Monday, February 1, 2016

Programming Note

Dear readers: starting next week, TKIN will update on Tuesdays instead of Mondays. As always, thanks for reading!

Economic Efficiency Is Ethically Inefficient, Often Awful

"Efficiency" is one of the main buzzwords of our time, constantly invoked to explain why some seemingly horrible thing is nonetheless inevitable. Sometimes people who appeal to "efficiency" as a conversation stopping end-all and be-all like to throw in the word "utilitarian." Like: "Well, from a utilitarian perspective, it would be better to schedule worker shifts at the last minute. By cutting costs, it would be more efficient."

As a moral philosopher, I find such usage a perversion of otherwise perfectly serviceable concepts. Because it's one thing to want to maximize good consequences and minimize bad ones. But assuming that good always and only equals $$? That's a whole 'nother ball of wax entirely. In fact, "economic" utilitarianism often leads to the opposite conclusions from ethical utilitarianism.

In moral philosophy, the utilitarian point of view is the one in which the right action is the most "efficient" one, where this means the one that maximizes well-being overall, for all concerned. At least since Bentham and Mill in the nineteenth-century, utilitarians have been engaging in debate over what, exactly, should be measured. What is "utility"? Is it happiness? Pleasure? Preference-satisfaction? Something else?

In a lot of contexts, though, those fine-grained matters don't make much difference. All versions of ethical utilitarianism lead to certain kinds of conclusions.

For example, in all versions: if some resources could make person A much, much better off, and person B a bit better off, then they go to person A. If person C could prevent something horrible from happening to person D without much sacrifice, they are ethically obligated to do it. And because money and goods bring about less dramatic increases in well-being for rich people than for poor ones, there are egalitarian implications: if person E is rich and person F is poor, ethical utilitarianism requires any large-scale systems to be set up so that F gets more than E.

These conclusions are, of course, nothing like the ones people are usually talking about when they are talking about economic utilitarianism and the pursuit of economic efficiency. There, it's generally a conversation about cost-cutting and profit-maximization -- activities that must be undertaken even when they are going to make lots of people worse off than they were before.

In a big picture example, when economic growth goes along with increased economic inequality, economic efficiency goes up even as ethical efficiency -- that is, actual overall well-being -- goes down. If economic gains go to the already well-off, then from the point of view of economic utilitarianism, this is a win. But from the point of view of ethical utilitarianism, it's often a big fail: large numbers of people at the bottom can no longer afford items like housing, health care, and education.

For a more specific kind of example, consider the health care debacle described in this article. Doctors are trying to negotiate with health care managers about how their system will work, and naturally enough, the doctors want to prioritize their ability to function well in their jobs. They objected to a system that would have "effectively eliminated any time off for sick days or vacation."

The managers responded by saying that when doctors got sick they could arrange for extra shifts to ensure they'd get their full salary. The doctors tried to explain: this isn't about money. We want to work less and make less, to avoid burn out; money is not the issue. But evidently they failed to get through, with managers insisting that "money was always the issue."

If you said the managers were aiming for efficiency, taking a utilitarian point of view, then in the money sense you'd be right, but in the deeper sense, of successfully bringing about the things you want to bring about, you'd be wrong. The aims of a health care institution include good care for patients, which in turn requires rested physicians. Actually taking a utilitarian point of view would mean asking how to get those outcomes at the least overall cost, and would require counting many things other than money.

This makes our modern typical practice, of using economic utilitarianism instead of actual ethical utilitarianism to measure things, seem bizarre. If economic efficiency requires action X and actually bringing about the best overall effects requires action Y, why would you do X? Isn't the point of money just ... that you can use it to do useful things?

In response to this question it's sometimes suggested that as long as there's enough economic growth, the winners could just compensate the losers for their loss of well-being, and everyone would, again, be better off. This is the basic idea behind the economic concept of "Kaldor-Hicks" efficiency.

To which the first obvious question is: do you ever seen this happen? My sense is that the economic efficiency winners just treat the gains as their own, no matter how they got them.

A less obvious but crucial question also has to do with whether just anything can be exchanged for money. In the case of the doctors, the answer is no. They wanted their jobs, they just wanted more time off and less pay. When they fail to get this, there is no way to compensate them for their loss of time off with more pay. To think there is just misses the whole point.

Of course, in a capitalist society, the pursuit of economic efficiency at all costs can be necessary for survival in a dog-eat-dog world: if a company makes less than a competitor, it may fail altogether.

