Monday, March 23, 2015

Economics, Ethics, and Piracy: Why Downloaders are Homo Economicus

Det grå fyr (The Grey Lighthouse), painting of the lighthouse in Skagen by Danish artist Christian Blache, via Wikimedia Commons

To me one of the worst hypocrisies in the modern world is the way that people who'd roll their eyes about ethics in most domains then turn around and use ethical shaming against the people they want to control.

Generally if you try to bring ethical considerations into a discussion where people are using economics and business reasoning, there'll be a general mood of eye rolling. Oh, ethics. Don't get in the way please -- we are doing grown-up business here.

But once the little people aren't doing what they want -- no one hesitates to play the ethics card.

For example, when it comes to downloading and internet piracy, corporate representatives who'd otherwise be first at the extreme capitalism table suddenly turn around and show us their school-marm side. Oooh, downloading! You bad person, you!

If you think about it for even a minute, content downloaders are doing exactly what the economic model predicts that they would do. They are acting to maximize their own self-interests. Their interest is in getting content for the least cost, and that is what they are doing.

Content downloaders are homo economicus.

What I didn't realize until I started learning more economic theory is that there's actually a framework for thinking about the kind of things that make internet content susceptible to the effects that it is. You can read details at this post but I'll go through the basics here.

Basically, "rival" or "rivalrous" goods are ones where if one person's consumption of that good decreases the amount another can consume. Food is a rival good, and in a sense most physical objects are, since if one person is using them another can't, at least not at the same time.

Under this definition, internet content is non-rival, since one person's consuming it doesn't decrease another's ability to consume it.

A good is "excludable" if there are ways to prevent people from consuming it. You can put food behind a wall and lock the door so it's excludable - and same with most physical objects.

And it's very difficult to stop people from sharing internet content, even when you really really really want to.

Goods that are neither rival nor excludable are called "public goods," and the usual examples are national defense, fresh air, and lighthouses. Technically, at least, it seems internet content also fits the description of a pure public good.

Isn't it interesting how little discussion you hear about this? 

To propose this discussion is not in any way to deny that artists and intellectuals should be paid for their work. Of course they should be. It's just to point out that there are various ways of making that happen, and we sure do hear a lot about some of them (DRM, huge lawsuits against poor people) and very little about the others.

What are those others? Public goods can be supported through grants, through government funding, through payments from consumers who opt to pay in for various reasons. Maybe everyone could have a minimum income.

In a sense, the alternative model is how some intellectual content already works. Professors get salaries, and produce intellectual content -- adding to the already compelling reasons that such intellectual should be freely shared. You can read a further discussion of alternatives in the body and comments of this post.

Are these good options? Honestly, I don't know. But isn't it strange how seldom we talk about them? Instead, we're subjected to a barrage of moralizing, largely from giant corporations -- who obviously have a huge interest in the old models -- and who wouldn't hesitiate to crush or mock anyone who used ethical reasoning in any way against their interests.

What a bunch of hypocrites.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Forced Social Choices And The Rhetoric Of Individualism, Or, I Don't Want An Apple Watch -- Yet

On a scale of 1-10, my current desire for an Apple watch is trending near 0. I don't know about you, but I'm trying for a little less intimacy with my gadgets, not more. Certainly the Guardian's description of its new "Moments" for the Apple watch didn't bump me up. Moments from the news tailored for my needs? "Timely, simple, glanceable?" "If a reader wants more, they can turn to our phone app to get the full story"? WTF?

I speak of my desire "currently" trending advisedly, because we all know how changeable and easily manipulated consumer desires are. Maybe in five years I'll be the one with the watch connector embedded in my skin, stopping by the Mac genius bar whenever I get a rash or take an unapproved form of bubble bath. Who knows?

Anyway, I was thinking about the Apple watch the other day, and I got to imagining what circumstances would make me change my mind, and I got to musing about how massively socially influenced our decisions about such things are these days. "Influenced" is probably too weak a word, even. Basically when it comes to the fabric of life these days, there are lots of things where you can't realistically opt out at all.  

For example, many jobs now require not only cars and cellphones but also that you be on social media. I hate Microsoft Word and I try to avoid using it, but when there are these ubiquitous requirements to submit in .doc format -- what's a girl supposed to do? Just this morning there was an article in the New York Times about how online programs that are partly games and partly social media are going to force workers to bust their asses 110% or get canned.

Watch-wise, what's going to happen when your workplace tells you that it's a requirement that you wear a smartwatch so they can track your emotions and health so they can fire you for inefficient feelings and doing crazy shit like eating candy bars? Will we be glad to have the watch "option" around then? Isn't anyone else worried about these things?

I'm constantly trying in my tiny way to buck trends I think are awful, but sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness. As a person who is "carless by choice" catching or calling an occasional taxi is essential to my life. I live in dread of the time that "ride sharing" takes over, and traditional taxi service disappears, so that only smart-phone users can get rides and anyone who displeases their driver -- or is of the the wrong race/gender/sexual orientation/appearance/ability to afford a nice handbag -- can't get picked up. In hopes of supporting the old ways as long as possible, I ride the old-fashioned way. But I feel like it's a losing proposition.

