Monday, December 30, 2013

Separated at Birth? Cultural Capitalism and New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking


Over the holidays I stayed in a motel where the TV in the breakfast room was set to the TODAY show. You could probably have a whole blog where you just talked about how weird and depressing the TODAY show is -- like, why are they shouting all the time? is it really just a commercial? for what? But here I want to focus on just one thing.

While I was munching some product of an unholy alliance between "continental breakfast" and "real food" and browsing my twitter feed for non-holiday content, a segment came on in which the hosts visited some women who were dreaming of a better life. Because I was only half paying attention I don't know if the narrative was "poor people in the US, once given the proper tools and a kick in the pants, can really make it work!" or whether it was "poor people from some poor country, provided with a little American ingenuity and a kick in the pants, can really make it work!"

But whatever -- it was about how some people could do some things to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to become Future Bosses of America.

In this case the women were being interviewed about their hopes and dreams and the means they were taking to get where they wanted to be. As one of them explained that "executive" was her goal, a group of them laughed nervously in that "we're teasing, but we're with you" kind of way. I get what she was saying: her goal was vaguely to have money and be in charge of something and wear nice clothes to work.

The TV people asked the women what steps they were taking to achieve their goals. And one thing that came up was that they'd been encouraged, by some do-gooder, I suppose, to make dream books -- like scrapbooks where they'd paste in the things they wanted. These women had pasted in pictures of smartphones, cars, electronics -- basically all the stuff anyone would want in modern society if they didn't already have it.

And I thought, Wait. Is this a "hard-headed Cultural Capitalist world view" narrative or a "soft-headed New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking" world view narrative?" Because it could be either.

Weirdly, these two are twins, separated at birth, with the same "dreams," "you can do it!" and "rise to the top" motifs.

I think of "cultural capitalism" as the cultural aspects of the range of views associated we might call extreme capitalism. As a political and economic set of ideas, extreme capitalism is for free markets, deregulation, the dismantling of government benefits and protections, rights for corporations and so on and so forth.

But like other political and economic ideas, extreme capitalism comes with a set of cultural aspects. These vary, but often are situated so as to contain some or all of the following: individuals are responsible for their own futures; no matter how poor you are, you're "free" unless someone is actively getting in your way; citizens are customers, exercising choice by spending; people, like mini-corporations, have to self-promote and make deals as a way of providing for themselves.

New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking is more diffuse and varied, but I associate it with three things. First, there's the New Age business. Many forms of this suggests "looking inward": since "it's all in how you look at it," if you're unhappy, you should first consider how things are inside your mind, instead of first considering how things are in your external world. Second, there's Life Coaching as a strategy for life. "You can do anything you set your mind to" is the motto here. And third, there's The Secret. You know, that thing where if you want something you think about it really hard and it happens for you.

I expect many people who find one of these world views attractive find the other one disturbing.

And yet the similarities are surprising. The individual is constituted as a contained entity independent from their surroundings. The person is absolutely responsible for her or his own future. What's "possible" is understood as dependent only on the person's internal state, and not on any features of the person's surroundings. Freedom comes from within.

If You don't like what you got, You can change it: You and only You!

As I see it, there's also something interesting and broader here about the role of kindness in personal relations. When it comes to other people, the New Age Positivity is associated with kindness and an open-heart. Which is fine, but as we all know, kindness isn't justice, and there's a difference between institutional support and charity.

Cultural Capitalism, in its own way, is all for kindness as well: when the state is not there to set rules and help provide for the least able and least well off, it is through acts of kindness and grace that the poor will survive.

You know that website McDonald's made with advice for employees that got people so mad? Check these out:

"Breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full."

"Singing along to your favorite songs can lower your blood pressure."

"Stress hormone levels rise by 15% after ten minutes of complaining."

These are Cultural Capitalism: they're advice on how to try to make your life work when you have crappy food, no healthcare, no money and lots of stress. But they'd also fit comfortably within any Best Practices Guide for New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking.

They're both. Just like the advice to deal with poverty by pasting pictures of consumer goods into an album.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Real Problem Of Love And Economics

"The difficult choice (money or love)." After Cornelis van Haarlem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Obviously, there is no single problem of love and economics. Clearly, the whole area is fraught and complex. As always, I'm not here with any "key to all mythologies."

But what's on my mind -- and perhaps it's been on yours as well -- has to do with the contrast, and the interaction, between the attitude of economics and the attitude of love.

In the attitude of economics, I think it's fair to say, the basic idea is that of an implicit contract or negotiation, with a good outcome being one that maximizes each person's preference satisfaction. If A has X and B wants X and B has Y and A wants Y, then the birds and the bees .. Oh, wait, that's something else. What I meant to say is, these people will make a deal. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker ... " etc etc etc.

In the attitude of love, if you believe the hype, it's supposed to be different. You're supposed to give and share. It's not all about you. You're supposed to care about the other person and want what's best for them for their own sake.

On one level the problem of love and economics might seem obvious and familiar, in that the attitude of economics is self-oriented and the attitude of love is other oriented. To approach the object of your love with self-oriented preferences would be to misunderstand the nature of love. If that's right, the problem of love and economics, insofar as its a problem, is mostly a problem for lovers, and the problem is that the attitude of economics makes them selfish jerks.


But as I see it, this not actually the real problem of love and economics -- or at least, it's more complicated. The reason I say that is that on closer examination, the distinction between self-oriented and other-oriented is not as simple as this analysis makes out. Even though the attitude of economics requires dealing with preferences, it is well known that there are many ways to understand what a preference is. If we're just talking about what is preferred, of course you can care about the happiness of another person. Nothing prevents you from preferring that your loved one get to have as much happiness and satisfaction as he wants -- indeed, nothing prevents you from preferring the well-being of your loved one to that of yourself.

Since we're doing philosophy, why don't we start with a completely oversimplified toy example using cake? If A and B each prefer cake to no cake, and each prefer the other to have cake rather than no cake, then violà!  A and B make the deal that any loving and consenting adults in their situation would: they agree to share the cake. Their other-oriented cake preferences express their caring and love; A and B both get cake; A and B both get to enjoy the other person's enjoyment of cake. WIN!

However. What this shows is not that there is no problem of love and economics. What this shows is just that when it comes to the problem of love and economics, we're just getting started. Because there are funny things about preferences that concern the preferences of others. One thing that can happen is "double-counting." In the economic approach, a good outcome happens when people's preferences are satisfied. But if A has preferences for B's preferences to be satisfied, it appears that B's preferences get counted twice.

For example, going back to our cake-obsessives, it would appear that the effects of double-counting are most dramatic when one person is in the attitude of love and the other is not. Suppose A loves cake, and A loves B, and because A is in the attitude of love toward B, A wants B to have cake. But now suppose B is just a cold ingrate who wants as much cake as possible, who couldn't care less about others, and who specifically doesn't care much about A. Then it seems that whatever means A and B use to maximize their joint preference satisfaction -- negotiation or an algorithm or whatever -- you know and I know what comes next: B gets all the cake. Dammit!

But wait: if that's correct, then it starts to seem like the real difficulty is less of a problem for the committed lovers and more of a problem for everyone else -- out here interacting with god-knows-what manner of person. Because it's when A is looking out for B and B is looking out for B that things go wrong.

Here is perhaps a more interesting example. In my to Ethics and Values course this past Fall we were talking about whether there are some things for which market norms are inappropriate, and we read this essay by Elizabeth Anderson. Among other things, Anderson says that if a potential surrogate mother has "non-commercial motivations," but are offered only what "the norms of commerce demand in return," then she is open to exploitation. In connection with this I found it striking that the author of this "secret diary of a surrogate," answers her own "would I do it again?" question by appeal to non-commercial motivations, telling her children: "The right thing isn't always the easy thing."

I take it the exploitation possibility arises because in caring you look out for others and in markets you look out for yourself. Any preference maximizing solution to this problem takes into account the purchaser's self-oriented preferences and the potential surrogate's other-oriented preferences. It's the real life equivalent of B getting all the cake. A gets no cake : ( 

Indeed, by developing other-related preferences, A gets less of what she wants for herself than she would have had otherwise.