This is certainly true, but it shows economic efficiency less in the light of "common sense virtue," and more in the light of "another awful thing about modern life that we've somehow managed to make necessary to existence."

Monday, January 25, 2016

What Ever Happened To Dancing For Fun?

One of my favorite places in the whole city of Toronto is this seemingly ordinary spot in the bottom floor of the Eaton Centre -- a place just outside the Microsoft Store, where the store has set up a large Xbox display.

This spot is generally dark and drab. But occasionally it comes magically to life. And what brings it magically to life is the presence of groups of children dancing.

You see, often the display is showcasing whatever dance game the Xbox comes with. I know nothing about video games, but from what I can gather the game that involves a range of pop songs together with fun graphics and choreography that the player tries to dance along with.

You cannot imagine the awesomeness of the scene when children gather around, and play, and dance. They get really really really into this activity. The small ones are completely unselfconscious, jumping around, throwing their arms in the air, and making dramatic and showoffy gestures. The older ones are a bit shy, but they want to dance too -- and I think with the presence of so many small children being completely goofy they're sort of like, "Oh, what the hell." It's usually a mixed group, with boys and girls, people of various races, and kids dressed in all different ways.

When I encounter this scene I'm usually like "Oh My God, this is the nicest, cutest, most life-affirming thing I have seen in a long time." And I'm not the only one. When the dancing game is on, you can barely make your way past, because there are gangs of adults standing around watching the kids, smiling and laughing.

Often I pause for a few minutes, to steep my mind in the atmosphere of people enjoying themselves in a way that is so -- would "wholesome" be too ridiculous a word? Would "nice" be to insipid? I don't know -- there's just something so great about it, a kind of fun that makes more fun for more people the more there is of it.

Sometimes when I'm standing there watching, I start thinking about dancing and the peculiar modern state of dancing for fun.

I danced a lot as a young person. I danced in classes -- ballet and modern. As a kid I danced around the house, to whatever was on. As an adolescent and in college, I danced at parties, and, on one extremely memorable occasion, at a Violent Femmes concern in a small venue. It was really, really, really fun.

I would like to dance now. But as a person of a certain age, I find the dance landscape strange. Once you take "dance club at 2am with twenty-somethings" off your options-list, what is there, really?

Any kind of partner-dance has the whole Men-Lead-Women-Follow problem. Even setting aside the conceptual objections, I just can't see spending hours learning to be more attentive to a guy's every gesture so I can do what he decides we're going to do. Following means dealing with advice like this: "I tell women: 'you are a food cart, with steel arms and really good wheels.'" Sorry, no can do.

Then there's dancing where you learn a certain kind of craft. This is an idea I find appealing in the abstract, but when it comes down to it, I feel like it's just another thing I'd be trying, and failing, to be good at, another source of "fuck, why am I not better at this"? Got enough of those already, thank you. Even street dance, like hip-hop, once you're learning it in a class, becomes this sort of thing.

What ever happened to dancing just for fun? I feel like at some deep level, adults have become so massively self-conscious about dancing that they can only do it in these certain specific constrained sort of ways. There was this great moment on the WTF podcast when Marc Maron interviewed David Byrne and Marc asked something like, "You seem like a shy and nerdy person, so how did it come about that you became this guy who dances -- really dances like he means it?" And David Byrne said, very seriously: "The music healed me." By which I think he meant that the musicality and depth of funk and its cousins just changed him as a person.

That is an amazing thing. But how does it happen, exactly? Is there a way to package that, export it, extrapolate it, share it around? To create an actual Dance Dance Revolution? If we're going to invest in massive innovation projects, could we just drop the whole "self-driving cars" crap, and get to work on this instead?  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Against Applied Rationality, Or, Please Respect The Elephant

Pietro Longhi, 1701-1785, The Elephant, via Wikimedia Commons

I spend a lot of time in a somewhat eye-roll-y state of mind, and sometimes I wonder: are the things and people of this world really as stupid and annoying as I tend to think they are? Then I come across things like the Applied Rationality Seminar and I know I can rest assured: no, I've pretty much got it.

This essay in yesterday's New York Times has all the details. You spend four days and nights "on site," in overcrowded dormlike conditions, mostly with other highly motivated Bay Area 20-somethings, doing exercises designed to free you from your irrationality. Only $3,900 per person.

