Monday, July 27, 2015

Do Universities Need Departments Of What The Hell Is Going On?

I assign pretty contemporary stuff in class, so I was surprised and amused recently when my students recently started complaining that the texts I was assigning were too old -- so old, in fact, that they were having trouble reading them at all. "We can't read this!" they said. "It's written in a style we can't understand! Help!" I didn't say this out loud but I thought to myself, "We are not talking about Middle English or something here. These are articles from the 1970s! WTF."

Beyond just the complexities of understanding, I feel like there's a broader thing going on, a thing about wanting to learn about there Here and Now.

It's a trend away from learning old languages and deciphering old handwriting, away from studying the culture of Byzantium, away from curiosity about the writing system of the Shang Dynasty. It's a trend toward the study of, say, "American films of the 1980s," a trend toward interviewing English-speaking 60-year old living people as a kind of human primary texts.

In certain obvious ways, the study of the here and now is, well, easier than the study of the far away and the old -- and there's a certain kind of person who always gets a little eye-roll-y about this sort of thing. Sure, doesn't it seem like less work and more fun to go around interviewing people with questions like "And when you first saw Casablanca, how did you feel?" than it is to learn a new language or new way of thinking or whatever.

But I think there are actually good reasons for the surge of interest in the here and now. The main one is a widely shared feeling that these days, the here and now themselves feel foreign, obscure, confusing, and strange -- our own culture feels like something you'd need to really buckle down and do some serious research before you'd get a glimpse into what is happening and why.

As always with this sort of thing, I don't know if things are more complicated, or if they just seem more complicated because we know more, or if we're setting the bar higher, or what. But I do have a thought, which is that more than ever, "understanding what is going on" is not something you can outsource.

There used to be a sense that if wanted to know what is going on, you could look at an encyclopedia or the news. But now we're acutely aware of the ways in which various starting points, biases, and blind spots figure in. In fact, it might be in part the easy access we now have to the knowledge sources of the past that gives us pause about the knowledge sources of the present. It wasn't that long ago that we were measuring people's heads for racism.

Sometimes it seems like the deep complexity and elusive objectivity of thinking undermines the humanistic project, but in my mind it's exactly the opposite. The more complicated things are, the less likely that data and facts are going to help you understand, and the more you're going to need judgment and thinking.

If that's right, then to understand what the hell is going on in the here and now, you need to actually learn things, study up, read opposing views, get a backstory, ask some people, and think about things.

From that perspective, the obsession with the here and now would be a sign not of laziness or screen addiction but rather a proper recognition that we really don't understand what is hell is happening and someone better get on it.

Since higher education these days is all about catering to the customer base, how about it? Personally, I think a major in WTF Is Happening would sell like hotcakes.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Economic Concepts And Normative Entanglement

Don't you think it's kind of weird from the economic point of view "exercise more" could be a preferred weight loss strategy to "eat less"?

I feel like economics should have nothing to say on the subject. And in one sense, I'd say economics agrees with me: as a study of what causes what, as a set of theories or models about what happens when you do X or Y, economics just sits there. It can't have any particular normative content -- that is, it can't, by itself, say that one thing is better than another or that we should or ought to do something rather than something else.

In this way of seeing things, economic theory itself is neutral: it doesn't recommend any particular course of action. It's not until policy makers articulate goals that you can then put the theory to use in figuring out how to achieve those goals.

Theoretically, I think this is correct, but I'm often struck by how tangled up things get in practice and how difficult it is to keep the descriptive and the normative apart. It's a complex matter, but I think at least one important part of it has to do with concepts like "rational" and "efficient." Yes, in a sense you could use these concepts merely as descriptive terms, as devoid of evaluative or value-laden content. But it's not easy. How is calling something "rational" or "effiicent" not a way of recommending it? Or, even more strikingly, how is calling something "irrational" or "inefficient" not a way of criticizing it?

One reason it's very difficult, in practice, to use those concepts in the neutral descriptive way is that they are actually ordinary language concepts with deep connections to our lives. If a physicist says that the table is made of atoms, that doesn't give me any feelings about tables, particularly. I mean, it's interesting and maybe useful but I don't have any deep historical personal relation to the concepts involved. But if my mortgage broker tells me that preferring a fixed-rate mortgage is "irrational" -- how can I possibly interpret that as a neutral statement?