If these thoughts are on the right track, then the real problem of love and economics is way bigger than the one inside the love relationship -- because it's a problem about how everyone relates to everyone else in the wide wide world. If you adopt a love attitude toward anyone who is not also committed to taking the love attitude back, you're screwing yourself over. You're getting the wrong end of the stick. In fact, if you approach the non-loving with any other-oriented preferences at all, you're putting yourself at a real disadvantage.

The implications of this seem to me vast. Just to start:

1) You have to basically divide the world into separate categories: the love category and the non-love category.

2) You'd better make sure that all the people in your love category have you in theirs, and even with comparable strength and caring, or you're fucked.

3) If you even care about the people in your non-love category you're a chump who's going home with no cake.

So the real problem of love and economics? It's not just for lovers anymore. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Nature Abhors A Math Nerd In Sparkly Shoes

Elisabeth of Bohemia-Palatinate, known for her correspondence with Descartes, with hunting spear and enviable arch expression.
A couple of weeks ago MathBabe wrote an interesting post -- "I’m already fat so I may as well be smart" -- where she talked about the ways being fat had freed her up to live the kind of life she wanted. The basic idea was that, particularly as a young person, she was already outside the "cool kid" and "thin sexy girl" paradigms; she thus didn't have to worry about those things and just did the weird nerdy things she wanted.

You should read the whole thing, but here's a quick sample:
"Namely, being a fat school kid meant that I was so uncool, so outside of normal social activity with boys and the like, that I was freed up to be as smart and as nerdy as I wanted, with very little stress about how that would 'look.' You’re already fat, so why not be smart too? You’re not doing anything else, nobody’s paying attention to you, and there’s nothing to gossip about, so might as well join the math team."
This got me thinking about my own very different experience years ago as a girl/young woman who was into math and other nerdy things. When I was a kid I was thin, and kind of girly. But I was never a cool kid. Basically my social status was that non-cool-kid who has a small number of good friends who are also non-cool-kids. Mostly I didn't care about the cool kids and their opinions -- except for trying to dodge their stupid attempts to belittle or harass or whatever.

My whole life I thought of math as cool -- how could something so creative and yet hard edged not be cool? So for me the problem was never a conflict between cool and not-cool, or a concern that doing math would make me uncool. I was proud to be good at math and eager for everyone to know I was.

The problem for me was something else: basically, I had so little in common with the nerdy boys that they seemed like aliens to me. And in my experience at least, nerdy guys of all kinds have often seemed to enjoy the company of other guys.

So the social issue for me was never one of how to be freed from the coolness hegemony. I was already free of the coolness hegemony. The social issue for me was the pressure of being the singular exception or weirdo in a small group of people I had nothing in common with.

Just a couple of illustrative memories. When I was in 8th grade computers were just becoming the kind of thing a kid could learn to use, and I signed up for a class learning programming in BASIC. Nobody needed to sell me on this or "make it fun for girls": I thought it was great. But I was also a girly-girl who took dance classes and liked clothes. Continuing with computers meant days and days spent in windowless rooms with 8th grade boys with whom I had no other shared interest or even style of communication. I was like, "forget it."

We didn't have a math club but I'm sure I would have felt similarly about that. I got into drama and found other fun weirdos to spend time with.

When I went to college I majored in math, and again I was often the only girl in a sea of guys. The complicated truth is even when there were women, I felt I we had nothing in common. The other people in my math classes were often opaque to me. I wasn't into sci-fi and they weren't into novels, and shoes. We looked at one another like birds of different species across a wide lagoon.

This drove me nuts. Thankfully math is the kind of thing that makes sense to do alone because if there had been group work and collective study projects I would have been out of there so fast it would have made your head spin.

I've always maintained that there's nothing inherently or essentially conflicting about being intellectually ambitious and wearing girly fancy clothes. I identify with this four-year-old, who wants to be a princess: when told that being a princess is "boring" because all you do is wear a "nice dress" all day, she says OK, she'll become a "princess firefighter." (As regular readers know, being a princess is NOT about nice dresses and is in fact serious business! But I digress.)

There's also nothing conflicting about being into math and into sparkly shoes, or being into computers and being into Anne of Green Gables.

The world, however, does not make it easy.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not Out To Get You: Revealed Preference Edition

Giacinto Gimignani, An Angel and a Devil Fighting for the Soul of a Child, via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe you've had an inchoate sense that dark forces are aligning against you. Maybe you're scared. Maybe you're too bored to think about it for more than five minutes. Well you're in luck, because to preferred clients of TKIN like yourself, we are proud to offer our premium service: we think it through so you don't have to.

This week, how advertising and cost-benefit analysis bond in unholy matrimony, spawning The Policy Methodology From Hell.

As we all know, if you're wondering how to make policy decisions, one popular answer is "cost-benefit analysis." And as we all know, if you're wondering what to count as a cost and what to count as a benefit, one popular answer is an "economic" one. What a person prefers is what is a benefit to them; giving up what is preferred is a cost; where for a preference set to be rational just means that it obeys formal consistency axioms like transitivity.

Maybe less well-known is that if you're wondering how to tell what preferences a person has, one popular answer is that the preferences to count are "revealed preferences." If you chose x over y, you manifested a preference for x; if you paid good money for that future-item-in-a-landfill tchotchke, you showed that you revealed a tchotchke-related preference.

It's obviously not news that there's something shady about the use of revealed preferences to reason about what is good and bad. What people choose is shaped by what options they have. And in classic "sour grapes" fashion, people who have no access to a given option sometimes come not to prefer it -- their preferences are "adaptive." Also, people might choose on the basis of false information. No one thinks the person who mistakenly ingests pesticide in food has some kind of latent preference for death.

But one another interesting fact about revealed preferences doesn't come up as often, overshadowed as it is by all these other things. That has to do with weakness of will. It's evidently a problem, because if you thought choosing y was for the best, but you caved to pressure/cravings/madness for x, then your choosing x plausibly does not plausibly reflect a way that x is good for you, and so counting your revealed preference as a preference would be a mistake.

It's easy to get lost in the philosophical thickets of weakness of will, meandering around like a drunk person, trying to figure out what could possibly determine the difference between "I chose it even though I thought it best not to" and "I chose it because I changed my mind" and other important distinctions. But perhaps we can say this: there is sufficient agreement on the concept to allow for a robust research program in the social sciences. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have conducted study after study measuring the effects various things have on weakness of will.

One conclusion they came to will surprise no one who has lived a human existence, and that is that the will is a thing that can be worn down.

Ask people to exercise their will -- eating radishes instead of chocolate, keeping a straight face when something is funny, etc. etc. -- and they'll become less and less able to effectively exercise their will. They call this "ego depletion." The "active self" is a "limited resource."

Among other weird things, this means that they more you have to resist temptations, the more you deplete your ego. The more you deplete your ego, the less you're able to resist temptations. So the more environmental factors there are requiring resistance -- the more bakeries you have to walk past, the more click-bait you have to ignore, the more advertised consumer items you have to not buy, the more likely you'll exhibit the weakness of will.

And this is where it gets interesting. Because when you put "the preference taken into account in cost-benefit reasoning fail to track your good when there's weakness of will" together with "the more you have to resist, the less you can resist," what you get is that the massive forces always present in a consumer society, urging you to BUY EAT DRINK ENTERTAIN YOURSELF YOU DESERVE IT, are actually making your revealed preferences less likely to be for your actual preferences.

Let's do an example. In one of their Freakonomics books, Levitt and Dubner said that fighting climate change through change in behavior was pointless because "It's not that we don't know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don't want to stop, or aren't willing to pay the price."

Their evidence for the implicit claim about preferences is our behavior: our behavior reveals preferences for convenience and fun over environmental goals. Plausibly, our actual preferences are sometimes for clean air and a world inhabitable by our children even when immediate forces make it hard to resist the temptations of climate damaging behavior. So basing judgments about our good based on our revealed preferences is a planning FAIL.

What's crazy about this whole thing is that the more other stupid temptations we have to resist -- the more we're subjected to BUY EAT DRINK ENTERTAIN YOURSELF YOU DESERVE IT -- the more likely we'll fail to act in accordance with our judgments, and thus the more likely that cost-benefit analysis will track our preferences for stupid consumer goods instead of, you know, clean air and water.

Remember the old picture of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other? This is like the devil has two kinds of minions: those shouting at you to listen and obey, and those who watch you obey and conclude: Well, we know what will make that person better off, nudge nudge wink wink.