I'm also freaking out about the possible disappearance of cash. I keep seeing these stories about how cash, being difficult to trace and antithetical to corporate interests in tracking customers' info, is going to be disappear. So I started trying to use it as often as possible. You may not know this, but cash is actually a pretty convenient form of payment. You can just put some "dollars" in a wallet or something, and then when it's time to pay you take them out and give them to the salesclerk. Voilà! It takes like two seconds. But -- call me crazy -- I don't see "cash" as one of the big twenty-first century trends.

Every time I think about the coming Internet of Things I remind myself not to buy any "smart" appliances that can track my Pinot Grigio consumption, my preference for full-fat yogurt, and so on, and share it with corporate and government interests. But then I think about how that's going to be -- about how to get repair or replacement parts you're going to have to go on eBay and connect with enthusiasts and get to know someone who knows a guy who fixes things in his basement. Maybe I should quit my job and become an appliance repair apprentice?

What changes all this from an interesting set of sociological changes and into something bizarre and confounding is that the new impossibility of social independence is happening alongside a huge recommitment to the rhetoric of individuality.

Aren't you sick of hearing that people can do what they want, and make their own future, and have to take responsibility for their choices? Aren't you sick of the presumption that if you chose a thing, you freely opted in, and you don't get to complain about the consequences?

The way people talk, you'd think we were living on a fucking prairie and keeping alive by  killing more small animals than the next guy, instead of facing, every day, choices like "play this ridiculous game and get nudged by your colleagues or ... starve." Thank you for playing!

Getting back to the watch. The one thing that might put me into positive watch desire territory would be if you could go out with just your watch. If your watch could function as your keys and your wallet and your phone -- and you didn't have to carry anything? No purse, or bag, or backpack? If you could wear a dress and shoes and a watch and that's it? Not have to carry anything? Hmmm ... if that were the deal I'd be crossing into dilemma territory.

But no -- the watch isn't even a replacement for your phone, which you still have to carry. It's just  kind of a way for you to be more intimate with your phone, which you then have to find a place for and not lose. Lucky, I guess, for all those surveillance companies that are using your phone to secretly track your whereabouts and share them with law enforcement.

But hey -- you phone users? You chose to have a phone, right? So you'll have to suck it up.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Rationality Theory And Phrenology

 I'm always wondering in what ways the people of the future will look back at us and wonder WTF we are thinking. What will be the phrenology of our time?

There are of course many possibilities. But lately on my mind is the bizarre pretence we seem to have that we've got a solid handle on human motivation, behavior, and rationality. Hearing people talk, you'd think we've got such a good grasp of this stuff that it's meaningful to go around using theories and data to analyze what people do, and why, and what they ought to be doing instead.

Because really: when it comes to why people do what they do, we are wandering around in an epistemological desert. You'd never know that, though, from the way people go on about stuff.  The way people approach some numbers about some stuff people did, you'd think they were analyzing the latest numbers from the Large Hadron Collider.

For example, how often in the last year have you read something that used data to claim that people are really "irrational" in certain systematic ways, or that to make "rational" economic decisions they ought to be doing such-and-so, or that the presence of certain distractions -- such as really sexy underdressed women -- causes people to behave irrationally?

Don't you find these "findings" are often pronounced in the comfortable and confident tone of a man who knows he's wearing the right suit? But if you even just scratch the surface, you start to wonder what the hell they are talking about.

The standard science-y theory of rationality they're typically referencing is something like rational choice theory, where "rational" just means taking taking the least costly approach to getting what you want -- that is, the rational person maximizes their preference satisfaction at the least cost of doing things they don't want to do.

Sounds good -- and sure, maybe it's internally coherent. But here's the thing. If you're trying to think about when people might succeed or fail at being rational, you run right into a brick wall. This is because if you don't know what a person preferred, you don't know whether they behaved rationally in getting it. And -- unless they're your intimate friend or your patient in psychotherapy, how do you know what a person preferred?

It's like we've mentioned before. If a person does a surprising thing, you can never know whether they acted irrationally in satisfying a set of unsurprising preferences or whether they acted rationally in satisfying a set of surprising preferences.

And as we've discussed here before as well, even when it comes to money preferences aren't obvious. I prefer a fixed-rate mortgage even if it results in somewhat larger payments overall, because I care about the peace of mind, straightforward planning, and other things associated with fixed rates more than I care about the financial loss. I've been accused by an financial industry insider of being irrationally risk-averse, on the grounds that my decision will result in paying more money overall.

Now: suppose all you knew about me was that I had turned down a variable-rate mortgage in favor of a more expensive fixed-rate one. What could you say about the rationality of my choice?

Nothing. You can't say anything. All you can say is that if I had one set of preferences, I acted rationally and if I didn't, I didn't.

