Monday, July 21, 2014

Economics Imperialism And Its Discontents: Altruism Edition

Family, by Mary Cassatt [Public domain], via Wikimedia  Commons
 As we've observed before, economists are famous for their calculated pose of mystification when it comes to activities we all recognize as ordinary parts of human life -- you know, like caring, playing fair, voting, etc. etc.

And it's not news that one of our human aspects that doesn't fit obviously into the economic toolbox is altruism. The economic agent is self-interested. Altruist people are other-interested. It's a real poser.

You might think that the differences doesn't matter much because economic modeling is about what we do in marketplaces, and in markets people pretty much are self-interested, or something like that. I'm a little skeptical myself -- but it doesn't even matter, because this easy-going, commonsensical answer isn't even the one people seem to be going with.

No -- instead we have "economics imperialism," which self-consciously attempts to use economic methodology to analyze all aspects of human life -- crime, family life, love, sex, you name it. It's "imperialism" because it's intended to colonize the other social-explanatory disciplines, like sociology. The idea of "economics imperialism" is to use the economic model of human behavior to explain and understand everything. Or, as the NYTimes "Economix blog used to say, "Explaining the Science of Everyday Life."

Before we get to the main point, let me just say briefly that the the epistemic and explanatory difficulties seem to me to be vast. Just for starters, consider this. The economic approach is supposed to be "scientific," relying on human behavior and observables and avoiding analysis of murky subjectives like mental states etc. But how is this supposed to work in explanation? Suppose someone does a surprising thing. How can you know whether a) they were behaving irrationally in trying to satisfy an unsurprising set of preferences or whether b) they were behaving rationally in trying to get to satisfy a surprising set of preferences? You always have one equation and two unknowns.

But whatever. Our theme for today is something different, to do with the massaging of preferences so they can be both self-interested and altruistic. You might think "altruism" means caring for others at your own expense. But in his canonical work on the economics of family life, Gary Becker proposes a definition in terms of utility functions: altruism is when one person is made better off by another person being made better off. E. g., a parent's altruism for a child is understood as the parent having some set of preferences such that when the kid does better the parent is more satisfied and thus better off. So -- as we get to below -- it's not really caring "at you own expense" at all.

You might put it by saying that "self-interested" doesn't mean "selfish": A's preference for B to prosper is "self-interested" in the sense that A will do better when B does, but it's not selfish, because it is, in some sense, other-directed.

So far so good. Becker goes on to derive a huge range of "theorems" based on his approach -- like the "Rotten Kid Theorem," which posits that an altruistic parent will (should?) structure incentives in the family to make selfish kids behave in ways that do not harm the interests of other family members. For example, if you promise to apportion your inheritance to your kids in accordance with their needs, siblings will be incentivized to help one another out  -- lest they get left out of the will because all the money went to the brother who never finished school and lives in a cardboard box or whatever.


1) In Becker's approach, every family situation considered consists of one altruist and a bunch of selfish kids. That is, there is no way to model a family with more than one altruist, which means there is no way to even talk about any of the vast number of life contexts in which there are two or more adults who care about one another.

There's a reason for this. As I said, the book is full of theorems. If you have more than one altruist you have multiple interdependent utility functions, and all the cool-looking and intimidating math stops working.

At one point Becker suggests a "wife" could be modeled as one of the "selfish children," but you don't even need this level of ridiculousness to see the problem: the whole thing rests on avoiding the state of affairs many people most desire, of equal persons in a loving and reciprocal home.

2) If an altruist gives something up in order for their target to prosper, you might think the altruist is worse off and the recipient is better off. But in Becker-land, you'd be mistaken! Indeed, since they're both acting in accordance with their preferences, how can you deny they're both better off? That would violate some fundamental economic assumption or other of what economic "well-being" is. 

Becker says the altruist is better off in the sense of receiving "psychic income" for her pains. It's a funny choice, no? You got the car, but I got the "psychic income," so ... we're good, right?

It's weirdest if you imagine it among equal adults who live on intimate terms. If one is altruistic and the other is a selfish bloodsucking vampire, there's no problem with the distribution of goods: they each got what they preferred, after all. According to the model, things are working efficiently and thus well.

3) You know how sometimes when there's a nicer business that tries to do a little altruism or do-gooderism or at least exhibit a bare and basic kind of community spirit, and it's surrounded by bigger and meaner businesses that take a more cut-throat, remorseless attitude, and the nicer business ends up having to take its little business lunchbox and go home?

Well as I reckon, if you use the economic model to analyze interpersonal altruism, you're going to get the same result. Imagine you're the baby bear of altruisism -- just right! -- but you're surrounded by bloodsuckers -- the "ticks" of modern society, if you will. Every time you engage with these people, you'll get a little more psychic income and they'll get a little more ... whatever selfish and self-oriented actual thing they want is. Money -- or food, or attention, health, prestige, etc.

Where will it end?

