If Only Silly Talk Fixed America’s Infrastructure

What’s known as Biden’s “infrastructure bill” is actually called “The American Jobs Plan”. There’s an 11,000 word summary at the White House site. These are the opening paragraphs from what would print out as twenty, single-spaced pages:

While the American Rescue Plan [the Covid relief bill] is changing the course of the pandemic and delivering relief for working families, this is no time to build back to the way things were. This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy. The American Jobs Plan is an investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. Public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s. The American Jobs Plan will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race.

The United States of America is the wealthiest country in the world, yet we rank 13th when it comes to the overall quality of our infrastructure. After decades of disinvestment, our roads, bridges, and water systems are crumbling. Our electric grid is vulnerable to catastrophic outages. Too many lack access to affordable, high-speed Internet and to quality housing. The past year has led to job losses and threatened economic security, eroding more than 30 years of progress in women’s labor force participation. It has unmasked the fragility of our caregiving infrastructure. And, our nation is falling behind its biggest competitors on research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and training. It has never been more important for us to invest in strengthening our infrastructure and competitiveness, and in creating the good-paying, union jobs of the future.

Instead of a debate about the details, we’re getting a stupid argument about the word “infrastructure”. Paul Waldman of The Washington Post discusses:

Republicans are still road-testing their attacks on the giant infrastructure bill Democrats are assembling, and while some are predictable (It would be disastrous to raise taxes on corporations!), their most frequent one is not only weak; it also shows how disconnected the debate in Washington can sometimes get from the things that actually affect people’s lives.

Unfortunately, the news media are giving them a big hand.

If this past weekend you tuned into the Sunday shows, where the conventional wisdom is lovingly shaped and admired, you would have seen the same theme replayed over and over about the infrastructure bill:

  • “This $2 trillion ask, only about 5 percent of the funding goes to infrastructure,” Margaret Brennan of CBS News’s “Face the Nation” asked Cecilia Rouse, chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. “Can you honestly call this a focus on building roads and bridges?” [Mr. Waldman lists three more examples from NBC, ABC and Fox, but one is painful enough.]

First, let’s be clear that the “only 5 percent” counts as “real infrastructure” talking point is utterly bogus. It defines infrastructure as only roads and bridges, leaving out railroads, water and sewer systems, the electrical grid, broadband, housing and any number of other things that you probably think of when you hear the word.

The idea that only roads and bridges are infrastructure is like saying, “You said your house needed work, but the floors and walls seem fine. Why bother fixing the leaking pipes and the broken roof and the electrical system that shorts out? That’s not really the core of the house, which as we all know is floors and walls and nothing else.”

But the more important question is: Why in the world would it possibly matter what definition of “infrastructure” we use?

Imagine it’s a few years from now. This bill has passed and as a result, the crumbling bridge in your town has been replaced and the roads have been resurfaced — no more banging your car over all those potholes. In addition, there’s a new senior center in town with all kinds of facilities and services, operated by a skilled staff making a living wage.

Do you think your neighbors will say, “I like the bridge and the roads, but the senior center? Sure, my mother-in-law loves her fitness class there, and they helped her solve that Medicare problem she had, but it just doesn’t seem like ‘infrastructure’ to me.”

Of course not, because that’s not what people care about. They want to know that government did worthwhile things with their tax dollars, whatever category you might put each line-item into.

Now it’s true that Democrats have indeed thought broadly about what to put in this bill, including things that are not installed by burly men in hardhats but that they believe are important. Republicans may find some of those things — like building housing, or improving care for the elderly and disabled, or promoting electric vehicles — not to be worthwhile. Which is fine.

But if that’s what Republicans think, they should explain why we shouldn’t actually build more housing, and we shouldn’t fund care for the elderly, and we shouldn’t promote electric vehicles. Just saying “That doesn’t sound like ‘infrastructure’ to me” is not an argument. This isn’t the Merriam-Webster editorial board; it’s the U.S. government.

So what if instead of asking Is this really infrastructure? about the various provisions in this bill, we ask Is this a good thing?

You can apply that standard to both road repairs and increased spending on elder care. Is this something important and worthwhile? Will funding it in the way that is proposed accomplish the goals we set out? Will it improve life for Americans?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then we should probably do it.

There may well be provisions in the initial proposal that don’t meet that test. But I want to hear Republicans explain why they think we shouldn’t invest in elder care or electric vehicle charging stations. Maybe their arguments are so well-informed and persuasive that we’ll say, “You know what, they’re right — Democrats should take that out of the bill.” I doubt it, but it’s always possible.

