Monday, November 29, 2010

What are we voting for?

Dutch national symbols
Some blogs ago I discussed that much of what I do is not steered by my conscious I but by my unconscious part, so by my zombie. My conscious I is often not more than an interpreter in my brain that tells me what the zombie has decided and my zombie is the actual steersman. But who steers my zombie? Or is it so that my zombie steers itself by an unconscious process of deliberation and reasoning that in the end decides what “I” want to do, actually not different from the way I would do it, when I would perform the process consciously?
Some distressing light on this question has been shed by experiments concerning political thought and behaviour by a group of Israeli researchers. The normative perspective suggests, they say, “that one’s political agenda should be driven by two factors: one’s ideology and the facts of the matter. These should form the input for an intentional reasoning process, wherein the goal is carefully thought-through political activity.” And indeed, psychological research has substantiated that one’s ideology and current events do influence political behaviour and thought, but in view of recent developments in cognitive psychology it is to be expected that unconscious processes play an important part as well. In order to investigate this the researchers tried to find out in a series of experiments whether subliminal presentation of national symbols influences one’s stance on political opinions and political behaviour. In these experiments the participants were confronted with several political issues. However, just before the presentation of the issues a national flag (which stood for the national symbol) was shown for such a short time that the participants were not aware of it. Both before and after the experiments the participants were asked their opinions on certain political themes. In one experiment the voting intention in coming elections was asked and then after the elections what they had really voted. All experiments showed the same result: On the average the participants had before the experiments more extreme views than after them. Therefore the researchers concluded: “the subliminal presentation of a national flag can bring about significant changes not only in a citizen’s expressed political opinions within an experimental setting but also in their ‘real-life’ overt political behavior”.
What makes this result so interesting for answering my question “who steers my zombie?” but also so worrying is not only that it tells us something about how we form our political opinions and behaviour but also that they can easily be manipulated by others, while we are not aware of it. This is the more worrying, while there is no reason to believe that such manipulation will move us only to the political centre. It is also possible, as the researchers point out, that priming of national symbols can activate extremist ideologies in those who have them already. In other words, what my zombie does for me unconsciously for me can easily be manipulated by not all too honest politicians. Then it may happen that we vote no longer for what we think right, for what we stand for, but simply for our national flag, rightly or wrongly.
Source . The quotations are also from this article.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The economic benefits of transgenic maize and the free rider problem

