Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Life's Confounding Open-Endedness And The Problem Of How To Spend Your Day


I don't know if you read this in-depth piece in The New Yorker about the opiate crisis and how it is affecting a community in West Virginia.

West Virginia has the highest overdose death rate in the country, and mostly the article describes how communities are responding to the crisis -- in some cases blaming drug users, but mostly doing heroic things to save them and to increase the measly support for people who want to quit.

My attention was caught, though, by something that might seem a bit to one side of the main topic. Toward the end of the article, the author describes a person formerly addicted who points out how hard it is for people who've never had the experience to understand what it's like to be addicted, how everything is grey and your mind just shuts down. And then the author says:

"As she described it, the constant hunt for heroin imposed a kind of order on life's confounding open-endedness. Addiction told you what every day was for, when otherwise you might not have known."

I was struck by this description of opiate addition. I had heard of the idea that opiate addiction transforms the vast range of human motivations and emotions into a single kind of thought -- do I have access to drugs, and if not, how can I get them? But it had never occurred to me how that might be a relief from something.

Regular readers won't be surprised to hear that this resonated with me -- I mean, the idea that "life's confounding open-endedness" could be a burden. At first I was inclined to see it as part of the human condition. As humans, we have to make decisions about what to do, and this means putting yourself behind something, in a sense. Unlike with other animals, even our less reflective decisions can feel like they are the result of decisions --  even if you're not going to think about something, you often have to choose not to think about it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that life's confounding open-endedness might be a particular burden in our particular time and place. We live in a culture that has take to an extreme the idea that you should be free to do as you please, that one way of living is as good as another, that happiness involves finding your particular "passion" or developing some personalized "dream," that the things you chose are somehow more important than the things that just, somehow, choose you.

This is not only a departure from previous less "modern" forms of living, it's also largely bullshit. I think one reason it can be hard to see it as bullshit is that the sometimes less modernity seems less "progressive." When the contrary to "everyone can do as they please" is "women do this, men do that, gay people shouldn't exist," it's horrible. But the fact that X is bad doesn't mean everything not-X is good. We're already asking people to create their own personalities, branding, and entrepreneurial selves. Maybe  asking them to craft a day out of nothing is too much to bear.


Ages ago I wrote a post about our "independence fetish" and how strange it is. People talk about how important it is to be "happy within yourself," and to have a sense of self that doesn't depend on family, job, friends, home. There's the idea that you have to assert the rights of that self within relationships. But these ideas seem directly at odds with basic beliefs most of us have about how close relationships work, and why they're so valuable. I mean, isn't caring about someone a kind of dependence on them? Isn't thinking of your own good as separate from, and maybe at odds with, the good of others a way of keeping them at arms length? Isn't being needed by someone one of the best things in life?

Maybe the kinds of activities and relationships that relieve the burden of the "confoundingness open-endedness of life" require the opposite perspective: that you're radically dependent on other people, and they are on you, and sometimes the things you find yourself immersed in are just yours, whether they're the ones you'd have chosen or not.

Since I had seen the "confounding open-endedness" of life as somewhat to one side of the main point of the article, I was struck that a New Yorker letter writer mentioned it as well, as a manifestation of a "spiritual crisis" and in that sense a central cause of addiction. Correctly observing that detox, rehab, etc. do not really address these causes, the letter writer then goes on to way that what really is needed is job creation -- some New Deal type of thing that would put people back to work.

Being immersed in my own interpretation of the burden of life's "open-endedness" I was startled to see the idea of "jobs" being proposed as a solution. Of course, there's no question that having meaningful work, and being able to support a family, are crucial elements of well-being! And yet, the idea that this kind of spiritual crisis could be cured with a little extra dose of capitalism -- well, I guess it just seemed to me a little sad.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Mother Audrey Would Not Just Follow Your Stupid Rules

My mom in her twenties
As regular readers know, my mother had been in ill health for quite a while. Last week I posted that picture of my parents from back in the day. The following day, my mother died.

As you may know if you read the obituary, my mother was a political activist, feminist, cat-lover, and Red Sox fan, known for her open-mindedness, humor, warmth, and compassion. But she was also what you would call an "independent thinker."

People toss around phrases like "independent thinker" to be nice about eccentrics, intellectuals, or weirdos, but my mom was the real deal. She just refused to go along with things just because they were things everyone else was doing, or things someone else wanted her to do, or things you'd be expected to do just because doing them was part of how the system works.

When my mom was just out of high school, she moved out of her parents house, got a job, and got an apartment in Boston with her friends -- something single women never did in the mid-fifties. Though she never went to college, she read widely in a range of subjects and especially in politics and education. She thought elementary school should have more freedom and more play and more unstructured learning -- and she said so to anyone who would listen -- even while my father was running for school committee in our town on almost the opposite platform.