That’s how policy debate is supposed to work: We argue about which problems need addressing, then we argue about which solutions to deploy. If it all works out, the legislation that gets passed reflects the outcome of that deliberation, with the unworthy ideas jettisoned and the worthy ideas becoming law. But arguing about the definition of words such as “infrastructure” gets us precisely nowhere.

Yet because one of the parties is repeating this talking point, journalists feel that to be “tough” they have to use it to frame their questioning of the other party. The result is that we miss what’s really important.

Unquote.

Calling talk show hosts “journalists” is an insult to journalism. “Talking heads” would be more accurate. “Overpaid talking heads” to be more precise. We can hope, however, that talking about semantics will serve to educate the public, the politicians and even some talking heads.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia “Democrat”, says he can’t support putting the corporate tax rate back at 28%. Playing the sensible statesman for the folks back home, he thinks 25% would be all right. In a way, it’s good that he’s got so much power at the moment, providing the last vote for Democratic initiatives. It shows that Biden is trying to make progressive changes. If the president was being more conservative, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would be the 50th vote. So we’ll continue to hear Manchin’s pronouncements. He must love all the attention.

Why Infrastructure Is More Than Roads and Bridges

Merriam-Webster defines “infrastructure” as “the system of public works of a country, state, or region — also : the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity”.

Jonathan Cohn of Huff Post explains why improving the services that help people prosper counts as infrastructure:

Building roads and bridges is good for the economy, pretty much everybody agrees. But helping senior citizens stay out of nursing homes? Raising pay for child care workers? 

President Joe Biden says those sorts of initiatives can help, too. And he’s got a strong case.

Ever since the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden has talked about having the government spend a lot more on caregiving ― for children, older adults and disabled people. . . [He] pointedly included them as part of his economic agenda, arguing they would create better, higher-paying jobs and unleash untapped potential for growth.

Now Biden is president, and his approach hasn’t changed. On Wednesday, he introduced the first half of what he has called his “Build Back Better” agenda. And although he proposed big new spending on traditional infrastructure projects like bridges and waterways, he also proposed a dramatic increase in federal support for “home- and community- based services.” 

Those are supports and services for elderly and disabled people who need help with daily living to stay out of nursing homes or other types of congregant care settings. In practical terms, that means everything from personal attendants who help seniors with bathing to counselors who help people with intellectual impairments find jobs so they can live on their own.

More proposals are on the way. The second half of the Build Back Better agenda, which Biden plans to introduce later this month, is likely to include major new initiatives to make child care and preschool more widely available, as well as some kind of paid leave program.

And these do not appear to be token gestures. Wednesday’s home care proposals envision $400 billion in new federal spending, accounting for nearly one-quarter of the $2 trillion package Biden unveiled. A meaningful initiative on child care and preschool would likely require hundreds of billions of dollars more.

The primary case for these initiatives is that they make life easier on a day-to-day basis. That’s certainly true for the home- and community-based services Biden proposed on Wednesday to support.

Medicaid, the government health insurance program that states operate using federal funds and under federal guidelines, already pays for nursing homes and other forms of institutional care. And there’s no pre-set limit on that spending. The more people who need the help, the more funding Medicaid provides.

Medicaid also pays for services at home and in the community, but with limited allotments that don’t rise with demand. This disparate treatment is a legacy of the program’s history. When Democrats created Medicaid in 1965, during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, there was a much bigger push to keep older and disabled people in institutions ― and much less awareness of how many of them wanted to, and could, stay at home.

The lack of open-ended funding forces states to cut off enrollment and put everybody else on waiting lists. Nationwide, about 800,000 people are now on those lists, and some have been for years. It’s a well-known fact that deters many others from even trying. Most experts think the actual unmet demand for home- and community-based services is closer to 1.5 million.

For decades, advocates have proposed putting home-based care on an equal footing with institutional care. That way, the choice between whether to stay at home or to go into a congregant living setting would be about the preferences and needs of individual people and their families ― not because of a financial disparity rooted in a decision lawmakers made half a century ago. . . . 

Biden’s proposal “can help millions of Americans who live with disabilities or chronic illnesses receive needed care at home or on a human scale within their own communities rather than within institutional settings,” Harold Pollack, professor at the University of Chicago and an expert on long-term care, told HuffPost.

Other types of caregiving are just as sorely in need of extra federal support.