But this applies across the board. From the fact that someone does something -- even a pattern of things -- you can't really infer anything. Oh, a person wanted lobster, but then on seeing live lobsters changed their mind? You think that's irrational? As Richard Posner says, "an alternative interpretation is that this person simply has different preferences for two different goods: One is a lobster seen only after being cooked, and the other is a lobster seen before, in his living state, as well as after." Voilà! Rationality.

If there's no way to judge from the outside whether a decision is rational or irrational, then what are all these people doing with their pronouncements?

The most likely possibility, to my mind, is that they are projecting onto the subjects the kinds of preferences they themselves would have, and then going on from there. For example, the financial industry insider who called me irrational was going on a simple assumption: that people prefer to have more money rather than less, and don't have other preferences conflicting with this. It's a nice sounding assumption. It just happens to be totally and obviously false.

If this idea about projection is at all on the right track, then the whole thing starts to seem deeply creepy -- because the people pronouncing on rationality are so often of a certain type -- comfortable suburban upbringing, ivy-type education, lots of time being a guy and hanging out with guys. It's not news that the rest of us might have preferences that are radically different from theirs.

As I understand it, back in the day it was common in social science to just go with a "rationality assumption" -- assume people are rational and make inferences about other things, like preferences, from there. That does, indeed, avoid the difficulty we've been talking about, since you never have to determine whether someone's been rational -- the answer is always Yes.

I don't know too much about the intellectual history of this topic, but I believe there was a move away from this approach because it seemed so implausible as a description of people and the rationality assumption risked being used as a non-falsifiable -- and thus non-scientific -- tautology.

Those are good reasons, as far as they go, but at some point we'll have to grapple with the fact that once you move away from the rationality assumption, you bump right into a pretty extreme kind of uncertainty. Because the truth is, big-picture-wise, we don't really know why people do what they do. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

In Defense Of Minor Bad Habits

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Drinking Wine, via Wikimedia Commons

There are, as I see it, basically two ways of understanding the human condition.

The first is that, absent some set of dysfunctions, diseases, problems, damage, human life is good in a pretty simple way. Heal yourself -- and before you know it you'll be out enjoying the beauty of the sky, appreciating the deliciousness of a red pepper, volunteering to turn puppies into the guide dogs of the future, you know the drill.

The second is that the problems of the human condition transcend all therapies. Heal your heart, heal your mind, have the good luck that the people you love all live long and prosper -- it doesn't really matter. Life will still often be boring, unsatisfying, and pointless, bad when it's packed with unquenchable longings, and worse when it's not.

Unless you're new here, it'll come as no surprise that I hold the second view. My feeling is, you don't have to have been locked in a room as a child to have grown up into an adult who often feels fussy or angry or massively impatient or whatever. You just have to be a human being.

There are, of course, people who hold the first view. They're always talking about how if you just stopped eating sugar or found the right therapist or something, you'd be fine. Somehow -- and this is the part that always bugs me the most -- there seems to be this idea that solving one life problem will help you solve all the others, because you'll finally get it all together.

Often I find it's the opposite. Master one thing, another thing bothers you more. When I stopped smoking, I started drinking more.

If these people-of-the-first-view just had this opinion for and about themselves, that would be totally fine and they and I could live in peace. I could complain and drink too much pinot grigio, and they could go camping and exult about the views, and while we might not be best friends, I wouldn't feel like their existence is a problem for me.

But somehow the people-of-the-first-view often seem hell-bent on applying it globally. This is a problem, especially for those of us who don't fit the first-view experience of life. Also, I think it goes beyond the scope of oh-some-people-were-annoying-on-Facebook, because it gets into everything, and no one can just enjoy a minor bad habit anymore.

A few days ago the New York Times had a story about how Vermont is taking more urgent steps with respect to dealing with the heroin problem there. The story featured a guy who seemed like your basic dad type guy and how he'd become addicted to heroin; at first the clinic couldn't fit him in, and then with the new programs they could, and he figures that if that last-minute opening hadn't occurred, he probably would have died.

Reading about all the people with heroin problems in this article made me feel so fucking sad. And I thought to myself, "If these people were all smoking lots of cigarettes and drinking too much beer and using pot all the time, wouldn't that be so much better from any conceivable point of view?"

I mean, wouldn't it? Isn't it always better if someone is muddling through with some relatively safe crap, some minor bad habit, even if it's bad for them, than if they're doing a drug that can easily kill you, like heroin?

One major problem with the hegemony of the first view is that when the rhetoric of War On Minor Bad Habits gets out of control, you take away the one tool that people who experience the second-view-human-condition people have to manage their bad habits. Sure, they might give up their bad habits. But if they're sad or going through a divorce or out of work, you know what happens to those minor bad habits. They become a heroin addiction, and then they kill you.

So sure, if someone you love has a minor bad habit, give them a nudge and a nag every now and then, but don't get on your high horse about it -- and don't act like there's some magic Rubik's cube of treatments and habits that once you lock in, you're good. For a lot of people, that's never going to be true.