I'll tell you where it'll end. Eventually you'll be lying there stuffed full of psychic income, but the cupboard will be bare, and you won't be able to afford antibiotics, and you'll die of some easily preventable disease.

Someone may have tried to tell you that economic theories don't have moral implications. Those people were lying.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Truth And Lying In Fiction And Non-Fiction

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of a Woman (formerly thought to be Madame Roland) via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday for the first time I read a David Sedaris story and found myself thinking, "Is that really true?"

Mostly I like David Sedaris. His stories are often funny and sad, and as someone who is frequently amused and sad at the same time, I'm always surprised how few things there are to read that bring the two moods together. Maybe that's why I like Philip Roth so much too -- though maybe Roth is more like "funny and angry" -- a notoriously easier combo to bring off.

Anyway, yesterday I read the story in The New Yorker about how he gets one of those step tracking devices and becomes obsessed with tracking his steps to the point where he changes his existing pick-up-the-garbage-around-town routine from a bike oriented thing to a walking oriented thing and that it now takes him around nine hours a day. He gets up to sixty thousand steps a day, which is twenty-five and a half miles, which is, of course, kind of insane.

I get that he's an obsessive guy -- and I get that one point of the story is how obsessive people can get obsessed with anything to the point where some number tracking some pretty pointless thing can nonetheless come to rule your life. 

But the story is presented in terms of an utterly pointless thing becoming a complete obsession. It's a little hard to believe. There was no connection to something else? Wanting to lose weight or walk more for health? (He does lose weight but that's presented as an afterthought.) It's just a random thing that happens to an otherwise successful middle-aged guy with a nice home and partner there to eat dinner with and talk to?

I don't think he is lying. But I started wondering if there hadn't been something left out, something that would make the story seem less strange, less striking and interesting, if it had been included. Like -- a way the obsession was connected to other things. I even developed the base suspicion that the obsession itself had been exaggerated on grounds that twenty-five and a half miles a day is a story, in a way that five miles a day isn't, really.

It's likely that one reason I had these thoughts has to do to the fact that I took a memoir class recently and for that class wrote some things about my life. For the first time I was giving serious attention to the process that starts with memories and turns them into narrative. 

Frankly, it's a somewhat creepy process. A good story has certain elements that make it interesting and fun to read. A particular narrative arc or structure. Engaging characters. An interesting setting. Memories aren't like that.

And when you put the memory materials into the narrative machine, you don't put in fake stuff, but you do shape the stuff you've got to make the story good. You are telling a particular version of things. Your version has to commit to all kinds of decisions about very murky things like: Did this cause that? What was that person like? Was some moment in your life primarily a turning point, a triumph over adversity, of a piece that came before, evidence of something characteristic,  typical or exception?

To me, this kind of "shaping" felt a whole lot like lying.

The weird thing is -- and I was acutely conscious of this taking the class -- that when you think for even a moment about these decisions, they're the same decisions anyone has to make in describing anything.

I don't care if you're writing a historical narrative or making a theory about things or people or doing a philosophy thing or even just writing a stupid managerial report: you have to figure out, from an endless jumble of random and disconnected facts and make endless decisions about which ones are important and which ones are connected and how to put them all together in a way that's meaningful.

So at some level, it's all just a big fake-out.

In certain ways, non-fiction narrative seems like a special problem. Because if you're crafting real events and facts for a narrative, there are many things that might pressure you into making the narrative be "about" something or other.

For instance, aren't you kind of sick of the "triumph over adversity" and "what I learned" narratives? They're such a big part of modern North American culture. When events and facts are massaged into this narrative, they're extra dangerous, because they're reinforcing an already overly represented idea about life: that yes, sometimes, it is possible to overcome obstacles or change. As they say in "Wag the Dog": "It's a story of loss and redemption!"

If it's non-fiction and it's one of these narratives, you risk being manipulated in a special way, because "oh that story again" allows the response, "But it's true!" When really -- well, you know.

And yet -- the matter seems to me complex. Because there might be times when only a true story will do.

I recently heard someone talking about how stories are used in social science to exemplify how certain theories would explain human behavior -- e. g. Mary found herself in X situation and because she had to compare Y and Z alternatives she used W method and found her answer. The speaker pointed out the ways these stories build in assumptions about human behavior that draw on, rather than challenging, stereotypes -- associated with gender, race, etc.

We use stories in philosophy all the time, to imagine things, carry out thought-experiments, or just give simple examples where real examples are too complicated. And it is so true -- there's a real risk of telling the stories in a way that just builds in an understanding of how the world is.

And I thought to myself that at least stories crafted around actual events and people have fixed points that can't be changed and have to be accommodated. So you can't just say anything that "seems right." There will be recalcitrant facts.

And this, too resonated with my memoir writing experience. You might want to say "X happened." But then you find for X to make sense, you need to explain Y. And then for Y to be comprehensible to the reader, uncomfortable fact Z has to be fit in somehow.