Some neutrality defenders I've spoken to have pointed out that each of these terms has a technical definition in economics which means they're not the same concepts as the loaded, normative ones we use when we're arguing with each other about whether it makes sense to eat cake or go to the gym or whatever.

I get that -- and theoretically, I think it's correct. But the problem is this: if the technical concepts aren't in some way connected to the ordinary concepts -- if they're really formal technical definitions like "atom" that have nothing to do with our lives, then how can we use the conclusions? There has to be some way of explaining how the formal definitions are related to things we want to do, like bringing about prosperity and justice and liberty through rational and efficient methods -- where these concepts are the ordinary concepts, not the technical ones.

So one thing I think happens -- and this happens not at the site of economic theory but out in the world where we're all just talking and thinking about what to do -- is that instead of thinking through the possibly fraught and complex relationships between the technical concepts and the ordinary ones, we just substitute in as if they're the same.

And that's where the strange things happen. If you think economic efficiency is good, and economic activity tends to produce it, you look at weight loss and you see immediately that, other things being equal, exercise tends to increase economic activity while eating less tends to decrease it.

Exercise often means gym memberships, special shoes, etc etc., while eating less tends to mean not buying extra cupcakes at the store. Weirdly, even following food guidelines for healthy eating seems to mean feeding yourself with less economic activity -- since you're eating less processed food and eating at home.

So, yes, in a sense, from the economic point of view "exercise more" could be a preferred weight loss strategy to "eat less." Given that there seems to be converging agreement that eating less might actually be a more successful strategy, it might be the case that what is good from the economic point of view might be opposed to our own individual good.

This is, of course, but the tiniest example, but I think similar mechanisms are at work in the large ones as well. Efficiency measures how things are overall and says nothing about individual rights or justice or whether the status quo is itself acceptable. If you take a society of rich people and poor people, and you just make the rich people better off, you have, in a sense, increased "efficiency."

Sure -- theoretically, you can use the term "efficient" in the technical sense in which it's a formal, value-neutral, concept and to say that something increases efficiency isn't a way of recommending it, and then you could go on to have a whole discussion about whether increasing overall efficiency by increasing the well-being of the well-off is a good thing to do in the given case or whether other things should happen.

But, for all kinds of reasons, that's often not how it goes in reality.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What Happened In The 80s, Anyway?

From the 1970s.

The other day a friend of mine mentioned they had something to show me: it was an economics text, they said, from the 70s, and it presented as obvious things like "economics is a moral science" -- meaning, I take it, that economics is inherently concerned with well-being and distributive justice and so on.

I immediately thought "Oh, yes -- of course. That was the 70s I knew." And then I thought, "What happened to that world, anyway?"

I mean the world with ads like the one at the top of the post, showing a little girl in overalls interested in building stuff with lego.

That's the world in which people talked about peace and justice all the time, dressed in goofy clothes like bell-bottoms for fun, and thought that, even though there were a lot of problems, it was possible things were going to get better and that someday we'd all be able to live in diverse neighborhoods in happy prosperity.

This might just be me, but I feel like now in 2015, after so many political and economic problems of the last few years, it's easy to slip into thinking of the narrative as essentially a simple expansion and contraction sort of thing. Like: idealism, following by tough times, producing widespread grasping self-centeredness.

But it's pretty obvious that that isn't it at all. In fact, there's that huge time in between: the 80s and 90s. It's crazy to me now to remember that when I quit math to do a PhD in philosophy in 1997, the world was in the middle of its dot com craze -- people acted like even pursuing a safe-course secure quiet job in scholarship was kind of nuts when you could make a fortune doing something else. Someone in my grad program actually quit to make money day trading.

No, the end-of-the-70s mood was something more complicated. I was born in 1966 and I went off to college in 1984, so I was the wrong age to be a reliable narrator. But what I remember most about that time was the sense that massive social forces had decided that Fun Was Over and it was time to Get Serious.

Hanging around the dorm one day, someone showed me an image that had been going around. It showed one Brooks Brothers' ad from the late 70s and one from the early 80s. They both showed a well-dressed white man from the back, and they were virtually identical, except that the earlier one had slightly longish rakish hair and the 80s one had a perfect, clipped, conservative cut. I remember we all thought, "Oh yeah: that about sums it up."

Half our class was going off to work for Goldman Sachs. Is it any wonder so many Gen-Xers became slackers?

So what happened? What was so great about Hungry Like the Wolf and Dirty Dancing that we had to give up KC and the Sunshine Band?