Quality child care in the U.S. is notoriously hard to find and financially out of reach for large numbers of working families. The U.S. is the only country in the developed world that does not offer paid leave, which puts a huge strain on workers whenever they have children or older family members battling medical problems ― and sometimes when they have medical problems of their own.

Caregiving has gotten more attention generally in recent years, especially from Democrats. The new twist, from Biden, is to place these proposals alongside traditional infrastructure projects as part of a broader economic agenda.

That’s bound to seem like an awkward fit, at least to some people, because infrastructure spending more commonly consists of front-loaded or one-time expenditures ― money for airport runway expansion or the construction of a pipeline that stops flowing once the projects are done.

But the economic benefits of caregiving initiatives are real. For one thing, caregiving is literally an investment in making individual human beings more productive. This is most obviously the case when it comes to early childhood programs. Research has shown repeatedly that, when infants and toddlers get good care, they are more likely to stay in school, remain employed and stay physically healthier as adults.

That logic applies just as surely to home- and community-based services, especially for disabled people, many of whom can go to school and join the workforce with proper support.

“It has a huge economic development component,” said Nicole Jorwic, senior director of public policy at The Arc, a civil rights organization for people with intellectual disabilities. “You’ve got all these people with disabilities who right now are on waiting lists, and can’t work because of services they need in order to … become part of the economy.” 

Another way government caregiving initiatives can help the economy is by providing the families of children, disabled and older people with more choices about how they spend their time. Many caregivers will choose to work more outside of the home, putting specialized skills to use, because they will be able to know their loved ones are getting the care they need. . . . 

One final way a caregiving agenda can help boost the economy is by improving the pay and working conditions for the professional caregiving workforce, which is another part of Biden’s agenda.

The median hourly wage for home health aides is barely more than $12, for example, which is about what retail workers and parking lot attendants make. For child care providers, the median hourly wage is even lower. Meanwhile, those caring for children and older people do some of the most intimate, difficult jobs imaginable.

“We place a high value on the work that [caregivers] do, and we don’t pay them in a way that’s consistent with that value,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) told HuffPost. . . . 

Doing this all at once ― helping more people to pay for caregivers while simultaneously requiring that caregivers get higher pay ― makes the project a lot more expensive. . . .That’s bound to be a hard sell politically . . . , perhaps even among some conservative Democrats . . . . That is undoubtedly one reason why Biden and his allies are talking about these proposals in the context of their potential to create a more dynamic economy. . . .

As Ai-jen Poo, executive director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, put it on Wednesday, “like our physical infrastructure — roads, bridges, green energy — our care infrastructure needs permanent investment to ensure our communities can thrive.”

A Nice Explanation of Quantum Mechanics, with Thoughts on What Makes Science Special

Michael Strevens teaches philosophy at New York University. In his book, The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science, he argues that what makes modern science so productive is the peculiar behavior of scientists. From the publisher’s site:

Like such classic works as Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The Knowledge Machine grapples with the meaning and origins of science, using a plethora of . . .  examples to demonstrate that scientists willfully ignore religion, theoretical beauty, and . . . philosophy to embrace a constricted code of argument whose very narrowness channels unprecedented energy into empirical observation and experimentation. Strevens calls this scientific code the iron rule of explanation, and reveals the way in which the rule, precisely because it is unreasonably close-minded, overcomes individual prejudices to lead humanity inexorably toward the secrets of nature.

Here Strevens presents a very helpful explanation of quantum mechanics, while explaining that physicists (most of them anyway) are following Newton’s example when they use the theory to make exceptionally accurate predictions, even though the theory’s fundamental meaning is mysterious (in the well-known phrase, they “shut up and calculate”):

To be scientific simply was to be Newtonian. The investigation of nature [had] changed forever. No longer were deep philosophical insights of the sort that founded Descartes’s system considered to be the keys to the kingdom of knowledge. Put foundational matters aside, Newton’s example seemed to urge, and devote your days instead to the construction of causal principles that, in their forecasts, follow precisely the contours of the observable world. . . .

[This is] Newton’s own interpretation of his method, laid out in a postscript to the Principia’s second edition of 1713. There Newton summarizes the fundamental properties of gravitational attraction—that it increases “in proportion to the quantity of solid matter” and decreases in proportion to distance squared—and then continues:

I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the reason for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. . . . It is enough that gravity really exists and acts according to the laws that we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all the motions of the heavenly bodies and of our sea.

The thinkers around and after Newton got the message, one by one.

[Jumping ahead three centuries:]

According to Roger Penrose, one of the late twentieth century’s foremost mathematical physicists, quantum mechanics “makes absolutely no sense.” “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” remarked Richard Feynman. How can a theory be widely regarded both as incomprehensible and also as the best explanation we have of the physical world we live in?

