Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Modern Condition: No Slack In The System

There was maybe going to be a transit strike this past Monday in the area where I work, starting this Monday. It didn't happen, because of a tentative agreement reached late Sunday night. But it got me thinking about the ways that systems of modern life are so tightly wound that any disruption is like the end of the world.

Of course, having a major bus system stop functioning is a big deal no matter what the time and place. But it feels like these days, especially, a lot of people have employment that is particularly inflexible, precarious, and high-pressure. Work schedules can be posted late. Failure to obey the schedules can result in reprimands and dismissals. Quotas are set for a range of criteria and if you can't meet them, well -- you're screwed.

I don't know if you've been following the news about the Amazon warehouses, and how the pickers are under constant surveillance, not allowed to sit ever, forced to aim for a "target rate" of 100-120 items an hour. This story describes how Mail UK deals with employees as independent contractors, so that if they get sick, they not only don't get paid, they have to pay for replacement workers; a worker was charged £216 per day of absence after got hit by a car while delivering packages. Bankers across Canada are told if they can't upsell enough products to people who don't need them, they'll be fired.

But it's not only labor where there's no slack in the system. If you ever fly these days, you know that if something goes wrong with your plane, or a crew member gets sick, or there's bad weather or whatever, there's no "Oh, we'll get another plane' or "Oh, we'll put you on the next one." The planes are all in use; the crew are all maxed out; the planes are all full. There is no duplication, or overlap, or plan B, or whatever.

One thing about this that interests me is that although I have used a negative formulation to describe the phenomenon I am talking about, there is another description of the same thing, a positive one, one you'd probably find more often in the Business Section of the paper, and that is: "It's efficient."

It's efficient in one ordinary sense of the word: you're doing as much as you can with the "resources" you have. Amazon moves a ton of stuff for low financial cost. Planes fly a ton of people with lower fares. UK Mail made a profit of £16m last year when it was bought out by the Deutsche Post DHL Group.

You can ask the question of why "no slack in the system" seems to be so dramatically on the rise, but once you notice that "no slack" is also "financially efficient," you start to wonder about other things, like why this didn't happen earlier, or why there used to be so much flexibility, easy-goingness, and duplication, or why this is all happening now.

To these questions I do not have answers. Is it that electronic communication made possible a tightness that wasn't possible before? Is it that globalization and the financial crisis made everyone focus their attention on the bottom line? Is it a cultural thing involving negative attitudes toward labor and consumer protections? Or maybe it's actually been a really gradual thing that just seemed dramatic to me?

There's a point of view from which an important part of the explanation of things like this involves "corporate greed." The idea is that in a normal world, corporations are happy to make a moderate amount of money, and prioritize other things like worker well-being and so on. So the problem is that "greedy" corporations are trying to make a lot of money, instead of a moderate amount of money. And so they can't prioritize anything else.

As I've explained before, I think this explanation is inaccurate and possibly naive. In a modern capitalist marketplace context, the pressures toward efficiency are enormous. If you're less efficient, you'll just get run out of town by some other organization that can offer the same product for a lower price. In fact, this is just what we've seen over and over again, with smaller retailers going out of business because Amazon, Walmart, and so on are so hyper efficient. So: often it's efficiency or die.

I don't know whether we ought to do anything about the slack-freeness involved in things like having no planes sitting around unused. Fewer and more packed airplanes is actually better from the environmental point of view.

But when it comes to workers, my sense is that the slack-free workplace is horrible for people. It creates jobs that are massively stressful and ruin people's health and well-being. It illustrates something we've talked about before: that what is efficient when you're measuring money is not always what is "efficient" at producing good outcomes overall -- assuming "good outcomes" includes personal well-being and happiness of people.

Given the competitive nature of capitalism, it seems to me any solution will have to be systemic, and will have to involve labor laws, worker organizations and so on. Given that the bus driver's union Unifor Local 4303 retweeted a link to this webpage, about fairness in labor laws, including a comment about how "fair work schedules" means "2 week's notice," I'm guessing they're thinking the same sort of thing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Humanities Teaching Is Difficult And Time-Consuming

Before I studied philosophy, I studied math. I was working on a PhD in set theory when I became less interested in how-do-you-prove-the-theorem and more interested in questions like what-does-it-mean-if-you-can't-prove-or-disprove-the-theorem?

Among other things, this means that before I started studying philosophy I spent a certain amount of time teaching mathematics. I started as a teaching assistant for introductory courses like Calculus and Statistics, and then I was a teaching assistant for more advanced courses like Differential Equations, and then toward the end I taught a few classes myself, including one on how to do mathematical proofs.