Monday, February 23, 2015

When Updating Opera Means Blandifying It; Or, Why I Hated The COC's Don Giovanni

From the COC production.

Let me start by saying right up front that I have nothing against updating opera productions. Sure -- put your characters in a modern board room. Make it be about the Iraq War. Use business suits. I love it.

However, a lot of updating I've seen lately I have hated. And the reason I've hated it is that, contrary to what is often thought, the effect of some updating is not to make opera more disturbing, relevant, thought-provoking, or edgy, but rather to make it more bland, more mushy, and more irrelevant. 

When someone complains about an updated opera production, the standard line is that they're some kind of traditionalists, who want to be lulled by opera's beauty and tradition, and that presenting them with disturbing contemporary commentary is too jarring for them.

Let me just say: for me that is the opposite of the problem. What I see in some updating is, instead, a kind of gutting of the themes of the opera. (#notallupdating).

The worst updating involves seemingly disconnected "cool" aesthetic choices, minimalist staging, and "interesting" effects like "Oh, the whole thing is happening inside a play inside a nineteenth-century garden!"

Often, I find the effect to be one of distancing the audience from the themes of the opera -- themes that, given opera, are often profoundly disturbing in themselves when the production is straightforward.

For example, I recently saw the COC's production of Don Giovanni. I kind of love Wikipedia's quick synopsis of the opera itself: "Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, and sexually promiscuous nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast, until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit."

In the recent COC production, several elements of the story were re-imagined. It was set in the 20th century, and the characters' relationships were changed so that everyone in the story who is not part of Don Giovanni's family is part of the same extended family. Don Giovanni is dressed like an ordinary schlump, usually in a ratty overcoat. About his re-imagining, the director says that it's not really about Don G. being a "bad person." Instead:

"The main clash here is between two radically different ideas about how to live a good life ... Don Giovanni here is not a seducer or a playboy; he is an older man, somebody who has experienced heartbreak and disappointment. He comes in with something of the messiah complex, but his utopia of a new kind of community unsettles everybody in the family."

I thought this approach destroyed the opera by undercutting its most interesting and important themes, without being bold enough to suggest other ones. Here are just three examples.

1. Power, money, and coercion.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni uses his status and money as a nobleman to get what he wants at huge costs to everyone else. Because marriage to a nobleman would transform most people's lives beyond belief, young women -- such as the servant Zerlina -- will go along with him whatever he proposes. By falsely suggesting marriage will result, Don Giovanni is able to coerce and deceive women into having sex with them, even though in the traditional cultural setting, this could ruin their lives.

But in this production, any reflection on how massive wealth inequality impacts social relations is completely lost, since Don G. is just some guy, the family is presented as well to do, and Zerlina isn't a servant at all but rather the daughter of one of the family members.

Disturbing commentary on money, class, and society? Gone.

2. Love, Sex, and the Seductiveness of Evil.

Even if you gut the social commentary, you still have the extremely interesting possibility of presenting the theme related to the drives of lust and affection and how those can point in the opposite direction from the drives of good sense, love, and other nice things. It is utterly bizarre to me how in the massive suburbanization of modern life there's this party line that lust and sex are nice parts of love and go along naturally with it, while meanwhile there's this whole other thing happening with rape and sexual assaults and people in public life being completely undone by their non-monogamy.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni is a bad guy. But he's an attractive guy. Part of that is his money, sure, but it's also because sometimes, evil is attractive -- that's one of those universal and universally interesting things about the human existence.

But in this production, Don G. isn't "evil," he's just some guy with some other ideas about living, and his charismatic effects are a total mystery. Was I the only person watching and thinking, "Who on earth would be sexually attracted to this slouching, arrogant asshole in a dirty coat?"

If you can't show why he's attractive, you can't even start with themes, because the story doesn't make sense. Plus, if Don G. is just a person with other ideas about "the good life," that suggests the update would present the opera as a reflection on the problems of modern monogamy and the possibility of something else.

You know what? That would have been AMAZING. It would have been an opera about something different, but something actually interesting, relevant, and possibly destabilizing to the audience. But I didn't see anything like that.

3. Unrepentance and Fate.

Everyone who talks about Don Giovanni seems to mention the fact that at the end ghosts appear and give him a chance to repent, and he refuses, and then goes to hell. I love that the opera traditionally has been seen as having comic elements, melodramatic elements, and supernatural elements.

But once you've gotten rid of Don Giovanni being a bad guy, the whole thing with the ghosts and supernatural elements doesn't really make sense. Is he psychologically persecuting himself? If he just has other ideas about "the good life," why would he do that? If the forces against him are that he's being ganged up on, that whole punishment and refusal to repent thing just doesn't make any sense.