My mom played the piano and was seriously into classical music, but she refused to play in front of people -- she said it drove her crazy if she was playing and people were talking, so she just said, "Nope!" In 1976, when everyone was arguing about Carter versus Ford, my mom campaigned for Senator Gene McCarthy. Her favorite movie was Auntie Mame.

I'm not going to lie: being the child of an independent thinker wasn't always easy. My mom's feminist commitments included the concept that children should be dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers -- basically, clothes you could run around in. But I was a girly girl from the earliest age. Why couldn't I run around in a dress? My mom valued eduction, and sometimes said she wished she'd gone to college -- but then she also said she only wanted to go if she didn't have to do any assignments she didn't want to do. Why couldn't she just suck it up, like everyone else? When she drove around without car insurance or registration because "nothing bad is going to happen" or wouldn't go to the doctor because she was "mad at the American health care system," I went nuts.

But my mom's habits of independent thought have obviously had a profound impact on who I am as a person. I myself enjoy challenging the status quo. Even though my mom seemed to think academic philosophy was an unimaginative and irrelevant way to think about things, the impulse to ask "why are things way rather than some other way" is one that clearly forms a basic part of my intellectual approach to the world. Also, I don't mind being thought a weirdo. For these things, crucial to who I am, I have my mother to thank.

My mom had a heart condition that caused her to have heart failure last fall, and after a hospital stay she was weakened enough that had to move permanently to a nursing home. In a way, she was OK there: reading, following politics, and watching the Red Sox were all activities easy to continue, and her warmth and caring attitudes were appreciated. But she didn't like the rules. She didn't like being told that she had to do physical therapy, or that she had to take a shower at a certain time. She didn't like that she had an identifying bracelet with her doctor's name written on it. She didn't like being part of the system.

Over the last few weeks my mom's health declined rapidly, likely because of her heart. On one of her last days, the doctor came in to check on her. "Audrey," he said, as he leaned down to speak into her ear. "It's me, Dr. Sharma."

My mother had just been lying there with her eyes closed, but at this she perked up. "Oh!" she said, raising her braceleted wrist, her tone eye-rolly and sarcastic. "I guess I belong to you." Everybody laughed. Complaining about the system, right to the very end. That's my mom!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Picture Of My Parents

Regular readers may remember that my mother's health hasn't been good. Unfortunately, she has rapidly declined over the last couple of weeks, and isn't doing well. Partly because of this, I wasn't able to write a blog post this week.

So I thought instead I'd post this photo of my mom and dad, taken some time in the 60s or early 70s:



I love this picture. I think my mom made this dress, since sewing her own clothes was a thing she did in her youth, even though by the time I came along -- and wanted to learn to sew my own clothes! -- she had decided this was somehow regressive and anti-feminist. I also love that my mom has both a drink and a cigarette -- my mom loved a Southern Comfort Manhattan, which is a crazy drink along multiple dimensions.

Thanks for your patience and kindness, loyal readers. I'll see you next week!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Problems Of The Environment Are Not (Only) Problems Of Individual Consumer Obligations

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees, via Wikimedia Commons.

I was interested to see this piece by Umbra Fisk on Naked Capitalism about how "withdrawing" and living "off the grid" were bad solutions to environmental problems.

When I first saw it, I confess that in true modern style I had expected it to confirm some beliefs I already had: that living in cities was environmentally friendly, that living in the country often involves a lot of driving and so on, and that spending a lot of time doing outdoorsy activities could be harmful.

I wrote about some of these issues a couple of years ago.  For one thing, it turns out that if you think of elevators as a way of getting from one place to another, they are very energy efficient, because of counter-weights. As the New Yorker put it back in 2008:

"Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete."

I love that image, of the elevator saving people from oozing out all over the earth's surface -- like we're some kind of skin disease or something.


Another interesting thing is that as reported in the NYT, hiking and camping and related activities are "the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered..."

To a certain extent, the NC piece did confirm my existing beliefs. Because of public transportation and other kinds of infrastructure, living in cities can be more environmentally friendly than living "off the grid" or moving into a tiny house.

But in another way, the piece actually pushed me to realize ways that I had failed to take my thinking to the next step. Because the main gist of the piece is really about the relative pointlessness of all those small individual habits we form, the limitedness of thinking just about yourself and your consumer activities, when really you should be trying to think more in terms of community and contributing to large structural changes. The theme of the essay is "get to know your neighbor."

And I realized I really had been framing my thinking about this in a highly individualized way, thinking of myself as a consumer, and then considering what my obligations were in terms of my individual choices.

It's not that that kind of thinking is wrong. Of course it's good to carry your water bottle, and repair your things and, of course, take the bus (like I do!).

But to frame the problem as an individualistic consumer obligations problem is a mistake. It's a mistake we're all likely to make, because we live in a society that for complex reasons is constantly reminding us of our position as individual consumers and never reminding us of our position as anything else.

So yes, ask yourself about sustainable practices for your life. But as the essay says, don't forget to also ask: "How do you cultivate respectful, meaningful relationships with the people who will help you fight fossil fuel infrastructure?"