I'd been pondering these questions lately while listening to some disco, and I happened to read Arthur Chu's excellent essay linking the old anti-disco movement to the new #gamergate one.

Chu reminds us that that even in an era in which Christians "literally believed rock bands were Satanic cults who used backward masking to hypnotize people," the worst and most destructive violence against music "was wrought by guys who just didn’t like disco."

Indeed, people freaked out against disco. Chu mentions us of record burnings and the event in 1979 at Comiskey Park where disco records were burned and the crowd got so riled up they trashed the stadium and the cops had to be called in.

I remember at the time being confused. I wanted to be cool, and the anti-disco people were positioning themselves as the cool kids. But I loved disco. I thought disco was fun and great for dancing and an expression of the Life Force. I was concerned and upset: how could cool figure into my life if cool required being anti-disco?

Chu argues in his essay that the anti-disco force was in a deep sense a force of angry white guys, enraged at the empowerment of women, black people, and gays, and targeting disco because it was a vehicle of expression for just those forces.

The 70s, Chu says, were a time of great conflict and change, and were thus deeply disturbing to the people who stood to lose out somehow through those changes. Those who had a social status to lose lashed out, struck back, not because "disco" was somehow "fake" but because they didn't want the change they thought was coming.

I think he's right. And I think that if he's right, part of the answer to what happened in the 80s has to do with fear and hatred.

It's less a story of tough times leading to renewed self-interest, and more a story of rage and backlash -- a story of people desperate to hold onto and reassert their relative importance over other people.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Dream Of The Fundamental Law Of Human Behavior: WTF?

One of the trends in modern thinking that really mystifies and annoys me is the dream of the simple fundamental law of human behavior. What is up with that?

In fact I'm mystified and annoyed both by the credulity -- the belief that there is a simple fundamental law of human behavior -- and also by the desire -- the hope that there's a fundamental law of human behavior. What kind of person sees humanity this way?

I mean, it's one thing to think we're like overgrown mice -- the kind of animals whose behavior might be well understood through a massive data-oriented approach with mazes and observational studies and NHS funding. Though I've always had my doubts about the fruitfulness of this style of thinking, I don't find it alienating. I mean, in some ways we are like overgrown mice. I understand the appeal of an animalistic self-conception.

But the dream of the simple fundamental law seems to requires seeing humans not as overgrown mice but more like ... I don't know, planets or something. Large, inanimate bodies whose movement through space and time can be charted with trigonometry and laws like F=ma.

What kind of person wants to see humans -- wants to see themselves -- this way?

In a recent Facebook Q and A, the physicist Stephen Hawking asked Mark Zuckerberg which of the big questions in science he most wanted to know the answer to. Zuckerberg said, reasonably enough, that he was interested in questions having to do with people, like how they learn.

He then went on to say this:

"I’m also curious about whether there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about. I bet there is."

He's surely not alone with his dream. But WTF?

For one thing, why think there's a law like this? While it's true we have some simple fundamental mathematical laws in physics, the fact that such simple laws work is widely regarded not as commonsensical but rather as a kind of miracle.

In 1960, Eugene Wigner wrote a classic article "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Science." Toward the end, he says:

"The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve."

If it's a mystery and a "miracle" that mathematics works so well in describing things like planets and F=ma, why would you think it'll work in the same way for people, who seem so complicated?

But for another thing, why is this someone's fantasy or dream? I don't even get what's appealing about it. Suppose you did find some law like that. Now you see humans not just as part of the machine of the universe, but as a predictable part of the the machine -- a part you could use a pencil to work out where we're going from where we've been.

What's to like? Suppose you did find some basic law, so that what seems like the vast multiplicity of human feeling and culture and motivation, what looks like the incredible fabric of life, it really all comes down to the X factor. You go about your day, and instead of seeing kindness and anger and art and food and cooperation and conflict and music and flirting, you say smugly to yourself, "well, sure -- but it's really X, X, X, X, X, X, X, and X."

Who can see this as a dream come true?

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Hegemony Of Improvement Culture, Or, Why Can't I Just Enjoy BodyAttack?

BodyAttack: doesn't it look like fun?
There this group exercise class I love called BodyAttack. If you told me when I was a kid that some day I would grow up to enjoy a sports-inspired work-out class with athletic moves like sit-ups and squats I would definitely have said you were nuts. You think I'm going to go to gym class by choice? No.