Math is hard. But I found teaching mathematics to be mostly straightforward and rewarding. Students are usually externally motivated to learn: they want to do physics, or engineering, or more advanced math, or whatever, and to do it they have to learn some math. Except in the case of bogus requirements -- like baby calculus for no reason for majors like business to "weed out" students they didn't like  -- the importance and relevance of the subject was relatively obvious.

At the level of undergraduate teaching at least, math is also coherent and unchanging. Because of the nature of the subject, the same kinds of things confuse people, and similar kinds of questions arise again and again. Once I had explained concepts like limits, differentiation, and integration a few times, the ideas were cemented in my head in such a way that very little teaching preparation was required.

On top of everything else, because math is obviously difficult, a teacher's ability to break down difficult concepts to make them seem simple earns them great respect. And this was something I was relatively good at.

Several years into the process of studying for a PhD in math I switched to philosophy. I've now been teaching philosophy in one form or another for ... well, a lot of years. And my personal opinion is that teaching philosophy is way more difficult and way more time-consuming than teaching mathematics. I don't have a lot of experience with the other humanities, but it is my belief that the reasons apply to humanities teaching generally.

Those reasons are several. For one thing, math seems difficult and a teacher is there to make it seem simpler, but in the humanities, it's often necessary to start by taking something that seems simple and showing students how difficult it is. I teach ethics, and philosophy of sex and love, and contemporary moral problems, and philosophy of economics. In all of these areas there's a sense in which a student already knows what they think about things, and part of my job is to complicate that -- to raise questions about things that seem obvious, to showcase views that seem counter-intuitive, and to just generally show how many different factors and perspectives can come into play.

This is intellectually difficult, and it can also be emotionally draining. How do you frame the issues when students are coming into the room with very different background assumptions - and you don't even know what those background assumptions are? How do you encourage people to speak up when part of your job is to suggest they might be totally wrong? How, exactly, do you figure out the line between constructively challenging existing beliefs and just being a contrarian pain in the ass?

Some people love the way humanities thinking challenges them, but other people find it exhausting and annoying. Sometimes science students in my ethical thinking class tell me how frustrated they are by the lack of a "right answer" in philosophy. I sympathize! It can be frustrating as hell. Unfortunately, the problems we're talking about are the ones that don't have straightforward answers, so it's the best we can do to muddle through.

Another factor, of course, is the variation and unpredictability of what kinds of things are going to come up. The social and cultural world we're living in makes different things seem obvious in different times. Even just contingently there are classrooms where one thing seems really important that didn't seem important to some other group.

This variation and unpredictability is, of course, part of what makes humanities teaching so important, relevant, engaging, and fun. But it also means that while teaching an interactive mathematics class can feel like a going through a play you're performed a thousand times, teaching an interactive humanities class can feel like a high-wire act where the tricks are constantly changing.

And finally, of course, there's grading. While mathematics grading can be time-consuming (when I did it, we didn't just grade yes-or-no, we looked at student work for partial credit) it's not like grading a paper -- work that combines engaging with someone's novel ideas and helping them toward an amorphous goal like "writing well." As we've discussed before, it takes a lot of time and energy, and it's not something you can scale up.

A few times recently I happened to be in large university group settings, where people were coming from a range of disciplines. And in that context, I heard some remarks about how, from the point of view of the sciences, what we humanities might regard as a large-ish class -- like, 50 or 100 students -- is to them a very small class. No one said it, but I felt the suggestion that somehow we humanities people weren't pulling our weight, that what we were doing was some kind of niche thing, cute and nice if you can afford it, but not really where the action is.

And I can't really say, because I have no experience teaching science. I only taught math -- which to me is a completely different kettle of fish. But from my perspective, the time and energy to teach a philosophy class is way more than the time and energy of teaching a mathematics class. Even when the classes are a lot smaller.

None of this is meant as a complaint. I love university students, and I love being around them. I think the people who criticize the younger generation for being phone-obsessed and jobless are wrong and ill-informed, and that today's young people are the hope of the future. I regard helping these young people understand the complex world around them as one of the best things anyone can do.

I'm just saying: for me, anyway, teaching about utilitarianism is way harder than teaching what it means to take the limit as h goes to zero.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Nudge Versus Trust In Modern Politics

Maybe you're encountered the concept of "Nudge," in which framing choices in various ways can push people toward doing certain things without directly forcing them to do those things. In a relatively innocuous example, you might notice that in a cafeteria setting, people choose more vegetables when vegetables, instead of desert, are placed right up front, and as the cafeteria director you might decide that is a Good Thing.