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hurt Feelings And The Perverse Modern Demand For Invulnerability

Have you seen that comic strip that shows the guy hearing all kinds of praise and one bad thing, and how in the course of the day the praise fades and fades to nothing, 'til when he's lying in bed and all he can think is of that one bad thing?

Here it is:



I think about this comic all the time, because I am very susceptible to this. In the comic, the one negative thing the guy can't get out of his head is "you're a jerk," but my negative things range over all types and categories and can include both comments from other that, for whatever reasons, hurt my feelings, and also vicious negative self-assessment.

Anyone who teaches students can tell you about experiencing this with course evaluations. You can read one positive comment after another, sheet after sheet where the only negative feedback is "the readings were dry," and then you come upon someone who says you're incompetent or boring or disorganized or behind-the-times and -- WHAM. I promise, that is the comment you'll be thinking about for the next few weeks, or maybe forever.

I discuss this comic strip with people often, because it's important to remember what a widely shared experience it is and to keep in mind that feeling this way doesn't make you weak or weird or over-reacting or anything. It's just human nature.

When I share this comic strip and think about it, my mind often turns to thinking about how crazy it is that as humans hyper-sensitive to negative feedback, we've basically created a system in which people are constantly subjected to it. You'd think if we were people like the guy in the comic strip that we would find a way to create a society in which we are surrounded by praise and positive comments and only hear negative feedback in the gentlest and most constructive way.

But it's not like that at all. It's like the opposite. Most of us are surrounded with critical evaluation from all sides and only hear praise if we're lucky enough to have people around who love and care for us.

Worst of all, the people who are -- or who act -- the most impervious to criticism are often the people who are most successful. They exude positivity, and they prop up their personal brand and likability.

It is one of those strange states of affairs: we have massive human vulnerability, and modern society is set up for massive invulnerability. Like we set up society for people radically unlike ourselves. WTF?

I don't know how you undo any of these complicated systemic things that no one really designed, and that seem to emerge out of the always churning blend of capitalism, the Human Resources industrial complex, and people just needing to lord it over other people. But wouldn't it be nice if we could shift things around a little?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In Praise Of Workplace Inefficiency

It's always bothered me the way you can open a newspaper like the New York Times and find completely different perspectives depending on what part of the paper you're in. In the Science page, you might read about how to lower your carbon footprint by taking fewer trips, while in the Travel section you're reading about how it can be a new kind of fun to fly to Europe just for the weekend, and in the Business section you're reading about how to get extra airline miles by making pointless extra stops while you travel -- first class, of course.

One of the main offenders in this regard, I think, has to do with the workplace. In one part of the news, you're likely to read about the importance of having a super-efficient company, with a super-efficient workplace. You might read about strategies to prevent workers from chit-chatting, or looking at the internet, or taking too long in the bathroom.

In another part of the news, though, you might see a completely different take on things, with basically the opposite message -- namely, how to avoid having work completely ruin your life. You might read about strategies for stress relief, like taking frequent small breaks and getting up to walk around.

Personally, I love to see workers being inefficient. This morning I happened to be staying at a hotel, while on a trip to visit my mother, and when I came down to get coffee, there were three hotel employees -- room cleaners, by the look of things -- and they were hanging out, chatting, laughing, and eating pastries from the hotel breakfast room. Yesterday another worker gestured for us go first up the stairs, and when we gestured that he should go first, he said, "Nah. You go ahead first. I'm on the clock!"

I was so happy to see workers in a seemingly relaxed workplace, enjoying themselves a bit. I thought to myself, "This hotel is awesome."

People spend a lot of time at work. And work that requires you to be always on, always pushing forward, never just slacking off -- it's awful. Maybe you saw the news stories about bankers in Canada who were pushed to upsell products in order to meet targets. The described "panic attacks," and "insomnia," "nausea," "anxiety" and "depression."


What must it be like to work as an Amazon picker, where you can never sit down, you can't chat with co-workers, and "if five minutes ever passes without you accomplishing a task, the scanner informs management"? Or in a store in the mall with unrealistic quotas and high pressure consequences like being fired? Or on a chicken conveyor belt, cutting up 45 chickens per minute?

Conversely, just having a bit of a relaxed feeling at work is such a huge component of feeling like things are OK. Those moments between tasks when you can share a joke, or take a look outside, or whatever. Before I became a professor I worked as a waitress, mostly in small, locally owned, low-key diner-type places. I didn't make much money, but I always appreciated it as decent work, mostly because -- unless it was super-busy -- you could chat and joke with your co-workers and customers as the workday rolled along.

This somewhat relaxed feeling at work -- it flies in the face of standard business norms in favor of efficiency, and in a competitive environment, employers might not even be able to afford to make their workplaces more relaxed than other workplaces.

And on top of that, it's not even something that would be easy to regulate. I mean, you can regulate a fifteen minute break. But you can't regulate that feeling that hey, it's OK, we all have plenty of time, if you want to stop and chat or rest your hands or whatever -- it's OK.