But for me, BodyAttack is way fun. It's the way things are fun when you're a seven-year-old: you're running and jumping around to music, all with other people who are also having fun. It's a super-intense work out, and even though the official description uses phrases like "intervals" and "plyometrics," there's actually a lot of just goofy exuberance.

There are silly moves, like where you're doing jumping jacks and every fourth one you jump as high as you can. There's the anthemic track 8, which is basically a high-intensity chorus line to an emotional pop song. There's an outstanding mix of songs like the hip-hop track "Dibby Dibby Sound" and the impossible-to-classify "Hardcore Salsa 2K14 (Hardstyle Edit)."

I went to BodyAttack in Paris, and you know what they do there? They do the class in the dark with blue disco lights. Clearly, I am not the only one who thinks BodyAttack is fun.

Now. You would think that any sensible person, having found a healthy-well-rounded form of exercise that they really enjoy, would be in seventh heaven. You want to exercise and have fun? Just go to the class.

And yet such is the perverseness of some aspect of my psychology that I find this outlook almost impossible to hold on to. I find it extremely difficult to think of BodyAttack as an end in itself. Instead, I'm constantly thinking I need to use the fitness I've gained through BodyAttack to do Something Else.

Like -- maybe I should try to go beyond being pretty fit to become "super-fit." I could start going to the BodyPump weightlifting class, cut the empty wine calories, become one of those people who eats boiled chicken breast and lettuce for every meal.

Or maybe I should take up some intense and time-consuming new athletic activity, like snowboarding or surfing.

Or maybe I should train for some "goal-oriented" end point like a triathlon, or a race, or something.

But the truth is, I don't want to do any of these things. I like BodyAttack. The one activity I could see adding is dance class of some kind -- I used to dance as a young person, and it is fun. But even there -- am I really going to add that class time to the already large amounts of time I'm spending just exercising? Every time I try to put that idea into action, there are just too many other things to do in the day.

Typically, having cycled through and rejected all of these ideas, I come back to the obvious idea that there's already something I'm doing that I like doing, so what the hell is the problem with just doing that?

Well, this is territory we've touched on before. I'm a bar-raiser from way back: no matter what good thing we are talking about, I usually adjust immediately to think of that as the baseline. Then I'm like -- OK life, but what have you done for me lately?

I'm also a first-derivative sort of girl. It's not enough to have happiness and pleasure, you have to feel that the pleasure and happiness are on the upswing. You can't just do a fun thing. The fun thing has to get bigger, stronger, better, FUNNER.

I also have a problem with a pleasant day. What, I'm just going to go do a fun thing because .. it was fun? What's the point of that?

But it takes two to tango, and it's not just me making this problem. Remember, we're in the great fun crisis of the 21st century. No one does things because they're fun anymore. You can't even walk into a gym these days without someone assaulting you about what your goals are and how if you don't have goals you'll never move forward to achievement.

The whole tracking/life hacking mood of modern life is like "Oh, you're doing that thing? Don't you want to do that thing better? Or do a different better thing? Are you sure you're doing the thing better than other people and the best you can possible do yourself?"

What the hell happened to doing things just because ... they're things you want to do? Does that concept not even make sense for us anymore?

What really gets me though, at the end of the day, is that having thought about these things, and seen through the difficulties, and actually written it all out -- you'd think I could put it all behind me, just go to the stupid class, and have a good time, and listen to DJ Fresh and think about the blue disco lights.

But I can't. Such is the relative impotence of rational thought.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Château Rouge Experience: I'm An Outsider Here But It Feels Like Home

Château Rouge. I took this last winter but you get the idea.

I've been in Paris for two weeks, and lately when I come to Paris I always stay in the same place, and this place just happens to be in a neighborhood called Château Rouge.

It's an area with a lot of people who come from, or have roots in, Francophone Africa, and there are lots of shops with West African food, music, clothing, cosmetics, and so on.

It's also an area with an intense street life scene. During the day there are crowds of people in the street. Some of them seem to be just hanging around with their pals. Some of them are selling things: cellphones, handbags, cigarettes, belts, roasted peanuts, a mysterious vegetable that looks like a mini-eggplant, other things.

There are like four butcher shops in a one-block radius, and they do things the old fashioned way -- so if you come out in the morning, you might find a truck with four giant carcasses hanging, waiting to be brought in and cut up, while people are hanging around, talking to the workers and to each other.