Obviously, I'm not so churlish as to deny someone a leg up with dealing with procrastination or obsessive Facebook checking or whatever. Knock yourselves out. But as so often with these kinds of things, it's never about small improvements in your existing life. It's always some kind of messianic and all encompassing drive -- like it's the boot camp for The Singularity or something.

I can never quite get what these programs are getting at, because I can never grasp what end point the people are aiming toward. I mean, if rationality is just taking appropriate steps to satisfy your preferences, then who's to say "checking Facebook" or "sitting on the sofa" isn't your true preference rather than "work" or "going to the gym"?

They give the example of someone who wants a PhD but doesn't want to "work on it." Well -- if you don't want to work on it, wouldn't it be just as rational to, um, not work on it? To form some other goal instead?

The people who run the workshops take pains to show that they're not anti-emotion, talking about the idea of two systems that can sometimes run in tandem and sometimes run in different directions. It's "like a monkey riding an elephant." The monkey is the "intellectual, goal-setting" part, and the elephant is the "emotional, instinctive" part. When they're not in harmony, trouble ensues.

Sure, I get that. And yes, when there's disharmony between the monkey and the elephant, there's no question there's going to be trouble. But they talk about it like the elephant is some kind of idiot -- at best giving you a bit of intuitive edge to see things you might have missed otherwise, but otherwise there to be nudged and guided in the appropriate way.

So what I don't get is: Who died and made the monkey headmaster?

When people talk about "who they are," they often come up with things like "loving parent," "caring spouse," "Chicago Bulls fan," or "Star Wars obsessive." These things are all about caring and liking. Aren't they all from the elephant? So why when we're getting down to it do we suddenly act like "Oh, monkey needs help! He can't steer the elephant! Monkey needs a workshop on elephant management. Only $3900 per person.

While it is true that some of the exercises are about getting clearer on what your goals are, all the techniques mentioned seem to involve introspection and thought experiments -- basically more thinking about what you are thinking. All these years of people shouting that Descartes was wrong because the self isn't identical to the thinking self -- and where have they gotten us?

One reason I think people side with the monkey is that in the background, there are lurking ideas about "productivity" and "getting things done." And especially in this group, the idea seems to be that when you get unstuck, you'll be able to harness the power of your emotional self for doing "important things." One guy, when confronted with the possibility that there are other things beyond productivity -- like happiness, and other people -- is dismissive:

"I want to augment the race," he says. "I want humanity to achieve great things. I want us to conquer death."

Oh brother. Much as I'd love to be immortal, it's hard for me to count not-living-forever among the pressing problems of the human race. Plus, is this really intended to convey that ordinary people like this guy should stop wasting a few minutes here or there online and make sure to get to work so they can ... do what exactly? Make an app? Move some money around?

Maybe there are people whose activities are important enough to be maximized. Maybe people inventing solutions to the climate crisis. Or trying to stop wars. Maybe health researchers? Actually I think those people are already really productive, and according to articles like this, the way to improve things like health care is to stop pushing productivity and start to care about love.

Look, maybe you do need to change your life. If you're constantly undermining yourself, if you're a diabetic and you can't eat right and take your meds, if you're drinking yourself to death and you can't stop, if you keep lashing out in anger at the people you love -- yes, your elephant is in trouble, and you might want to change, and you might need help doing so.

But as we all know from living on Earth among humans (and as Atul Gawande has been reminding us lately), mostly people change because of other people -- other people taking an interest, talking to us over and over, nagging occasionally, and caring what happens.

It's basically the polar opposite of a highly individualized workshop teaching you to look inside yourself for the powerful answers within. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Western Imperialism and Theories of Human Nature; Or, Culture Is A Thing

I don't know if you saw this article that appeared the New York Times over the holidays about the aftermath of the case in Afghanistan where the woman was beaten and killed by a mob of men because someone said, falsely, that she had burned a Quran.

The article basically describes the way the legal process has unfolded, the various attempts to hold people responsible for the violence, and the many obstacles and difficulties that have arisen. Among other things: it's hard to know exactly when she died, and therefore it's hard to know who was and was not responsible for her death; the case was heavily politicized from beginning to end; a million complicated things.

It was only when I got to the middle of the article, though, that I realized that the piece is not just about a court case and its complexities; it's also about the way the case itself is seen as a test case for a massive program of Western intervention into the Afghan legal system.