It's more like one of those things that has to do with amorphous matters like how it's OK for one person to treat another, and how much you're willing to yell at other people and make their lives miserable on a day to day basis, and how much other people are willing to yell at other people and make their lives miserable on a day to day basis.

Amorphous, shifting, hard to describe -- but very, very real.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hot Housing Markets And The Dutch Tulip Bubble Of 1637


Ambrosius Bosschaert  (1573–1621), Flower Still Life [with a yellow tulip]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A friend of mine sent me this article about the "overheated" condo market in Toronto. I own a condo in Toronto, so I guess issue is certainly relevant to my interests. Personally, the price fluctuations don't matter much to me. Partly, this is because we bought our place before prices got so high, and we are using it more as an actual place to live, rather than an investment, so who cares? Partly, this is because I'm the sort of person whose eyes glaze over when we talk about money.

So, sure, I open the unsolicited mailings that real estate agents send us, with their reports on what sold for what and their endless rhetoric of optimism. And sometimes I'm like OMG, how much?? But who knows what's going to happen next? I don't get too excited. From a personal point of view, it's more like entertainment or a spectator sport than anything else.

Of course more generally, I worry about rising housing prices, because I want people to be able to afford housing. Housing prices are one of the weirdest things to read about in the news. When housing prices go up too fast, it's considered bad. When housing prices fall, it's also considered bad, because people use housing as a way of saving for the future. When I see the news about falling housing prices, I sometimes think, "Yeah, I know. But isn't this also a good thing? For people who want to be able to afford homes?"

You might think that rising housing prices would be a reason to create more housing, the theory of supply and demand suggesting that the more supply there is, the more the cost would go down. But in the article my friend sent me, the chief economist at Bank of Montreal is cited saying this isn't so. Creating supply in response to more demand, he said, creates more demand. Prices will then go even higher.

He mentions the example of the example of the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637, when people starting paying more and more for tulip bulbs, with prices reaching obscene levels, before a sudden crash in the market. The economist asks rhetorically, "Do you think that the best response to the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637 was to cultivate more land and grow more tulips?"

Later he makes the same point with the example of the dot-com bubble of the 90s, asking whether the right response would have been an increased supply of shares of Pets.com or Toys.com.

I don't know if he's trying to simplify a complicated point or something, but these struck me as peculiar analogies. I mean, tulips and dot-coms shares are something no one needs. Housing is something everybody needs. I know, not everyone needs housing in a particular place. But still, tulips and shares are like the opposite of homes: the former you can buy and sell easily and there's no point to owning them beyond making money and impressing people. The other is a huge pain to buy and sell and most people use them for something essential to life. It doesn't add up.

Perhaps the implication is that housing prices are surging in Toronto not for normal supply-and-demand related reasons, but because people are doing with condos what they did before with tulips and dot-com shares, namely buying them not to live in, but more to make money and impress people.

I have no idea if this is true -- in fact, I'm not even sure how someone would know whether it is true. But if it is, even a bit, true, then I guess this means that there are a lot of people with a lot of extra money to throw around and a lot of leeway with respect to how they're throwing it. Are there really so many people who can afford to buy a whole condo just as an investment for the future? In addition to the home they're actually, you know, living in? Tossing them around the way you might throw around a tulip?

I've always thought these kinds of discussions were haunted by the old idea of a "just price." As I've written about before, a long time ago there was the idea that there was a "just" or "fair" or "appropriate" price for something. This makes it easy to explain how a tulip costing ten times someone's annual salary is insane. In some basic sense, a tulip just isn't worth that much.

But as economics developed, the idea of a just price started to seem unscientific and impossible to define. What would it mean, to say one thing is "worth" a certain amount? All the data we have just concern prices: what it's "worth" in modern parlance is just what people think it is worth, which is basically what people are willing to pay. The idea that there is "worth" inherent in objects, that transcends what people want to pay, seems peculiar, like some kind of weird bad metaphysics or voodoo science. 

But if worth is just what people are willing to pay, then it's difficult to say that things are costing "too much." You can't say that tulips were insanely overpriced, and by extension, you can't say that the housing market's pricing is out-of-whack. At most, you could say something about the future: that you think prices are going to come crashing down. But you'd have to refrain from saying anything about which price is what the housing is really worth.

The reason I say just price theory "haunts" these discussions is just that I think certain intuitive but hazy background ideas about worth are sometimes in play. When the pharmabro guy wanted to put skyrocketing prices on his drugs, people said he wasn't charging a "fair price." When people talk about housing prices being out-of-whack, there's a suggestion that there is something a condo is actually worth, generally speaking.

So when someone says it would be silly to make more tulips in response to demand, I think one reason this rings true is because we feel, in some inchoate sense, that tulips just aren't worth that much. After all, if tulips were found to have some cancer-curing chemical we could use to treat people, then a rational response to skyrocketing tulip costs would be -- of course, for God's sake, make more tulips.