. . . Quantum theory derives accurate predictions from a notion, superposition, that is quite beyond our human understanding. Matter, says quantum mechanics, occupies the state called superposition when it is not being observed [or measured]. An electron in superposition occupies no particular point in space. It is typically, rather, in a kind of “mix” of being in many places at once. The mix is not perfectly balanced: some places are far more heavily represented than others. So a particular electron’s superposition might be almost all made up from positions near a certain atomic nucleus and just a little bit from positions elsewhere. That is the closest that quantum mechanics comes to saying that the electron is orbiting the nucleus.

As to the nature of this “mix”—it is a mystery. We give it a name: superposition. But we can’t give it a philosophical explanation. What we can do is to represent any superposition with a mathematical formula, called a “wave function.” An electron’s wave function represents its physical state with the same exactitude that, in Newton’s physics, its state would be represented by numbers specifying its precise position and velocity. You may have heard of quantum mechanics’ “uncertainty principle,” but forget about uncertainty here: the wave function is a complete description that captures every matter of fact about an electron’s physical state without remainder.

So far, we have a mathematical representation of the state of any particular piece of matter, but we haven’t said how that state changes in time. This is the job of Schrödinger’s equation, which is the quantum equivalent of Newton’s famous second law of motion F = ma, in that it spells out how forces of any sort—gravitational, electrical, and so on—will affect a quantum particle. According to Schrödinger’s equation, the wave function will behave in what physicists immediately recognize as a “wavelike” way. That is why, according to quantum mechanics, even particles such as electrons conduct themselves as though they are waves.

In the early days of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian physicist who formulated the equation in 1926, and Louis de Broglie, a French physicist—both eventual Nobel Prize winners—wondered whether the waves described by quantum mechanics might be literal waves traveling through a sea of “quantum ether” that pervades our universe. They attempted to understand quantum mechanics, then, using the old model of the fluid.

This turned out to be impossible for a startling reason: it is often necessary to assign a wave function not to a single particle, like an electron, but to a whole system of particles. Such a wave function is defined in a space that has three dimensions for every particle in the system: for a 2-particle system, then, it has 6 dimensions; for a 10-particle system, 30 dimensions. Were the wave to be a real entity made of vibrations in the ether, it would therefore have to be flowing around a space of 6, or 30, or even more dimensions. But our universe rather stingily supplies only three dimensions for things to happen in. In quantum mechanics, as Schrödinger and de Broglie soon realized, the notion of substance as fluid fails completely.

There is a further component to quantum mechanics. It is called Born’s rule, and it says what happens when a particle’s position or other state is measured. Suppose that an electron is in a superposition, a mix of being “everywhere and nowhere.” You use the appropriate instruments to take a look at it; what do you see? Eerily, you see it occupying a definite position. Born’s rule says that the position is a matter of chance: the probability that a particle appears in a certain place is proportional to the degree to which that place is represented in the mix.

It is as though the superposition is an extremely complex cocktail, a combination of various amounts of infinitely many ingredients, each representing the electron’s being in a particular place. Taste the cocktail, and instead of an infinitely complex flavor you will—according to Born’s rule—taste only a single ingredient. The chance of tasting that ingredient is proportional to the amount of the ingredient contained in the mixture that makes up the superposition. If an electron’s state is mostly a blend of positions near a certain atomic nucleus, for example, then when you observe it, it will most likely pop up near the nucleus.

One more thing: an observed particle’s apparently definite position is not merely a fleeting glimpse of something more complex. Once you see the particle in a certain position, it goes on to act as though it really is in that position (until something happens to change its state). In mixological terms, once you have sampled your cocktail, every subsequent sip will taste the same, as though the entire cocktail has transformed into a simple simple solution of this single ingredient. It is this strange disposition for matter, when observed, to snap into a determinate place that accounts for its “particle-like” behavior.

To sum up, quantum mechanical matter—the matter from which we’re all made—spends almost all its time in a superposition. As long as it’s not observed, the superposition, and so the matter, behaves like an old-fashioned wave, an exemplar of liquidity (albeit in indefinitely many dimensions). If it is observed, the matter jumps randomly out of its superposition and into a definite position like an old-fashioned particle, the epitome of solidity.

