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American Economic Competitiveness

I found the compilation of conversations “Can America Compete?” (September-October 2012) thoughtful and highly informative. But nowhere did I find thinking outside the capitalist box, something that seems imperative in today’s uncertain, rapidly changing world. Is it possible there are no Marxist economists in the Harvard Business School?

Michael Kaplan, M. Arch. ’67
Knoxville, Tenn.

 

This comprehensive article provided valuable insights and possible solutions. Reflecting on my experience in high tech, there were other significant contributions to our present conundrum:

• Increased role of women and two-income families in the workforce since the 1970s.

• Development of contract manufacturing as the initial step toward massive outsourcing and supply-chain management.

• The influence from big accounting and big consulting firms in driving new business models.

• The impact of the Internet on intellectual property rights, short product life cycles, and online education.

• The globalization of world trade and global investment opportunities.

• Exploding complexity of strategic decisionmaking and associated measurement tools.

• Continuous decline of trust in our institutions—public and private—which exacerbates polarization.

I remain cautiously optimistic that we will achieve the desired compromise which utilizes the best ideas from both sides, but it will require skillful and persevering leadership.

Bill Cunningham ’60
Vero Beach, Fla.

 

The article on the American economy echoes Keynes’s wish that incomes could be more equitably distributed because it increases demand, on which all depends. The article was optimistic, which one hopes is justified, but dependence on confidence is unreliable because a drop in confidence can be disastrous.

Recessions have general causes and specific characteristics. The characteristics are often taken to be causes. It is said that the demise of Lehman Brothers caused the recession. Rather, the economy was badly out of balance, and Lehman Brothers was one of the first effects.

It is we who bring on recessions. We try to save more than the economy can provide in new investment to cover the gap. Corporations will not expand because it does not promise profitability; the banks cause large changes in the volume of money by making loans and canceling them as they are paid off or defaulted. Since these are all characteristics of a free economy, there are no panaceas. The Federal Reserve has some powers but they are ineffective if too long delayed, as recent sad experience shows.

Adam Smith is held up as a champion of free trade. Book IV of Wealth of Nations has 217 pages on drawbacks, bounties, treaties, and regulations of colonies. England was already experienceing a glut of goods. A bad mistake of Smith’s was [the assumption that] “what benefits the individual can hardly fail to benefit the economy.” And the unfavorable balance of trade we now have is badly hurting us. Tacitus was the one acute observer. He listed one of the causes of their trouble as “the export of our currency for foreigners’ stones.”

Edmund Helffrich ’49
Allentown, Pa.

 

The gist of your article, presented through the voices of leading Harvard and MIT professors, appears to be that America can regain its competitive edge by: fostering the development of “strategic ecosystems”(knowledge networks with other companies, universities, and communities); and rebuilding locally rather than moving offshore. I would add two insights which I hope will stimulate a dialogue.

Continuous Personalized Lifelong Learning—It seems to me the important relationship of lifelong learning to national, even global, economic recovery and high-performance jobs has not been adequately understood. Suppose it were possible, instantly and at minimal cost, to place in the hands of every curious person the means to transform any subject of serious interest to them into a portal for ongoing learning? As described in my forthcoming book, Piloting Through Chaos—The Explorer’s Mind (Bridge 21 Publishing, December 2012), my colleagues and I are creating a Network of Explorer’s Wheels, essentially personal learning networks, beginning with specific curated themes: earthquake prediction and emergency management, longevity, social entrepreneurship, high performance work, global water, preventable blindness, global peace, global cultural creators, and a second Renaissance. We are designing tools and processes for everyone to realize a more abundant life, which seems the ultimate goal behind a restored competitive economy.

“Innovation Integration’ and China—I am not convinced the old competitive model is the best medicine for the malady. The real opportunities in my mind will be found through “coopetition”—a creative combination of old-fashioned competition and new modes of collaboration. There are powerful forces behind a new Chinese government policy, virtually unreported by the foreign press, which are encouraging its hundred leading companies to become “global innovation champions.” To become a global innovation champion, a CEO must not only acquire sophisticated skills to compete internationally, but also develop an international consciousness of environmental and social stewardship. There is not one critical national priority contemplated by the Harvard scholars where Chinese capital, technology, and innovations cannot make a constructive contribution. Our new program at Global Innovation Integrators (http://gii.us.com/) is intended to cultivate this global awareness among China’s top innovators.

Julian Gresser ’65, A. M. ’68
Visiting Mitsubishi Professor, Harvard Law School,
1976-77, 1979
Santa Barbara, Calif.

