and that making that choice is unacceptable. (This is similar to a problematic parenting technique called “mystification” which I wrote a little about here.)

Clearly this is a potentially complicated phenomenon, because we can have different emotional reactions to each emotion in our kids. We may, for example, have a coaching reaction when a child shows, say, pride, but a dismissing reaction when they show anger. Or vice versa. And our reaction may be different in different contexts, like at home versus out shopping. And other cultural factors are at play, too, like gender or age of the child, which can cause us to react differently. For the following lists, Gottman is using the coaching/dismissing distinction with a broad brush. The list items are direct quotes from pp. 181-188, but the list titles are my paraphrases (note that “affect” is psych-speak for “emotion”):

What Emotion-Dismissing Parents Do:

  • They didn’t notice lower-intensity emotions in themselves or in their children (or in others, either). In one interview we asked two parents about how they reacted to their daughter’s sadness. The mom asked the dad, “Has Jessica ever been sad?” He said he didn’t think so, except maybe one time when she went to visit her grandmother alone and she was 4 years old. “When she boarded the airplane alone,” he said, “she looked a little sad.” But all children actually have a wide range of emotions in just a few short hours. A crayon may break, and the child becomes immediately sad and angry. These parents didn’t notice much of Jessica’s more subtle emotions.
  • They viewed negative affects as if they were toxins. They wanted to protect their child from ever having these negative emotions. They preferred a cheerful child.
  • They thought that the longer their child stayed in the negative emotional state, the more toxic its effect was.
  • They were impatient with their child’s negativity. They might even punish a child just for being angry, even if there was no misbehavior.
  • They believed in accentuating the positive in life. This is a kind of Norman Vincent Peale, the power-of-positive-thinking philosophy. This is a very American view. The idea is: “You can have any emotion you want, and if you choose the have a negative one, it’s your own fault.” So, they think, pick a positive emotion to have. You will have a much happier life if you do. So they will do things like distract, tickle, or cheer up their child to create that positive emotion.
  • They see introspection or looking inside oneself to examine what one feels as a waste of time, or even dangerous.
  • They usually have no detailed lexicon or vocabulary for emotions.

What Emotion-Coaching Parents Do:

  • They noticed lower-intensity emotions in themselves and in their children. The children didn’t have to escalate to get noticed.
  • They saw these emotional moments as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching.
  • They saw these negative emotions–even sadness, anger, or fear–as a healthy part of normal development.
  • They were not impatient with their child’s negative affect.
  • They communicated understanding of the emotions and didn’t get defensive.
  • They helped the child verbally label all the emotions he or she was feeling. What does having words do? They are important . With the right words, I think the child processess emotions usually associated with withdrawal (fear, sadness, disgust) very differently. I think it becomes a bilateral frontal-lobe processing. Withdrawal emotions still are experienced, but they are tinged with optimism, control, and a sense that it’s possible to cope.
  • They empathized with negative emotions, even with negative emotions behind misbehavior. For example, they might say: “I understand your brother made you angry. He makes me mad too sometimes.” They do this even if the do not approve of the child’s misbehavior. In that way they communicate the value, “All feelings and wishes are acceptable.”
  • They also communicated their family’s values. They set limits if there was misbehavior. In that way they communicated the value, “Although all feelings and wishes are acceptable, not all behavior is acceptable. (We had other parents who did everything else in coaching but this step of setting limits, and their children turned out aggressive.) They were clear and consistent in setting limits to convey their values.
  • They problem-solved when there was negative affect without misbehavior. They were not impatient with this step, either. For example, they may have gotten suggestions from the child first.
  • They believed that emotional communication is a two-way street. That means that when they were emotional about the child’s misbehavior, they let the child know what they were feeling (but not in an insulting manner). They said that was probably the strongest form of discipline, that the child is suddenly disconnected from the parent–less close, more “out.”

Teaching by Emotion-Dismissing Parents

  • They have lots of information in an excited manner at first.
  • They were very involved with the child’s mistakes.
  • They saw themselves as offering “constructive criticism.”
  • The child increased the number of mistakes as the parents pointed out errors. This is a common effect during the early stages of skill acquisition.
  • As the child made more mistakes, the parents escalated their criticism to insults, using trait labels such as “You are being careless” or “You are spacey.” They sometimes talked to each other about the child in the child’s presence, as in: “He is so impulsive. That’s his problem.”
  • As the child made more mistakes, the parents sometimes took over, becoming intrusive.
Teaching by Emotion-Coaching Parents
  • Gave little information to the child, but enough for the child to get started.
  • Were not involved with the child’s mistakes (they ignored them).
  • Waited for the child to do something right, and then offered specific praise and added a little bit more information. (The best teaching offers a new tool, just within reach. Then learning feels like remembering.)
  • The child attributed the learning to his or her own discovery.
  • The child’s performance also went up and up.
Outcomes for Children of Emotion-Coaching Parents
  • They had higher reading and math scores at age 8, even controlling statistically for IQ differences at age 4.
  • This effect was mediated through the attentional system. Coached children had better abilities with focusing attention, sustaining attention, and shifting attention.
  • Coached children had greater self-soothing ability even when upset during a parent-child interaction.
  • Coached children self-soothed better, delayed gratification better, and had better impulse control.
  • Parents didn’t have to down-regulate negativity as much.
  • Coached children don’t whine very much.
  • Coached children had fewer behavior problems of all kinds (aggression and depression).
  • Coached children had better relations with other children.
  • Coached children had fewer infectious illnesses.
  • As coached children got into middle childhood and then adolescence, they kept having appropriate “social moxie.”
  • Emotion-coaching parents also buffered the children in our sample from almost all the negative effects of an ailing marriage, separation, or a divorce (except for their children’s sadness). The negative effects that disappeared were: (1) acting out with aggression, (2) falling grades in school, and (3) poor relations with other children.
  • As Lynn Katz, Carol Hooven, and I reported in our book Meta-Emotion, coached children, as they develop, seem to have more emotional intelligence.
Steps to Learn Emotion Coaching
  1. Noticing the negative emotion before it escalates.
  2. Seeing it as an opportunity for teaching or intimacy.
  3. Validating or empathizing with the emotion.
  4. Helping the child give verbal labels to all emotions the child is feeling.
  5. Setting limits on misbehavior, or problem-solving if there is no misbehavior. If the parent doesn’t do this last step, the kids tend to wind up becoming physically or verbally aggressive toward other children.

John Gottman is a rock star of the science of marriage relationships. He studies them in great detail, minute interactions, facial expressions, heart rate, stress hormones. Using that data he can predict with a high degree of accuracy which relationships are heading for happiness or unhappiness, stability or divorce. I should say that this is prediction in a technical, statistical sense, not in the sense of prophecy. He can’t tell you if your relationship will fail, only whether your relationship behaves in similar ways to those that have failed in the past. Still, that’s a lot better than nothing, and it’s been enough for him to build an exciting theory of relationships.

In his theory, the most important, without-which-all-is-lost part of your relationship is the friendship. By friendship, he means several very specific things. Here is a summary of his summary from his newest book, The Science of Trust:

  1. Track your partner’s inner experience by asking lots of questions and remembering the answers.
  2. Make a habit of finding things to appreciate your partner for and letting them know each time you do.
  3. Notice the things your partner does and says that could be responded to, and respond positively to them. Pretty much all of them—you can miss or fail to respond to at most 3 out of 20.

If you are not doing this work, he says, you are not behaving like couples who manage to sustain satisfying, meaningful, passionate relationships, who manage conflict well enough, and who stay together longer than 6 years. Maintaining friendship in this manner is the bare minimum.

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