Looking back, that might have been my favorite part of the memoir experience -- you might be massaging reality to fit into a narrative, but reality is right there pushing back at you.

At the end of the David Sedaris story he talks about how his local council is going to name a garbage truck after him, and they call to ask what font he wants used. I found myself with a million questions about this part of the story. People name garbage trucks? Is that just a British thing or is that everywhere? How does that get decided? You really get to choose the font?

It's nice that with a true story there are answers to these questions, even if they're things you'll never know. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Is Culture Snobbery The New Resistance?

When I was a young person in the 80s I remember people talking about how "capitalism consumes everything" and how I was like "Oh, yeah I guess," but I was also sort of like "no it doesn't: what about punk rock? what about me and my friends with our thrift store clothes and bizarre hairstyles? what about protests? what about hanging out, not doing anything?"

Now, I feel like if you wanted to do a school project diorama showcasing the concept "CAPITALISM CONSUMES EVERYTHING," all you'd have to do is slap a giant glass dome over some part of the modern world and you'd be good to go.

Tbh, I didn't really see it coming. But more than ever it feels like resistance is futile. No matter what you do trying to challenge the status quo, the status quo has a way of eating that shit up and spitting it back out as a commodity.

Punk sensibility is now "personal style & branding." Protests feel like the symbol of resistance necessary to buttress the true power of the entrenched. And anything you do on the internet is valuable to someone in the form of data about you -- turning your quietest mood, your nostalgic thought, or your sexy imagining into someone else's dollars.

Plus somehow the internet, which started as the experience of connecting with a handful of other weirdos talking about something no one cares about with no one else paying attention, has become the opposite: a place where nothing really counts unless it's seen, and liked, and favorited, and making good stats.

The "hanging out" of the slacker generation, Gen-X, which was at least nominally anti-establishment and involved actual cafes and actual reading and actual talking to people, seems to have given way to social networking and watching stuff.

I don't know what the answer is but I will say that a quality in myself that I used to think of as conformist I now think of as resistance and it is this: I am a culture snob.

Yeah, that's right. I'm a culture snob. And I'm not ashamed to say it. I don't have a TV. I don't watch any "shows" or do Netflix. I occasionally go to the movies but it's usually high-brow shit like 8 1/2 or other international films. I don't read general interest or fashion magazines and I don't read the Huffington Post and I don't look at TMZ.

I read a lot. I like The New Yorker. I like to go to the opera.

When I was young I was inclined to see these things in the light of establishment activities and I was inclined to be a bit embarrassed by them.

I used to fall all over myself explaining -- and this is true, too -- that one reason I didn't have a TV was that I was a channel flipper, and I would flip channels endlessly, couldn't really stop flipping channels, even as it felt like my life was wasting away.

I used to fall all over myself explaining that I didn't have anything against trashy movies and stupid things -- it was just that I was easily bored and needed a high level of intellectual stimulation all the time not to fall into pits of ennui. Like I had a personality problem.

Well, no more apologizing.

Because while I'm obviously not naive enough to think that actual artistic things and actual literature are somehow outside the capitalism and commodification machine, I do think they offer something "entertainment" often doesn't, and that is the capacity to challenge and disturb you in ways you didn't expect or foresee or maybe didn't think possible.

My reflections on lifehacking last week got me thinking about the opposite of lifehacking, and I thought about that whole "slow food" movement and how there might be a "slow life" movement and that reminded me how many of my activities are, relative to most people, pretty damn slow.

This led me to check out the Wikipedia page on the "Slow Movement." Interestingly, while there's a "slow art" (which looks interesting) and a "slow media," there isn't really a "slow culture" in the sense of what it means to read and listen and look and think about things in general in the old receptive and open-ended way, where you might spend an afternoon reading a novel, or listen to a whole album, all the songs in a row, or whatever.

The Slow Movement seems to take as one of its antagonists things like Twitter, on grounds that OMG 140 characters? But I think that is a mistake. There's nothing wrong with Twitter as long as it doesn't take over your whole life. It's the way these things take over your life, so you can't do anything slow, that's the problem.

I now regard my own ability to sit down and read quietly like a rare and treasured thing that has to be nurtured and kept alive. I'm certainly not going to risk damaging it by, say, allowing push notifications on my phone.

Finally, I'd like to say that as a person who seldom consumes mainstream entertainment media, I'm frankly a little shocked by the scene out there. Isn't there so much sexist crap? Isn't there ridiculous racial stereotyping? Isn't there a lot of nationalism and violence and absurd Good Guys Fight Bad Guys And You're With Us Or Against Us?

Kids? Just say no. Slow it down! Culture snobbery FTW!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Lifehacking: WTF?

Adriaen van Utrecht (1599-1652), Still Life. Via Wikimedia Commons

You heard about Soylent, right? That new thing where you mix a powder with some oil and some water and you shake it up and it replenishes your body with a mix of nutrients so you can .. um, do all the things people want to do when they can't be bothered to eat food?