Weirdly, with respect to the whole re-imagining the story idea, this Toronto Star review suggests that somehow, as traditionally told, the themes of Don Giovanni wouldn't make sense in our modern world:

"If you come to Don Giovanni to see a swaggering specimen of macho humanity break the hearts of numerous women without impunity, you will be disappointed. In this post-Ghomeshi, post-Cosby, post-Dalhousie Dentistry era, it’s hard to see how an old-school reading of this opera would fly any more."

This is mystifying to me. You're saying the themes of rich and powerful people using their influence to get other people to have sex with them -- sex that ends up being destructive or damaging -- are irrelevant to the modern world? That the stories alluded to show that that theme is passe? If anything it's the opposite. The traditional story is too relevant. It's presenting it straight that would really disturbing, destabilizing, and edgy.

It's not the traditional opera that's somehow a safe bet, a mushy, comfortable, inert bit of aesthetic fun. It's the update.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sustainable City Living FTW, Or, Pod-Life, I Has It

Yesterday morning I woke up and learned it was -11F. That's, like, I don't know, some way-below -zero temperature in Celsius. I've adopted many of my new country's habits but for some reasons Celsius, no can do. 

I learned how cold it was cold from my iPhone. Because there is no way I would have known otherwise. Because I enjoy the special condition I think of as "life in the pod" -- the pod being my condo apartment, which, being surrounded on five of six sides by other apartments, isolates me from almost everything going on in the outside world.

For some reason people have a lot of negative associations with living in small spaces, one person on top of the other, but I don't know what is wrong with these people because I think it's the best. The small space means I don't accumulate a ton of stuff. It's easy and convenient to clean. If there are problems, there's always someone to call.

And most of all, the pod is always comfortable and cozy, in one of the most eco-friendly ways around. On the coldest day of a Toronto winter, I can, honest to god, turn off my heat for the whole day, and when I come back at five, the temperature is hovering around 70. Even keeping the place toasty, the heater only comes on rarely.

There's something so life-affirming to me about how in this context, being right up close with other people, having lots of them right around you, actually enables you to live a more comfortable life, a life that would be unsustainable otherwise. It's just like public transportation. Other people, instead of being in your way, are part of your path to happiness.

Sometimes I encounter the idea that there's something antithetical about big city living, on the one hand, and environmentalism or being into the protection of nature, on the other, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because if the people are all crowded in together into small spaces, then there's way more space where there are no people messing everything up. It's spreading out and sprawl that destroys the environment.

Even the recreational activities of urban life may be more environmentally sustainable. Just the other day the New York Times had a story about how recreational activities like hiking, camping, and back-country skiing are seriously damaging to the environment. Money quote:

"Impacts from outdoor recreation and tourism are the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered..."

If only all those people could be herded into an art museum!

Anyway, all this means that when I see environmentalists protesting urban development, I want to say, you got the wrong end of the stick, guys. You should be herding everyone into big tall buildings, where can share the footprint, share the heating bill, create demand for public transportation, and hang out in coffee shops. Giant wilderness spots and the animals who live in them -- they'll be left alone in peace.

For me, the icing on the cake in terms of the eco-friendliness of urban living is the fact that, contrary to what you may have thought, elevators are among the most energy-efficient means of travel around. As the New Yorker explained in an article years ago, that's because of counter-weights. Once you put the counter-weight on, the energy required to move people up and down is actually pretty small.

When you're feelingl down about the human condition, think about that for a few minutes. What a wonderful display of human ingenuity and cooperation! Engineers came up with counter-weights, architects and builders put them into nice big buildings, and people like me use them to get to our apartments -- after we've taken our energy efficient subway or bus ride home, of course.

TL;DR: city living FTW.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Why The "Politics of Envy" Is A Stupid And Evil Idea

From 2011. I can only think it's gotten worse. Source: The Atlantic.

 Nothing pisses me off quite like hearing that being mad about rising income inequality and thinking something should be done about it means embracing a "politics of envy." What a cynical and manipulative piece of bullshit.

The phrase, I take it, is meant to suggest that if you think it's problematic that some people work hard and have huge vacation homes, while other people work hard and have unpredictable shifts at McDonald's. you're somehow suggesting that the latter people envy the former. If you're poor and you can't afford healthy food for your kids, and you're mad that someone else just bought a new yacht -- well GEE -- that's one of the seven deadly sins dude! Just say no!

The reason it's such a bullshitty idea is that the issue of inequality isn't about desires or longings or "coveting" or whatever but just about justice and fairness. You can see how ridiculous the expression is when you try to apply it to other contexts where it seems more obvious that fairness and justice are the issues.

Let's start with sports, where for some reasons people who can't wrap their heads around distributive justice seem to have a finely developed sense of fairness and right and wrong. Suppose you had a sporting competition and one team showed up with some wildly successful device that allowed them to win every time: special jumping tools for the basketball players, or sticks with magnets -- or, just say for instance, specially deflated footballs.

People would be outraged. Not fair! Cheating! Even if -- unlike the deflategate case -- there wasn't a rule specifically about these objects, you can believe people would fall all over themselves to make a rule about it. "Unfair!" "Not a fair competition!" would be the rallying cry. OK. Would you say that the eternally losing teams had a "politics of envy" toward the always winning team? No, I didn't think so.