In some ways, I am very far from being a part of this community. For one thing, I often don't even know what is going on. Those people selling mini-eggplants: what's going on there? There are plenty of food stores -- are these people really just selling a vegetable? How can they make any money that way, especially given that so many people do it? Is it cover for some other kind of exchange?

Often at the corner there are women hanging around. I'd assumed there was something sex-work related going on, but then the other day I saw a couple deep in conversation with one of them over the contents of a strange looking box -- like a child's jewelry box, or a super-fancy cigar box. WTF?

I tell you one thing: I'm not going to go around asking a lot of questions. I speak some French, but I am not really fluent, and in my experience, you have to have some pretty sophisticated language subtlety not to seem like an asshole if you wander into some world from outside and start questioning everyone.

In fact, all the questions I can even think of seem obviously rude. What am I going to do, say "Are you really selling mini-eggplants and how is that a money-making venture or is there really something else going on?' I don't think so.

So: there's definitely a sense in which I walk down the street and people are doing there thing and I'm doing my thing and other than basics like holding doors, there's not too much interaction.

But the weird thing about it is this: not only do I really like this neighborhood, I actually feel kind of at home here. Like when I've been out and about in Paris all day, and I get out of the Château Rouge Metro station into the crowds of people spilling off the sidewalks and filling the streets, talking and shouting, trying to sell me a cell phone or some weird perfume, I kind of relax a little, and think to myself, "OK, back home."

For a while this feeling puzzled me a bit, and I didn't trust it. I wondered if maybe I just felt judged by white Parisians, and projected certain attitudes onto them, and in Château Rouge felt the absence of that.

But over time, I came to realize that the Château Rouge Experience is actually very like an experience that was a big and important part of my childhood. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy who settled near Boston, and when I was little, often on the weekends I'd accompany my father as he brought my grandmother to shop at the Little Italy markets in Boston's famous "North End."

The scene was always chaos. People were selling all kinds of food and other things. I remember lots of aimless shouting and joking around, and every purchase came with lots of haggling -- or some kind of discussion I was too young to follow. Usually I would get a crushed ice treat or something, which made my day. 

Even as a kid I remember the chaos of it drove my father nuts -- the way you couldn't just walk from point A to point B because there were a million people in your way, the sense of people just hanging around, not really there to do something specific, the way every transaction took forever.  My father was a man who loved order -- a man who regularly obsessed about the importance of trains running on time, even though he drove a car to work -- and the North End was designed to get under his skin.

Of course, I didn't like to see my father unhappy. But otherwise I remember our trips with great fondness. I liked to see all the different things and different foods and different people, and it always felt so full of life there.

My mother reminded me recently of something from my childhood I hadn't thought about in ages: that sometimes in the North End, people who had to do business in a shop but couldn't find parking would just stop and leave their cars -- in the middle of a narrow street, so all the traffic behind them would just have to wait. My father would get so mad, he'd start pounding his fist on the car armrest in frustration.

Then just the other day I was walking back in Château Rouge, and there was a van in the middle of the road, and it was empty, the driver obviously having gotten out to do business in some shop and having left the van in the road. Behind the van where four cars, and their drivers were freaking out, four people pounding on four car horns in four different keys.

Château Rouge: just like home!

About a week ago, some people put up a mural in the neighborhood. It's in the photo below. I get that there's a Red Castle in it -- literally, a "Château Rouge." But a Rubik's cube? But what the hell else is going on in this image?

Well anyway -- I like it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Philosophical Melancholia

Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I, via Wikimedia Commons

Though I am, overall, a much happier person than I was when I was young, as an adult I've experienced a a lot of what I like to think of as melancholia. By melancholia I mean some mix of sadness, low life force, discouragement, and a feeling of "Oh, whatever, what's the point."

I suppose my melancholia bears some relationship the modern problem we think of as depression, but I don't think they are the same thing. I don't have any of the typical symptoms always mentioned in connection with depression. I have an excellent appetite; I sleep well and exercise a lot; I get things done and with most things I'm not even really a procrastinator. If I go through an internet depression quiz/checklist, it might say that if you check six out eight boxes checked that's a warning sign -- but I'll have only checked one box: the one that says "I feel sad, like life has no point."

To me, nothing captures this feeling better than Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving, "Melencolia I," at the top of this post.