Nobody can explain what kind of substance this quantum mechanical matter is, such that it behaves in so uncanny a way. It seems that it can be neither solid nor fluid—yet these exhaust the possibilities that our human minds can grasp. Quantum mechanics does not, then, provide the kind of deep understanding of the way the world works that was sought by philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes. What it does supply is a precise mathematical apparatus for deriving effects from their causes. Take the initial state of a physical system, represented by a wave function; apply Schrödinger’s equation and if appropriate Born’s rule, and the theory tells you how the system will behave (with, if Born’s rule is invoked, a probabilistic twist). In this way, quantum theory explains why electrons sometimes behave as waves, why photons (the stuff of light) sometimes behave as particles, and why atoms have the structure that they do and interact in the way they do.

Thus, quantum mechanics may not offer deep understanding, but it can still account for observable phenomena by way of . . . the kind of explanation favored by Newton . . . Had Newton [engaged with scientists like Bohr and Einstein at conferences on quantum mechanics] he would perhaps have proclaimed:

I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the nature of quantum superposition, and I do not feign hypotheses. It is enough that superposition really exists and acts according to the laws that we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all the motions of the microscopic bodies of which matter is made.

Newton . . .  was the chief architect of modern science’s first great innovation. Rather than deep philosophical understanding, Newton pursued shallow explanatory power, that is, the ability to derive correct descriptions of phenomena from a theory’s causal principles, regardless of their ultimate nature and indeed regardless of their very intelligibility. In so doing, he was able to build a gravitational theory of immense capability, setting an example that his successors were eager to follow.

Predictive power thereby came to override metaphysical insight. Or as the historian of science John Heilbron, writing of the study of electricity after Newton, put it:

When confronted with a choice between a qualitative model deemed intelligible and an exact description lacking clear physical foundations, the leading physicists of the Enlightenment preferred exactness.

So it continued to be, as the development and acceptance of quantum mechanics, as unerring as it is incomprehensible, goes to show. The criterion for explanatory success inherent in Newton’s practice became fixed for all time, founding the procedural consensus that lies at the heart of modern science.

Consciousness and Primitive Feelings

I’ve been thinking lately that all value — whether ethical, aesthetic or practical — comes down to feelings in the end. Was that the right thing to do? Is that a beautiful song? Is this expensive hammer better than the cheaper one? Only if it tends in the past, present or future to make me or you or somebody else have certain feelings.

Below is most of an interview with Mark Solms, a South African psychoanalyst and neuropsychologist, who has a new book out: The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness. The Nautilus site gave the interview the title “Consciousness Is Just A Feeling”, although that’s not what Solms says. The interviewer’s questions are in italics:

. . . You made a big discovery that overturned the prevailing theory that we only dream during REM sleep. What did you find?

It was just assumed that when your REM sleep stops, your dreams also stop. But I found that human patients with damage to the part of the brain generating REM sleep nevertheless continue to experience dreams. In retrospect, you realize what a significant methodological error we made. That’s the price we pay for not gathering subjective data. You know, the actual subjective experience of dreams is an embarrassment to science. And this is what my professors had in mind when they were saying, don’t study things like that. But you’re going to be missing something rather important about how the brain works if you leave out half of the available data.

Your interest in Freud is very unusual for a neuroscientist. You actually trained to become a psychoanalyst, and since then, you’ve edited the complete psychological works of Freud.

Yes, and my colleagues were horrified. I had been taught this was pseudoscience. One of them said to me, “You know, astronomers don’t study astrology.” It’s true that psychoanalysis had lost its bearings. Freud was a very well-trained neuroscientist and neurologist, but in successive generations that grounding of psychoanalysis in the biological sciences had been lost. So I can understand where some of the disdain for psychoanalysis came from. But to its credit, it studied the actual lived life of the mind, which was the thing that interested me, and was missing from neuropsychology. So I turned to psychoanalysis to find any kind of systematic attempt to study subjective experience and to infer what kinds of mechanisms lay behind it.

Did we get Freud wrong? Did he have scientific insights that we’ve ignored?

Very much so. I’m not going to pretend that Freud didn’t make some gigantic mistakes. That’s to be expected. He was a pioneer, taking the very first steps in trying to systematically study subjective experience. The reason he made so little progress and abandoned neuroscience was because there weren’t scientific methods by which you could study things. Even the EEG was only brought into common use after the Second World War. So there were no methods for studying in vivo what’s going on in the brain, let alone the methods we have nowadays. But the sum of his basic observations, the centrality of emotion, was how much affective feelings influence cognitive processes. That’s the essence of what psychoanalysis is all about, how our rational, logical, cognitive processes can be distorted by emotional forces.