You know -- like, Ensure for hipsters?

You can read about it in The New Yorker ("The End of Food"). I guess some young guys were trying to do a start-up thing, and their idea wasn't working out, and they were trying to come up with another idea, and they were eating a lot of ramen, corn dogs, and frozen quesadillas, and eventually one of them thought to himself Ah, If Only We Didn't Have To Eat. Food seemed like "a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile."

Soylent can be bought in a package but the formula is online and there are a lot of people DIYing their own. The concept of many enthusiasts is that Soylent replaces any eating you do to survive, so that the remaining eating that you do is "recreational." You might subsist on only Soylent for a few days, then go to Nobu with your friends and "eat" -- and really make an occasion of it. Woo-hoo.

This is an application of the approach to life associated with the "lifehacking" movement: as the New Yorker says, this is "devising tricks to streamline the obligations of daily life, thereby freeing yourself up for whatever you’d rather be doing."

This is interesting because -- well, how can I put this nicely? It seems to me fucking insane?

What is "whatever you'd rather be doing" that is so great and so important that you can't be bothered to eat some food? I mean, we're not talking laundry. We're talking eating. It's fun. It's pleasant. It isn't all that time-consuming. What's so great that you have to get back to it in thirty seconds instead of twenty-minutes?

It's a perfect instantiation of the problem of the previous post -- of The Great Fun Crisis of the Twenty First Century. If you structure everything as either a cost or a benefit, you define out of existence the "just sort of nice and fun in a mild healthy sort of way," so it's irresistible to reduce costs and maximize benefits.

It's like a digitization of an analogue life. Sorry: sitting down to a baked potato or some pasta and a salad, talking with a friend or family member, what are you doing? It's neither the 0 of costs minimized or the 1 of pleasure maximized. So it comes out as irrational.

The New Yorker author, Lizzie Widdicome, after a few days drinking Soylent, finds on waking she's at a loss: she doesn't want to settle down to work yet, so what to do? She goes out for coffee. She sees someone order a bagel at her neighborhood place. She's envious: "Mmm, bagel with butter." But of course, she's not hungry, and she doesn't need the calories -- she's already had her Soylent. She concludes the experience this way:
... I knew that I was better off than the bagel eater: the Soylent was cheaper, and it had provided me with fewer empty calories and much better nutrition. Buttered bagels aren’t even that great; I shouldn’t be eating them. But Soylent makes you realize how many daily indulgences we allow ourselves in the name of sustenance.
I get what she's saying. But what are we, training for the apocalypse? Every moment, maximizing efficiency? It's like, bagels: not a perfect food! BUT: also not a good enough indulgence! Like if you're going to get your pleasure, you have to max it out.

The whole thing makes you wonder what the point is, in the whole meaning-of-life way, like what are we doing all of this for?  Honestly, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that for most people, the bagel with butter, and similar foods, especially if you eat them with other people, really are the meaning of life.

Enthusiasts of lifehacking clearly feel another call: they have things they need to get back to, STAT.

So: If lifehacking is about getting back to "things we'd rather be doing?" what are those things exactly? Sex? Dancing? Making music? Painting pictures? Taking care of children? Taking care of sick people?

Honestly those are answers I'd sort of understand. But they're almost never the ones that seem to come up. What comes up a lot is work.

I get that some people have to work all the time to make ends meet. And that is a serious social problem. The solution to this problem is not Soylent -- what, so rich people can eat food and poor people can suck it? No, the solution to this problem involves spreading the wealth around, more sensible social organization, investment in infrastructure. As is frequently mentioned, the world is making more food than ever. The problem is in moving it around appropriately.

And that, friends, is not a problem with a "start up" solution.

I get the impression, though, that a lot of people drinking Soylent just want to get back to studying, or coding, or playing video games. Why? Are those things really so great? Or is the problem competition -- that in a competitive society you have to do all the ridiculous time-saving things other people do if you're going to keep up?

Toward the end of the article the main creator of Soylent says admiringly, "Bucky [Buckminster Fuller] has a very important idea of ephemeralization, which is something almost as a ghost -- as pure energy or information."

Like the whole post-human thing, I am always mystified by this. What is it you're so eager to do that doesn't involve bodies, senses, being in the world, laughter, or romance? Is Minecraft really that fun?

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Great Fun Crisis Of The Twenty First Century

Mary Cassatt, Woman Reading in a Garden, via Wikimedia Commons

This post is about the great fun crisis of the twenty-first century. You may be asking yourself, how is it possible that a culture that features binge-watching, cupcakes, professional wrestling and craft beer could possibly be a culture suffering from a crisis of fun? Well, I'll tell you.

The great twenty-first century fun crisis isn't quantitative. It's not a like a fun shortage, where you have to line up for fun in the style of the old 1970s gas lines. It's more like a crisis about the nature of fun. Fun and its friends are caught up in a special dilemma of our time, one rooted in creepy theories about preferences and the point of doing things.