Because my rise in melancholic feelings seems to correlate with the time I've spent studying philosophy, I've often wondered if there is something about philosophical thinking -- or about a certain kind of thinking, more broadly -- that encourages melancholia.

And I think in my own case, anyway, the answer is yes. In fact, I think there are direct causal connections between my thinking philosophically and my feeling melancholic. I'm sure the mechanisms are complex, but here are a few thoughts.

One difficulty, for me at least, seems to be the effect of constantly forcing myself to take a perspective from which I am at best just one person among others and at worst a speck in the universe. I don't mean the kind of destabilization you get looking at the stars or something -- it's not, I think, the mere fact of being unspecial relative to everything else, it's more the shift in perspective of caring, of thinking about what matters or what is important.

For example, like most people, I'd expect, I have the experience that from within my life, the little things that make up my little world assume huge significance and importance to me. Relationships, intellectual projects, of course -- but even things like how should I wear my hair, whether to see a movie, whether to cook or go out to eat, whether I should try harder to learn French -- absorb my mind, fill it up, tie me to life.

But even one minute of a certain kind of reflection shows my concerns to be of virtually no importance whatsoever in the grand scheme of things.

Sometimes, they seem worse than insignificant: there are horrible things going on in the world, injustice and suffering, and you're seriously thinking about hairstyles, movies, and treats?

Other times, they seem like mere moves in a massive social scheme that has little to do with me or what I might "choose" or not choose to do. Probably you've all had this experience: you take one step back from concepts like "hairstyle," "movie" and even "food" -- and you find yourself in a dizzying array of considerations about sexism and beauty norms and Hollywood and glamorization and animal rights and environmentalism and so on and so forth etc. etc. etc.

These are all fine and important thoughts to have. My problem is that in doing philosophy, I form the habits of mind that make that dizzying array not so much a place I visit occasionally to understand the world, but more like my inner mental home. And as an inner mental home, it's horrible. At least for me, it's a profoundly alienating and cold place to spend a lot of time -- like trying to live on the Moon and breathe oxygen through a straw.

Then, too, there's a sense in which philosophical reflection itself often seems to take the form of "what is the point." How ought we to live? Why do this or that? Well -- doesn't this often come to down, "Ultimately, what is the point?"

In some contexts I think this is an OK question to ask. But the problem is that it's a question that, if you're not careful, will spread like kudzu through your days and nights, leaving you staring blankly at the ceiling, trapped in a singularity of philosophical interrogation, until, if you're lucky, you're rescued by friends, or hunger, or some everyday obligation like doing the laundry that just can't be put off any longer.

None of this is to say philosophical thinking isn't necessary, important, and good, because I absolutely think it is. It's just that too much of it might make a person sad, as I think it does me.

If you, too, have the symptoms of philosophical melancholia -- which can, of course, strike anyone at any time -- my advice is: though it might seem tempting, do not try to think yourself out of it.

Just put down the thoughts and walk away.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why Blaming "Corporate Greed" Is Misplaced and Naive

Edvard Munch, Workers on their Way Home, via Wikimedia Commons

It always bugs me when I see references to "corporate greed" as part of an explanation for why some bad worker-related thing is happening. It especially bugs me when lefties and progressives refer to it. Because it seems to me that referring to "corporate greed" is basically buying in to the whole "individual responsibility" anti-legislation anti-labor rhetoric that lefties and progressives usually think of as "the other side."

I was reminded of this last week when the New York Times ran this story describing how Disney laid off all these tech workers and replaced them with people from other countries on H-1B visas who would be cheaper to pay. The kicker was that to receive their severance packages, the employees had spend three months training their replacements.

In the commentary on this story, people regularly mentioned corporate greed as part of the explanation for how something like this could happen (see, e. g., the comments to this blog post). The idea being, I guess, that an ethical corporation treats its labor force as people -- people they're in a certain relationship with, and to whom they owe consideration and obligations.

It's a nice idea, but I think it fails to grapple with the deeply competitive set-up of capitalism as it exists in our world -- where it's basically guaranteed that if you're not equally ruthless as your competition, you'll fail.

In fact, in the business section of papers like the Times, the rhetoric is all about how to be nimbler and more flexible than your competition, so you can increase profits, so you can make shareholders happy. Especially if your industry is competitive, if you can't do those things, you're over.