You founded the new field of “neuropsychoanalysis.” What’s the basic premise of this approach?

The neuropsychology I was taught might as well have been neurobehaviorism. Oliver Sacks famously wrote in 1984 that neuropsychology is admirable, but it excludes the psyche, by which he meant the active living subject of the mind. That really caught my attention. So I wanted to bring the psyche back into neuropsychology. Emotion was just not studied in the neuropsychology of the 1980s. The centrality of emotion in the life of the mind and what lies behind emotion is what Freud called “drive.” Basically, his idea was that unpleasant feelings represent the failures to meet those needs and pleasant feelings represent the opposite. It’s how we come to know how we’re meeting our deepest biological needs. And that idea gives an underpinning to cognition that I think is sorely lacking in cognitive science, pure and simple.

There are huge debates about the science of consciousness. Explaining the causal connection between brain and mind is one of the most difficult problems in all of science. On the one hand, there are the neurons and synaptic connections in the brain. And then there’s the immaterial world of thinking and feeling. It seems like they exist in two entirely separate domains. How do you approach this problem?

Subjective experience—consciousness—surely is part of nature because we are embodied creatures and we are experiencing subjects. So there are two ways in which you can look on the great problem you’ve just mentioned. You can either say it’s impossibly difficult to imagine how the physical organ becomes the experiencing subject, so they must belong to two different universes and therefore, the subjective experience is incomprehensible and outside of science. But it’s very hard for me to accept a view like that. The alternative is that it must somehow be possible to bridge that divide.

The major point of contention is whether consciousness can be reduced to the laws of physics or biology. The philosopher David Chalmers has speculated that consciousness is a fundamental property of nature that’s not reducible to any laws of nature.

I accept that, except for the word “fundamental.” I argue that consciousness is a property of nature, but it’s not a fundamental property. It’s quite easy to argue that there was a big bang very long ago and long after that, there was an emergence of life. If Chalmers’ view is that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, it must have preceded even the emergence of life. I know there are people who believe that. But as a scientist, when you look at the weight of the evidence, it’s just so much less plausible that there was already some sort of elementary form of consciousness even at the moment of the Big Bang. That’s basically the same as the idea of God. It’s not really grappling with the problem.

You can certainly find all kinds of correlations between brain function and mental activity. We know that brain damage . . . can change someone’s personality. But it still doesn’t explain causation. As the philosopher John Searle said, “How does the brain get over the hump from electrochemistry to feeling?”

I think we have made that problem harder for ourselves by taking human consciousness as our model of what we mean by consciousness. The question sounds so much more magical. How is it possible that all of this thinking and feeling and philosophizing can be the product of brain cells? But we should start with the far more elementary rudiment of consciousness—feeling. Think about consciousness as just being something to do with existential value. Survival is good and dying is bad. That’s the basic value system of all living things. Bad feelings mean you’re doing badly—you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you’re sleepy, you’re under threat of damage to life and limb. Good feelings mean the opposite—this is good for your survival and reproductive success.

You’re saying consciousness is essentially about feelings. It’s not about cognition or intelligence.

That’s why I’m saying the most elementary forms of consciousness give us a much better prospect of being able to solve the question you’re posing. How can it happen that a physical creature comes to have this mysterious, magical stuff called consciousness? You reduce it down to something much more biological, like basic feelings, and then you start building up the complexities. A first step in that direction is “I feel.” Then comes the question, What is the cause of this feeling? What is this feeling about? And then you have the beginnings of cognition. “I feel like this about that.” So feeling gets extended onto perception and other cognitive representations of the organism in the world.

Where are those feelings rooted in the brain?

Feeling arises in a very ancient part of the brain, in the upper brainstem in structures we share with all vertebrates. This part of the brain is over 500 million years old. The very telling fact is that damage to those structures—tiny lesions as small as the size of a match head in parts of the reticular activating system—obliterates all consciousness. That fact alone demonstrates that more complex cognitive consciousness is dependent upon the basic affective form of consciousness that’s generated in the upper brainstem.

So we place too much emphasis on the cortex, which we celebrate because it’s what makes humans smart.

Exactly. Our evolutionary pride and joy is the huge cortical expanse that only mammals have, and we humans have even more of it. That was the biggest mistake we’ve made in the history of the neuroscience of consciousness. The evidence for the cortex being the seat of consciousness is really weak. If you de-corticate a neonatal mammal—say, a rat or a mouse—it doesn’t lose consciousness. Not only does it wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night, it runs and hangs from bars, swims, eats, copulates, plays, raises its pups to maturity. All of this emotional behavior remains without any cortex.