The details and failures of that effort read like a textbook case of Western imperialism, hubris, arrogance, and just general failure to understand anything about how the world works.

Most broadly and unsurprisingly, as one informed commentator said, the consulting experts failed to understand the point of the exercise, with the experts assuming they were "helping to rebuild a system in transition from the Taliban period to a more secular one," when in fact the Afghans are still deciding what kind of system they want, given that their current system draws on both Islamic law and an existing state legal code.

In a classic move, assuming their job was to "rewrite" the code instead of starting by just translating the existing one, Western consultants from various countries just used their own systems as templates when they felt like it -- like, "Oh today the Italian guy is here so he's going to make it look like the Italian code."

As insulting and paternalistic as that whole business, what's crazy is how badly the whole thing was done. Like, it's bad enough you want to be headmaster of the world -- but now you're going to do a half-assed crappy job of it?

There were many missteps, leading eventually to a wide array of problems -- such as many defendants with no defense lawyers and with no notification that it was even their day their case would be considered.

And so many of the missteps seemed to me to come back to simple failure to understand that culture is a thing. People live in various ways, and those ways profoundly affect how social systems work. It's not like fixing a carburetor, for fuck's sake.

According to the Times, these things happened during the consulting phase:

Consultants tutored the Afghans about jury selection, even though judges decide the cases.

Consultants spent a lot of time teaching about how to handle sexual assault cases, even though in Afghanistan almost no one brings sexual assault cases, because of family pressure and fear of reprisal. 

Consultants placed young advisors to tutor older judges, even though this flies in the face of cultural attitudes about deference to age and experience. The judges were then naturally dismissive. As one Afghan defense lawyer with a Harvard degree put it: "Everyone has his pride, and they say, 'Why is this young kid teaching me?'"

Judges often study theology and Shariah. So when lawyers trained in law and political science are in the courtroom with judges, they're often talking past one another.

The consulting program didn't deal with the problem of corruption. As a defense lawyer for two of the accused in the case said, "When your client is a poor guy, you are asked to pay a bribe or he spends 16 years in jail."

Partly because of corruption, people don't trust the justice system. When people don't trust the justice system, you can't just let the system do the work of trying to find the just decisions. No one will believe the result was arrived at in the appropriate way, and will therefore interpret the result as politicized.

While I realize that in some deep sense you can trace these problems back to ingrained social attitudes in the West that their system is somehow obviously best so who cares what other people think, it seems to me there are some interesting implicit ideas about human nature that are relevant.

I don't know how and when this happened, exactly, but somehow the idea seems to have taken hold -- at least in North America -- that social problems are basically like engineering problems, that you can just use some charts and graphs and so on to get to your "result," that economics and the language of incentives gives you all the "theory" you need, so that sociology, anthropology, history and literature have been deemed relatively unimportant.

How do cases like this not suggest to everyone that this is the opposite of the way things are? Culture is a thing. To work with people and collaborate with them, you have to understand it. To understand it, you have to think about people and learn about them and listen to them in a certain humanistic way.

If the education gods came down from on high, don't you think they would find it bizarre that while war and violence and injustice are some of our main problems, we're closing down the departments where you learn about such things?

Culture is complicated, and social systems are just not engineering problems. Why is there so much resistance to this simple and obvious fact? 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Philosophy Of The Post-Apocalypse: Station Eleven Edition

Over the break I read this excellent post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven. Unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, this book really got to me -- in the sense of making me feel I should learn some post-apocalyptic-appropriate skill like fighting or sewing, and also in the sense of making me feel like somehow the apocalypse is realistically right around the corner.

I think the reason this book made me feel its reality so effectively is because it is .. well, completely realistic. It's not about some weird future world. It's about what our total actual world would be like if an awful contagious and fatal disease killed 99 percent of people and everything completely collapsed.

Like a lot of dystopian novels, this one is pretty philosophical. Partly because it involves a pandemic instead of a man-made oh-we-brought-this-all-on-ourselves, it goes beyond some of the more obvious cheap-shots at humankind that dystopian novels can sometimes take.  

Yes, this post has spoilers. But in a book where the apocalypse happens at the beginning, it hardly matters, does it? So: in no particular order, a few themes from Station Eleven.