So now, faced with that situation, the reason corporations are supposed to treat their employees well even if it costs more is ... that the people in charge are somehow good inside? And who is supposed to say "the buck stops here," exactly? The middle manager who's been charged with cutting costs? Is that person supposed to say "Oh yes, I know I'll be fired, but it's OK." Or the president of the board? Is that person supposed to say "Oh yes, I know the competition will undercut us with such lower prices that our company will go under, but it's OK."

This seems to me the same kind of "individual responsibility" thinking that props up so many ideas I find offensive, that somehow each person is supposed to rise above the crazy social pressures they find themselves in, that somehow if you decide to do something because you find it's the best of a bunch of shitty options, that somehow "Oh, well you *chose* it so you're *stuck with it*."

The pressures of capitalism are long known. Adam Smith understood that businesses would have huge incentives to collude with one another and misbehave in various ways, leading to bad outcomes. Smith figured that with the right laws and institutional frameworks, you could prevent that misbehavior. 

I don't know if that's true or if the problem goes deeper than that. But I do think appealing to the inner moral compass of individual business persons is pretty much a non-starter.

Monday, June 1, 2015

"Welcome To Me" Is Funny And Not Stupid. So Why Don't People Want To See It?

Kristin Wiig as Alice Krieg, in "Welcome to Me."

Last weekend, I went to see that movie "Welcome to Me." I'd never seen a movie or anything else with Kristin Wiig, so obviously I've been living under a rock or something.

In case you don't know, the movie is about a person named Alice who has borderline personality disorder and who wins a lottery, decides to go off her meds, then makes a series of troubling decisions -- including the decision to spend part of her fortune bankrolling her own TV show, "Welcome to Me," that is all about herself and her life.

Can I say right now: I think this an outstanding premise for a movie. Doesn't any one else? We'll get to that in a moment.

Against all odds, Alice's show becomes popular. There's a great scene in which a young nerdy graduate student interviews her about her radical new approach to visual arts. What was up with the raw emotional life reenactments? And why did those have cross-racial casting? Was she influenced by Cindy Sherman? Alice: Oh, you mean from Laverne and Shirley?

I loved that sequence, because the student's reflections seemed both stupid and silly but also interesting and true, which so many things are -- but you never get to really say so because you'll sound pretentious or you'll hurt somebody's feelings or something. It's brilliant that eventually Alice does come to see herself as an artist.

Eventually, as you can imagine, things spiral out of control, and I'm sure I'm not revealing anything unexpected when I say there are Life Lessons and Reflections on True Friendship and Subplots of Loss and Redemption.

My favorite thing about this movie was that it was funny and sad, sometimes at the same time. Doesn't it seem like funny and sad is becoming an endangered species in movies? Why is that?

There's a great scene where Alice is organizing a TV reenactment of a moment from her childhood where someone was mean to her, and it is ridiculously over the top with costumes, period details from the 1980s, and Alice's outsized need to share her internal pain with a TV audience. It is very funny. Suddenly something goes wrong with the reenactment, and Alice bursts into tears. It is very sad. But it is also still very funny.

It's not funny and sad in the mean way, where you're laughing at someone. It's funny and sad in the good way, the same way it's funny and sad that someone can simultaneously see themselves as a TV superstar and also be crushed because one classmate mocked them a million years ago. That dichotomy is certainly not particular to mental illness -- in fact it seems to me to pretty much sum up the human condition.

I also loved the fact that Alice-on-her-meds and Alice-off-her-meds were clearly the same person. It would have been so easy to make some stupid, pandering, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde bullshit. Alice off her meds gets upset, and is worse at making decisions that she doesn't regret later. But otherwise she's the same Alice.

The big question about this movie, and the one I've returned to ponder over the last few days, is why so few people want to see it. Sure, it's not Hangover III, but it's not 45 minutes of someone eating a mushroom. It's not even "My Dinner with André."

Most movies I like that no one else likes I know immediately why. They're European, or they have subtitles, or they're too thinky with not enough action, or whatever. But this is a comedy, with positive reviews, a famous and attractive movie star, sex and sight gags, and a great modern premise relating to fame and insecurity and all the important twenty-first-century things.

So WTF? Why a very limited theater release with simultaneous hoopla streaming?

Is it because mental illness is still such a scary topic to people? Is it because funny and sad has become too difficult to fit into modern life? Is it because it's about the life of a woman, and, god forbid, actually passes the Bechdel test? Is there some new thing where only guys being gross and aggressive counts as funny? 