Nudge grows out of the theory of behavioral economics. Behavioral economists noticed that not only are people irrational, they are systematically irrational -- they fail to do things that seem in their otherwise best interest, because they don't have great impulse control, or because they're not good reasoners, and so on -- and they fail in predictable ways. Nudging exploits that predictability to shape outcomes.

I consider myself a progressive and a lefty, and you might think that this political orientation and the idea of nudging would go hand in hand. Progressives want to bring about change on big complicated things like protecting the environment, where collective action is really difficult -- maybe nudging people toward energy conservation would be a good idea? Progressives often see people as influenced by context and culture, rather than as atomic and autonomous individuals creating their own self-made way in the world -- if people are affected by context and culture, why not try to make that work for us rather than against us? And examples like the cafeteria speak to me. I am just the kind of person who wants to be nudged toward eating more vegetables, and I'm just the kind of person who recognizes that nudging could work.

But nudging is often creepy. For one thing, it's described as "value-neutral" -- nudgers are just helping you do what you would do if you weren't so systematically irrational. But this is just implausible. How do you know what what people would do if they weren't so systematically irrational? In fact, you have no idea.

As we've discussed before, the person who eats a lot of desert may be irrational. But they might also be rationally satisfying a strongly felt preference for cake over the things that you get from foregoing cake. People have priorities other than living longer, and as Paula Poundstone says: What part of Ring-Dings make my life worth living do you not understand? As has been pointed out (e. g. in this book by my friend Mark White), the risk is that policy makers are projecting their own sense of what matters onto the situation.

As time went on, and the more I saw nudges in action, the more suspicious I became. And then a couple of weeks ago I read this New Yorker article about the use of behavioral economics and nudging in the context of the Flint water crisis. When I first saw the topic, I was like, WTF? The people who behaved badly in the Flint water crisis weren't the citizens. They were the government agencies and representatives who made a terrible decision to divert the water sources to save money, then covered it up and lied about it, then blamed one another, then failed to do anything to fix it. Was the author going to talk about nudging top-level decision-makers? Now that would be interesting!

No, of course that wasn't it. The article was about how you could create structures that would get people to do things like get and believe up to date information, and act on that information by doing things like changing filters and so on.

I guess filter changing reminders are reasonably innocuous in the circumstances. But, as the author of the article kept bringing up, the real problem between the citizens and the government Flint wasn't about information and facts and "rational behavior." It was about trust. The citizens didn't trust official representatives to tell them the truth about the water situation. And FFS, why would they? They'd been lied to and manipulated from this end to that. And now someone shows up saying they're from the government and they're there to get you to do some things rather than some other things and believe this thing rather than that?

Reading this story I just felt what a profound disconnect there seemed to be between the nature of the problem and the proposal on offer. Trust was destroyed. And the situation in Flint is still fucked up. And yet people want to use brain science to figure out a "strategy" for getting the citizens to do one thing rather than another? 

There's a fascinating exchange toward the end of the piece, when the behavioral team meets with a local activist. There are immediate cultural disconnects -- like where the activist offers to share some special fried chicken and the team members decline because they're vegetarians. But eventually the activist asks the team to just talk about how they're feeling since the election, and the main point person sort of breaks down and talks about how shitty and frightened she feels. And this is what creates some connection, and some trust, between them. Because it's people being honest with each other.

I think trust -- and its erosion -- has played an important and complicated role in a lot of recent politics. Obviously people have started getting their information from different sources, and it's often been noted that the body of shared facts and background we can all rely on in talking with one another is getting smaller and smaller.

This is often described as if some people, and not others, are just failing to judge in accordance with the evidence, willfully ignoring the facts in favor of their own opinions. And sure, there is some of this going on. But at a deeper level the problem is also a problem of trust. People don't trust the same sources as sources of evidence and facts, and they don't trust each other. 

It's frustrating to me to hear people talk about the lack of shared belief like it's a relatively straightforward (if difficult) problem -- where people just have to be brought around to proper belief formation. Maybe we can all get better at how we figure out what to believe. But this start to this process won't be a top-down nudge style step. In fact, a top-down nudge-style step can be just the thing that erodes trust, evoking, as it does, an I-know-the-story-and-you-don't kind of mood.