It wouldn't be surprising if judgments of whether housing has some inherent worth varied along with wealth: if you think of housing as a think you use to live, like those life-saving tulips, then it seems to have some hazy inherent value relative to other goods in your life and so on. And a rational response to demand is to make more.

But if you think of housing in terms of a thing people just buy and sell, then it's hard to see how its "value" can be understood in any way except what people are willing to pay. And in that case, it might seem that the creation of supply would be, on balance, not a good thing.

I don't know all the ins and outs, so I can't say what will cause what to happen overall. But as someone thinking of housing as a good thing, the analogy to the tulip market doesn't ring true to me. If you have a good thing, and costs for it go up, then why not make more?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Which Ideas Should Have A Place On University Campuses?

Which ideas should have a place on university campuses?

It might seem like the answer is "all of them," but I think that can't be right. Should universities invite speakers to give public lectures on "Why All Episcopalians are Evil People"? How about "My Personal Theory On Why The Germ Theory of Disease is False"? Or "Do You Have Cancer? It's Your Own Fault." 

What about a speaker who promises to show that "shape-shifting reptilian aliens control Earth by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate human societies." Or, just for something really simple, how about an hour long presentation on how "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable."

None of these topics, I think, would be appropriate use of university resources and none would be appropriate as a sponsored event at a university. None, I think, involve ideas that would be appropriate for a teacher to endorse in a classroom setting.

As is often pointed out, giving people a platform is different from "free speech." According to the principles of free speech, if you want to walk around promoting your crackpot theory of illness, or explaining your personal ideas about how reptiles secretly rule the world, or ranting and raving about what a dope that Joe Green is, there's nothing to stop you. Knock yourself out. While there are legitimate questions in the margins -- like, whether you should be able to speak out without being fired -- the platform in question is not in that category. Having these as university sponsored themes would be ridiculous and offensive, and people would be right to be upset.

I think about this often, of course, when people talk about "free speech" issues on campus. There is a lot of concern out there that campuses are becoming intolerant of a free exchange of ideas, but as I've explained before, I think that often -- and especially when we're talking about university sponsored and promoted events -- "free speech" isn't really the issue at all. If students objected to a talk on "Why All Episcopalians are Evil People" or "Do You Have Cancer? It's Your Own Fault" or whatever -- I think they'd be right to do so. The issue with campus sponsored events isn't about "free speech," but rather about which ideas deserve a hearing and which do not.

When you put it this way, it's not surprising that people disagree -- because once you get into controversial topics, people not only disagree about what is true, they disagree about what is reasonable versus obviously false, what is worth debating versus what is a conspiracy theory, what is worth discussing versus what is just propaganda for instruments of oppression and so on. But this isn't a disagreement about free speech versus something else. It's a disagreement about actual ideas, about what is and isn't an open question, about what is and isn't harmful and how bad those harms are.

The question of which ideas deserve a platform, which deserve our time and serious engagement, is complicated. Judgments have to be decided on the merits of the case, and cannot be decided with a universalizing meta-principle. There are many factors to consider, like the degree to which a set of ideas might cause harm. One of the most important factors concerns the likely merits of the proposed contribution. On the face of it, people who deny the germ theory of disease, or want to tell us about global reptile domination -- the merit of the contribution is, to put it politely, "obscure."

If this is right, appeal to universalizing meta-principles like "free speech" or even "open exchanges of ideas" do not provide the relevant rationale. Cases have to be argued on their merits.

I was thinking about this recently when Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at Berkeley and protestors prevented that from happening. Leaving aside for the moment the difficult question of the tactics used to prevent the speech, I was curious to know why he was invited to speak in the first place. Not knowing much about him beyond his abuse of Leslie Jones, I was curious what his defenders might think of as the merits of the proposed contribution.

In this article from The Guardian, The Berkeley College Republicans are quoted as saying that the opportunity to invite Yiannopoulos was "too good to pass up," while emphasizing they don't agree with everything he says. The Chancellor is quoted as describing Yiannopoulos a "troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in parts to 'entertain,' but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas," while also defending his right to speak on campus.

These remarks seem to me to leave the crucial question unaddressed. What is it that his defenders thought were the merits of the contribution? "Too good to pass up" -- why, exactly? Is it that his presence on campus would make people upset and angry? I think that on its own, in this context, this is not a reason.

I am a supporter of free speech. I think people like Milo Yiannopoulos and other provocateurs like Dieudonné have a right to say what they want to say. But people don't have rights to university platforms. It would be my opinion that if Milo Yiannopoulos proposed to give a campus talk consisting of abuse of Leslie Jones, then just like the "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable," the talk would be wildly inappropriate and he shouldn't be invited to give it.