1. The post-apocalyptic future is not a future of moral clarity.

I am so sick of narratives involving good guys and bad guys, where the whole story is about good and evil and how evil people do evil things and good people try to stop them. Not only is this a completely inaccurate representation of our world of moral complexity, I think it's turning a lot of people into moral morons. You're with us or against us! We'll bomb them back into the stone age! You can't let the terrorists win!

Only a citizenry stuffed to the gills with Star Wars Death Star Good Versus Evil simplicity could be sold this sort of black and white vision of the world. In Station Eleven, some good people have to do some pretty awful things, and the bad people -- well, even the main hero of the book is like, "Who knows why? I bet they saw some awful things."

2. Civilization is kind of a human miracle.

Sometimes in modern life civilization seems so inevitable, so part of the landscape, you can almost forget it about how surprising and miraculous it is. Over and over in this book the characters who survive and make their way through the empty world marvel at the leftover remnants of the civilized world, and especially at the way that world was a world of people.

At one point one of the characters muses that we tend to think of the modern era as somehow depersonalized, when in fact it's people who do everything to keep it moving along. The pandemic doesn't destroy any of the material world -- it just kills people. But without people, there's no one to fix the grid, there's no one to make anything or move anything around -- the whole world just comes to a complete standstill.

At one point one of the characters beholds a snowglobe. On the one hand, it's just a trite object from an airport gift shop. But on the other hand, it's an object that represents massive global interaction: someone to design the object, someone to make and assemble it, someone to package it in a box, someone to put it on a container ship to somewhere.

This crazy sense of a world of billions of people coordinating their actions --without which we're just a bunch of scared bipeds trying to shoot deer for food.

3. The everything-happens-for-a-reason-people are going to kill us all.

One of the biggest dangers of the post-apocalyptic world is prophets and cults -- the people who believe that their connection to the deep meaning of it all gives them license to threaten, dominate, and kill others. One of the scariest prophets in the book is someone who was about eleven years old when the pandemic strikes, and whose mother always taught him that "everything happens for a reason." He naturally infers that the saved were saved because the are the special people. 

Well- meaning citizens try to explain to him that no -- in this case it's just germs, and they got some people and not others, there really isn't any deeper meaning to it. But, post-apocalyptic moods being what they are, he doesn't really buy it.

The main story line of the book follows a traveling symphony that goes around in rusted out vans pulled by horses, playing classical music and also performing Shakespeare. Their motto is "Survivial is not enough" -- a slogan they got from an old Star Trek episode. They're always a bit baffled by the point of what they're doing, and whether it's pointless to perform Shakespeare instead of something more suited to their strange condition.

I loved the way they were muddling through, confused, uncertain, and just trying to do something. It seemed to me the opposite perspective to everything-happens-for-a-reason, more like Who-the-hell-knows-what's-going-on-and-why? It might be hard to see the Forces of Uncertainty as the Forces of Good, but I think surprisingly often, they are.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Hasn't Traffic Been More Neo-Liberalized?

If there's one thing I do over the holidays that I almost never do otherwise, it's drive. In my normal life I take the bus, but -- I know this will shock some people -- there are some places in North America where public transportation is sort of impossible.

In my experience, there's nothing like driving to make you contemplate driving -- at least, once you get past the weird anger issues that driving seems to bring out in people. Driving recently, I started to think about carpool lanes, and that reminded me about the temporary "car pool lanes" we had in Toronto last summer for the Pan-Am Games.

The "car pool lanes" weren't really car pool lanes. They were nominally "car pool lanes" that would encourage car pooling to reduce traffic congestion during the games. But to use the lanes you had to either have three people OR you had to be a Pan-Am dignitary -- so everyone quickly understood the lanes were really there for the big shots to be able to get around without the little people getting in the way.

I remember thinking at the time: traffic elitism, eh? Not too surprising. It's actually surprising you don't see it more often.

Then this month the Toronto Star reported that they're taking the whole thing to the next level. New lanes on one of the GTA's busiest highways are going to be "high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes" -- meaning, you can drive on them if 1) you have two people in the car 2) you have a green energy car or ... 3) you are willing to pay.

That really got me thinking. Partly, sure, I was thinking about the fact that this is yet another step  toward the marketization of everything. It's kind of hilarious that a CRITIC of the plan put it so mildly:
"We're concerned about whether or not this is just a way for people who have a lot more money to pay their way to get to work faster than the rest of us, or people who can't afford to get to work quicker."
Um, yeah, that seems to sum it up pretty well actually.