I don't know what the answer is, but I think it will have to involve openness, honesty, and maybe even mutual vulnerability -- things that nudges don't really have anything to do with.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sick Day

No post today because the blogger is ill. Nothing serious, just a very bad cold. See y'all next week!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Rising Price Of Cars In A Pedestrian Wasteland And The Complexity Of Measuring Well-Being

This week I am visiting family in one of those places in the United States where you really have to have a car to get around -- not because it's like rural farmland or anything, but just because everything is sprawly and spread out and there isn't much in the way of pubic transport.

I am fortunate enough to be able to rent a car (and to be able to know how to drive, for that matter), but when I'm here I often think about how the landscape illustrates something important about how economic quality of life is something that transcends simple measures like "how much money you have."

Because to have a job, a family, or even a life at all here, you pretty much have to have access to a car. And "access to a car," while it sounds like something sort of straightforward is actually one of those things that is complicated and very contextual.

It's complicated and contextual, I think, because cars are one of those things where there's a minimum buy-in price -- and it's a price that is relative to the context. It's amazing how expensive cars have become, and how the effect of that has trickled down so that buying used cars is expensive and fixing cars is expensive.

As is often pointed out, cars have gotten expensive for reasons: modern cars are typically way safer than cars of the past, and they are more energy efficient, and they have more features and so on and so forth. So it's not just inflation, and it's not that cars just happened to get expensive. It's that cars got better. But cars got better in a kind of March of the Penguins kind of way -- that is, they got better all at the same time -- options to buy a cheap, less safe, less good car just disappear as time goes on.

If you look at the landscape in terms of how much money people have, it might look like they're doing pretty well. People who own these cars, after all, own something that not only costs a lot, but also has a lot of value. They own something that is genuinely worth something.

But if you look at the landscape in terms of how much people are able to do the things they need to do, it might look very different. A family with two adults and two grown children and one car, for example, owns something of great value -- and yet that family would be seriously constrained with respect to doing things. It would be hard to more than one of them to work, and maybe impossible for two of them to work, and even if they drive each other around and pick each other up, it'd be impossible for them to do all kinds of other things.

Obviously they don't have the scaling-down option that people often, unthinkingly, associate with constrained economic circumstances. It's easy to think that in a modern consumer economy that offers a lot of choices and options, people can sort of ratchet down their quality of life to fit their economic situation. If you can't afford beef, at least you can have pasta. If you can't afford Nikes, at least you can get some knock-offs at T. J. Maxx.

But with somethings, and especially electronics and appliances and large scale items, this isn't always the case. Sometimes they all improve at the same time, and if you can't afford the expensive version, you're just screwed.

For example, years ago my mother needed a new TV. A few months before, I had noticed the price of TV's falling dramatically, and I thought: no problem. I'd seen a medium-sized tube TV for sale for like 75 dollars. But when we went out shopping, there were no tube TVs. Now all TVs were flat screen, and the cheapest medium-sized one was like 250 dollars. If you're the person whose TV budged was 75 dollars -- well, you just got screwed, TV-wise.

And it's the same thing with cars. Once they all improve, the old ones go away. Sure -- you can buy a used car. But even fixing a car has become astronomically expensive. What you can't do is go back to the old fashioned car that someone could fix in their garage with cast off parts and a manual.

If you live in a place where cars are a necessity, this is a big, big, deal.

I guess the moral of the story is that when you're evaluating how people are doing, you can't just count money. Of course, that's long been known, and a related idea forms the cornerstone of the "capabilities approach": that you have to look not only at what people have but also at what they are enabled to do. I think that's right, but I also think the parable of the rising costs of cars shows that you don't need to take on board any fancy theoretical apparatus to see that measuring well-being is actually very complicated.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Economics Policies Have Losers and Winners. Why Don't Experts Talk About It?

Often, economic policies are justified by appeal to the fact that they will increase overall economic growth. And sometimes, resistance to those policies is framed as ignorance or lack of understanding about how economies work.

For example, in discussions of free trade and globalization, it is said in their favor that in certain contexts they are a kind of win-win: economic activity goes up, so things are just better overall.

Of course, as has been long understood, there's a problem: things being "better overall" is compatible with some people being made worse off -- perhaps even dramatically worse off. If a change in policy creates winners and losers, then as long as the winners gain more than the losers lose, this is making things "better overall."

Just as a simple example, policies that facilitate free trade might allow a commodity to be produced in a different country at lower cost. Shareholders of the company making the commodity might be made better off, and consumers who want to buy it might be made better off, while workers who used to produce that commodity at home will be made worse off -- because they will lose their jobs.

So, sometimes there are winners and losers. In a society committed to democracy, justice, and respect for persons, how is it OK to just create winners at the loser's expense?