Maize field after harvest
Recently I read in a Dutch newspaper an article about the economic effects of the cultivation of genetically manipulated maize, in this case Bt corn. Bt corn produces a toxin that is poisonous to the European corn borer, one of the pests of corn. According to the article, a study on the effects of Bt corn in the Midwest of the USA published in Science showed that also on fields where non-manipulated corn was grown the population of the European corn borer decreased with 28 till even 73 percent. The introduction of Bt corn in the region has led to an economic benefit of 6.9 milliard dollars since 1996. However, almost two third of the benefit falls to farmers who do not cultivate Bt corn, but they do not have to pay for the license.
Coen van Wagenberg from Wageningen University speaks here of a free rider effect. Usually a free rider is defined as a person who profits by a public resource without paying a fair share in its costs. You live in an area protected by dikes but don’t want to pay the land draining rates from which the dikes are paid. You take the train but don’t buy a ticket. When there are too many free riders, dikes will not be constructed, public transport will not ride any longer for lack of money and everybody suffers, including the free rider. Therefore the state forces everybody to pay his share and tries to catch fare dodgers. In van Wagenberg’s view, also farmers who do not cultivate Bt corn in a region where other farmers do: The former take advantage of what the latter do, but they do not pay for the costs. The free market, so van Wagenberg, does not work here. Therefore the state must interfere and make that everybody in a region where transgenic maize is grown pays his share in the costs.
At first thoughts the argument seems reasonable: everybody profits by transgenic maize, so everybody has to pay for it. But is this really a case of free riding? I think it is not. Actually the arguments turns the world upside down and it limits freedom in the name of freedom. For does a person have to pay for his neighbour’s decisions?
I live in a terraced house. In winter I set the thermostat of my central heating on 19oC, while my neighbours left and right prefer 21oC. Then warmth flows through the walls to my house and my heating costs are reduced a bit. I profit by what they pay for their heating. Must I pay my neighbours then in order to equalize my benefit? I guess that nobody would get the idea. Everybody is free to choose how warm or cold his house will be and if a neighbour will have it warmer, she must accept that some warmth goes to the neighbour next-door.
I see here no fundamental difference with the case of growing transgenic maize. It involves as little a free rider problem as the case of me warming my house. In fact it is not the “free riding” farmer who undermines the free market as suggested in the article but the farmer growing transgenic maize and those on his side. Maybe some farmers try to profit by what their neighbours grow, but other farmers are simply against growing transgenic plants because of the harmful effects for nature and men’s health of genetic manipulation. It is a matter of private choice that is not comparable to profiting by the protection of dikes or not buying a train ticket. You cannot help that your neighbour chooses to grow Bt maize, like that you cannot help that your next-door neighbour will have her house warmer. The core of the problem whether or not the state must interfere here is not the functioning of the free market, but whether one can force a private person to pay a share in the costs that other private persons have because of their private decisions, so that the costs are fairly shared by all who have the benefits. Growing Bt corn is not a public good, just as making cars isn’t. The problem is an ethical one about freedom of choice and not about unfair competition in a supposedly free market. And it is also about the ethically acceptability to manipulate plants genetically and having persons pay for it who are against it.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Someone gives you money for an investment project. He says that it would be nice to give it back in case you make good gains but you do not need to do so. Your investment is successful and the amount doubles. What will you do? Experiments show that you’ll give it back. Suppose now that your financier says that you have to pay back at least a part, say 20%. It is your choice to pay back more. Again you succeed to double the amount received. What will you do? Experiments show now that the chance that you’ll pay back the whole amount diminishes. Fewer people are prepared to pack back the whole amount now than in the first case.
This is only one instance of what we call trust. Trust is a kind of promise. It says that you will not let your interests prevail at the cost of the interests of the person who trusts you. Trust can be expressed in words, for example by saying “You can trust me” or by behaviour that shows that you can be trusted. Although past behaviour is not a guarantee for what you will do in future, behaviour in the past that undermined that you were trustworthy tends to undermine that you can be trusted in the future.
As these and other experiments show, trust can also be undermined otherwise. Being a kind of promise, trust involves a moral obligation and it relies on an intrinsic motivation. Everything that undermines this intrinsic motivation undermines also trust. People tend to become calculating and to give preference to their own interests at the cost of interests of other people, when rules and regulations prescribe what they have to do and when, and what is allowed and what is not. When money stimulates or sanctions their behaviour trust is undermined, too. However, rules and regulations and monetary relations can never completely replace trust. Not everything can be prescribed and ways to avoid rules remain. Not all interpersonal relations can be steered by prescriptions and money. And then trust plays its part. Or rather we must say that trust comes first and that, when need arises, it is replaced by prescriptive relations (rules and regulations) and money. But this replacement is a double-edged sword. While it helps society function better where trust fails, it undermines trust as well so that the chance that trust will fail grows. Therefore, one must be very careful not to make more rules and regulations than necessary. The same effect can be seen when society becomes too money-based. Then personal relations, relations based on trust, tend to become relations guided by the question: what can I gain from it, what will it bring to me? One of the most extreme forms of this is corruption, and corruption has a disruptive effect on societies. Whichever way you look at it, trust is the foundation of society. Or alternatively: Trust is a lubricant for society and the better quality the lubricant is, the smoother society runs.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The group a person belongs to

A few years ago Mark Rutte, the new Dutch prime minister but then the leader of his parliamentary party, objected to the fact that one of the state secretaries in the government had a double nationality: she had both a Dutch and a Turkish passport. However, when he presented his new cabinet two weeks ago, it turned out that also one of the state secretaries in this cabinet had two passports: a Dutch one and a Swedish one. When asked how this was defensible in view of his former opinion, the prime minister answered that he did not mind that the state secretary had a Swedish passport but when she had had a Turkish passport, it would have been a point of discussion. No wonder that some accused him of discrimination. Apparently a minister or state secretary (and many other people) is not judged here by his or her personal loyalty to the government and the Netherlands but by the group s/he officially belongs to.
But why is just having a certain nationality so important? In the end a person belongs to many different groups and they can all have influence on one’s loyalty to the state. One can think of groups related to gender, class, language, profession, community, race and so on. And isn’t it so that in the past class belongingness was said to be international and that labour leaders often have stressed that workers from different countries would not fight against each other? (So sad, that this did not really happen). Doesn’t this imply that class membership can be by far more important than one’s passport? Or what to think of the language group one belongs to and the many separation movements in this world based on language? And isn’t it so that through the ages the belongingness to a religious group has also been important in determining loyalty to the state? And, to take another example, who cares about the international loyalties (and the loyalties to their own pockets!) of the fraudulent bankers, despite the recent bank crisis?
Amartya Sen argued in his The Idea of Justice that seeing a person “merely as a member of just one particular group would be a major denial of the freedom of each person to decide how exactly to see himself or herself. The increasing tendency seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ … is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups …” (pp. 246-247). And that is what often happens. The case of the Dutch prime minister is only one instance. He did not doubt at all about the loyalty of the state secretary with the Turkish passport. It was just that she had a Turkish passport (and apparently not a Swedish one) that counted. So we often do: we judge people not by what they say and do, but by their belongings, even if they cannot help that they have them and even if they cannot change them (like gender, race, but often also the passport). Actually people are then judged by mere formal qualities. We see it, as Sen warns, “particularly … in the present intellectual [and I want to add: political] climate in which individuals tend to be identified as belonging to one social category to the exclusion of all others …, such as being a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu, an Arab or a Jew, a Hutu or a Tutsi, or a member of Western civilization … Individual human beings with their various plural identities, multiple affiliations and diverse associations are quintessentially social creatures with different types of societal interactions. Proposals to see a person merely as a member of one social group tend to be based on an inadequate understanding of the breadth and complexity of any society in the world” (p. 247). And isn’t it so that in this time of globalization there is a tendency to get international and supranational group belongings? That it has become more likely that one has several nationalities, maybe not formally but actually in the sense of having different national roots? In this age of globalization having other-national group belongings is just an asset. It helps giving a person a wider view of what is happening around him or her. Seen this way, membership of a big number of groups, especially those crossing the national borders and those on the other side of the national border should have to be praised, including having a double nationality.