If we don't have a lecture series on why the germ theory of disease is false, or how the world is run by reptiles, this isn't because of enemies of "free speech." It's because those ideas are stupid, and not worth our time and attention. If you want to defend campus speakers, it's not enough to be in favor of free speech. You have to have a case for why, exactly, the proposed ideas are worth taking seriously. You don't have to think the proposed ideas are true. But you have to say why they're worth discussing.

I'm not saying that these cases don't exist. I'm just saying that in this context, appeals to "free speech" are never sufficient on their own.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Comedy And The Implied Author As Window-Dressing

I don't know if you read Emily Nussbaum's piece in the New Yorker a few months ago about comedy and modern politics, but one of the things she talks about is how the distinction between acting like a Nazi for "lulz" and and being an actual Nazi is breaking down, and how crucial the idea of "but it's just a joke!" has become to our cultural interactions.

Though her focus is more on politics, one of the things her analysis made me think of was the idea of an "implied author." I know this concept from reading about it in Martha Nussbaum's work on objectification, but it's really an idea from literary theory. The idea is that while the story or the narrator might present a certain thing one way, the normative stance toward that thing conveyed by the work of art might be something else entirely. For example, in Henry James's work, the characters use and "objectify" one another for various things like status and money. But the book as a whole seems to subject those actions to critical scrutiny rather than celebrating them.

It's obviously not an idea without complexities, since saying anything about an implied author requires interpretation and and interpretations can vary. But I'd also say that some texts are better suited to the idea of an implied author than others. And, of course, you can intentionally try to subvert the idea through ambiguity, and that's something that's gone on for a long time.

But I feel like there's a thing now that isn't ambiguity but that's more like a cynical attempt to allow people to enjoy and participate in something bad while holding on to the soothing cover of an "implied author" -- to kind of hold in reserve that the point isn't to celebrate something but rather to mock it or "comment" on it.

One example in the New Yorker piece is a story line from South Park, in which a megalomaniac presidential candidate goes on stage as a standup comedian intending to offend his fans. He starts with a joke about how awful it is to have to stand in line because of "all the freakin' Muslims," and then he moves on to how all the black TSA agents look like "thugs" from the inner city, and when he just gets bigger and bigger laughs, he finally starts talking about putting his fingers into women's butts and pussies. Finally, some white women walk out, and the candidate says "You’ve been O.K. with the ‘Fuck ’Em All to Death’ and all the Mexican and Muslim shit, but fingers in the ass did it for you. Cool. Just wanted to see where your line was."

"I just wanted to see where your line was." It's easy to make an argument that the implied author of this bit is making a joke about the entrenched racism of American culture -- that a large bunch of people are happy to tolerate and engage in offensive racist remarks and attitudes.

But I couldn't help but wonder if there was also an audience was that was enjoying those very same jokes, and perhaps inattentive to the possibility of this other implied author. In fact, you could read the whole thing the other way around, that the candidate is making a fearlessly politically incorrect speech (hey, free speech everyone!) and then making fun of the women who walk out for being "unable to take a joke."

The bit can work on both levels. In fact, the more outrageous the candidate's speech is, the more it's likely to work on both levels: the person wants to engage in racism can enjoy the speech and ignore any complexities.

And where I think the whole thing gets maximally creepy is that because of the way the entertainment industry works, shows almost have to work on multiple levels: shows cost a fortune to make, and they have to appeal to a massively wide range of people, sometimes a globally massively wide range of people.

You can do that by being action-adventure-bland, of course. But if you're going to be funny or edgy or whatever, you can only do it by working all the levels. Islamophobic and racist jokes that work for the islamphobes and racists, and an "implied author" the creators can point to to justify that they're not really doing the thing, they're not really participating in it. But, of course, in a sense they are.

If this is right, the whole breakdown of distinctions like "Nazi-for-lulz" and "actual Nazi" isn't really a bug, but more of a feature. It may have started with 4chan or whatever. But it's a great move, capitalism-wise. Working all the levels at the same time makes for bigger audiences, more money, all the things a complex and hyper-competitive industry needs to keep going.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The New Myers-Briggs

I've always thought that the Myers-Briggs test -- like most psychological classification tests -- had a kind of bullshitty aspect to it. But for some reason. the human urge to develop acronyms and short quizzes to unlock the mysteries of our inner lives seems unsatisfiable. So, in that spirit, here are some other categories I like to use to understand other people.

1. "Straight Man" Versus "Funny Man."

We live in a very fucked up world. As I see it, you can either laugh at the ridiculous of the world directly, or you can take up the quieter, more subtle, implicit side-eye approach. In defining "straight man," Wikipedia says "The ability to maintain a serious demeanor in the face of even the most preposterous comedy is crucial to a successful straight man." But this is a bit narrow. How about "in the face of even them most preposterous .. well, anything?"

Personally, I wish I'd learned about the whole straight man concept at a younger age. When I was around eight years old, I had a friend named Katie who was not only a creative genius but also a classic "funny man." We wrote and performed for our parents a serious of comedy sketches based on two characters: I was the stern and angry school principal (Mr. Valteman), and she was the carefree, rebellious teen (I had an awesome purple vinyl jacket that worked perfectly for her costume). Over and over, she'd call me "Mr. V," and flash the peace sign or whatever, and over and over I'd bring down on her head all the impotent rage that principals have brought down all through the centuries.