You wouldn't know it to read the news, but this is something people have actually given quite a bit of thought to, and there are a couple of potential answers.

One answer is that they way things are should be evaluated not for being "best overall" but rather for being what's called "Pareto optimal": this means that no one could be made better off without making someone else worse off. "Pareto improvements" make some people better off without making anyone else worse off. One way to think about "Pareto improvements" is that since they are changes that make someone better off without making anyone worse off, they are changes that everyone would consent to -- at least in the abstract.

Personally, I'm skeptical about this idea of abstract consent. If you're a member of a historically oppressed and marginalized group, and a policy could create improvements for people in the dominant group and no improvements for people in your group, why would you consent in the abstract? I wouldn't.

But what's more directly relevant here is that insisting that a change make a Pareto improvement is a high bar and a restrictive criterion. In essence, Pareto improvements create winners with no losers. How many economic policies or changes in society are going to do that? (Freakonomics blog says: "Extremely few"). Our imaginary example wouldn't qualify, because the workers are losing out and being made worse off.

A less restrictive criterion is "Kaldor-Hicks" efficiency, with the corresponding notion of a Kaldor-Hicks improvement. A change is an improvement in this sense "if those that are made better off could hypothetically compensate those that are made worse off (thus leading to a Pareto-improving outcome)."

Now, maybe we're getting somewhere. In our imaginary example, the change would be a Kaldor-Hicks improvement if the amount by which the winners would gain would be greater than the amount by which the losers would lose. If the winners' gains were used to compensate the losers, they'd still have gains left over, and then, bracketing the problem of historical injustice, we are at least approaching the idea of the change being a "win-win" and something that could be an improvement for everyone. There would effectively be no losers after all.

And here, finally, we arrive at the question of this post. Why do you never hear about this idea of compensation? Never mind the fact that it never happens in practice -- why does no one ever even talk about it? When's the last time you heard a policy-maker, public intellectual, or economist quoted in the news talking about how policies like free trade and changes like increased globalization are OK because, although they create winners and losers, the winners could compensate the losers so everyone is made better off?

The answer is never. I'd never heard of this criterion until I started studying philosophy of economics. So, what's up with that?

Is it: 1) that, appearances to the contrary, the criterion has nothing to do with "compensation," and is just a nice-sounding way to say that the benefits exceed the costs? So "it is justifiable for society as a whole to make some worse off if this means a greater gain for others"? So it's OK that losers lose out, and who cares?

If this is it, I think we're back at square one. Suppose a policy change will add massive wealth to the rich and take resources away from the poorest people. What if the wealth of the rich is ill-gotten gains in the first place. Does the fact that the massiveness of the wealth is massive enough make this change OK? I don't think so, and I expect a lot of other people don't think so either.

Is it 2): that policy-makers and people talking about these things know and believe in the abstract about the compensation idea, but think that talking about it publicly is gauche or dangerous? Remember how Mitt Romney said it was OK to talk about inequality, but only in "quiet rooms"?

If this is it, I take it the problems are obvious. In a democracy, you can't expect experts to work out policy solutions in quiet rooms behind closed doors and expect people to put up with it. As people are making increasingly clear, they will not put up with it.

Is it 3): that, ultra-cynically, there's a hope that the losers will just somehow die off, and leave the winners winning with all their gains intact? It might sound extreme. But if you're living in one of the areas of the US decimated by opiate addiction, job loss, and no health care, it might seem completely plausible.

Anyway, I expect that if you talk to people about these matters, most people don't know or care about abstractions involving optimality and cost-benefit-analysis, they just think that people who work hard should be able to live a decent life, and things like that. There are also people who are committed to free trade on other grounds -- absolute liberty rights, or something. My question is not about these people, but rather about the public experts who tow the party line about overall economic growth and who are immersed in this sort of thinking.

The next time such an expert is interviewed by a reporter about trade policies and economic growth, wouldn't it be great if they stopped and said, "You know, the really important thing about economic growth is that for a policy to be a good one, the winners have to compensate the losers, and so we need clear mechanisms to make that happen"?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mysteries Of The Toronto Bus Terminal: WTF?

As we've had occasion to discuss in this space before, I take the bus. Since I live in Toronto, this means I spend a certain amount of time in the Toronto bus terminal, downtown at Bay and Dundas. Since I often take an early morning bus, much of that time is spent in the predawn light and corresponding predawn mood one tends to get into on dark mornings, when you look around and wonder: what is this grim world, and how did it get to be this way?