Next, what about that whole high-frequency trading kerfuffle? Basically, the idea here is that in certain circumstances it's possible to exploit tiny differences in the speeds of information transfer to get an advantage in some finance markets. In his book Flash Boys, Michael Lewis's describes people actually moving their desks from one end of a room to another to gain an advantage.

Large advantages to those with fast connections is widely considered unfair. Not by everyone, but certainly by a lot of people, including investors and industry professionals. Now what if you approached those investors and industry professionals and said, "Unfair? Oh -- that's a politics of envy. Just because some people can finagle things with higher speeds -- you just envy their awesome computer power dude! Chill it with the deadly sins already and just embrace losing!"

Finally, think about discrimination. Suppose suddenly it became widely agreed that to address the wrongs of the past, there was going to be radical preferential treatment agains straight white men. Straight white men would always be last to be considered on any list for anything. What do you think would be the general response? "Oh -- all those white guys begging for coins while the rest of us prosper? That's just a politics of envy." Yeah, right. It's hard to imagine a world in which "unjust and unfair" wouldn't be the main rallying cry against this.

So, WTF? Why call it politics of envy when it's general inequality? How did people become so convinced that the status quo is somehow just or fair?

Look, you were born with certain advantages of smart and healthy and strong and able or you were weren't. It wasn't your choice or effort or lack thereof, and it's not to your credit or discredit either way. You were born to a family that nourished you and prepared you for life and gave you an inheritance or you were born to one that abused and ignored you. It wasn't your choice or effort or lack thereof, and it's not to your credit or discredit either way. It's just like a team or a trader with a great modem -- not fair.

As long as we live in capitalism we probably can't disconnect success from luck and get rid of this problem -- but what we can do is make it less bad. Especially at the bottom. No one in a rich country should have to work three crappy jobs with unpredictable hours and still not make enough to get by. It's ridiculous, and not fair. It has nothing to do with envy. Sheesh.

In this article about Clinton's preparing for the presidential run, Larry Summers uses says how important it is to find a way to talk about inequality without "embracing a politics of envy." The article also talks about how to talk about anything other than growth and opportunity is to want to "punish the rich," and is "vilifying the wealthy."

Please, just stop. It's not about envy -- and it's not "punishing" or "villifying" anyone -- to want to take some baby steps toward ameliorating the harshness of the radically different life outcomes that result from factors completely beyond your control.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dilemmas of Philosophy: Creativity And Criticism

I'm a philosopher, but I didn't become one in the normal way. I studied math in college, and when I did take a philosophy class in undergrad, I happened into one of the standard Descartes-to-Kant history surveys. To be honest I spent the semester staring out the window and thinking, "Who cares about proofs of the existence of god? This is stupid."

It wasn't until after I'd spent years pursuing a PhD in mathematics and then eventually started hanging around some humanities people that I began to read some philosophy of mathematics, and that drew me in to the whole shebang, and really right into the core of philosophy. If you know me at all, you know I have ideas in a wide-range of philosophical areas, and that, in the classic philosophical style, I like to think about how they all fit together.

So I may be an "accidental" philosopher, but I'm definitely a philosopher.

This particular history, though, means that when I started my PhD in philosophy, I was already a pretty formed person, with opinions and a self-concept that were formed in the "pure math" atmosphere and not the "humanities" atmosphere. 

And one of the first things I noticed hanging out with humanities people -- and especially humanities students -- was how much time they seemed to spend on essentially critical activities. Finding a problem in someone's argument, objecting to a framework, finding a counter-example, complicating a narrative.

While I could see how criticism could be important, and obviously useful for learning, and how it could be part of a dialectic activity that really did move things along, I found this aspect of the humanities ... would "distasteful" be too strong a word? Criticism seemed to me so narrow in scope, so not-getting-anywhere, so uncreative, and frankly, often a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

I wanted to go beyond criticism. I wanted to create something, and I wanted to take a stand not only on what I thought was wrong, but on what I thought was right. If you know math, you know how creative it is: the main activity in math is proving things, and there's a rich aesthetic quality to it. I wanted to keep the feeling of doing that, and I also thought there was a kind of intellectual virtue to laying my own cards on the table, to say not only "I disagree with your claim that X" but also "I think Y."

So OK: as I've gone along in philosophy, I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to do just that. I've tried to say what I thought the answers to certain problems were, or how the problems should be framed, or what interesting things would follow from which other things.

Lately, however, I feel like I'm running up against the limits of creativity in philosophy. One major problem with it, it seems to me, is that it seems to require framing your new thing with some accepted background framework or set of ideas or posing of the question.

I mean, in philosophy, to make your new contribution seem intelligible, interesting, or relevant, you kind of have to appeal in some way to the way things are set up. Otherwise people -- and especially other philosophers -- have nothing to connect them to your idea, no way of understanding or entering in to what you are saying, no shared starting point for reflection. For example, if you want to offer, say, a new view in bioethics, getting others to care about and understand your work requires some kind of use of familiar concepts and references to familiar texts and so on.