At the time, I thought she was the star of the show and I was kind of an also-ran. What I didn't know is that the straight man is a crucial ingredient. Now, I get it: you actually don't even need a funny man to be a great straight man. All you need is to live among absurdity (check), show that you know you do, and say your piece with a straight face. 

2. Lolcat Versus Doge


I know these are dated memes. But philosophy moves slowly.

I am a cat person along any available dimension you can outline, so it's not surprising that I love looking at pictures of cats in different poses, pictures of cats with captions, and pictures of cats with words printed on them.


What is a bit surprising -- or, at least, it surprised me -- was the degree to which I was left cold by the Doge meme. You know, where there's a picture of that Shiba Inu and there are words around it. I am left so cold by this meme that I don't even know the sense in which it is meant to be charming. Is it supposed to be funny? cute? meta?

There is something deep being shared and communicated by people who love this meme that is utterly and completely lost on me.

3. The Terror of Activity Versus the Terror of Inactivity

Rationally enough, some people's anxieties are triggered by things. They have to do something, or be somewhere. They have to talk on the phone, or organize some papers, or meet a deadline. They become anxious, and they dream of a world where all of that fades away: things are taken care of, there's nothing else they have to do, and they can rest quietly on a sofa in a softly lit room.

While I share the normal human tendency toward dread and fear of doing things, I'm actually more likely to be reduced to despair by a quiet and empty day. Time to think means  ... time to think. And thinking leads me nowhere good. You start by asking yourself what to do, you move on to asking what the point of various activities are, and before long you're either 1) wasting the whole day looking at the internet or 2) staring down the existential crisis that life is, actually, totally pointless.

This is the terror of inactivity.

Unlike the old Myers-Briggs proponents, I don't claim that psychological insight into these types will help you figure out, as we would have said in the 70s, the "color of your parachute." But isn't it more interesting and fun to know you're a straight man, than, say, an INTJ? 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

No Post Today Because The Blogger Is Sick - Again!!

Just a really bad cold, but I'm kind of incapacitated for the moment. Looking forward to meeting you all here next Tuesday and as always, thank for reading!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Consumer Micromanagement

One of the things I don't like about modern life is what I think of as "consumer micromanagement" -- by which I mean the way people who are selling me things are able track my choices and alter their goods and content in response. While it may seem to them like profit management and capitalism business as usual, the effect I feel in my life is to make me into a worse version of myself.


Before your individual choices were tracked, it was possible for your consumer dollar to express an interest in a bundle of things, appropriately bundled. A bundle of things that might range from the easy to the challenging, or the stupid to the complex, or the childish to the sophisticated, or the bad to the good. And even if you sometimes lapsed into choosing the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad, you could feel like in the larger scheme of things you were at least supporting something that was, on balance, OK.

Now that choices are tracked, it's no longer like that. Now if you choose the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad, the goods or content provider you are dealing with will take that as a sign that they should be providing -- and providing only -- the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad.

Here are a few examples.

1. In the news

I like to read the news. When I'm tired or depressed, I often click on what is easy and the stupid. But that doesn't mean I want my newspaper to stop providing the challenging and the complex. On the contrary.

It used to be that I could buy the New York Times or the local paper -- and know that I was, in a sense, throwing my consumer dollar toward the mix of things they had. 

If I was feeling low energy, I might head immediately to the comics, or study the "boldface names," or peruse the letters to the editor. I might not study the long article about the what's going on in Egypt or Syria. But I was happy to know it was there, glad to feel I could read it later or read a relevantly similar story some other day, and satisfied to know that in purchasing the paper I had expressed this full range of preferences.

Well, those halcyon days are over. If you read the news online, everyone knows immediately whether you clicked on the comics and whether you failed to inform yourself about something complicated or sophisticated. News providers being part of capitalism, they draw the obvious inference: they should run more comics -- or, in the modern situation, more listicles -- and less of all that other boring stuff.

2. In the bookstore

Bookstores used to go out of their way to stock a range of things, perhaps with the intelligent thought that people shopping for mystery stories might still enjoy the experience of being around books about Milton or quantum physics or the history of Mesopotamia.

Now, I realize that for a long time a store might know which books it's selling more of. But before the tracking mania, book industry people actually went out of their way to craft an audience. They didn't assume that a person, having bought seventeen light mystery-reading books in a row, would just want to read more like mystery-reading. They assumed, correctly, that people who read books could be interested in anything. Now, it's more like "Oh, we know what to print and stock -- we'll print and stock things like the things people have already bought!"