More than that, though, I started thinking about the weird egalitarianism of traffic up to now. I mean, it's kind of weird if you think about it: rich people might have helicopters, but otherwise they're pretty much in the same traffic jams we all are. Someone else might be driving, but they're still stuck. I remember when poor Tracy Morgan got hurt in that awful car crash, and I was like "Oh that sucks. But also: celebrities, they're just like us!"

In a world in which you can upgrade any experience, join the Star Alliance Gold or whatever, how has traffic stayed for so long the one experience you really can't upgrade? Or, to put it another way, why haven't these kind of toll lanes been spreading like kudzu since forever?

Is it that in terms of pure practical materiality we didn't have the technology to monitor the permits so traffic markets couldn't function properly?

Is it that traffic somehow speaks to people of some prelapsarian Wild West, so that even when you're stuck in traffic you tend to see the solution in terms of "more roads" instead of the more obvious "keeping out the hoi polloi"?

Is it something to do with actual old-fashioned democracy, where actual political people who put these into place would get voted out of office?

I don't know. I did find it amusing that the person criticizing the plan felt the need to put the word "fairness" in quotation marks -- like, you can't be concerned just about the fairness of HOT lanes in general, you have to be concerned about the "fairness" of HOT lanes.

Like fairness is some kind of weird quasi-literary concept, rather than an actual thing.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Guest Post: The Special Warmth Of Social Approval

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal

For fifteen years I smoked a pack of Malboros every day. Then, a little over five years ago, I quit. After that I started exercising and also started taking Prozac. This was because without smoking the (pretty precarious) accommodations I had made with the world completely fell apart.

My life got better after I made these changes, exactly the way you would think. When I don’t want to go to the gym, I remind myself of how happy and triumphant and okay I feel walking away from the gym, totaling up the number of times I’ve worked out that week, reliving my most recent victory over the forces of inertia.

And I try not to think too hard about how that mechanism (wherein I feel better) works. There are real physiological analyses of the effects of exercise and Prozac on the mood, and it’s possible that we’re in the realm of the purely physical here.

But I also think about how much society endorses going to the gym. And not smoking. And although there are pockets of weirdness around Prozac, I would say in general society smiles on people taking active pro-social steps to address their mental health issues. And I wonder whether what’s making me feel better is the knowledge that I am living squarely in the sunshine of social approval.

I tell people I used to smoke and they say, “You did?” They say, “I never would have pegged you for a smoker.” I have always wanted to be a little bit mysterious and opaque and so there is something thrilling in that, and then also a little sad, because smoking was so much a part of who I was, and now it is not.

I think about social approval a lot with driving. I live in California, where driving is a thing most people do. And after I quit smoking and started working out and taking Prozac I decided to deal with the fact that I was too terrified to drive. And I took driving lessons and I bought a car and now I drive every day on the freeway and I’ve driven myself to Yosemite more than once and it’s great — it makes my life so much easier and grocery shopping is so much easier and also I never have to explain to a single person ever again why I don’t drive. And yet me driving is not actually a net gain for the world in the ways that you could argue (sort of) that my other changes are. I’m consuming more fuel and producing more pollution and taking up more of other kinds of resources because one thing that driving really makes easy is consumption of various kinds. And yet, being a driver rather than a non-driver makes me less of a conspicuous eccentric, and that in itself, without taking into account all the other ways in which driving is convenient, makes my life so much easier.

Once, before I made any of these changes, I was in a car being driven somewhere by a guy that I knew a little but not all that well. Because when you don’t drive third parties tend to bully other people into driving you places. Especially when you go to a picnic that’s all couples and people with children in Los Angeles. Those people often worry about you taking the bus across town; it makes them feel bad for you and concerned for you. I’m being a little mean here because I had such mixed feelings about it at the time. Part of me wanted the concern and the arrangements and the being-tended-to, and part of me just wanted everyone else to treat the way I lived my life as if it was normal.

So I was leaving this picnic filled with really nice people with really nice families and I was being given a ride by the one guy who was also single and we were talking about that and I was saying that it was a little hard for me to meet guys who wanted to date me, being as I was a smoker and having at the time really short hair cut in an ostentatiously unstylish way and never doing my dishes or cooking anything healthy and this guy said, “Look, there are a lot of guys who like exactly that in a woman,” and I knew immediately what he meant and I said, “Yeah, but those guys don’t want somebody like me.” And what I meant was that I had those attributes, but I wasn’t rebellious and cool in a way that would go along with them; I worried about hurting people’s feeling and I cared about being nice and I didn’t even jaywalk. And he thought about it and he was like, “I see what you mean.”