But this seems to essentially limit the depth of possible challenges to the status quo. Sometimes you don't want to appeal to the existing framework, because sometimes it's the framework that's the problem. Sometimes you want to say that some whole way of doing things is wrong -- wrong in such a way that you can't just turn around and create some other way of doing things.

For example, in his book The Racial Contract, Charles Mills expertly lays out the historical and philosophical case that what we think of as "social contract theory" was constructed on essentially racist foundations. It's basically a ground-up criticism of a whole way of thinking about something. I have to admit, when I first finished reading the book, I thought to myself for a moment, "Well? And? Should we stop doing social contract theory? Change it? What?" I was looking for the positive and creative part in a book where that wasn't the point, where the point was more to say that the whole frame for thinking of some area was a problem. I had to step back and remember what that kind of deep criticism was all about.

So while I continue to feel the appeal of the creative and the positive, the importance of offering something that might be true of the natural or social world and not just true of some other theorizing, more and more lately I find myself confronting its limited usefulness for really deeply different thinking. And wow, does this ever seem like a time for deeply different thinking.

This essential limitation to creative and positive work seems to me particularly a problem in philosophy. In other humanities, it seems like scholars have so much to connect them to one another just in the content of the discipline: US historians have the history of the US; scholars of French literature have the literature of France; art historians have actual art to talk about.

But philosophy, it's like there's no there there. All we have are our ideas, and our history, and our shared conversation, for connecting our ideas together and sharing what we are thinking about and how it matters. That's not only a negative thing -- it can also be what makes philosophy limitless and open-ended in the strange way that it is. But it can be a problem.

One way it can be a problem, I think, is in this creativity/criticism dilemma. The creative work of philosophy, the saying what is, the making of a theory or set of ideas to share seems constrained. Since you're always referring back to some shared conversation from the past to even frame what you're talking about, it's hard to strike completely out on your own with a radically and interestingly new thing.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sexual Liberation And Sexual Inequality

Whatever, by Michel Houellebecq. I love that The Independent called the book "funny, terrifying, and nauseating."

I was reading MathBabe the other day and she linked to this piece by a professional dominatrix who was arguing that greater sexual liberty would make the world a better place. Especially, she said, if men felt free to be themselves instead of being laced into some absurd masculinity, then they might relate to women in a better way.

Here's a passage I find appealing:

" the majority of my sessions, I am creating a space for men to explore areas of their sexual lives that society feels are unmanly; they come to me to be penetrated, to be used, to serve, to submit, to worship, to be taken. A client might have any or all of a bewildering array of fetishes, but they mostly come to me to experience something well outside the very narrow confines of what society says that it means to be a man."

As she goes along, she develops an idea that feminism, if it rejects a certain kind of sexual moralism and narrower views about sexuality, might contribute to men's well-being in wide-ranging ways, including sexual liberation of a kind that would allow men to be themselves and perhaps be less caught up in problematic kinds of masculinity and aggression.

Basically, I agree with this idea. Years ago I on TKIN I wrote a post that said, "You know how they say, 'If you want peace, work for justice?' Well, if you want sex, work for feminism."

Really, nobody is more for sexual liberation than I am. One of my philosophical research projects is devoted to developing theoretical concepts of sexual freedom and autonomy that go beyond the crude kind of "you can't tell me what to do" -- concepts that can articulate a sense of positive sexual freedom, the freedom to be yourself sexually, which surely goes beyond the right to be left alone and not told what to do. So, yeah.

And yet. I think it's important to acknowledge that there are certain problems that sexual liberation will not solve, and could plausibly exacerbate. And I think that some of those -- contra to the spirit of the essay -- are linked to anger and aggression.

First, as one of the MathBabe commenters said: "Unfortunately there is tension between liberty and equality, and complete sexual license would probably increase sexual inequality rather than diminish it."

Here is an elaboration of that idea, expressed in what I take to be the canonical text on the matter: the novel "Whatever" by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq:

"It's a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It's what's known as 'the law of the market.' In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a total liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude."

If that's too wall-of-texty for you, here's the Cliffs Notes. Basically, if sexuality is constrained by commitment and monogamy, then roughly speaking each person gets one -- or maybe a few -- sex partners. That is, it's something like "each person gets one person," with a little wiggle room around the edges.

If you're at the top of the sexual hierarchy -- the most attractive, rich, accomplished, fit, sexy -- commitment and monogamy mean you might attach yourself to one person and have a few affairs or see a few prostitutes. At most.

If you're at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy, commitment and monogamy mean there will be other people of your preferred sex/gender for partners who will also be at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy, and you can form commitments and marriages with them and then have sex with them.