You see why I called it an unholy alliance, eh?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Threat Alerts Of The Future, Or, Friends Don't Let Friends Spend Time Quietly At Home

Maybe a rating system of 0 - 6 meerkats would be better.

Remember the "Terror Alert Level," AKA the Homeland Security Advisory System, with codes up at the top consisting of red "SEVERE" and orange "HIGH"? Did you remember there was a blue level for "GUARDED"?

Did you know it was phased out and replaced with the National Terrorism Advisory System, partly because the color scheme was considered too ridiculous? 

Now that those colors aren't tied down to terror, maybe we can use them for some other important threat alerts.

-- The Consumer Rationality Alert: YELLOW = ELEVATED

We all know that in a modern society, economic growth is the new categorical imperative. But for many modern consumers, it makes no sense to keep spending. Poor people have no money, and thus can spend only by borrowing against their best interests. Better off people already have tons of stuff, and do not need more things.

The only way forward is through the familiar consumer manias that induce people to buy against their interests. It is well-known that these manias typically function at peak capacity around the holiday season, with consumers saying things like "My TV from last year is in beautiful, perfect condition, but this one is bigger and better."

But sometimes consumer rationality begins to rear its ugly head, prompting citizens toward unpatriotic activities like "making dinner" and "going for a walk." This year we're seeing some early warning signs, which is why the alert is ELEVATED. Remember, friends don't let friends spend time quietly at home.

-- The Tolerance and Openness Alert: GREEN = LOW


Fear is essential to an obedient, and thus peaceful, populace. In our modern complex world, fear, like so many things, has become less easy to control and direct. Back in the day, obvious enemies and threats like the USSR and "communism" could be trusted to reliably work everyone up into a frenzy.

Things are changing. With same-sex marriage on the rise, more and more mixed-race and ethnicity people being born, and a tendency to see people in other countries as "just people," good unifying sources of fear and hate may seem to be on the wane.

But a quick glance at virtually any unmoderated internet comments discussion will reassure anyone: fear and hatred are doing fine. A special shout-out here to Quebec for its ban on religious symbols in the workplace that allows "discreet cross pendants" or "star of David rings" but not Sikh turbans or other head scarves -- a classic expression of the "we know what we don't like when we see it" doctrine.
 
The Solidarity Alert: BLUE = GUARDED

Compared with other alerts, the issues here are complex and experts are divided over how likely threats from attempted solidarity are. On the one hand, ever since Governor Walker and his "Wisconsin budget repair bill," there's been an assumption that anti-solidarity legislation is working. In support of this, anti-solidarity forces point to high profile victories, such as the dismantling of the Occupy movements.

Other caution, however, that complacency is never the right response. Given the way the internet facilitates communication among people hoping to band together for common purposes, outbreaks of solidarity can never be far from us. Our rating the Alert Level at BLUE is a compromise among these divergent and opposite opinions.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Femininity For Everyone Redux, Or, Men In Lipgloss Plz

Vorbereitungen für den Maskenball, by Otto Erdmann (1834–1905) (Düsseldorfer Auktionshaus) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As I see it, the next big step forward for civilization is going to happen when men and boys can wear dresses, high heels, and lip gloss as part of normal everyday life.

Gender norms for men, they're like stuck in the dark ages. I mean, if anyone proposed returning to social norms in which women and girls could not wear pants, people would go nuts. So how is it that femininity for guys is still in the Oh-My-God-Get-Me-My-Inhaler category?

It seems the only frameworks we have these days for thinking about men with girlish styles is gayness, trans identities, or cross-dressing. But that's just weird. Being gay and being feminine are different things, and trans identities are about identifying in a certain way; the whole idea of being a feminine guy is being a guy and being feminine.

Cross-dressing comes closer, but it's not the same either. Being a feminine guy should include the possibility of throwing on a dress, or wearing girlish jewelry -- not as part of an elaborate project for a special occasion, but just because that's what you feel like wearing that day.

My guess --and here I really am conjecturing -- but my guess is that one reason femininity for guys has so little social acceptability has to do with the fact that two powerful but opposing forces hold femininity somehow in low esteem.

Most obviously, many anti-feminists have an interest in maintaining traditional gender roles. Their understanding of being a guy includes norms like "if you have a problem with that guy you should punch him." Many anti-feminists are also homophobes. For a man to wear pink nail polish is an obvious problem for these people. But it also seems part of anti-feminism to be down on femininity itself, to think that it's less good, or less important, and thus appropriately relegated to a sphere of relative unimportance -- women. 

But interestingly feminism has some problems with femininity as well. Femininity for women has been associated with those same traditional gender roles, so there are some obvious reasons for opposition. But femininity also gets a more general undeserved bad rap. It's somehow become associated with weakness, dependency, and a kind of degrading self-objectification, when it shouldn't be.

It's unfair to burden femininity in these ways. As I tried to gesture toward in this previous post, "vulnerability" is a better word -- and to be temporarily vulnerable to others can be a positive state for anyone: it's a state of openness and gentleness and sensitivity. It's only negative when people take advantage of and abuse the vulnerable. But that's not a problem with femininity. It's a problem with the rest of the world.

And indeed - it's a problem that would be mitigated by men embracing femininity. If men experienced the world sometimes from the point of view of wearing beautiful and fragile clothes, enjoying the creative play of make-up, needing an arm to hold as you make your way across a puddle in your nicest shoes -- not only could this be a source of pleasure for them, but don't you think it might make them better people?

This very interesting review of a book of photographs by a man interested in femininity raises some of these same issues. Author William Vollman is sometimes a tough adventure-oriented guy's guy. But he starts dressing up as a woman and finds in it something pleasurable in a complex way.

Among other things, he says that being "Dolores" gave him a chance to "love and take care of" himself: that instead of throwing on any old thing, he'd take pains to care for himself and care for his body.

And he also notices immediately that people can't deal with it.

"But his hobby has cost him friends, and he said he has 'a certain amount of fear and dread' about the book’s publication. 'A lot of friends who could always handle the prostitutes and the drugs felt that I had somehow degraded myself,' he said. 'The idea of stepping down from the dominant male class really disgusts a lot of people, including women.'"

It would seem that the problem with femininity is not that it's bad, but that it's so disrespected that to associate yourself with it is degrading.

I don't know how to start fighting for femininity for everyone. I'd suggest more open-ended norms for boys as children, but given that even the most moderate activities like painting your kids' nails seem to give people a heart-attack, it's not clear how that could even get started.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Babyhood, Motherhood, and the Fragility of Human Existence

Mary Cassatt, The Boating Party [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Did you read Ariel Levy's sad sad story in The New Yorker? If you didn't go here and read it. It's in front of the pay wall. Just out there waiting for you.

If you did, then you know the basic elements. As a reporter long committed to travel and adventure, Levy decides, after a long period of indecision, that she wants to have a child. She gets pregnant quickly and easily, and five or so months in, something goes terrible wrong. During a trip to Mongolia, alone in the bathroom of a hotel, Levy suddenly gives birth to a tiny human being who can't possibly live, and who dies soon after.

The later diagnosis is placental abruption. It's rare. It's not caused by anything in particular. It's just one of those things that sometimes happens.

Levy is crushed by her experience, and she can't put it out of her mind. She can't stop looking at her one cell phone photo of the baby, taken in the moments before they were both taken to the hospital, when they were together and both alive. She can't stop talking about what happened: to friends, strangers, horrified retail clerks.

And in the few days after I read her story, I couldn't put it out of my mind either. I kept thinking about Levy's description of being alone with the baby in the bathroom while he was alive, how he looked so perfect, like a very very small person, how she tried to convey to him a feeling of maternal warmth, a sense of things being OK because Mama is here, in the short time before he died.

At first, I obsessed about the incredible fragility and vulnerability of humans as shown through the short life of the baby. You sort of know how contingent things are, and how much has to go right in so many ways, in order for us to survive and be OK. But it's easy to just sort of forget. And then you read a story like that and you remember, WHAM.

Survival for us is not really a default thing, like Oh, As Long As Nothing Bad Happens It'll All Be OK. Many many things have to work properly for us to even come into existence. But how can this be? We humans are so awesome and special. How can our very existence also be subject to the whims of nature? I can't put the two things together in my mind and keep them there at the same time.