I moved to Toronto in 2005, and the bus terminal seemed to me a fairly typical urban bus station -- except for the absurdity that you have to line up for the bus outside, while even a crowded city like New York manages a heated indoor line-up system. You could see how the building used to be cool, and even elegant: right in the middle, a now-blocked off double staircase leads to a second floor with stained glass decoration and so on. And you could see how over time, cheap additions and fixes had made it crappy-looking.

Still, it was a completely serviceable bus terminal. A set of kindly and knowledgable middle-aged people worked the ticket counters, and I always appreciated that they all sold tickets for both Greyhound and Coach Canada, reducing overall line-up times. There was a weird, dark bar in the bottom floor -- not a place I'd ever considered going, given nearby attractive alternatives, but you know -- it was always nice to know that if you got stranded by a snowstorm, at least you'd have TV and drinks. The station is attached by underground pathway -- with shops and coffee -- to the subway, and there were up escalators from coffee to bus in the morning and down escalators from bus to subway at night.

Bizarrely, the first step in the decline of the bus station was Greyhound's introduction of a "facility fee" that you had to pay whenever you bought a ticket at the counter instead of online. At first it was a dollar, and I thought to myself, "Good, this place could use some improvement." One set of doors was blocked off, and the other two were made automatic and more accessible, which seemed like a step forward.

But from then on it's been a descent into utter dysfunction. The automatic doors stopped working soon after, and never really got fixed. The reasonable waiting area was divided into a normal waiting area (now small and cramped) and a special waiting area (for certain special buses). You'd think the bus station would be the last place you'd have to deal with the insane drive toward the "first-classification" of society -- but you'd be wrong!

The "facility fee" was increased -- to two dollars. And then the set of kindly and knowledgable middle-aged people disappeared overnight, replaced with young, untrained people who don't know the rules for using flex-packs, and, of course, now the Greyhound and Coach Canada lines are separate. Since Coach Canada attracts like one-tenth the customers, this means the Greyhound lines are twice as long while the Coach Canada ticket sellers are just sitting there.

Years and years ago -- I can't even tell you how many, it's been such a long time -- the up escalator broke. For years, I thought, "Why don't they at least flip the down escalator to up, so people can get their bags up to the bus?" And for years, I thought, "how is it even possible that an escalator can just stay broken for such a long time"? Then, about a year ago, the down escalator broke as well. They're both still broken. And, of course, the bar in the bottom floor is now gone and boarded up.

This is the biggest city in a rich modern country. And we can't keep the bus terminal functioning? WTF? What are the forces in question? Is it public-private squabbling over who should pay? Is it Greyhound dysfunction? Is it the city that doesn't want to pay? Toronto just built this super glam terminus for the Union Pearson express, they whole of Union Station is getting a make over -- and we can't keep the bus terminal functioning?

I've heard it darkly suggested that the city doesn't want a bus terminal at Bay and Dundas -- preferring instead a transit hub somewhere way out of the way. If you take the bus like I do, you'll know why that is a sinister, offensive, and elitist idea. It's one thing to hop on a bus downtown. It's a whole other thing entirely to take public transit out to some insane "transit hub," wait on some freezing platform in the middle of nowhere, just to get on another bus to get to where you're going. The fact that it's prime real estate is what makes it a good location for a bus terminal.

If there are these kinds of forces in play, it's hard not to suspect that they have something to do with the fact that poor people tend to take the bus, and with the way that homeless people tend to gather around the station to ask for money from people. It's another step on the steady march of disenfranchising poor people by getting them out of the way so the elite, professional, and managerial classes don't have to deal with them. Horrible.

The city is constantly wringing its hands about how to get people to drive less and take public transit more. Just today a major plan was announced in response to the massive increase in drive times expected to happen in the next decade or so, because of all the traffic.

And in the face of all this, we can't fix a couple of escalators? It's insane.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Consent Is A Really Low Bar For Most Human Interaction

I was talking with someone yesterday about consent. I often think about consent in connection with sexual consent, because I teach and research in that area, but then our conversation moved on to other kinds of consent -- consent to have certain kinds of verbal interactions or other exchanges or engaging in other activities together.

And one of the things I started thinking about was about how consent is a really low bar for most human interaction. What I mean by that is: when you're interacting with people, there's a wide range of things you might concern yourself with that go way beyond whether they're consenting to something. These include things like how your words and actions make them feel in the moment, or how your words and actions are going to make them feel later, or how your words and actions are going to seem in retrospect. You might consider whether the person is is in a moment of difficulty, or doubt, or peer pressure. You might consider whether the nature of the relationship between you, or the specific tone or context, makes it difficult to disagree with or go against you.