And the same applies to human beings. Children born with no cortex, a condition called hydranencephaly—not to be confused with hydrocephaly—are exactly the same as what I’ve just described in these experimental animals. They wake up in the morning, go to sleep at night, smile when they’re happy and fuss when they’re frustrated. Of course, you can’t speak to them, because they’ve got no cortex. They can’t tell you that they’re conscious, but they show consciousness and feeling in just the same way as our pets do.

You say we really have two brains—the brainstem and the cortex.

Yes, but the cortex is incapable of generating consciousness by itself. The cortex borrows, as it were, its consciousness from the brainstem. Moreover, consciousness is not intrinsic to what the cortex does. The cortex can perform high level, uniquely human cognitive operations as reading with comprehension, without consciousness being necessary at all. So why does it ever become conscious? The answer is that we have to feel our way into cognition because this is where the values come from. Is this going well or badly? All choices, any decision-making, has to be grounded in a value system where one thing is better than another thing.

So what is thinking? Can we even talk about the neurochemistry of a thought?

A thought in its most basic form is about choice. If you don’t have to make a choice, then it can all happen automatically. I’m now faced with two alternatives and I need to decide which one I’m going to do. Consciousness enables you to make those choices because it contributes value. Thinking goes on unconsciously until you’re in a state of uncertainty as to what to do. Then you need feeling to feel your way through the problem. The bulk of our cognition—our day-to-day psychological life—goes on unconsciously.

How does memory figure into consciousness?

The basic building block of all cognition is the memory we have. We have sensory impressions coming in and they leave traces which we can then reactivate in the form of cognitions and reassemble in all sorts of complicated ways, including coming up with new ideas. But the basic fabric of cognition is memory traces. The cortex is this vast storehouse of representations. So when I said earlier that cognition is not intrinsically conscious, that’s just saying that memories are, for the most part, latent. You couldn’t possibly be conscious of all of those billions of bits of information you have imbibed during your lifetime. So what is conscious is drawn up from this vast storehouse of long-term memory into short-term working memory. The conscious bit is just a tiny fragment of what’s there.

You say the function of memory is to predict our future needs. And the hippocampus, which we typically regard as the brain’s memory center, is used for imagining the future as well as storing information about the past.

The only point of learning from past events is to better predict future events. That’s the whole point of memory. It’s not just a library where we file away everything that’s happened to us. And the reason why we need to keep a record of what’s happened in the past is so that we can use it as a basis for predicting the future. And yes, the hippocampus is every bit as much for imagining the future as remembering the past. You might say it’s remembering the future.

Wouldn’t a true science of consciousness, of subjective experience, explain why particular thoughts and memories pop into my brain?

Sure, and that’s exactly why I take more seriously than most neuroscientists what psychoanalysts try to do. They ask, Why this particular content for Steve at this point in his life? How does it happen that neurons in my brain generate all of this? I’m saying if you start with the most rudimentary causal mechanisms, you’re just talking about a feeling and they’re not that difficult to understand in ordinary biological terms. Then there’s all this cognitive stuff based on your whole life. How do I go about meeting my emotional needs? And there’s your brain churning out predictions and feeling its way through the problem and trying to solve it.

So this is the premise of neuropsychoanalysis. There’s one track to explain the biology of what’s happening in the brain, and another track is psychological understanding. And maybe I need a psychotherapist to help me unpack why a particular thought suddenly occurs to me.

You’ve just summed up my entire scientific life in a nutshell. I think we need both. . . .

Roads, Taxes and Rationality

There’s no shortage of news being made and problems to be addressed, but the world seems a bit quite these days. Maybe the president has something to do with it:

Biden’s words . . . have been counted along with his on-camera appearances and total one-third of those notched up by the previous president at the equivalent stage (The Guardian).

It clearly helps that there are rational people in charge of the federal government for a change, “rational” in the sense that they’re trying to fix problems instead of ignoring them or making them worse. 

An excellent example is the problem of America’s “crumbling infrastructure”. The two words, “crumbling” and “infrastructure”, have been tied together for decades, like “manicured lawns”, “well-heeled lobbyists”, “potent symbols” and “hot topics”. Everybody agrees the country’s roads, bridges, dams, school buildings, electrical grid, etc. need work and it will cost a lot of money to modernize them. I just typed in “infrastructure” and got:

The cost to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure? Nearly $2.6 trillion, engineers say (CNN).