After a while, I started obsessing about the incredible fragility and vulnerability of humans as shown through the experience of Ariel Levy. The whole reproductive business, it is not a go-it-alone kind of activity. I'm struck by the fact that even though I have no children, I was able to identify immediately with her narrative. The state of being responsible for some tiny helpless creature is one that never seems that far away to me, even though it's never been my reality.

Maybe this is just one of those things about Growing Up Female. Think how mind-bending it is when you're a kid and someone explains to you that you're going to get your period every month, and what that is is the raw material that would make it possible for a new person to start growing, material that gets made anew and flushed out once a month, and that's just a thing that's going to be part of your life for years and years and years.

Jeez Louise. Among other things, if you get a bit careless with the birth control, drop the ball on the folic acid -- BAM! You've fucked up someone else's life. I still sort of can't wrap my mind around this either.

The freakout of the tiny being who needs you is obviously somewhere deep in my subconscious, because every couple of years or so I have a dream in which I have a baby, and in these dreams either 1) I am failing in some dramatic way and it's an insane nightmare or 2) the baby is born with the ability to talk and immediately starts criticizing me for Doing It Wrong. Yikes.

And I think this has had an impact on how I see people and their interrelationships: that is, I see them as fragile, interdependent, and mostly in great need of help and nurturing from other people.

Sometimes in my life as a philosopher I encounter people who see persons as independent individuals, navigating the world on their own terms.

I know and they know that there are humans for whom this can't possibly be true, because they're small, helpless, fragile and vulnerable. But I guess the difference between us is that what they see as the exception, I see as a pretty big part of what is going on.

They look at human life and see competence and independence  punctuated with moments of need.

Whereas to me, it's like, those times you manage to get it all together and you feel briefly like you're on top of the world and ready to take on all comers? Unless you're high on drugs, those moments are short, fleeting and maybe even illusory.

Monday, November 11, 2013

In the "It Gets Worse Dept.": Meritocracy is Workocracy

Wybrand Hendricks, Notary Köhne and his Clerk. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I ask you: is or is not work out of control?


I feel like when people talk about the Great Work Problem, they sometimes structure their inquiry in terms of "What Happened? What Went Wrong?" Like, things were humming along -- oh, say in the mid-20th-century or something -- and then OOPS, something happened to make that era go away. The idea being that when we find out what those things are, we'll be back in zee business.

It's not so much that this is mistaken, I think, as that it gets the normality conditions reversed. I mean, it treats as normal and unsurprising -- as the default -- what was actually atypical and highly contingent. That is to say, any relaxed mood of the past (should such a thing ever really have existed) was a strange exception to an otherwise general rule: that meritocracy is workocracy.

By that I mean, of course, that a meritocracy leads to overwork. Everyone loves the idea of the meritocracy which brings to mind "the march of progress" and "fairness and justice" and other concepts named by 50 cent words. It's appealing because the idea of a meritocracy is that the good things go to the people that deserve them: if you do the job better, produce more and better stuff, make better deals, and so on, you'll get jobs and be promoted and whatever.

But as we're all taught by our elementary school teachers, by popular culture, and by the new Positive Thinking, accomplishment requires hard work. In a competitive meritocracy, the worker always gets the goods, and the one who works harder gets more of them. In fact, in some weird ways, the more successful and meritocratic the society, the worse this particular problem is. In a successful society, more jobs are meritocratic. And the more the rewards are fairly distributed on the basis of accomplishments rather than "promise" or "likability," the more working harder is the only way to prosper relative to your fellow citizens.

I hope you can see how it gets out of control. It's one thing if the person who works over lunch gets promoted over the person who doesn't. But where does it stop? If everyone were working late into the evening but knocked off at midnight, won't the guy working 'til 2:00 have an advantage?

I'm no expert on the exact forces that produced 5:00 martini hours in the fifties. What I am saying is that those forces had to be powerful -- enough so to temporarily dislodge the tight connection between meritocracy and workocracy.

Probably there are many things in play. But I think one of them might have to do with degrees of equality and inequality. If the differences in what you stand to gain by being promoted and more successful versus what you stand to lose for being a little behind are small, the person who enjoys spending time at home and with family will be rational to work less. But if what you stand to gain or lose is huge, even powerful desires for more home/recreation/family time might be trumped by the need to work harder.

This is especially so in a society like ours in which losing is ... really losing. If you're even relatively poor in our society (well, especially the US) the texture of your life is likely to be pretty sucky.

Furthermore, what is needed to remove yourself from the conditions of suckiness is not an absolute but rather a highly contextual matter: what things you need, and what things cost, is influenced by the choices -- and thus by the means -- of everyone around you.

For example, to live a middle class life these days you need a car and a computer and a smart phone. No one decided this; it happens because everyone else chose it. For many things, prices are profoundly impacted by what others are willing to spend. This is obvious for real estate: what determines house prices but what people are willing to pay for houses? But even for goods like TVs its true.

About ten years ago I noticed TVs were super-cheap -- a wide range, but you could get a new down-market one for about 50 dollars. Then a couple of years ago my mom's TV broke and we went shopping. Lo! Cathode-rays had gone the way of the Dodo. All TVs were flat screen. The cheapest? About 200 bucks. The moral of that story is that what-life-costs has to do with what-others-have, and if what-others-have is way more than you, you're screwed.

In an unequal meritocratic society, keeping up with the Joneses isn't a pasttime or a pathology, it's a requirement. And you know what that means. It means putting the kid to bed and spending the next few hours working.

Incidentally, events depicted by the brilliant Victorian novelist Trollope suggest that people in the 19th century saw workocracy coming. The clerks in Trollope's books work four hour days and complain constantly about how it's so difficult and they're working so hard. They see too, though, that the new attempt at meritocracy -- including standardized tests, credentials, and codified rules for who gets the job -- will lead to them generally having to work harder. What will happen to their gentlemanly hours-long club visits and spur of the moment trips to Italy? That's right: game over.

If I'm right that meritocracy is workocracy, the conditions for change are going to have to go beyond adopting new informal norms for how we operate. They'll have to involve some deeply different social structures and political commitments of the kind people don't want to hear about in a genteel blog post.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The "Health" Concept Is Dangerous Interpersonal Colonialism

The Surgeon Evgueni Vasilievich Pavlov in the Operating Theater, Ilya Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am so sick of the word "health" being thrown around in normatively complex situations.

Normatively complex situations are those in which, because people are different, it's impossible to universalize what's good and bad for them. Which means normatively complex situations are pretty much, like, everything. When situations are normatively complex, trying to use a universal scale, as "health" does, is wrong: it's like interpersonal colonialism, saying your way just has to be the best way, because it's best. And yet, when it comes to "health," people just can't stop!

Example 1: Sexual health.
When it comes to sex, "health" has about the worst track record you can imagine. We all know the sad sad basic story: vaginal orgasms are "more mature" than clitoral ones, homosexuality is a disease, women are naturally monogamous, etc. etc.

It's easy to say "mistakes were made," but I think the problem goes deeper. News flash: people are different and are fulfilled and pleased by different things! Yet there's this relentless and ongoing attempt to say that some ways of doing it are just wrong. They're not a "healthy" sexuality. "Promiscuity and hook-up culture: good or bad?" Can't things be different for different people?

Example 2: Mental health.
Don't even get me started with mental health. First, duh, not all people are going to be made to feel OK by the same things. But it's worse than that, even, because not all people are even going to find the same kinds of things feel OK-for-them.

These days, it's like, if you find yourself made unhappy by the basic suburban, kids, car, work-life balance life set-up, if you can't make that work for you, everyone's mentally packing you off to the therapist -- or, well, probably now to the psychopharmacologist, but you know what I mean. There's this default of, "have you talked to someone about that"?

And the urge for consensus and universality is relentless. For example, there's this whole debate over whether repression is bad or good. Back in the day: bad. Then it was found that sometimes repression helped people get over things. So now it's like "repression, good or bad?!" Why can't some people need repression and other people need to talk things over?

Plus, why does everyone have to have the same kind of well-being?  What if you're high-strung, or very shy, a loner, or just a weirdo, and you're good with that? "Health" is like a trick word bringing in immediately that there's some relatively clear and straightforward way things are better and worse. But that's so implausible.

Example 3: Health.
You'd think "health" would be the one area where the use of the health concept would be unassailable, but in fact I think it's been a source of real problems.