Often with sexual consent the same things apply. We talk a lot about consent (and properly so) in the sexual domain, partly engaging in sexual activity with someone without their consent is a particularly egregious harm, so this is a morally bright line. But here, too, consent is often a low bar. If you're in a relationship with someone, and you want to discuss your sex life, and they just keep coming back to how you "consented" to every activity, that person would be acting like an asshole: shutting down the conversation that ought to be happening, about pleasure, and desire, and the texture of life and so on.

And the same thing applies more broadly. If you're asking someone personal questions, or requesting help with your school assignment or something at work, or you're trying to figure out a good way to share share domestic tasks or childcare with you, a respectful and kind person pays attention not only to agreements but also to how the other person seems to feel and the background context and so on.

Sometimes I feel like the whole consent framework is becoming so deeply woven into our way of thinking that it's hard to even see it as a thing -- it just feels like the "way things are." In so many domains we refer back to the idea that if someone agreed to something, then they have to take their lumps: if you said OK, then don't come crying to me. But this is an awful way to interact with the people you care about, and by extension, it's often a crappy way to interact with people in general.

Years ago I wrote a post about how the idea of pursuing self-interest through contract and negotiation had somehow expanded beyond the domains of business or market exchanges and into the fabric of our personal lives. In addition to the points above, I tried to say how constant negotiation was exhausting us: there's no port in the storm, no part of our lives where we can stop trying to create the self-image and situation that will allow us to get the things, like love and caring, that we need to survive.

In that older post I mentioned an idea I'd remembered reading from Simone de Beauvoir: that one reason Western patriarchical gender norms constructed "woman" as naturally nurturing and passive was just in response to this kind of problem: if you take one whole gender as naturally providing the love and care and attention -- not because of negotiation and who is consenting to what, but because that's part of who they are -- well, then the necessity of negotiation and looking out for yourself in "public life" is ameliorated. Some woman -- maybe your mother, maybe your wife -- will be there to offer care and concern. Not necessarily in public life, but domestically, at home, in personal interaction,

Currently, our ideas of "public life" and whatever is the alternative to that are mixed up together, and we're often operating in some weird hybrid domain where we're forming a friendship but also forming a career contact, or we're flirting but we're also hoping for a useful introduction, or we're hanging out but we're also hoping to impress. It's complicated and exhausting. We now know that gender equality means we're all in the problem in the same way together.

The moral, I think, is that taking other people's point of view into account is something we should see as part of normal, respectful, human interaction. Sure, consent is important. But most of what we want to do with one another is not like getting a bank loan, where you sign on the dotted line and you're good to go.  Even if it is helpful as one morally bright line, consent is not the only thing, and in fact it's often pretty minimal for a way of thinking about how you treat the people around you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Thing On The Other Side Of "Political Correctness" Is (Often) Not "Free Speech"

Often when people argue over political correctness, you hear the opposing point of view framed in terms of "free speech": proponents of political correctness, it is suggested, want to restrict speech, and opponents want not to restrict it.

But for a long time I've felt like something about this doesn't fit. The term "political correctness" is typically used to refer to a specific content -- speech that respects certain norms surrounding certain issues. Those norms are themselves contested, of course -- but still, if a neo-nazi party put a ban on anti-racist speech at their convention, no one would use the term "political correctness" to describe that. The term "political correctness" is about a certain set of ideas.

By contrast, "free speech" is a general principle -- a principle about speech that does not refer to specific content surrounding certain issues. In the classic formulation, speech should be in some sense protected as long as it's not harming other people. Again, these boundaries are themselves contested -- does "protection" mean just legal protection or does it mean you shouldn't lose your job? what is "harm"? But again, even those questions are general ones, potentially applicable in the same way to any content.

This suggests that there is something wrong with treating the two as if they're directly opposed. I think that this is true, and I think it's possible to see it by thinking about how often the concept of "political correctness" is used in contexts where it doesn't refer to formal policies or punishments but just with what ideas of appropriateness will inform which contexts. This contextuality means that the real question often isn't about "free speech" but rather about the specific content in specific contexts.

As is often pointed out, in a lot of cases where people talk about "free speech," there is no policy or punishment in question, it's just a matter of getting criticized a lot -- and criticism is an exercise of free speech not a way of limiting it. But it's also important to notice that in a lot of cases, the question turns not on general considerations but rather on "appropriateness" in context.