One one horn of the dilemma is GOALS. I'm so sick of hearing about goals. You're not allowed to do anything any more without goals. I went to look into taking dance classes a while ago and there was a form for new students and it asked "What made you want to take our classes?" And there were answers for getting in shape, learning to dance for a wedding, hoping to make friends, yada yada yada. You know what was missing? Fun. I had to write it in.

God forbid you get interested in some physical activity without some goal in mind. Fitness people like trainers don't even want to talk to you unless you have goals. About a year ago I was mindlessly musing about how it might be cool to learn to swim in open water -- you know, for fun. I googled around for how to learn, and quickly found that nobody seems to swims in open water for fun. If you're swimming in open water, you're probably training for a triathlon or something. Not that triathlons can't be fun. But you know what I mean. If you're open water swimming to to train for a triathlon, you're not doing it just for fun. You have a goal.

Goals are fine as far as they go. But what we have is goal imperialism. The prevalence of goal oriented amusement means you can't even explain to people why you might be reading a book or going for a walk without some backstory about how your activity fits in to some life plan like "reading the classics in hardcover" or "trying to lose weight." It's ridiculous.

UNLESS, that is, you're willing to commit to something completely pointless.

The other horn of the modern fun dilemma is hedonistic pointlessness. The one loophole in the Rule Of Goals is that you get to do things that you do purely for pleasure, with no point whatsoever, just because the activity is hedonically perfect -- but only if the activity is hedonically perfect.

The Get-Of-Of-Goals-Free card can be played for anything you're willing to do as a pure pleasure. Binge-watch Game of Thrones, eat a pan of brownies, and no one asks you what your goals are. They get it: Girls Just Want To Have Fun.

But increasingly the loophole only works for things that are super double extra secret pleasurable. Why would you do something sort of mildly pleasant, engaging, constructive and healthy when you could be doing something ridiculous and Xtreme?

If you don't have the goal backstory for the pleasures of the reading or the walk, you get that quizzical look where people are like "Oh, so that's your very favorite thing that you like to do? That's cute, I guess." As if choosing to do these mild activities -- just for fun -- makes you some kind of culture snob or Puritan.

The more I thought about this, the more I noticed how its embedded in our whole way of talking and thinking about what we do and why. We use the language of preferences, costs, and trade-offs. What do you want to do? What are you willing to pay? What are you willing to do to get there? Work hard play hard! There's no room in there for just nice activities that are sort of pleasant and good things to do.

I don't know how the causal arrows go, but it's striking that our contemporary formal theory of what it makes sense to do -- rational choice theory -- takes as axiomatic that there are things you want, and there are costs to getting them, and the whole question is how much you're willing to "pay" to get your preference satisfied. So the problem is officially built in.

There's something about separating your life's activities into these categories that encourages the crisis of fun. If you're paying a cost to get something, you want to pay as little as possible. If you're getting a preference satisfied, you want as much satisfaction as possible.

So, for instance, if you're thinking about learning how to open water swim, or taking a dance class, you have to ask yourself either What Is My Ultimate Goal Here -- and am I pursuing it in the most efficient way possible? OR you have to ask yourself Is This The Most Hedonically Perfect Way To Spend My Acquired Preference Capital?

It's an odd fit for many of life's activities, and it's a terrible crisis for fun. I'm thinking this is why, in the end, I have a problem with a pleasant day.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What Is Up With People And Free Riders?

Hey you, people who get really upset about poor people as free riders -- are you out there? I got a question for you. WTF is up with getting so mad about poor people as free riders?

For those of you playing along at home, free riders are people who benefit from some scheme but don't do their part to make it work. Like if you jump the turnstyle, you're a free rider on the subway.

There's something about the idea that somebody, somewhere, might be getting away with something -- a little leisure time at work, a cake paid for with food stamps, whatever -- that for a certain kind of person is like waving a red flag. You can watch the indignation suffuse their faces as they sputter about Hard Work, Fairness, and Personal Responsibility.

Obviously, I get the abstract issue of the free rider problem. I get how if there are too many free riders things fall apart, and that's a problem. So in certain circumstances you have to act. If no one pays for books there won't be any, and that'll suck. I get it.

But for some perverse reason I do not get, the emotional intensity of the response always seems to me not only inversely proportional to the danger posed but also angriest at the people who might, after all, have a reason to free ride: people who are relatively worse off.

People inclined to laugh it off if a middle-class person is stealing from the cable company are somehow enraged by the possibility that a poorer person might be getting benefits without looking for work, or chit-chatting at their retail job when there are no customers instead of cleaning out the storage bins.

What is up with this? I mean, what difference does it make? You really feel the extra dollar a year or whatever you might get if everyone buckled down is something so sacred it outweighs the good of a shitty life being possibly slightly less shitty?

The one attempt I know to explain why there are strong emotions associated with the free ride problem has its roots in evolution: creatures who live in social groups are likely to live in successful groups, and thus reproduce, if they punish free riders. Many animals have some form of scorn or shunning of those who fail to reciprocate acts like picking parasites.