Aren't you tired of the once-size-fits-all rhetoric of health? Low-fat or high-protein? What should each person weigh? How much exercise and how much? Why on earth assume there's a single answer that applies to all people? Why can't some people need a low-fat diet to feel good and others need a low-carb one?

And again, the problem goes beyond different means to ends -- important though that is. Because  health health, like sexual health and mental health, is not a unified thing, and so it's possible for people to make different judgments and accept different trade-offs. 


For instance, surely if a drug makes you feel kind of shitty but will make you live longer that is a matter of which people can have multiple reasonable preferences? And same for feeling hungry all the time in pursuit of longevity? Can't a person rationally choose pot smoking or sex with strangers, knowing these things will cause other problems?

Yet the medical establishment makes these trade-offs seem beyond the pale. We're not even allowed to have the conversation. They set out the treatment and the rules, and if you don't follow, you're "non-compliant."

Obviously, the concept of health has some real and important uses and I'm not suggesting doing away with the whole idea of some things being better and worse. I'm just saying that sometimes, what's good is highly relative to the individual.

But it's perfectly possible for someone to register that all is not well without appealing to health. A person whose anxiety is causing them pain and misery can easily express this dissatisfaction whether or not the anxiety is in the "non-healthy" category or range. So why not just go there directly?

That is, in some interactions, instead of a rhetoric of "healthy" and "unhealthy," why can't we just a rhetoric of how-you-doing?  "You doing OK?" "Something on your mind?" "Something not working for you?" "Can I help?"

See? Doesn't require any interpersonal colonialism at all.

Monday, October 28, 2013

I Have A Thinking Problem


 A few days ago I sent myself an email that said "Is thinking about things ruining my life?"

You know what they say: "The first step is admitting you have a problem."

So yes: I have a thinking problem.

As the offspring of a chemical engineering professor dad and a letters-to-the-editor type mom, I probably started off with a genetic predisposition for problem thinking, and a lot of my youth was spent pursuing a more non-thinking lifestyle. Mostly that was through the classic methods of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.

In college I studied math, and I might have been OK if I'd been able to stick with that. Because even though math is thinking, it's not thinking about anything. It's like the mental equivalent of wholesome but pointless exercise: you do it, it's fun, and when you're done, you're pleasantly worn out and ready for rest.

But as we all know that didn't happen. And opting for philosophy -- well, it's like a sugar addict committing to life in a candy store. Thinking thinking thinking, and then when the day is over, you just can't stop. A movie? Food? Music? Ooh, I have some thoughts!!!

The other day I happened to pick up a book by Colette -- the first of the wonderful Claudine books, Claudine at School. You know about Colette? Belle époque writer and music-hall performer, celebrity with a complex and varied romantic life.

When I was in my late teens I was a maniac for Colette's writings and I was especially crazy about the Claudine stories, which begin with the story of teenage small-town Claudine and her crushes and romances with other girls, her flirtations with teachers and adults of both sexes, her intellectually sophisticated jokes, and her ultimate seriousness about life. The Claudine stories get more complicated, but always, they are books that make me feel at home.

When I picked up Claudine at School last week, I began with Colette's Preface, and was reminded of the fact that her famous wit and charlatan first husband Willy (full name Henry Gauthier-Villars, he claimed to be a fancy aristocrat) had told her to write the stories and had told her to "spice them up."

And because my thinking is now out of control, this led me into a spiral of reflection. Were the things I resonated with in Colette partly there because some guy wanted to sell more books? If they were did it matter? How did feminism come into play?

My friend assured me that there was really no cause for concern. The things I loved in Colette were the things she continued to write about for the rest of her very long life, during and after her other two marriages and her many other affairs and her many romantic friendships. Even if Willy  had prompted her thoughts on that occasion, they were her thoughts, and they were of a piece with the way she wrote about life and love and sex for the rest of her life.

Though I'm persuaded by this answer, I feel something in this thought process has not been good, that the thoughts themselves dampened or mediated something that had been bright and unmediated, in a wonderful way, before I started thinking too much about them. I feel I used to be able to access that brighter more immediate relation to the world, before my thinking got out of control.

There is no real answer to this problem. Like eating, thinking isn't the kind of thing you can just give up cold turkey. And it's not like I can reimmerse myself in the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle. Because as we all know, the way of the adolescent, though it's not wrong, is just not sustainable.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Why Does Life Suck? A Tripartite Theory, With Reflection On The Entrepreneurial Self Of Modern Times

Contemplative cat is contemplative
A couple of years ago I was browsing my blog stats, and I saw that someone had landed here after googling "Why does life suck"?

This gave me pause. Because I would very much like the suckiness of life to be one of the things people feel they can learn about on my blog. Along with death, it's pretty much the main topic of human existence.

As I see it, the suckiness of life has a tri-partite existence.

First, there's Inherent Suckiness, the suckiness of the human condition. Human life is brief, frequently unsatisfying, and often boring. Though people tend to stop talking about this as they get older, the world's two-year-olds all agree with me: the whole thing is way dumber than it has to be.

There's not much we can do about inherent suckiness.

Second, there's Natural Suckiness, the suckiness induced by nature. Nature must have a really great PR team, because even though its full of disease, death, and deprivation, everyone talks about it like it's goddamn mother's milk.

Natural suckiness can often be alleviated through human effort and invention, and generally speaking I think it's reasonable to say we're working on it. We don't have a cure for cancer, but if our creators came down and accused us of sleeping late and dicking around, I think we'd be justified in telling them to STFU and get off our case already. We're working on it. OK?

But the last category of Self-Inflicted Suckiness is the most important and interesting. This is where we humans are making things worse for ourselves, making the world a hostile place, making a society that makes us crazy.

If you live in the 21st century I'm sure you can think of a zillion ways we humans are making things worse than they should be. This blog has touched on some of them over the years. It's a winner take all society. If you're at the bottom you're screwed. It's not enough to do something well, you have to promote promote promote

A few months ago I read this book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, about how neoliberalism survived the financial crisis. It's got a lot of great interesting stuff, but one thing that really grabbed me was the idea of the new "entrepreneurial self" that's required for life in modern times.

The idea is that, especially in the contemporary US, everyone is expected to be their own generator of prosperity. This means that to survive each person must be not only sophisticated and knowledgable and self-promoting, but also completely unresistant to change and willing to accept blame for every setback.

That is to say, if you fail, you fucked up. It's your fault, and you better do something about it. Get yourself to a motivational seminar. Get a life coach. Look up one of the many websites using the term "entrepreneurial self" in the positive way.

When I encountered these ideas I found connections among things I hadn't seen before. The relentless positivity requirements of our modern era, the omnipresent narrative in which in which YOU deal with life's problems by curing YOUR inner demons thus ramping up YOUR personal best, the constant need to package each setback in life as a triumph over obstacles ... all of these are connected by the same metaphor for humanity, a metaphor that flatly denies the obvious: that we are all interdependent on one another.

So if you're thinking about why life sucks, and you want to move beyond the obvious Inherent Suckiness and Natural Suckiness of life and into the Self-Induced Suckiness, the entrepreneurial self might be a good starting point -- though I'm sure you can generate many rich examples of your own.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Moralish In America


Is moral bankruptcy on the rise?  I know people have been asking the same question for thousands of years. That doesn't mean the answer is "no."

I'm thinking here especially about self-serving lying and cheating, and especially about my Home Country, the US of A. Maybe it's just that we're paying more attention. Maybe the instances are more outrageous. I don't know. But doesn't it seem there's astonishing amount of really brazen misbehavior in the US these days?

Surely part of the explanation has to do with knowingly evil intent. But I think there's more to it, and I have a theory. OK, let me say right up front that I don't know if this theory is true and I wouldn't know how to test it, and when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail, so maybe my theory says more about my own obsessions than anything else.

But anyway. My theory is that just as truth is being replaced by  "truthiness," the norm of being "moral" is being replaced by a norm of being "moralish." The idea being that morality is a "grey area," where you have to sort of make a lot of fine tuned judgments -- and where if you err on the side of "being too good," you'll be a chump.

Let's look at a little background. For years and years, economists have been telling everyone that the pursuit of self-interest, far from being at odds with virtue, is actually aligned with virtue: when you pursue your own good, in certain particular ways, good things happen. This idea floats around in variants, but I'm guessing a lot of people think that living in a capitalist society means doing what you can for yourself, as long as you're playing by the rules, is not only essential to your own well-being but also good all around.

