Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Important graphs for understanding our unemployment

Why hasn't our unemployment rate improved? You hear different answers to that question, but here's the number of jobs over Obama's presidency in the private and public sectors:

The private sector bottomed out almost 2 years ago and has been steadily recovering. Government jobs have been steadily declining (minus the spike for the census).

Republicans always explain that unemployment is high because Obama has led an unprecedented expansion of "big government" that is preventing businesses from creating jobs, and what we need is "smaller government". But if that were true, the graphs above should be reversed. Businesses are creating jobs, but those are being offset by lost government jobs due to... smaller government.

Many people assume that all disagreements between Democrats and Republicans just boil down to opinions that can't be proven one way or the other. But sometimes you can be just plain wrong.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book plug: Willpower

I just finished reading, and highly recommend, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Baumeister and Tierney. It's about scientific studies into our willpower/self-control: how to measure it, how it works, how we can improve it. Some of it is really surprising, but convincing, and part of what makes all of it interesting to me is that the whole concept of a "will" is one of the most mysterious things about existence - the fact that our impulses and instincts can pull us in one direction, but we have the ability to choose to do something else.

I'm not going to go through all the studies demonstrating this, but the basic idea in the book is that our willpower is a lot like a muscle. It gets tired when we overuse it. We can also build its strength over the long-term, or let it weaken. The most interesting thing to me was that our brain consumes glucose to use self-control. This is why dieting can be especially hard; you need glucose to resist temptations, but dieting reduces your supply of glucose.

The book also spends some time explaining how our culture has made a big mistake in prioritizing self-esteem over self-control for children. A lot of the studies about the problems with an over-emphasis on self-esteem were funny. In one, they tested a bunch of kids on a new subject, then spent some time with only half the kids telling them how great they were at it. After more teaching and a test on the same subject, the kids who received the self-esteem boosts were more confident in their work than the others but actually performed worse.

It does give advice on proven ways to help improve your willpower, but the authors seem to admit that this is an area where we still have a lot to learn. They explained some studies showing that religion can be a large source of willpower but didn't go much into trying to dissect that. In my opinion, monasteries would be a good source of ideas to test. Monks of many religions have spent thousands of years trying to figure out how to control each and every thought, and it'd be interesting to test their various techniques from a scientific standpoint.

Anyway, a quote from the book:

We think that research into willpower and self-control is psychology's best hope for contributing to human welfare. Willpower lets us change ourselves and our society in small and large ways. As Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, "The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts."