Adam Smith’s Non-Profit

Question: Is the sense of social responsibility increasing among your colleagues?

Gerald Chertavian: When I was at Harvard Business School back in 1990, there were probably eight people in the non-profit club. And I think we were looked at slightly askance by the folks because it wasn't the venture capital club or the finance club. Now today on campus, the largest single club at Harvard Business School is the social enterprise club. So in 20 years, or less than that, you have had a shift in something pretty fundamental in this country around, I think, young people wanting to take more responsibility for those around them, seeing the responsibility slightly more broadly defined than just motivated self-interest, and getting involved. So we have so many more young folks in our colleges, in our grad schools today, mentoring our students, volunteering, getting involved in service movements like AmeriCorps and Vista.

So I think the pendulum is certainly swinging to a direction where many young people are taking more responsibility for those around them and realizing that's not at odds with, you know, good old motivated self-interest and free-market capitalism. And in fact, you know, we all remember that Adam Smith wrote a book called The Wealth of Nations and talked about free markets and capitalism and why they were good ultimately for our society. He also wrote another book. He was talking about the theory of moral essentials. And what he said is, you can have a free market, and it's going to work best, but at the same time, at some point you have to realize that just getting more and more and more is actually not in society's best interest. So even Adam Smith, as our free-market economist would say, there's a concept of being responsible for others and wrote a book about that equally. I think we don't remember. He actually wrote a few books. One of them talked about moral essentials and the dangers of just seeing an accretive process without any sense of what's enough, or any sense of distribution that I have the opportunity how to help others. You know, that's equally part of keeping a very strong and well-functioning capitalist society in check.

Question: Is the rise in people heading into non-profits sustainable?

Gerald Chertavian: Certainly many, many more grad schools are offering loan forgiveness or a loan reduction for those going into the nonprofit sector, and I do think with the rise of social entrepreneurship, the rise of non-profits, hiring better and better people, growing more quickly, we are attracting incredible talent into this sector. And the reality is, people are getting paid more and more, so the gap between the nonprofit and private sector is shrinking. And certainly in the last ten years it's shrinking from when I started back in 2000. The other way I think about the pendulum is, I'm not a huge proponent of handouts, so I have not seen, with people who are able-bodied and able-minded, where handouts are producing good outcomes. And a sense of entitlement is a very destructive sentiment. And if you ever want to play the victim, you're not going to get ahead.

So when I think about that pendulum, there's a lot of personal accountability that has to be invested in any nonprofit organization, I think, that is serving someone who is able-bodied and able-minded. I mean, there are needs for charitable acts, or needs for handouts for someone who really cannot provide for themselves or has slipped to a place where they literally cannot take care of themselves. But that's not a majority, I think, of what we're trying to do here, especially at Year Up. We believe you've got to combine deep personal accountability -- taking charge of yourself, not saying woe is me, but saying I want a chance; I want an opportunity. I mean, America needs to be an opportunity society. And so the young adults we serve want an opportunity. They do not want a handout; they want a hand up. And so my belief is that pendulum, in terms of maybe reaching out and supporting others, also has to be balanced by a healthy dose of personal accountability for those being helped. And without which I don't think the system will ever work well.

Recorded on: October 29, 2009

Though the father of modern capitalism is generally associated with the virtues of self-interest, he also possessed a deep moral concern for our responsibility to help others. According to the founder of Year Up, this second aspect of the free market system is finally taking hold, and its effects on society will be momentous.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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