The problem with this idea isn't that it's false. The problem with this idea is that it sounds simple and universal even though it's actually complicated and limited. So instead of taking it as license to go buy an extra cup of coffee, which would be a correct interpretation, people take it as a license to put fake out Harvard degrees on their resumés, lie about mortgage agreements, and engage in insider trading.

The principle itself is complicated and limited for lots of reasons, but let's just talk about one: what does it mean to play by the rules?

In fact, the production of good consequences from capitalist activity happens only when people tell the truth, refrain from fraud, keep their agreements -- even when doing so isn't directly in their self-interest. So lying and cheating are central forms of NOT playing by the rules, and are not sanctioned by any version of the self-interest principle.

But it's easy and fun, especially when it benefits you, to just sort of forget about that part. Especially when there's no watchdog, or no one's paying attention, and you think you're not going to get caught.

Then you think to yourself that somehow telling the truth, like giving to charity or calling your mother, is somehow Morally Optional. "Oh, yes, I know really GOOD people do those things. But I'm just a regular Joe!"

So then people come to think of the lying and cheating areas of life as sort of grey areas -- even though they're clearly against the rules in some sense, they're part of "morality," and surely anything to do with morality is somehow optional and hazy, right?

And here's the kicker: if you live under conditions of extreme capitalism, you get the feeling that you've got to fine-tune your moralishm just right, because if you're acting "too good," you're losing out. You're a chump. In a society of great inequality and intense suckiness for the socio-economic losers, you cannot let that happen. So there's huge motivation to adjust your moralish grey area commitments -- probably, in a lot of cases, hoping to match those around you.

I picture a lot of people figuring, Hey, if I can talk about it over lunch and the guys think it's cool, then it can't be wrong, can it? 

End result: whole industries full of people completely screwing society and sleeping like babies at night, saying to themselves, "Hey, I'm a moralish kind of guy. You can't blame me!"

Monday, October 7, 2013

Mommy, Where Do Preferences Come From?


If you're trying to think about what is the thing to do or what you owe to others or how society can be organized and you want to avoid making grand pronouncements about Good v. Bad and Right v. Wrong and Wholesome v. Debased, your fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of "preferences."

People all along the ethical and political spectrum have treated preferences as a kind of neutral building block for impartial decision-making.

The utilitarian Peter Singer, who argues that middle class Americans to give up most of their money, does so on grounds that we ought maximize universal preference satisfaction. As long as your ten dollars will bring about more satisfaction to a poor person far away then it will to you today, Singer says, you have to give it away.

The contractarian David Gauthier, taking our interactions to be negotiations, argues rational people won't give up too much of what they otherwise could have had; the powerful may use their power in making deals to get more of what they want. What forms the basis for judging outcomes? Preferences. 


When Leavitt and Dubner -- surely representing some extreme version of something -- infer, in Freakonomics, that fighting climate change is pointless because "[i]t's not that we don't know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don't want to stop, or aren't willing to pay the price" -- they're appealing to -- yes, preferences.

All this to say: they are everywhere. And you can see how something like this might have gotten going. For a long time there was talk of what was in people's "interest" -- but how can we say a thing is in someone's "interest" if that person does not, themselves, prefer it? Isn't that patronizing? Then the utilitarians back the day (like Mill, 1863) talked about increasing pleasure and decreasing pain. Not a bad idea -- but as is often pointed out, pleasure and pain aren't the only thing we care about. We have other things we want - other, "preferences," if you will.

A move to preferences and -- voilà! problems solved. Appeals to preferences answered various puzzles in one fell swoop: what's in someone's interest is just whatever they think is in their interest, i. e. whatever they prefer (assuming their preferences are transitive and obey other complex conditions that you could write a whole post about but we won't bother going into here).

But with preferences -- can we just say, "I have issues"? And you should too.

As is often noted -- indeed, as is said so often it's become like background noise -- preferences don't come from nowhere. They are shaped by our socio-cultural surroundings; they are shaped by the options available to us, and they are shaped by our own choices.

As we've known for -- oh, only a few hundred years -- things like "habit" or "custom" are profound shapers of preferences. As Jon Elster clarified in the 20th century, preferences are sometimes "adaptive" -- as in the fable of the "sour grapes" we often come not to want, or even think about, those things that seem unavailable to us.

It never ceases to weird me out that in our world we've set things up so that powerful forces -- a. k. a. advertising, are set up to induce in us preferences, whose satisfaction is then regarded as a "good thing" -- on grounds that a preference was satisfied.

There's something shell-game-ish about that -- and I think the reason is that in some sense, the neutrality and impartiality of "preferences" is a fake-out.

Because you can't say you're setting aside Good v. Bad and then say the satisfaction of preferences is Good. As soon as you deem the satisfaction of preferences a good thing, you're already on that train, you've opened that can of worms, there's that whole ball of wax, insert your favorite complexity metaphor here.

And as the advertising example shows, deeming equally strong preferences as equally worth of satisfaction will always give an advantage to anyone who can shape other people's preferences. We all know who that will be: the rich, the connected, and the politically powerful.

Finally, the fact that we know preferences can be shaped means we're constantly confronting the question of which preferences are good and which ones aren't. We're evaluating our preferences. Some, like a preference for kindness, are worth fostering. Others, like a preference for cruelty, are worth eliminating. To evaluate your preferences you need some other standard of judgement.

It seems to me that standard cannot simply be one's own further preferences -- because if nothing else, that doesn't explain parenting. In parenting you confront, for real in the most serious way, the question of which preferences to encourage and which to discourage in another person. A parent who did this by consulting what would be most convenient and satisfying for them personally would be universally acknowledged to be committing a parenting FAIL.

The upshot of all this, it seems to me, is that while preferences are certainly significant, it is crucial to remember that preferences are not just things we have, they are things that come from somewhere, and some of those sources are better than others, and they are things we take a certain standpoint toward. Even with respect to ourselves, we endorse some; we decry others.

It's from the standpoint of this kind of evaluation of preferences that we know what matters to us. And once you're talking about what matters, you're pretty much back at Good v. Bad and Right v. Wrong and the whole nine yards.

So yes, appeal to preferences, but don't kid yourself you've somehow slid out from under the Big Problems of Life.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Is This Boring Or Are You Just Stupid?


Last week the always-great XKCD ran a clever comic strip showing different opinions on data privacy. There is the exhibitionist, who intentionally puts X-rated personal stuff online hoping the NSA is tuning in. There's the nihilist, who is convinced their data means nothing, so who cares? And right there in the first panel there's the philosopher, who starts to opine about the differences between internet privacy and IRL privacy but  stops there because the person listening thinks to herself, "SO BORED."

Of course, it's funny because it's true. Philosophy is boring. More importantly, it's frequently way more boring than it has to be. Various reasons, partly to do with the search for precision and making arguments and ... oh, sorry -- SO BORING. Let's just say there are various reasons and move on.

At the same time, can we just pause for a moment to acknowledge that the philosopher is the one person in the comic saying something serious, sensible, important and possibly true? And can we be honest and up front with one another about the fact that "so boring" is not a real criticism in the sense that "ignorant," "simple-minded," or even "mistaken" are?

I like to think about complicated things and then express those thoughts in speech and writing, so I'm on intimate terms with with the "SO BORING" critique. My students are bored by reading Mill's "Utilitarianism" and hearing me talk about it. Colleagues in other departments are bored by the endless distinctions and exception clauses that philosophers always make when they talk about anything. I've seen countless eyes glaze over when I try to explain that copyright and open access are complicated, because artists need to live on earnings from creations, whereas protections for scholarly research are very often a hindrance, and not a benefit, to scholars themselves ... yes, I know, compared to "information wants to be free" or "downloading is theft," this is such a BORING point of view.

I got news for you. Sometimes the truth is boring. Deal with it.

It's also worth nothing that boring is in the eye of the beholder. And while there are surely some boringness judgments that reflect genetics or your deep inner self or whatever, a huge part of why you do or do not find something boring has to do with your own habits, choices, and behaviors, which make you into the kind of person who is or isn't bored by something. This means, in some ways, you are responsible for your boredom.