Though I'm sure there are other complex cultural factors at play, I see no reason to reject the evolutionary explanation as a partial one. But what's interesting to me is that while it might help explain the existence of the indignation against free riders, it doesn't really explain the intensity levels -- I mean, it doesn't really fit with the way the indignation reaches a fever pitch over issues like cake-bought-with-food stamps.

Those are the most impartial examples, in the sense that there isn't even any direct failure of reciprocity. And often they're virtually no threat to anyone's long term well-being. So why the outrage?

I don't know. The only thing I could come up with is that some people just hate poor people -- I mean, they have visceral feelings of irrational hatred for the less-well-off, and since there aren't a wide range of socially acceptable ways to express that hatred, they express it using the concept of the free rider -- which at least uses an argumentative frame that people understand to pose a problem.

Needless to say, many of the examples people get upset about aren't even "free rider" examples at all -- they're just people doing what they need to do to get along, just like everyone else. But even when there's genuine free riding, it's hard for me to get upset about a handful of free riders as long as the system overall is working reasonably well.

Who cares? It's tough to get a system with a lot of people to work reasonably well. You got a few people free riding on it, people who are otherwise struggling? Small fucking price to pay, dude.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Natural Home Of Homo Economicus Is A Massive Surveillance State

Last term I taught a course in philosophy of economics for the first time. Early on, we read some passages from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. I wanted to initiate a discussion of the way Smith -- who was also the author of Theory of Moral Sentiments -- understood self-interest in context.

As we all know, Smith said "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." So I asked the students "If people are really just self-interested, why do they pay the baker at all? Why not just hit him over the head and take the bread?"

The first answer they gave was that if you hit someone over the head you'd get caught and get punished, so it would not be in your self-interest to do it.

That answer is surely right as far as it goes. But it doesn't go too far. What if you knew, or strongly suspected, you wouldn't get caught? What if you were stealing not from a baker but from some giant impersonal corporation? And what if you were right that you could get away with it?

A few people pointed out that it would still be wrong. "What if everyone did that? The whole system would fall apart."

This goes further. Morally speaking, it's a good answer, evoking both Kantian universalism and some of Smith's own ideas about morality and the point of view of an impartial spectator. But once you ask "what if everyone did that," you're in the realm of morality, not just self-interest.

This isn't a problem for Smith himself, since he embraced morality and understood self-interest in the context of a decent society." (You can read more about Smith's moral and political views in this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and in this scholarly paper.)

But in our modern world, you're likely to encounter people who think self-interest is the whole shebang, like the guy described in this article who said there is no moral high ground, there's just self-interest.

Now, OK, I get that this guy is not saying "it's all self-interest" in the sense of "it's all selfishness." Since he says that Mother Theresa was acting self-interestedly, we know he intends self-interest somewhat broadly, to include preferences people have for doing things for other people and not just for themselves.

Still, even if some people have such preferences, many people do not. Even people who do have them are presumably trying to set them aside when they're acting in the world of business, in which looking out for the other guy is a kind of transgression.

In fact, it's worse than that, because the modern person who allows their personal moral qualms to constrain their behavior is often treated in modern culture as a loser, someone who lets other people walk all over them.

So what about the reason for why you shouldn't just stealing the bread? If the moral answer is off-limits, then we're back to punishment: it's not in your interest because, and insofar as, you might get caught.

But we know what that means: for the system to work, you have to catch people. A lot of people. And for the system to be fair? You have to catch everybody. Or at least, enough people to put the fear of god into everyone.

A few years ago one of the Freakonomics guys noticed that if you put a letter in the mail without a stamp in the US, it will often get through. Why? "The reason is apparently the automated mail sorting machines fail to catch many letters that are missing a stamp."

On the blog, he asked readers to try to send mail without postage to see how much of it gets through.

One commentator responded,  "Are you using your blog to call for theft of service? I’m not against it, I was just curious." Another said, "Don’t encourage free-loaders."

Of course, stamps are just stamps. But what about large-scale fraud? Insider trading? Why shouldn't you do it? If the answer is only self-interest, you'd better be everywhere with your hidden recording devices, your search warrants, your coerced informants.

Back in the day, you might have tried telling everyone that doing the wrong thing is wrong because, well, it's wrong. But I think that ship may have sailed.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Is It Disenchanted In Here, Or Is It Just Me?

Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie confer at the start of The Hunger

The older I get, the less I find to be all "Ooh-Aah" about. I mean, as time goes on, I find fewer and fewer occasions to feel like there are "Cool Kids" I haven't gotten to know, or awesome alternative lifestyles I could have had if only I'd focused on conceptual art/guitar playing/modern dance in my youth, or amazing experiences that are just beyond my reach.

