Sunday, March 13, 2011

Three-dimensional Decision-making Model

In a recent (3/8/11) column in the New York Times, David Brooks writes about the dangers of making policy decisions on the basis of rational thought alone, devoid of an emotional component. He believes that we glorify the former and deny the importance of the latter. Research, he states, points to a strong relationship between the two, which we ignore at our peril.

Brooks raises a fascinating and complex issue with important implications for people, both individually and collectively.

Let's start at the beginning. Psychologists and physiologists have known for decades that various parts of the brain specialize in performing specific functions. For example, consciousness, expressive language, and logical thinking seem to be modulated primarily in the cerebral cortex. The brain stem controls autonomic functions like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. The limbic system, a complex array of interconnected structures, plays a key role in regulating emotions (among other things).

Anatomically, these separate structures communicate with each other through millions of neurons -- and these connections are apparent in the ways human beings behave. I'll come back to this point later.

First, think of a 2 x 2 matrix, where one dimension relates to "cognitive vs. emotional" and the other relates to "conscious vs. unconscious." Then it's fairly easy to cite specific behaviors that fall almost exclusively into each of the four "cells." Solving a simple algebraic equation during a test (aside from the issue of the motivation that brings a person to this situation initially) belongs in the "cognitive/conscious" cell. I got stuck on a computer programming problem many years ago, decided to give up and go to sleep, and woke up the next morning with a fully formed and accurate solution; that was evidence of "cognitive/unconscious" behavior. Similarly, we are all familiar with emotional conscious and unconscious phenomena (lust and repressed anger, respectively, to cite two common examples).

In more complex situations, it is well understood that the various parts of the brain interact in significant ways. People frequently ignore information that contradicts a pre-existing belief system; one way to explain this would be to postulate that changing one's mind about something important (or admitting that the facts at hand do not lend themselves to a clearcut conclusion) causes an uncomfortable emotional response. Memory itself is selective; recall is generally better for pleasant experiences than for unpleasant ones.

If our goal is to formulate a model for effective decision-making based on a fully functioning brain, there are plenty of places to start for what doesn't work. Apparently Adolph Hitler had full use of his cerebral cortex, in the sense that he could give electrifying speeches, direct military operations, etc. But his thought process was narrowly guided by grossly flawed emotions, based on hatred and prejudice, resulting in catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. And while this is an extreme example (fortunately), the world is full of people whose cognitive output is molded by emotional input that many of us find repugnant. (Witness those who have convinced themselves that it is acceptable to murder doctors who perform legal abortions.)

So apparently the model Brooks proposes is not infallible. Nor is its opposite -- a complete divorce of cognitive functioning from emotion. During the many years that Condoleeza Rice served as secretary of State under George W. Bush, I never saw even the hint of emotion in her public pronouncements. Apparently she was very good at thinking (having become, previously, provost at Stanford University) but very poor at feeling. Thousands of American (and Iraqi) citizens died, partially as a result. Pretty much the same can be said of Donald Rumsfeld; did you ever hear him express regret or sadness at sending so many young men and women to their death, for dubious idealogical reasons. I didn't.

Complicating the picture further, what are we to make of so many people (politicians at every level of government, CEOs of major corporations, union leaders, and many others) who are smart and emotionally intact but feel no remorse at raping their constituents and their country of vast resources, simply to line their own pockets and increase their personal power?

Do we really want good public policy and decent, well-meaning citizens in positions of responsibility throughout this country? Let's start with decision-makers who exhibit sufficient intelligence to search for, examine, and draw correct conclusions from complex data. That's called "critical thinking," and it is in critically short supply in the United States today. Add a healthy emotional component, based on a childhood enriched with parental love and fueled by a mature and solicitous regard for other human beings. Finally, to cognition and emotion, add a third dimension: ethical standards.

Robust cognitive ability, a healthy emotional outlook, and high ethical standards will combine to produce decisions fitting our complex society. But I fear that the human race will destroy civilization as we know it long before evolution produces such a combination in a majority of the members of our species.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Jerry Brown's Budget

California's "new" (but experienced) governor is bringing some urgently-needed honesty and fresh thinking to the budgeting process in a state weary of smoke, mirrors, a two-thirds requirement in the legislature for tax increases, and the ravages of a recession imposed largely by external forces. But some mistakes are being made that will probably doom the effort to continue current taxes soon to expire unless the voters extend them.

First, the good news: the governor proposes to axe so-called "redevelopment funds," which local governments (primarily cities) allegedly use to promote economic and housing projects in blighted areas. Although not a bad idea conceptually, and occasionally successful in practice, this program does not pass the "smell test" when it comes to implementation in many instances. (And who can oppose efficiency in government -- except those who benefit from it?)

As documented by the Los Angeles Times, some governmental agencies have spent millions of dollars and failed to produce a single affordable housing unit. Too often, redevelopment funds constitute essentially a slush fund used to subsidize local developers (private sector "entrepreneurs" who won't take their capitalistic risks without a government handout) -- who of course then use some of their profits to line the pockets of the local politicians who have the power to hand out the money. I used to wonder about the hypocrisy of accepting government subsidies for such developments while opposing the use of tax dollars to help ordinary citizens; but that is old news, as the principle of "me first" -- gradually evolving into "me only" -- seems to rule the country these days. Predictably, local officials are strongly opposing Governor Brown's initiative on this issue.

The bad news is that, as usual, social services for the poor are being asked to shoulder the heaviest burden of budget cuts Some programs are being proposed for complete elimination -- for example, the Adult Day Health Care program that helps seniors continue to live independently when they might otherwise be in nursing homes.

The problem with focusing cuts almost exclusively on poor people is that they will not be able to "carry the day" when the extension of existing tax cuts due to expire comes on the ballot in June -- which apparently is the governor's plan. In this "me first" environment, most people only vote for taxes when they see a direct benefit to themselves With no "skin in the game" for the average middle-class and upper-middle-class citizen, what incentive (other than, umm, "the common good") do they have for what they perceive as self-imposed pain (with no gain)?

The governor needs to identify programs that impact the well-to-do and cut them also, at least proportionately. Then his tax-extension program might have at least a fair chance of success.

Oh, by the way, come around Christmas time, I'd love to see Governor Brown commute some prison sentences. Since his predecessor saw fit to reduce the sentence of the son of a political ally, ignoring the plight of many people who had committed similar crimes, Brown should finish the job by taking a comparable action to benefit those who are not well connected. In addition to saving money on the prison budget, it would help us celebrate a country that claims to offer "justice for all."