Is it Time to Rethink the Idea of the Amoral Economic Man?

There is a widely held belief that when designing public policy or legal systems, it makes the most sense to assume that all citizens are entirely self-interested and amoral. It’s a theory known as “homo economicus” or “economic man.” But, economist Samuel Bowles argues against that belief in his book The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are no Substitute for Good Citizens. Bowles laid out the case for his argument during a recent talk at UC Berkeley.

Bowles says there are two key reasons to move away from the economic man idea. First, he says polices that follow the paradigm can be self-fulling – making the assumption of universal amorality truer than it might otherwise be under different policies. Second, he argues that fines and rewards often do not work as intended.

The problem Bowles argues, is that incentives can “crowd out” otherwise altruistic motives people might have for any given action. He cites the classic example of a daycare that imposed a small fee for parents who showed up late. The result? Many more late parents. The thinking goes that the fee turned being late into a commodity rather than an inconsiderate action. Thus, the incentive backfired, and ended up having the opposite of its intended effect.

However, Bowles says incentives themselves are not to blame. He argues they can be designed in a such a way to encourage good civic behavior, while avoiding possible pitfalls. For example, when Ireland wanted to get rid of plastic bags, lawmakers imposed a small tax. But, they paired the tax with a huge media campaign about not trashing the Emerald Isle. Appealing to citizens better nature made the difference, and most shoppers stopped using plastic bags within weeks.

Watch — The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens

The CRISPR Revolution

Jennifer Doudna is a leader in the CRISPR revolution. This new technology is a gene editing tool that manipulates DNA within organisms. The editing process has a wide variety of applications including correcting genetic defects, treating and preventing the spread of diseases and improving crops.

Doudna, Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Structural Biology at UC Berkeley, sat down to talk with Harry Kreisler about her life and how she came to be involved in this amazing discovery.

They also discuss how education and public advocacy can broaden insight into the ethical and policy dimensions of the biological revolution that is upon us.

Watch Unraveling CRISPR-Cas9 with Jennifer Doudna – Conversations with History

Combating Climate Change in California

California has made huge strides in combating climate change, but there is still a long way to go. Back in 2006, state lawmakers passed AB 32, also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act. It set a goal of getting greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels or lower by 2020. The state managed to reach that goal four years early. Robert Epstein, co-founder of Environmental Entrepreneurs, discussed the success of AB 32, and what needs to happen next, during a lecture at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

Epstein begins with a look at what worked. Some solutions you might expect, like renewable energy, increased efficiency and long-lasting political support. Other factors may come as a surprise. The economic downturn helped, because people use fewer resources when they have less money. We also got some assistance from mother nature, with heavy rains in 2016 that boosted hydroelectric power generation. But, even though California has made great achievements in lowering greenhouse gas emissions, the state must make even deeper cuts to avoid the worst effects of climate change. A new version of AB 32 aims to get emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Epstein says California has much of the technology and policy in place to reach that 40% goal, but some aspects of the plan are unclear. He says we’re on pace to meet 50% renewable energy 10 years early, and have a solid track record when it comes to appliance and building standards. He thinks it’s likely we’ll figure out how to manage methane and increase energy storage. But, he sees big hurdles when it comes to reducing transportation emissions, cap and trade reductions, and management of both forests and land used for agriculture.

Despite those challenges, Epstein is optimistic California can rise to the occasion and be an example to the world of how to combat climate change. He even has some ideas on how to overcome each major obstacle, and how the oil industry might be able to help.

Watch California Accomplishments in Addressing Climate Change featuring Robert Epstein

Examining Neoliberalism’s Role in Modern Far-Right Politics

The world is seeing a rise in far-right politics, from Italy, to France, to Brexit, to President Trump. So, how did we get here? And, where exactly are we? Is this authoritarianism, fascism, populism, or something else? These are the questions political theorist Wendy Brown addresses in her talk, Neoliberalism’s Scorpion Tail: Markets and Morals Where Democracy Once Was.

Brown begins by outlining what she sees as the classical liberal thinking on the subject. The story goes like this: neoliberal economic policies devastated rural and suburban areas taking away decent jobs, pensions, schools, services and infrastructure as social spending dried up, and capital began to chase cheap labor and tax havens in the global south. At the same time, a cultural gap grew between those rural and suburban communities, and urban centers. Rural families were alienated, left behind, and felt like strangers in their own land. This feeling was coupled with enduring racism as immigrant communities transformed some suburban neighborhoods and the politics of equality appeared to the uneducated white male, to favor everyone but him.

Brown says that story is incomplete. She argues it fails to address a key component of neoliberalism: the idea that society and robust democracy disrupt the natural hierarchy of markets and traditional morals. Brown argues that classical neoliberalism seeks to disintegrate society and universal suffrage, leading to a world where those who were historically dominant – the white male in particular – feel that dominance fade. What is left, are feelings of rage and resentment. Brown imagines two possible futures for those feelings, one bleaker than the next. First, she describes world in which politics are based solely on spite and revenge. The second option? A reversal of values, where those who have lost the world they feel historically entitled to seek to destroy it. But, she leaves some room for hope if humanity can draw deeply from our imaginations, courage and grit.

Watch Neoliberalism’s Scorpion Tail: Markets and Morals Where Democracy Once Was

Working with Artificial Intelligence to Keep Americans Employed

We have all heard the dire warnings. Artificial intelligence is predicted to decimate job sectors already hit hard by outsourcing. Some studies suggest up to half of all work could be automated by 2030. That means factory workers, drivers, even some accountants may find themselves without a job.

Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, knows the pain of job-loss all too well. She witnessed the closing of factories in towns like Greenville, where three thousand of the town’s eight thousand residents worked at the same plant. But, Granholm remains optimistic about the future of employment in the United States. She believes we can make artificial intelligence work for us, not against us.

Granholm uses the autonomous vehicle as one example. While the technology could put five million drivers out of work, it could also create millions of new jobs. We could see the rise of new industries such as mobile motels, or pop-up shops. Driverless cars could eliminate the need for massive parking lots, creating space for affordable housing. But, new industries require a workforce with new skills.

Granholm has five suggestions for creating that workforce. Three of those suggestions focus on investment in training, including apprenticeships and internships. She suggests diverting funds currently used to subsidize unemployment. She also says we need to come up with a way to create portable benefits for people with alternative jobs, such as Uber drivers and other app-based workers. The final suggestion: pay people for their data. Granholm says the tech sector is making billions off our personal information, and there may be a way to share that wealth.

Watch Shaping a 21st Century Workforce – Is AI Friend or Foe?