When I was younger it wasn't like this. When I was in high school I got obsessed with the movie The Hunger and I dreamed of being taken home by David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve to some impossibly beautiful and elegant home. And then when I was in college I read a book about Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol's studio, "The Factory," where hopelessly, stratospherically cool people gathered to be the it person of the moment and I thought with despair how I would never be interesting in the right sort of way for that sort of thing.

But now? Not so much. I see huge elegant homes and I think about the upkeep and the family infighting that money causes and how it doesn't matter if you're David Bowie -- your day is still basically made up of doing some things and eating and talking to the people you love and that's it.

I think about The Factory and I remember how even if taking a lot of drugs might be fun for a bit after a while it's just boring and you can either stop and feel awful or continue and become completely a mess and -- let's face it, I wouldn't last five minutes involved in a 45 minute movie that's just someone eating (From Wikipedia: "Finally, notice is taken of a brief appearance made by a cat").

On the one hand, Great! Right? No more being a kid with her nose pressed against the glass. It's true: it's awesome, because basically it means the things I really do want are the things I have. Yay!

On the other hand, it makes the world a little disenchanted. There's nothing like seeing things realistically to take a little of the magic out of it all.

I had always thought of this kind of disenchantment was basically about getting older. It's a classic middle aged trope, right?

But then last week I was on the internet and I started to get the creepy feeling that it's not just me getting older -- it's a world of disenchantment out there.

It started when I read that Exene Cervenka -- lead singer of amazing punk band X! -- had called the  Santa Barbara shootings a "hoax" and I was like "WTF?" And then I was reading the comments on that and someone made reference to Moe Tucker being a Tea Partier. And then I was remembering how Tucker was the drummer for the Velvet Underground, but also sang the sweet but haunting Lou Reed song "I'm Sticking With You" (released on the Velvet Underground VU compilation album).

So then I looked it up, and it was true -- about her becoming part of the tea party, and other distressing things. And then I was thinking about all the associations I'd had with Tucker's voice in that song and how they would never be quite the same now that I had this particular detail in my mind.

Then I thought about how the whole enchantment things is really so twentieth-century. We all know so much stupid crap about everyone else, now. Everyone's stupidities are out there on display, and the downsides of everything are obvious.

It used to be mildly possible to imagine your favorite cool person would actually be cool in person, but now it's like forget it. Now even when things are presented as glamorous, it's some fake-out version of glamor created for social media.

I know there's a school of thought out there in which disenchantment is characteristic of the last few centuries in deep and pervasive ways, rooted in basic structures of the modern era like markets and science and bureaucracies.

But I think my examples suggest there's something specially disenchanted about right now. Clearly the possibility of mass production was no threat to the possibility of being enchanted by Andy Warhol -- on the contrary.

What we have now though, brought on by various forces, is a keen sense of the drudgery aspects of all kinds of things.

It's a new, millennial disenchantment, just for us.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Denial Of Death: The Metrics

 Creepy picture by Jean Fouquet via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe you have your own pet theory about these things, but here in the mind of the accidental philosopher there's one thing clear about human behavior: a lot of what we do we do to avoid thinking about the fact that we're going to die.

People sometimes act like that's a bad thing. Like, sometimes you encounter people who are all mad about "materialism" or "kids today" and who say things like "all that shopping, it's just people trying desperately to avoid facing their own mortality, it's pathetic" or "all that social networking, it's just people desperately trying to avoid facing their own mortality, it's pathetic."

In my view these people have really got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Because the question isn't whether we do things to avoid thinking about mortality. Of course we do. What the hell is pathetic about that? If you're really thinking clearly about it, how is there any rational response to the fact of mortality other than life-destroying sadness? The only proper response is avoidance and repression.

So the question isn't whether that's what we're doing. The question is how suited our behaviors are to the task at hand. That's what we really need to know.

Since we're here in 2014, let's put it this way: what we need are metrics.

I propose two.

First, of course, you want to know how effective the relevant behavior is: just how distracted are you from death while you're doing the thing? This will vary from person to person, of course, but there may be some generalities.

Second, you want to know how harmless the relevant behavior is: is your death denial someone else's second-hand smoke? If it is, you got a problem.

Despite some obvious problems, shopping measures up better than you think. For people who like to shop, shopping is extremely effective at all kinds of mood improvement. I hate it when people act like the problem with spending money on clothes, shoes, and gear is that it doesn't make you feel better. Duh, of course it makes you feel better. There might be other reasons not to do it, but only the Harmony Myth of Human Nature would trick you into thinking that just because something is problematic it can't also be really great.

On the harmlessness metric, I'm giving shopping a C+ -- not great, but needs improvement. Finer points of the analysis would get into the effects of capitalism on economic growth, the effects of spending rather than giving, and the effect of piles of useless crap on the environment. Before you get ready to fail shopping on the harmlessness metric, consider how it stacks up against violent masculinist sports -- another classic death denial activity.

IMO, the metric analysis of denial of death puts a number of the classic denial activities in a more positive light.