So with commitment and monogamy, the people at the top and the bottom would be having some sex with not too many people. Once things open up and those constraints go away, you get immediately into a more sexual "haves" and "have-nots" situation. And what's more of a trigger for male aggression than being a sexual have-not?

Gendered attitudes about sex are obviously complicated, but even leaving all of that aside, I guess I'd want to say that sexual inequality could be, in itself, a bad thing, and that the fact that some people never get to have sex at all would be, in itself, a very bad thing, and that even just the concept of "hierarchy" in sex is a bad thing. Bad, that is, for women and men alike.

I don't think any return to the constraints of commitment and monogamy are what we should be aiming for. But I wish we could talk about sexual inequality in a constructive way that wasn't all caught up in anger, aggression, indignation, and blame.

Monday, January 19, 2015

My Eroding Love Of Luxe

Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679), In Luxury, Look Out. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I used to be kind of in love with luxury. I loved beautiful clothes and I figured when I had enough money I would buy some. I daydreamed about owning a Ferrari or some other absurdly expensive car. I grumbled, silently, about the ugly buildings in the big public universities I've long been affiliated with, vaguely imagining that someday maybe I'd be walking some beautiful ivy covered halls and feeling a rightful place in the world.

I don't want to overstate anything. I've never thought luxury was unproblematic, and I've always been very aware of both the practical problems of luxury, e. g., fancy stuff made in horrible working conditions, and the abstract problems of luxury, e. g., the fancier your stuff is the worse everyone else feels. Luxury is often non-sustainable, elitist, whatever. I've always known that. So it's not like I had some plan to get rich and surround myself with luxe. I just had a certain kind of love. Probably unrequitable, but love nonetheless.

As I get older, though, that love of luxe is rotting away.

I think the first sour note was introduced between me and luxe when I started to have enough money to buy an actual purse. As a young person I just carried a backpack, and when I got to grad school I found a Coach bag in a thrift store for thirty dollars which I used for years. After a few years of having a real job, I thought: I could get a proper bag, something nice.

I don't know if you've ever shopped for a woman's purse, but the situation out there is pretty out of control. Coach, it turns out, is actually seen as the poor-woman's-nice-bag, even though the purses are a few hundred dollars apiece. A proper "nice" bag, like from Prada, you're talking a few thousand. Something luxe, like a Birkin bag, you're talking many thousands of dollars. (In case you need help, Forbes has an article for you: "How To Buy Your First Hermès Birkin.") 

I don't know if this is just me or whether you have it too, but seeing all those bags, it makes the "nice" but reasonably priced bag seem a little ridiculous. Like, am I really going to spend serious money and get something way inferior and not even something considered proper luxe?

I wrote about this problem before, where I called it the "hedonic stairmaster." Once you're in consumer goods mode, how do you settle for 3, or even 7, on the ten-point luxe scale? You just keep climbing. I can't stop.

So our my relationship with luxe was already strained. And then we had the economic crisis and sudden focus on inequality and poverty and things started to be tough on everyone. Then things that were too luxe started to feel weird to me. Not just in the cognitive way I'd understood before, but in a more visceral level. I started to emotionally connect those beautiful Birkin bags with something that felt bad, something I didn't want to be a part of.

Weirdly, the financial crisis doesn't seem to have had this effect on many people. Everyone's all about the luxe now. High end malls are doing better than ever, while J. C. Penney can't catch a break.

Anyway, lately I've come to appreciate even the ugly buildings I work in. It feels like they form a suitable and appropriate venue for the discussion of ideas. Honestly, at a time that feels like a financial struggle for a lot of people, it starts to feel like there's something odd about the whole sitting-around-in-beautiful-buildings-talking-about-stuff thing. What are we, priests?

In some ways the intellectual thing works best when the status aspects are ratcheted down as much as possible. And there's nothing like utilitarian architecture and crappy lighting to quietly ratchet down the status aspects of what you're doing.

Just a couple of months ago I taught Rawls in my Introduction to Philosophy class, and we were talking about inequality. As I walked back from class, I passed through the quite elegant new addition to our building which is part of the Accountancy program, through the double doors, and into the dim and grim hallway that my office is in. Don't get me wrong: my office is book-lined and has a window and I've got zero complaints about it, but drabness-wise, our building is up there.

And suddenly I found myself so happy to be leaving the luxe Accountancy space, with its huge windows and fancy staircase, to pass back into the drab. I remembered how much harder it is to shake things up and be a rabble-rouser if you're spending a lot of money -- especially money that came from someone else. I remembered how the ivy halls of my daydream connect the physical space to a history in which some pretty unsavory elements, like racism and sexism and classism and all kinds of other things -- were even worse than they are now. I remembered how the drab physical space could help put me and my students on a more equal footing, could be welcoming and non-intimidating to them -- with both of us having to acknowledge that even a Starbucks has a more luxe interior than the space we're in.

Bag-wise, I never did buy anything nice. I've gone back to wearing a backpack. For fancy occasions, I bought one of those standard nylon Longchamp bags. And, of course, I've still got my thrift-store Coach.