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.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thank You For Your Patience

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Is Giving Away More Money Easy Or Hard?

Sometimes in discussions about poverty, taxation, charity and inequality, I encounter a very specific debate over whether choosing to give money away is more difficult in some way than paying a required tax. If yes, the suggestion goes, that'd be an argument for a system involving taxes to move money around. If not, things are less clear. 

Some people seem to suggest that it's no more difficult to give your money away than to have it taxed. I remember that this thought comes up in Cohen's book If You're an Egalitarian Why Are You So Rich?  It's not really harder to give money away voluntarily, the thinking goes. If you're the kind of person who has trouble being motivated or who tends to get distracted and spend your money on other things, you can just automate the process. You know, monthly auto-pay or something. By pre-committing to donation, you can lock yourself in.

Let me say first that while I appreciate the debate over voluntary action and alternatives, it seems to me first that this is the wrong framework to apply to questions of poverty, charity, and taxation. As I've said before, the real problem is the theory of ownership that implies -- falsely IMO -- that what we end up with after some exchange is uncomplicatedly "ours" -- as if our interaction were happening outside of history and outside of a social structure with vast historical and contemporary injustices already built in. From my point of view, moving money around isn't a matter of charity but rather a matter of justice. So it's a different kind of thing altogether.

The other reason this framework seems to me wrong for this problem is that there are vastly different effects from individual voluntary giving than from general taxation. If everyone at my income level is taxed in the same way, all those people have less money, and this will affect prices and which goods are available and whether or not I can afford various things. With individual giving, you're just individually making yourself financially worse off than other people with none of the ameliorating effects.

But let's leave all those problems aside for the moment and just consider this question about difficulty. Is it difficult to give away more? For me, I would say that the answer is yes. The pleasures that money can buy speak to me just as they speak to anyone else, and it's not news that in our version of capitalism the forces encouraging you to buy things are relentless. When I have discretionary income, I want to spend it. More treats for me! More gifts for my people!

It's interesting to me that the question of automation comes up in this domain. I see the point: if you automate the process of giving, then the giving happens automatically and there's a sense in which you don't have to "make a decision" about it over and over. It just happens. You're locked in.

But you know what? For me, there's locked-in, and then there's locked-in. Voluntary automated systems that take money away from me are just not the same as involuntary systems like taxation. They're not the same because I can simply change my mind any time. And knowing I can change my mind any time, continuing to give requires the same mental energy and the same motivation and the same -- let's be honest, struggle -- that non-automated giving entails.

I don't know what it's like for everyone else, but I'd say there are some reasons to think my feelings are not uncommon. We're constantly reading that people are not saving enough for retirement, or saving enough for emergencies, or allowing their credit card debt to pile up. If automating a payment system solved the problems of motivation and commitment, then dealing with these problems would be a no-brainer for most people. But obviously that is not the case.

So, while I don't buy the framework of comparing voluntary giving to taxation in addressing poverty and inequality, I will say this: within that framework, my answer to the question of whether giving away more money is easy or hard is clear: it's hard, not easy.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things Part 3

It's the first day of school -- which if you work anywhere near the education field you know induces in most of us the same kind of anxiety and freakout that we all felt when we were back in kindergarden. What if I miss the bus? What if the other kids make fun of my lunchbox? Then when you're the teacher you have to add on top of that mundane things like getting your syllabus finished and your course list downloaded and yada yada yada.

With all that going on I didn't have time for a full essay. But here are some recent images that interested me:


I never understood --and I still don't understand -- how people are excited about 3D printing. What things exactly are there that you feel you want or need that have no special parts, that you feel could make more easily at home? I can't even think of things in that category. The only exciting thing I know about 3D printing is how kids are using it to create their own superhero cyborg prosthetics. Now that is cool. Anyway, here's the answer, in a San Francisco shop window. 3D printed replicas of .. yourself! Um .. thanks but ... I think I'm good.


I saw this lage ... mirrored lion? .. for sale in at at Home Goods (like Marshalls or Winners but home stuff) in the goodhearted but downmarket town of Vernon CT. WTF? I like to imagine it in someone's home. With the right context it'd be awesome.


It probably just goes to show I don't get out enough, but this sign at Indigo Books made me laugh. They're selling.. large letters you can put on things. The whole idea of the letters being "exclusive" and "available in black and white" with the warning of "select letters only" -- I just thought that was amusing. What if you're looking for one of the other letters? You're SOL? How hard would it have been to include all 26 letters?


OK this isn't a photograph but it's an image capture of something I find so astonishing I had to capture and save it. What this shows is that if you want to get from Hamilton, ON, to Buffalo, NY -- which is about an hour's drive -- on transit, that trip will take you almost five hours. Four hours and fifty-five minutes, to be precise. It didn't used to be this way. I take the bus, so I know. You used to be able to catch a very reasonable CoachCanada bus. But that's not there any more. What happened? Why isn't the end of a bus route major news in all the papers? What's wrong with the world, anyway?