When I think about that conversation now, I think that I was not very good at understanding that we all contain multitudes, that what I was trying to say is that I was complicated and human and I was assuming that it was less than true of other people, who were either straightforwardly in compliance with the world or defying the world in a perpendicular fashion. And of course I was wrong about the other people.

But I wasn’t wrong in thinking that I was paying a cost in being weird. And I thought it was a cost in terms of opportunities lost but what I didn’t know, and what my current line of thinking suggests, is that it was also a cost inside my tangled self. And what I sort of knew then, and know clearly now but try not to think about too much, is that the value of being weird is directly related to that cost. Smoking is a bad thing, and I am glad I don’t smoke, and yet to the extent I am less visibly a weirdo now it seems like a loss of some kind.

Sometimes I dream that I am smoking. In the dream, I think, “But I quit! What am I doing? Now I’ll have the whole thing to do all over again!” And then in the dream I realize that I never quit, that I’ve been lying to people all along, that I am still a smoker.

Monday, December 14, 2015

If We're So Rich, Why Do We Feel So Poor?

For the last class in my course on ethical theory this term, we discussed some passages from a book called Ethics for a Broken World. This book has a brilliant concept: it takes place in a future world that has been broken by catastrophic climate change, and presents imaginary lectures that discuss, as we do other historical periods, the philosophical writings of our era.

In the book, our world -- the world of 21st century western liberal democracies -- is called "the affluent world." Clearly, relative to the broken world, we are utterly affluent. In the broken future, there aren't enough resources for everyone to live. There are "survival bottlenecks," which necessitate "survival lotteries."

Looking back from the future, the affluence of our world seems astonishing. We have enough resources for everyone to survive, and we frequently spend enormously on gratuitous entertainments like flying around just to see new places.

Of course, you don't have to look back from a broken future to realize the affluence of 21st century western liberal democracies. We are richer than we were in the past -- maybe richer than ever before. We are richer than some countries, and way, way richer than others.

According to this, if you make more than $34,000 USD, you're in the top one percent of the world's richest people. If that's even sort of right, then in some sense, relatively speaking, we are living in an affluent society.

So why, if we are so relatively affluent, do we feel so economically crunched? Why does it seem like everyone is freaking out about not having enough money? Why is everyone so indignant about the bits of money that go into sensible projects like fighting climate change, improving elementary education, and helping refugees?

The obvious answers have to do with cost of living, changes from the status quo, and inequality. Yes, things cost a lot in modern liberal democracies, so what seems like "a lot of money" may not translate into a lot of buying power. Plus, what feels like "a lot of money" is often relative to some previous point in time, and since the economic crisis, we feel we're doing less well than a few years before. And rising inequality means "we" experience non-affluence in very different ways.

But I think there are also some subtler effects.

First, when it comes to living human life, it's not the case that "everything is relative": there are things and activities that everyone needs to survive and there and also things and activities that everyone needs just to feel part of their social and cultural world.

In our society, you need food and shelter, but you also need other things: to feel part of our social and cultural world, you have to be able to get around, you have to have access to the internet and other forms of news information, you have to have access to banking, and so on and so forth.

And here's the thing: in our society, when it comes to these things we need, it's not like there are a range of ways to do it and if you're poor you do it one way and if you're rich you do it another. It's more like -- there are pretty expensive ways to do it or you're just SOL.

For example. You want a TV? There used to be old technology that made TVs pretty expensive. Then new technology came along, and the old technology got pretty cheap. For a while there you could buy a TV with the old technology for almost nothing. Then they stopped selling those. Now it's back to a TV is a pretty expensive thing.

Same with cars, which are astronomically expensive and which you need to get around if you're not lucky enough -- and rich enough! -- to live in a densely populated area with public transit. Same with housing. Houses are bigger and nicer, so you can get a nice one if you have the money or ... not.

This is where rising inequality makes such a difference. If enough people over a certain level means consumer demand shifts, and the only version of things you can do is the expensive one. If you can't afford the expensive one, you're in trouble. This is one way we are so deeply economically interdependent, even when we don't want to be.