Monday, November 01, 2010

On being selective when travelling around

When travelling around, on holiday, I used to visit many of the buildings and sites recommended in my travel guide. See this! See that! Do not fail to visit this church, you must go to that museum, my guide said, and although I do not want to say that I visited all these places (in the end I wanted to keep some time for visiting the places I liked and for doing the things I preferred), I went to a lot of the sites advised to visit, anyhow.
Since a few years I do less so. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty and think it is stupid not to see the highlights of the local, national or international culture I pass, but often I had the feeling that they do not really appeal to me. Of course, the master pieces of art and intelligence are beautiful, but each time most of what I see appears fundamentally new to me. It is as if through the years I haven’t developed a mental frame that helps me to compare a new church and its ornaments, the next mediaeval town hall and the next painting or sculputure with those that I had seen a day before, not to speak of what I had seen months or years ago. Often the things I see do not fall in a slot, by way of speaking. Of course, there are exceptions. I remember that when I went into a church in Florence, my eye was immediately caught by a beautiful statue. It appeared to be one by Donatello. And Dutch painters, not only the big names like Rembrandt or van Gogh, have by far more meaning for me than foreign painters. But let’s say that 95% of those “musts” for tourists do not really fit a scheme in my mind, and I forget most of it very soon. This doesn’t mean that I do not visit those highlights of art and intelligence any longer, but gradually I have changed my strategy. I have become very selective and I look only at those things which probably will fit my mental scheme. So when I was in the Escorial near Madrid I gave only attention to what was related to Dutch history (and I visited the Escorial because I expected to find such things there). The LVR-LandesMuseum in Bonn was interesting for me because of it prehistoric objects and I ignored all other departments. And so on.
I hardly dared to tell other people about my “disinterest” for the highlights of culture till I read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. In this book de Botton shows us ways of travelling but he also put these them into perspective, especially the more “traditional” way of visiting famous places. When de Botton was in Madrid and stood there amidst of a crowd of tourists, he wondered “what am I doing here?” And a few pages further he points to the terror of the travel guides, which praise certain places as interesting, force you to visit them and to show enthusiasm, and implicitly belittle those people who do not agree or prefer to ignore these places. Besides that, so de Botton, it happens often that we see these things on the wrong moment, when we are not yet ripe for appreciating them. This can make that the new information has no value for us (compare what I told about my mental scheme). Or if it has, maybe it would be better after our visit to the Notre Dame in Paris, not to go to the next tourist attraction nearby but take a train and compare it with the cathedral in Reims. That makes more sense than just keeping looking around where you are, with a travel guide in your hands, for by doing so your curiosity is deformed by a superficial geographic logic, by what happens to be placed together – things that may have no intrinsic relations – and by what is only recommended by our travel guide. It is the same, so de Botton, as letting your choice of books be determined by their sizes and not by their contents.
When I had read The Art of Travel I felt very relieved and now I dare to tell everyone: I did not see that famous sculpture, that church and that painting and I avoided them with intention. And I need not be ashamed for doing so and telling it to you, for being selective when travelling around does not only fit better my idea of what makes travelling around pleasant, it has also a philosophical foundation! See what de Botton wrote about it!