1. Pointless social networking.

Say what you want about pointless social networking. As a distraction from death -- well, it's pretty goddamn distracting. As people are always saying, it distracts us from everything. So high score there. And if you do it right, it's pretty harmless.

Main downsides: uses electricity, entails risks of making yourself annoying or offensive to larger groups of people.

2. Sex.

Sex is the classic denial of death activity, one of the main things that, when you're in the middle of it, is so absorbing it casts out everything else. Highly effective.

In terms of harmlessness, sex gets a bad rap. IMHO the problem isn't sex, but sexism and other stupidities: in the ridiculous world of men "scoring" and women "giving it away," -- yeah, of course, problems. Don't forget -- as we've said before on this blog, if you want sex, work for feminism.

3. General time wasting.

People like to waste time, and there's always a lot of hand-wringing about it, like oh noes, some people are wasting time when they could be Achieving Something. But when you look at the destructive aspects of some kinds of death denial, the peace and quiet of general time wasting starts looking pretty good.

I often think of the Pascal quote: "All of humanity's problems stem from [our] inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

Next time you're thinking of engaging in a little death denial, don't be too hard on yourself. If you not screwing up the world and being horrible to other people, you're probably ahead of the curve. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Everything That's Wrong With The World Today: Driving Edition

À cheval, by Jan Verhas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Regular readers know: I hate to drive.

Usually I get around by bus, subway, train and the occasional taxi. But once in a while there is an errand or task I have to perform that brings me face to face with the central dilemma of North American life: whether to take once of those drives we've conditioned ourselves to think of as reasonable despite the fact that a moment's inattention could kill you and several strangers, or whether to take an insane multi-stage bus trip ending in a place where people treat "taxis" like a bizarre foreign luxury brand. In these situations, I borrow my friend's car.

And then when I'm driving, I'm always like, WTF? Because really, driving mirrors and perpetuates the very worst qualities of modern life.

1. Driving makes you see other people as just annoying obstacles

The main thing about driving is that other people are simply in your way, doing nothing for you except pissing you off.

In other circumstances the presence of other people is almost always a mix of the bad and good. Sure they might be nattering on and on about how their weight-loss regime is so flexible and easy-going, they actually had a glass of wine a week ago Saturday! (actual thing I heard) but even so, they can be interesting and fun to watch and listen to and really, would you want to sit all by yourself on a completely empty bus? It would be a little creepy.

But in the car, forget it. The existence of other people in other cars is just making your life worse. Who prefers a crowded lane to an empty highway? No one.

2. Driving makes you think you're a rugged individual, taking responsibility for yourself

When you drive, you make literal the whole metaphor of Being In The Driver's Seat. There's something about the combination of the car and the road gives you an almost irresistible feeling that you are In Control. Want to go fast? Push your foot down! Want to slow down? Put your foot down differently! You can DO ANYTHING and you don't need help from anybody -- except, of course, needing them to get out of your way.

I often think of an image I encountered in a book by Jonathan Haidt, where he describes being on the back of a horse or donkey or something, and being in a very dangerous and delicate situation near a cliff -- he is seized with fear that he won't be able to make it safely, then suddenly realizes, he is not DRIVING A CAR, where it does whatever you want, he's ON AN ANIMAL who has the same interest in not falling that he has. It's no problem. The animal steps carefully and they find their way.

3. Driving makes you see other people as utterly expendable

It's shocking that this should be so, but it seems to be. It's bizarre. People who will give up a whole day to run some race or something for cancer research in a tiny contribution to an effort to maybe possibly help someone survive an illness also get merrily in the car without giving a moment's thought to the fact that it is quite easy and even possible that they will kill someone.

I think it's like this: you feel you have to drive, so you do a little one-man's-ponens-is-another-man's-tollens and conclude that the risk must be tolerable -- that is, you adjust your judgments about tolerable risks to fit your judgment that driving is ho-hum-just-another-activity, because not driving is intolerable.

When I mentioned recently to a family member that driving made me anxious because in cases of accidents and inattention it's possible to kill other people, they were like "Dude, you are one weird person."

4. Driving makes you one angry mo-fo

Haven't you noticed this?

5. Driving makes musing feel like thinking

Often on a long drive you feel like you're "thinking about things," because on a long drive many thoughts go through your mind. But it's in the nature of driving that you can't really follow any of those thoughts through. They come by, and you see them, and you feel "Oh, a thought!" and then the car in front of you slows down or there's something strange by the side of the road and you're distracted until two minutes later when another thought comes by and you feel again "Oh, a thought!"

The result is that while you feel like you're thinking because you're having "thoughts," you're not really engaging in anything like the sustained active reflection characteristic of actual thinking -- and, I might add, actually facilitated by a long bus or train trip where all you're doing is staring out the window.

When you drive, you're just musing about things, seeing the thoughts go by. Drive enough, and you find yourself in the condition so characteristic of the modern era: unable to actually put thoughts together and, you know, think about them.