So it isn’t a surprise that Biden is announcing a big infrastructure plan tomorrow (unlike his predecessor, the orange guy, who kept promising a tremendous infrastructure plan to go along with his miraculous health insurance plan, neither of which ever materialized.)

Nor is it a surprise that Republicans won’t want to pay for it. From the Washington Post’s “Plum Line” blog:

New details are emerging about the massive infrastructure plan that Democrats will present this week, and it poses a problem for Republicans. This is exactly kind of government spending voters from both parties support — every member of Congress would happily have a new bridge in their district.

But if it passes, it will be another victory for President Biden. So Republicans have to find a way to convince voters it’s a terrible idea, which they’ll attempt through a series of misleading arguments.

Here’s the latest on the package, from The Post:

Biden’s plan will include approximately $650 billion to rebuild the United States’ infrastructure, such as its roads, bridges, highways and ports, the people said. The plan will also include in the range of $400 billion toward care for the elderly and the disabled, $300 billion for housing infrastructure and $300 billion to revive U.S. manufacturing. It will also include hundreds of billions of dollars to bolster the nation’s electric grid, enact nationwide high-speed broadband and revamp the nation’s water systems to ensure clean drinking water, among other major investments, the people said.

Those all seem like worthy goals. So how will Republicans argue against them?

One way will revolve around fearmongering about deficits and tax hikes. Another will seek to cherry-pick from the package to portray it as stuffed with wasteful boondoggles.

On the first, Biden is expected to ask congressional Democrats to roll back parts of his predecessor’s tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and to increase taxes on profits that corporations shelter offshore.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already balking. “If you want to do an infrastructure bill, let’s do an infrastructure bill,” is McConnell’s latest line. “Let’s don’t turn it into a massive effort to raise taxes on businesses and individuals” [i.e. corporations and rich people].

The Republican game runs as follows. They say they support infrastructure repair in principle (which is true of some). But, they add, they don’t support paying for it either by driving up the deficit or with tax hikes that will kill jobs (as McConnell suggested).

Never mind that Republicans exploded the deficit with the very tax cuts for the rich and corporations that Democrats want to partly reverse, or that Republicans are pretending doing this would raise taxes on workers, or that the claim that tax hikes kill jobs has been perpetually proven wrong. . . .

Meanwhile, you will surely hear the name “Solyndra” bandied about, in reference to what happened the last time a Democratic administration boosted green energy infrastructure (an even bigger component of Biden’s plan).

Republicans are already making the case that last time millions in taxpayer dollars were squandered on green energy jobs that never materialized. They are road-testing a new slogan about what’s coming: “Solyndra Syndrome.”

But that actually points to how Democrats should respond to this attack. Because the truth is very different from what Republicans would have you believe.

Solyndra was indeed a failure: As part of a federal program to support promising companies, the Obama administration gave a $535 million loan to the firm. But their solar panel technology struggled to compete against low-cost panels from China, and the company eventually went bankrupt.

But the whole point of the loan program was to take risks, in the knowledge that some of them wouldn’t work out. And other loans paid off spectacularly well.

You may have heard of another up-and-coming green tech company that got a $465 million loan at around the same time, enabling it to start making passenger cars. It’s called Tesla. It paid back its loan with interest, and today has more than 70,000 employees.

Republicans spent years trying to turn the Solyndra failure into a scandal. What they didn’t mention is that despite the loss the government took on it, the program that funded that loan quickly turned a profit, eventually earning billions.

So that part of the Obama Recovery Act was a success, even though Republicans convinced many people it was a failure. The reality tells the opposite story, and Democrats should say so.

Beyond all that, . . . Democrats have a good way to call the Republicans’ bluff: Renew the push for a boost in funding for the Internal Revenue Service, so it can start hauling in the huge piles of revenue that will likely to go uncollected in coming years — much from the wealthy and corporations.

Tax experts say that due to IRS budget cuts and resulting lax enforcement, as much as $7.5 trillion in revenue could go uncollected over the next decade, a good deal of it from wealthy actors who are well resourced to evade payments. They also say netting even a fraction of that could bring in gobs of new revenue.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the Finance Committee, says Democrats should renew this push, tied to the debate over infrastructure, by arguing for more funding for IRS enforcement, and for reforms improving its efficacy:

The absolute bare minimum Republicans should get behind is ensuring the IRS has resources and trained staff to collect taxes that are currently owed. They won’t have any credibility if their position is that not only can there be no new revenue, but we also can’t do significantly more to collect revenue that’s owed.

Unquote.

Republicans won’t have any credibility? That’s never bothered them before.