 

Free Will

The line of inquiry being pursued by Robert Doyle and others (“Two Steps to Free Will,” September-October) could go a level deeper, and look to the field of “decision neuroscience” for insight into the nature of the act of choosing itself. Aren’t the neurochemical interactions that result in decisionmaking themselves lawful processes, hence predictable, rather than random? (Then we might also get into some interesting self-referential questions, such as “How do we choose the criteria by which we make decisions?”—but I shall stop there, as I am already reminding myself too much of certain late-night discussions in hazy late-’70s dormrooms.)

Walter S. (Skip) Mendler ’78
Honesdale, Pa.

 

I agree with Robert Doyle that it’s a question of choice (free will) vs. no choice (determinism), rather than chance (neither free will nor determinism) vs. no choice (determinism). But I think that it’s impossible to determine whether we live in a deterministic world (or universe or multiverse or…) or a free-will world.

I feel like I have free will—I feel that I can make choices. But suppose we live in a deterministic world. Then it’s determined that I will feel like I have free will. In fact, it would be determined that Craig Lambert would write his article, that Doyle would have his beliefs, and that I would write this letter.

It’s impossible to determine which way it is from inside this world. We would have to step outside of this world to determine the answer. That is, we can make a statement about this world that can’t be proved or disproved from within this world. (I could mention Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, but I won’t.)

I could go on and on, but I choose (I think) to stop here.

Ted Grinthal
Berkeley Heights, N.J.

 

I found the synopsis of Robert Doyle’s thoughts (“Two Steps to Free Will,” September-October) to present an unsatisfactory approach to resolving the question of free will. It seems to me that the “two-step” path out of the bottle the article refers to must have in mind a Klein bottle, whose inside and outside are in fact one and the same, and (if you will allow the English-German pun), a very small Klein bottle at that. The problem of free will does not entail whether and what possibilities chance affords us to choose among (Doyle’s first step): perforce we can only choose among options that are available, irrespective of the means by which they are presented. The conundrum consists entirely of whether the act of choosing (Doyle’s second step) is truly unconstrained or only seemingly so. Would the entire history of our mental apparatus (beginning at the atomic level or smaller, if necessary), if known and appreciated, permit an unerring prediction as to how we will select among presented options?

The question of free will is in effect lost on dualist thinking, for if in fact the persona is something other than an epiphenomenon of a living and active human brain, any proposed answers are beyond objective discovery and verification. A dualist thinker can believe, maintain, and argue what he will about free will without fear of demonstrable error, given that the locus of decisionmaking is immune to examination. Free will is truly problematic only for materialists, who must either account for an allegedly unconstrained event (a freely made decision) in a universe that in every other respect is constrained by cause and effect, or deny the existence of free will. Quantum phenomenology is of no avail here, as quantum mechanics does not settle the ontological question of whether the world we inhabit is deterministic; rather it imposes the epistemological handicap of rendering us unable to discern in advance the exact outcome any particular event, and consequently precludes us from being able to establish deductively whether events in general are strictly determined. For the materialist, free will is a scientific, not a philosophical, question. Moreover, it is a question that (in my opinion) cannot be substantially investigated without first obtaining a detailed understanding of how a personality arises from the electrochemical interactions within approximately a kilogram and a half of neural matter. The fallacy in basing an understanding of free will (as James did) on “the sustaining of a thought because I choose to” lies in the assumption that the “I” being referred to is something quite different in genesis and nature than the “I” in Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop. That assumption is tantamount to dualism, which is (as I argued above) a sterile basis for the consideration of free will. As Cassius tells Brutus, “The fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Responsibility for our actions cannot be pushed onto the immaterial, whether by that one means a spiritual dimension, or the happenstance of available options when decisions must be made. What remains unanswered (by Doyle or anyone else) is the central enigma of free will: are the faults in ourselves structurally fixed aspects of the human brain as a physical object, or a byproduct of the absence of constraints on certain kinds and modes of thinking enabled by that brain?

Keith Backman, Ph.D. ’77
Bedford, Mass.

 

“Two Steps to Free Will” nicely frames the role of Chance, but to me the more interesting question is the possibility of Choice. For the mind to make a choice that is meaningful, it must cause a physical result. But, I think, one of two uncomfortable things must be true. (1) The phenomenon we know as the conscious mind must cause an electron to go down path A rather than path B, thus triggering the result by choice. This is telekinesis, which we are all taught is magical nonsense. (2) Alternatively, conscious thought must merely be a symptom of a preprogrammed electrochemical pathway which will, based upon given complex inputs, always (subject to some Heisenbergian uncertainty) produce the same output, so that choice is merely an illusion. The electrons will merely follow the easiest path, and our consciousness does not alter their course. The idea that we do not choose in a meaningful way, but merely follow a program with no more real significance than a knee-jerk reflex, is what makes a deterministic universe so repellent to begin with. If there is a third alternative to this choice between a Harry Potter world and life as robots, I don’t see it. Perhaps your readers do.