I think this phenomenon is part of why the post-economic crisis time feels like such a huge problem rather than a dip in an already affluent set up. When times are even a bit flush, we ramp up -- we create systems in which the things we need to do work in a certain kind of way and demand a certain level of resources.

Then when things shift down -- even a bit -- we can no longer use those systems. It is, legitimately, a crisis, even if in some sense there is still a lot of money around.

Of course, another reason that virtually everyone, at all points up the economic ladder, feels like OMG we don't have enough money has to do with this obvious but usually unspoken fact: in advanced capitalism, the whole point of the system is to make you feel like you don't have enough money.

Especially in an affluent world, where you have to convince people to buy, what is advertising, except a massive scheme to convince people that they're inadequate as they are and that they would be less inadequate if they had this or that thing? 

You put it all together, it's really no wonder we're all feeling so poor. In a way we have so much, and in another way, we don't have what we need. Those things seem contradictory but in a deep sense I think they're not.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When Life Is Work, Who Can You Flirt With?

With whom is it appropriate to pursue a sexualized or even just flirty relationship? Who is in and out of bounds for hooking up, asking out, and so on?

We know from sexual harassment law and from intuitive reflection on sexual autonomy that there are some obvious guidelines. Don't do it with the people you supervise at work. Don't ask anyone over and over, because that is harassment.

There are, however, more complicated cases. Recently MathBabe had a very interesting discussion about "Romance and math meetings," prompted by a question about asking people out on dates at math conferences. A woman was at a math conference talking to a fellow mathematician, a guy, about math. The guy mathematician asked her out. She was upset, because she'd hoped to be regarded in the light of a mathematician instead of possible date material, and hoped to be able to collaborate with him in the future -- something she felt was off the table if she turned him down.

MathBabe initially said she didn't think the issue was so serious. Why can't you collaborate with people who've turned you down? And given that many couples meet under similar circumstances and live happily ever after, wouldn't it be a shame to put the kibosh on such activities?

This, of course, generated a lively discussion, which you can read all about here. People pointed out that if you're one of a few women at a conference with a lot of heterosexual men, then even if no one asks you out twice, you might get asked out a zillion times. You feel like you're at a bar, not a conference, and you feel like you're of interest only for your potential as a romantic partner. Plus, in that case have to micro-navigate every situation to avoid giving someone the wrong idea-- added to all the other burdens of being a woman in a professional and guy-centered environment. Bad.

Other cases, including colleagues who aren't in direct power-relations, can also be complicated. Some times people who work at the same kind of thing you do can seem like equals one minute and gate-keepers the next. Suppose A and B flirt or have sex and then A gets a prestigious job while B remains under-employed. Now A is, in a sense, in a position of power with respect to B. What if A starts rewarding the people who continue to respond sexually and shunning people who reject their advances?

What if, as happens so often in the modern world, there happen to be a bunch of hetero male As and a bunch of female Bs? You know what happens. Women don't get hired unless they're willing to play along, flirt when they don't feel like it, or worse. Indeed, MathBabe ends her discussion with just such a warning: it's not OK to be sexual with someone "whose career you influence."

But here's the thing: in the modern world of 24-7 work and the "entrepreneur of the self," the people who work in your area or who could influence your career somehow ... well, isn't that almost everyone you ever meet? I don't know how your life works, but I feel like unless I went way out of my way to take a flower-arranging class or something like that, I would seldom meet people who are neither "colleagues" in the broad sense of doing what I do nor people who could in some way "influence" my career.

It's like there's a collision course between some sensible-sounding restriction on who you flirt, date, and hook up with, and the culture of modern life in which every relationship is kind of a work relationship. Put the two together and BOOM: there really isn't anyone in the green light category.

What's the answer? I don't know, but like MathBabe, I have a pro-love, pro-flirting, and pro-sex personal orientation, and from a larger perspective, wouldn't it be sad and bizarre if no one could ever flirt or hook up with or find true love with someone who shares their professional interests just because they do, in fact, share professional interests?

It's like, given the omnipresent nature of work in so many people's lives, a broad interpretation of the out-of-bounds rules would come down to no flirting ever. 

I don't know what to say except maybe, like so many things in modern life, it's not the sort of thing you can figure out by looking for general principles you can apply across the board. Maybe it depends on context, and tone, and particulars. We humans aren't always so good at deploying contextual and variable norms. tending as we do toward a love of commandments and categorical imperatives. But maybe with the nature of modernity, we're going to have to evolve into the next level.