It's not rocket science. If you spend a lot of your time watching action shows, playing video games, multitasking with Facebook and Twitter while you eat salty chips and cookies and text your friends, then settling down to read or just to learn about something slightly complicated is going to have the feeling of Herculean effort, like you're climbing the most boring mountain in the world. If you spend a lot of time doing things that are even mildly intellectually demanding, those things will not be boring.

Please note: I am not saying there is anything wrong with action shows, snacking, and texting! Those activities are all fine. The problem is when you do them all the time and don't do anything else, you make yourself stupid. And yes, you are doing it to yourself.

And here I think a harsh truth must be said: many people are turning themselves into the mental equivalents of toddlers with respect to what is and isn't boring. When they say something is "boring," it's not that it's boring, it's that those people have made themselves stupid.

I could go and on about the dangers of a world full of people who are really easily bored, but let me just point out one thing, which is that in addition to their other problems, people easily bored by thinking about things have the mental energy only for the most oversimplified and reductive view of things. So when the truth is boring, they cannot deal with it.

I got news for you, people. Often the truth is complicated. Often, simple slogans that sound like rallying cries -- "information wants to be free! downloading is theft!" --  are deeply mistaken. Often they're deeply mistaken because they're simple, and the truth isn't.

If you're the kind of person who uses the expression "TL;DR" to make fun of anything that goes on for more than a few sentences and doesn't contain the elements of some zany narrative, I got news for you: it's not boring, you're just stupid. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Dear New York Times: I Don't Even Know Who You Are Anymore


Hey, New York Times. Is that you over there, ensconced in your favorite uptown Bistro, trying to impress the sommelier with insider knowledge from that time in your "adventurous youth" that you backpacked around Europe?

Yeah, I thought so. You know, you're really not fooling anybody.

In fact, some of your friends think you're going around the bend. They're disgusted at the way you still pretend to be doing journalism, as if you're asking the hard questions and challenging the status quo, when so often you seem to be just a mouthpiece for various power figures.

And I have to say, I've been wondering if you even know who you are anymore. It's like toadying has gone from being something-you-do-to-suck-up on occasion to being part of your core self. Do you even have a point of view? Is there any there there?

We see you around town and you're all "Hey, I'm a thoughtful guy!" When you poke your head in at the university you put on your Dockers and a T-shirt, as if to say, "I, too, might have been a professor! I just thought journalism would make more of an impact. We all want to change the world, right? Let's put our heads together!"

So when we see you out schmoozing with the Titans of Finance, we're like, WTF? What are we supposed to make of that? Your school-girl crush on Wall Street is obvious to everyone, and your evident desire to be an insider with the powers-that-be clique is cringe-inducing.

You do realize, right, that you can't be outside smoking pot with the cool kids and also be an anti-drug student council president type? Did you not see The Breakfast Club, or something?

I first started to notice this weird Zelig-like quality you have when I dipped into the Real Estate and Dining sections. Back in the day, I just read the news: I had my opinions, sometimes conflicting with yours, but I appreciated the way I could learn stuff from you.

When I branched out into the other sections, though, it was like finding out that your friend who hangs out with you drinking Two Buck Chuck and commiserating about student loan debt is secretly vacationing  on a yacht with Beyoncé and didn't even tell you about it.

Suddenly, I realized you were shopping for million dollar apartments and gazillion dollar second homes. Even crazier, you never seem to eat at any normal affordable restaurants -- it's always some crazy place where a bottle of wine is a hundred dollars.

Then I started to notice it everywhere. In the Science section, you're talking about climate change, and in the Styles section you're talking about how it's fun to have 24 hour electric fountains or live in houses made all of glass or fly back and forth to Europe just for the weekend.

At a basic and practical level, I don't even get how it works. I mean, you guys are journalists, right? And you work for The New York Times? You can't be making all that much money. How is it that all the people you seem to know are hiring 24-hour nannies, competing for fancy private nursery schools, and "wearing Prada"? 

I don't know what to say about our long-term prospects, New York Times, because I've been seeing someone else on the side. When you get your identity issues sorted out, give me a call, and we can talk.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Inequality And Well-Being: A Fable About The History Of "Efficiency"

From Mother Jones

Once upon a time there were some philosophers who came up with the radical idea that what mattered in life was bringing about the most happiness and pleasure possible, and the least pain and suffering. "Everyone counts for the same amount!" they said. "The greatest good for the greatest number!" You add it up. It was a moral requirement: always act so as to bring about the most pleasure for the least pain. They called this "utilitarianism."

Whatever your reservations about this view (and I have a few), you have to admit that it is a pretty radical idea.

Since a dollar given to a poor person will bring about a far greater increase in well-being than a dollar taken from a rich one will cause pain, there are immediate and deep egalitarian implications. Since animals feel pain and pleasure, they are immediately included in the moral calculus; since their factory farm life and death is worse for them than your hamburger pleasure is good for you, veganism for everybody. Since you have to take each person into consideration equally, you must foster the pleasures and ease the pains of strangers on the other side of the world equally to the pains and pleasures of your friends, your family, yourself. Since people can be mistaken about what is good for them, it's true well-being we must maximize, not just the satisfactions of, say, consumer items.

Status quo: demolished.

Back in the day, economists had the sensible idea that utilitarian concept of maximizing would be a good concept for evaluating policies, schemes, and social frameworks. One thing they noticed early on, though, was that measuring pleasure and happiness in an objective way is difficult. For this and other reasons, they shifted from measuring pleasure and happiness directly to measuring the satisfaction of personal preferences. Of course, preferences in the mind are also hard to measure. To address this, they started using the idea of "revealed preferences" -- which are preferences you reveal through your actions. When you buy some cargo pants, you are revealing a preference for cargo pants over the money and over other things you could have spent that money on.

I'm not sure exactly when the term "efficiency" came into use, but the idea was to maximize the satisfaction of revealed preferences at the least cost of frustrating them. As is often pointed out, there are immediate peculiar implications of a strategy of maximizing revealed preferences. In our ordinary lives we do not treat all preferences the same, as things to be fulfilled. A preference for cruelty, harm, or racial discrimination isn't the same as a preference for risotto. A problem gambler who loses his home "reveals a preference" whose satisfaction hardly seems to be maximizing his well-being.

And on top of all that: where do preferences come from? Efficiency as preference satisfaction doesn't concern itself with this question, but it's no secret that our preferences are deeply influenced by our cultural surroundings, our family and friends, and advertising. In a capitalist society like ours, there are armies of people working 'round the clock to instill in us preferences for cargo pants, Ford Probes, and giant television sets.

While there are still egalitarian implications -- the preference a dialysis patient has for a cure is stronger than anyone's preference for a new yacht -- maximizing revealed preference now says that for anyone who wants to buy cargo pants, Ford Probes, and giant television sets, maximizing well-being means delivering those things.

Status quo: altered.

Often these days, though, "efficiency" is measured not in terms of preference satisfaction, but in terms of maximizing goods and resources. A policy or social framework is efficient if it produces those things.

Bam! This immediately undercuts the egalitarian implications of efficiency. If we're counting dollars, the benefit to a poor person of getting or keeping a dollar is now equal to the cost to a rich person of losing, or losing out on one.

Indeed -- political rhetoric these days often invokes an idea opposite to that of moral utilitarianism, claiming that since a rich person might be a "job creator," efficiency requires preferring them as recipients of goods and resources (why increased assets, rather than increased demand, is thought to be the key issue, I've never understood). There are people who believe this benefits the poor indirectly, but the point here is that conceptually, it needn't whatsoever. Efficiency as maximizing goods and resources just counts the total. It doesn't track who is getting what. Increased efficiency is 100% compatible with poor people getting poorer.

You might think it couldn't get any worse, but in fact "efficiency" in economic and policy talk often refers to "Pareto efficiency," which means that no one can be made better off without making someone worse off. This just assumes some starting point and looks for improvements that come at no cost. As Wikipedia says, "Pareto efficiency is a minimal notion of efficiency and does not necessarily result in a socially desirable distribution of resources: it makes no statement about equality, or the overall well-being of a society."

Status quo: reified. Rich get richer; poor people can suck it.

I'm not claiming to have given a full history of this important concept, just to have connected the dots in what I think is an illuminating way. There's more in the economist Joan Robinson's brilliant 1962 book Economic Philosophy.