Matt Lykken, J.D. ’85
Duncanville, Tex.


A strong case for free will has been built over the years by Harvard astrophysicist David Layzer.

Links to relevant work are on his page on the Information Philosopher website founded by Robert Doyle, the author of Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy (“Two Steps to Free Will,” September-October). The works include “Free Will As A Scientific Problem” and “Naturalizing Libertarian Free Will.”

A “significant and original insight” of Layzer’s as quoted on the website is an “explanation of the growth of order and information in a universe that began in equilibrium, but departs from equilibrium despite the second law of thermodynamics.”

Jonathan Cender ’77
Kauai, Hawaii

 

Apple-centric Diet

I was fascinated to read of the new Harvard study validating the anticlotting powers of rutin (“Curbing Clots,” September-October). According to the article, rutin is found in apples “…as well as in onions, buckwheat, and tea.”

Since receiving the magazine, I have altered my diet exclusively to apples, onions, buckwheat, and tea. On weekends, I vary it by switching to onions, buckwheat, tea, and apples. I am happy to report that I have not had a single heart attack or stroke since initiating this diet, eight days ago. On the other hand….

John Spritz ’77
Portland, Me.

 

Political Inequality

I have one question for Professor Andrea Louise Campbell (book reviewer, September-October): Is it 1912 or 2012?

Let me summarize: “the very rich have (the means of production) to speak much more loudly than the poor”;

“It’s not one man one vote, but lots of non-rich, no vote”;

“thus one reason there is no income confiscation in America”…

…is that these ideas have been tried for 100 years, FULLY ADOPTED in two major civilizations of mankind, and have failed.

As a Harvard chaplain I took students to the former United Soviet Socialist Republic, and we saw/heard the real devastation that comes when “Collective Responsibility/Ownership” (the basis for income confiscation) is raised ABOVE “Individual Responsibility/ownership.”

The greatest irony and wake-up call to “collectivists” who claim to speak for the nebulous “poor” is that when China rejected their “Perfect Wealth Equality” (you couldn’t pick an apple from your own tree because everyone owned it…) and allowed the freedom of wealth inequality—500 million poor individuals were saved from starvation! (see World Bank Study).

Economically equal people are not free, and free people will never be economically equal. Just ask the communist party in China! It is easier to do business in that oppressive country than in America. And it will be until the “collectivizers” take ownership of the failure of their ideas. Not even to mention the 70 million poor Chinese that were murdered by Mao in the process.

I’m sorry if these seem over the top, but it is the reality of history. Please don’t doom us to repeat it.

Eldon Eric Johnson ’91
Sarasota, Fla.

 

Voter Suppression

In “Voter Suppression Returns (July-August 2012), Alexander Keyssar writes that “The only type of fraud that a strict photo ID rule would actually prevent is voter impersonation fraud (I go to the polls pretending to be you)….” Professor Keyssar is not thinking very creatively. Many other frauds are possible. Voter ID laws prevent voting by dead people and by people who never existed. Also, by enforcing precise spelling or using unique identifiers like driver’s license numbers, voter ID laws make it difficult for one individual to vote multiple times in different polling places under their real name.

The article didn’t even mention the greatest threat to ballot integrity: the widespread adoption of voting by mail. This marks the end of the secret ballot: a manager or union steward can now demand to see and even mail a ballot. Vote by mail completely destroys the integrity of the secret ballot, making it possible to sell votes and intimidate voters. Reader William A. Schroeder pointed out that there is no benefit to democracy to encourage ill-informed or uninterested voting.

It is a telling point, I think, that one political party is so eager to encourage exactly those votes, and to weaken the integrity of the entire process.

Jonathan Seder ’74, M.B.A. ’78
Palo Alto

More Museums

Your article on regional museums (“Museums in Our Midst,” New England Regional Section, September-October) brings attention to some wonderful places. I hope your readers will also consider visiting the museum at Massachusetts Audubon’s Visual Arts Center, in Canton. It has a marvelous and important collection, and mounts many shows of its own works as well as those of other museums, galleries, and collectors.

Dix Campbell ’60
Belmont, Mass.