I honestly don't know.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Favors and Gender and Helping: It's Complicated

I went to a conference in another city last weekend, and since I love public transportation, I was determined to use the city buses to get around. The system was a little confusing, but people were friendly and nice and helped me figure out where I was going.

Thus I found myself at around 6:15pm on a Friday sitting in the front of a city bus -- you know, the seats that face the middle -- in my nice conference clothes, with my backpack on my lap and my suitcase somewhat precariously to the left of my legs, paying close attention to the street names so I didn't miss my stop.

In the middle of my ride, a guy got on. He was late middle aged and paunchy, wearing causal clothes and -- this is the important part -- carrying too many things. In particular, he had a bag over his shoulder, a sort of binder for papers in one hand, and a large cup of coffee in the other.

I don't know if you're familiar with the problem of carrying too many things on public transit, but I am. When you take the bus or subway, you have to get out your card or money or whatever and show it or put it in the slot, which means you need at least one free hand. This means that, unless all your other objects are organized in the most precise possible way, carrying a cup of coffee is not going to work.

Incidentally, one effect of this for me is that it's a motivation to think of "drinking coffee" as a thing that takes place sitting down somewhere, something you finish before you move on to the next thing of "getting on the bus" or "going somewhere." To me, that's a feature not a bug, but I realize this could be a subject of profound disagreement.

Anyway, as I saw the guy get on, I thought, "how is he going to pay?" He's carrying too many things. He paused and considered his situation. Then he turned to me, held out the coffee, and said, "Here, could you hold this?"

I'm not going to lie. My first reaction was to feel annoyed and put out. Then stopped to consider why I was so irritated. Hadn't so many strangers been nice to me that day already? WTF?

There were several answers. Partly it was the way he asked, which was not in the tone of "Oh, could you help me?" but rather in the tone of, "Here, do this thing I need done." Partly it was the fact that, as I'd have thought obvious, I was already juggling multiple items of my own. Partly it was the fact that I was in my nice conference clothes, not really dressed for hostessing duties.

Partly it was the fact that this is not a problem that takes one by surprise. It's not like you can't foresee that when you get on the bus you're going to need to do something with your hands to facilitate paying. Why should this failure to plan become my problem?

As I considered these issues, I had to ask myself whether part of my irritation was gendered. Was I partly annoyed simply because it was a guy who'd asked me, and I was a woman?

Well, the answer is yes. I might be mistaken, but I think there's no way a guy would ask another guy in a nice suit and expensive shoes to hold his coffee on a bus. At least, there's no way it would be done in that tone of making a demand.

I tried to imagine a woman asking me to hold her coffee. I did feel immediately that I'd be far less likely to be annoyed in such a case, but I think this is mostly because of the tone of asking. I found it impossible to realistically imagine a woman asking me in that peremptory tone. In fact, many women have asked me to do things for them over the years, and it's pretty much always the same tone. I'm sorry to bother you. I need help with something. Could you please help me for a moment?

In fact the coffee story reminded me of another thing that happened last fall when I was having a McMuffin in a food court before an early morning bus ride, and a pregnant woman came up to me demanding I help her take off her boots. I admit, I hesitated -- but I'm happy to say only for a moment. She was in intense pain, she told me, because her feet were so swollen and and she couldn't get them off. I looked down and saw she was wearing those kind of rubber boots that have no give and no laces and no straps. Uh oh.

It took us like ten minutes of huffing and puffing to get those boots off. I pulled and pulled, she anchored herself with her arms and pulled the other way, and I twisted and turned the boots and checked to make sure I wasn't hurting her. We rested and resumed. Midway, she assured me that after she got them off she was never putting them back on again -- an assurance I appreciated actually, since it suggested all this effort wasn't just some kind of Sisyphean thing. I happened to be the only woman in the food court at that time, and the guys all around us were watching with that mild interest you pay when nothing else is going on and something is happening.

We were both thrilled when the boots came off. She thanked me, and I washed my hands and went back to my food, and she went up in her stocking feet to get something to eat. As I left the food court I saw she was gone and the boots were settled on top of the garbage can.

With the coffee guy on the bus, I did hold his coffee, but as I did it I fixed him with a look, a look that basically said, "Are you kidding me?" If you know me, you know that I can give that look pretty effectively. I'm hoping that next time he plans ahead, and gets his bus pass out before getting on.