There's a lot of agreement, I think, that for many contexts, there ought to be standards of appropriateness. And this means that when we argue about "free speech" versus "political correctness," the real disagreement often isn't over abstractions like "free speech," but rather over the specific content in the specific context.

For example, if there are guidelines about appropriate speech and conduct in a classroom, that is something context-specific, and there is wide agreement that some such standards make sense. I can't find it now, but in the aftermath of one of the big US campus controversies, someone wrote a humor piece in which a student claimed a "free speech" restriction because they weren't allowed to spend the entire class shouting over and over that fellow-student "Bob" was a moron. Of course, it's funny because that's not a restriction on free speech because the guideline in question -- you can't disrupt class to personally malign other students -- is a context-specific and reasonable one.

Other contexts allow people to create guidelines. If you have people over and one of them says something horrible and offensive, you can ask them to leave: it's your house; you can set the guidelines. If a visitor calls your spouse an ugly, lying, piece of shit, you're not violating their free speech when you ask them to leave.

The real question, I think, often isn't "free speech" but rather what's appropriate in what context and why. In a classroom, it's reasonable to have guidelines that foster a learning atmosphere. If some forms of speech destroy that atmosphere, it's reasonable to restrict them. In a home, the people who live there get to set the guidelines.

What critics of "political correctness" often have in mind, I think, really has to do with what they feel is regarded as appropriate in certain contexts: they think this "appropriateness" criterion is often set too broadly, or includes the wrong things.

I often disagree completely with these critics about specific items (like, of course I think names like "Redskins" are racist and offensive) but I think at the abstract level the question of what is and isn't appropriate in context can be fraught, unclear, contested, something without an obvious right answer. In these cases, though, we're not arguing about "free speech" at all -- we're arguing about the actual content of the actual example and the actual context in question.

For example, in the case of the Yale Halloween controversy, the initial email asked students to think carefully about their choices, and to consider the negative impact that culturally insensitive costumes could have. It's been framed as an issue about "free speech." But not only was there no policy or punishment suggested, the question of costumes in a community of students is one that is obviously bound by *some* standards and guidelines. If a student had a physical disability or an unusual appearance and a hundred other students got organized to mock them via costume on Halloween, this would be inappropriate and wrong. The question has to do not with freedom of expression but rather with how the standards and guidelines should be interpreted and set.

If this is right, then contested speech really turns on discussion of the ins and outs of the particular content in question. This, I believe, can be simple, or it can be very complicated. In the case of the costumes, I think the initial email proposed a guideline that was completely reasonable: your costume could hurt and alienate someone else, and on the other side ... what? Some important truth is going unseen?

But in other cases, it might be less clear. In what contexts is it appropriate or inappropriate to say that women belong at home taking care of domestic matters? I think if you're debating a policy or intellectual issue with someone who happens to be a woman, it's completely inappropriate. But what if you're debating the nature and limits of multiculturalism? Or what if you're trying to challenge the Western feminist orthodoxy that choice and autonomy always make for the good life? What if this is part of your brand of communitarian radical feminism?

When matters are contested, I think we're often really debating the particular speech in question, and how it fits into the particular context. If this is right, there can be reasonable disagreements, even among the most well-meaning people -- and even among people ultra committed to "free speech"! -- over what speech should be regarded in what way and when and so on. If this is right, it also means that speech that gets criticized for being politically incorrect needs more than "free speech' as a defense: it needs a specific reason why the speech is appropriate or potentially important to protect in the given context.

I think one reason these matters have come to seem so confusing and flattened out these days is that so much speech is happening on "the internet," which is something tech people want to pretend is like a street corner soap box -- no particular context, free speech! -- but which functions in people's lives as as series of very specific mini-contexts where many things are not OK. As I've said before, it drives me crazy to see the tech companies treat as simple and algorithmic problems that are ultra complicated and require thought and judgment.  

Again, I don't mean to imply here that all free speech debates are of the category I'm discussing in this post. If you're talking about a law restricting speech, that is a free speech issue, and there are a lot of grey areas, such as policies that create punishments for forms of speech.

It's just to say that in a lot of cases, the issue has more to do with the content of the speech than any principle of "free speech." As a corollary, it would follow that, contra what we keep reading on the internet, being in favor of "free speech" and also in favor of "political correctness" is a coherent and consistent position.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thank You For Your Patience

Loyal readers, I was too busy and over-committed this week and I thought I'd have time to write something but then I didn't. Just wanted to post this note so no one would worry. Thank you for reading, as always, I appreciate it! See you back here next Tuesday.