3. At the grocery store

Sometimes I buy tofu and yogurt and cashews. Sometimes I buy candy. I'm always paranoid that if I don't buy expensive blueberries or my preferred kind of feta cheese, that next time it won't be there. In a paranoid way, I have to shop for what I think I might want to shop for later. It's exhausting. If the store just had some vague sense that the things they were buying were the things their customers were purchasing, at least I wouldn't to worry in such a fine-grained kind of way.

I know we can't go back to the days when my dollar just expressed a general approval of some general range of things and not some specific version of myself at a specific time and place. But maybe we can just chill a little with the specificity.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Facebook, Fake News, And The Problems Of Trust And Legitimacy

When I heard that Facebook was going to try to "do something" about fake news, my first thought was "Oh yeah, that'll end well. What could go wrong"?

It's not that lies, hoaxes, and misinformation aren't a problem (and by the way, what was wrong with "lies" "hoaxes" and "misinformation"?) -- it's just that truth and factuality are not simple problems, they're not algorithmic problems, and they're not problems you can take a "neutral" stand on. Yet you know Facebook will try to treat them as if they are.

The first kind of example that came into my mind on thinking about this was about the aftermath of the protests in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown. I got a lot of my news from following people on Twitter who were there -- some, like Jelani Cobb, professional journalists, and others people who were not. 

Often, what I read on Twitter did not match up with what I read in the mainstream press. The press interviewed the police or asked government officials to comment on things; in the nature of things they had a vested interested in portraying the protestors as initiators of violence. Reports from people there emphasized the militarized police response and also the number of peaceful protestors doing things like protecting property and cleaning up.

When the reports of the citizens on the ground don't match up with official reports or reports in the news, who are you going to trust to tell you the truth? And when, and why? These are difficult questions. But do you really want Facebook answering them for you?

Maybe you might say the is for simpler, more straightforward cases (like, you know, "lies," "hoaxes" and "misinformation"). But that's not how the response to "fake news" has been shaking out so far. Maybe you've heard about the "B. S. Detector" that claims to "alert users to unreliable news sources." One of the first things that happened was the site Naked Capitalism got incorrectly tagged as a "fake news" site. In fact, what Naked Capitalism is is in-depth analysis of current events that sometimes diverges from official positions and mainstream media.

Are we really so far down the rabbit hole that we want social media companies to pronounce on what is and is not a legitimate critique of government statements or the New York Times?

Facebook, in fashion characteristic of the tech industry, wants to be address the problem of "fake news" while also maintaining "neutrality." As we've discussed before, the dream is to off-load judgments onto users so that algorithm's can solve all problems and no value judgments have to be explicitly endorsed. And as we've discussed before, this is impossible: there is no "value-free" way to offload judgments about what is and is not acceptable speech, or what does and does not constitute unacceptable forms of discrimination, or what is or is not sexist, racist, and so on. You let users decide you're often going to get an outcome that goes horribly wrong.

I had to laugh when I learned that the term Facebook is going to use for hoaxes, lies, and misinformation is "disputed." For one thing, could anything be a more obvious attempt to sound "neutral?" It's like, "WE'RE not saying there's a problem. But SOMEBODY out there is disputing this."

In a more sinister vein, when it comes to actual hoaxes, lies, and misinformation, doesn't "disputed" actually seem like it would add an air of legitimacy? One of the more interesting things I read about "fake news" was how that guy in California created a ton of fake news  -- like "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide" -- and earned a ton of money. You can read an interview with him here. But then it turns out that teens in Macedonia (and presumably people all over the world) are creating fake news just for profit.

Isn't using the term "disputed" to describe "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide" heading off in the wrong direction entirely? Doesn't that make it sound like some obscure point about Benghazi, where some partisans think one thing happened and some partisans think another thing happened, but who really knows? Doesn't it make it sound like a possibly legit thing? When, in fact, it is just a hoax, a set of lies!

The problem of truth and belief goes way beyond algorithms and neutrality and involves complicated issues of community and trust. When the New York Times ran a whole article explaining why "pizzagate" was based on a set of lies, do you think people who believed in pizzagate said to themselves "Oh, I guess that pizzagate wasn't true." Of course not. They went and wrote articles debunking the debunking. Just a few days ago there was a protest in DC with people demanding an inquiry. 

Looking up pizzagate on Wikipedia, I see a journalist quoted as saying that pizzagate is "two worlds clashing. People don't trust the mainstream media anymore, but it's true that people shouldn't take the alternative media as truth, either." This is aptly said. People trust different sources. No algorithm is going to deal with that problem.

If Facebook's proposed solution is to add a "disputed" tag to posts, potentially undermining citizen reports that contradict official news, and legitimating things that are lies and hoaxes in the first place -- well, it seems to me this may well do more harm than good. Maybe Facebook should stay out of the social epistemology business altogether.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Modern Condition: No Slack In The System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Humanities Teaching Is Difficult And Time-Consuming

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Nudge Versus Trust In Modern Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sick Day

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mysteries Of The Toronto Bus Terminal: WTF?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Consent Is A Really Low Bar For Most Human Interaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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