I'm always astonished to see things in the news where people are like "OMG inequality is rising, what could explain it??" as if equality were somehow a natural state of things and we'd need a special explanation for a rise inequality. This makes no sense to me. In a world with unequal starting points and reasoning processes that don't incorporate fairness or justice, never mind equality itself, how would it be any other way?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Likabilism

This is, of course, real.

You know about racism and sexism. But what about likabilism? 

In our society, a lot comes down to just how likable you are. Almost all hiring and promotion takes into consideration some subjective factors -- things like "leadership skills," or "being a good communicator." It's no secret that if people like you they judge you to have these skills, and if they don't, they don't.

Of course, I am not saying that somehow likabilism displaces other -isms as if we're in a post-racial, post-feminist, post-whatever world. world. Obviously not. In fact it's the opposite. Likabilism functions as a conduit for other forms of discrimination. Or maybe money-laundering is a better metaphor. You can't express your racist and sexist and other discriminatory attitudes and judgements as such. But you can still say "Just doesn't have the leadership skills," or "isn't an effective communicator. 

But likabilism expands on and overlaps with the traditional forms of discrimination. Because as long as there are these subjective judgments in evaluations, likability is going to be a huge factor in getting ahead.

I was reminded of this reading the incredible-along-so-many-dimensions NYT story about trying to combat gender disparities at the Harvard Business School. Astonishingly, subjectively measured "class participation" makes up "50 percent of each final mark." 50 percent! Obviously likability is going to influence whether you read someone's remark as challenging something in an interesting way or as not-being-a-team-player or whatever.

The article raises the important issue of social capital: the ways social networks have economic benefits. Not surprisingly, students are attuned to the ways the social experience of HBS would benefit them: for example, "if the professors liked you, students knew, they might advise and even back you." If you aren't living in a cave, you can imagine how that affects the women in school: they can't seem ambitious, and they can't seem non-ambitious. Quotes from the article:
"Judging from comments from male friends about other women ('She’s kind of hot, but she’s so assertive'), Ms. Navab feared that seeming too ambitious could hurt what she half-jokingly called her 'social cap,' referring to capitalization."

"The men were not insensitive, they said; they just considered the discussion a poor investment of their carefully hoarded social capital."
Of course it's not just a gender issue. Anyone who doesn't look right, doesn't act right, or can't afford expensive outings can't become part of the in-group -- in this case, an in-group that will determine in real terms how well you do in your career.

OK maybe you're thinking, "Boo-hoo, people at Harvard Business School." But honestly, this is everywhere now. As I touched on in the previous post, everyone now has to present a certain kind of face to the world, through social networking and the internet, through positivity and team-playerism, and so on: Like me! Pick me! I'm the one for you, world!!

Likabilism functions as part of what Philip Mirowski calls the "entrepreneurial self": you have to market and brand yourself, and you have to develop exactly the "self" that an employer wants to hire -- not just at work, but with your whole personality. Various forces have come together to create a language and framework in which any ill-fit with the expectations of corporations is considered a personal failing, something you need to deal with. For example, Mirowski quotes a passage from Barbara Ehrenreich's description of a boot-camp for the unemployed: "It's all internal .. it's never about the external world... it's always between you and you."

So: what are you gonna do? I often feel like lurking behind discussions of these topics is an unspoken hope that somehow freedom -- of people to do as they please -- and fairness -- everyone getting what they deserve for their talents and efforts -- and equality -- OK, not equality, but not massive inequality either -- are somehow essentially in harmony. Like, if we could just get people to stop being racist and sexist and discriminatory in all the awful ways, you could have a society in which everyone does what they want, and everyone gets their just deserts, and no one is too badly off.

Some of the Harvard interventions seem to reflect a hope along these lines. Like, if we could just get things sorted out, things would all ... get sorted out.

But likabilism means the problems of exclusion and inequality are much deeper than this would suggest. If you let people do what they want, they're going to exclude the people they don't like, and include the ones they do. You can't legislate equality of social capital. So fairness and rough equality are not going to just happen.

My own view is that because these are different and conflicting values, you have to find a way not to let one of them run away with you. You can't legislate social capital, but you can legislate against too much inequality: there are lots of economic policies and institutions that will have equalizing effects. And you can legislate that no one be too badly off as well.

An approach like this won't allow for everyone doing what they want and it won't produce full justice of what people deserve either.

But it might not suck.

Monday, September 2, 2013

How Is It A Free Country, If All Your Options Suck?

The infamous "McDonald's memo."

I was drawing up the syllabus for my fall course on introduction to ethics and values, and I found myself wanting to confront a weird situation my students find themselves in: while in one sense we live in one of the freest places in the world, their path through life feels, to them, extremely constrained.

In some senses, North America in 2013 is a free place. You can, to a large extent, choose what you want to wear, what bands to listen to, what tattoo to get on your butt, and whether you want to get plastered this Saturday. You have a choice about whether or not to major in Engineering, whether or not to join Facebook, and how nice you want to be to your parents.

But as is well known, just because you have choices doesn't mean you're free. If someone holds a gun to your head and says "Your money or your life!" you're not being given a choice. You're being coerced. There are options, and you have to choose, but the latter option isn't an option in any meaningful sense.

By this same logic, it would seem that -- even if there's no robber -- if you make a choice for something you hate because the other options are worse, then in some sense you're not really free in making this choice. You have a low degree of a special kind of freedom I think of as "choice autonomy."

In certain ways, people today have way less choice autonomy than they did when I was young. When I was in my twenties, I worked for a while as a waitress and bookstore clerk, lived in cheap crappy apartments, and didn't have a car, TV or any other expensive stuff.

This was not a bad option. I had enough pocket money for breakfast out, and evenings in bars with friends. I took the bus. Because there were no cell phones and computers and internet, my not having those things was a non-issue. Sure, I had some annoying bosses, but for the most part I worked for small independent restaurants without vast corporate strategies and crap like that.

A life like this now is so much crappier. Of course part of that is economical: the fact that you can barely live on a waitress-like salary these days has a lot to do with relative incomes and rising inequality and so on.

But it's way more complicated than money, because changes in our society have made the life of the non-well-off much worse than they used to be in so many ways. Working a low-paying job now often means working for a giant corporation which has typically worked out in excruciating detail how to get what they want out of workers without considering -- even while benefiting from -- the conditions that make those workers' lives a pain in the ass.

Low-pay workers now often have to deal with unpredictable schedules, no guarantees of full-time work in a given week, absurd and ineffectual policies involving sales targets and quotas for foisting on the public stupid things they don't need. They often have to be on-call, so not only do they need a phone, they can't turn that phone off. Since employers check on social networking presence, and even regard non-presence as a red-flag, workers have to constantly curate their online persona. Naturally, they have to do all this with a huge smile, a friendly hello, and a team-player mentality. It's revolting.

Complex changes in society mean even living on moderate middle class salaries can be challenging. During the burst of the housing bubble there was this surreal situation of cheering for rising house prices and moaning about their falling. I get the reasons -- mortgages, debt, saving, blah blah blah. Still, wasn't it odd not to see anyone spare one thought for the people who might want to buy an affordable house? Or just rent a little apartment for some reasonable rate?

All of this means that even if you win the early life lottery of good parents and money that can fund your education and all that jazz, the crappiness of low-pay work means you pretty much have to choose to fight the zillion other people trying for the brass rings. You don't have much of a choice. Of course, if you didn't win that lottery, forget it. You'll have little access to any good options at all.

Because of these facts, there's a sense of freedom in which people have less freedom, because their choices are not free but rather constrained. This use of the concept is related, I think, to the idea of "positive liberty," but it's not quite the same: I'm not talking about enabling self-determination and realization. I'm talking about having to choose X because all the things that involve not-X are awful -- not because one person made them awful for you in a moment, the way the robber did -- but because the world you live in made them awful for complex interconnected reasons.

If I'm right about choice autonomy it's a concept that can apply to anything. But on Labor Day it seems particularly appropriate to point out implications for worker conditions. If those conditions suck, that's a problem not just for well-being, not just for collective welfare, but for freedom and autonomy as well.

You sometimes hear arguments against rules and regulation justified on grounds that they would be coercive, would unjustly decrease the freedom of people and institutions to do as they see fit. My proposal is that "freedom" cuts the other way as well: when some options are awful, the choice for alternatives also isn't really free.