Monday, April 27, 2015

The Ridiculous Rise Of Individualism In Response To Complex Social Problems

Have you noticed lately how in North America no matter what kind of problem you're talking about -- social problems, labor problems, culture problems -- the solution seems to come down to some kind of individual action? How did this frame of seeing the world get such massive traction so quickly over the past couple of decades?

For example, we read over and over that looking at screens at night is bad for our sleep and that looking at our smartphones too much is killing us. Not surprisingly, the light from gadgets makes us wakeful. Not surprisingly, looking at phones while driving kills people. Not surprisingly, when parents look at their phones too much they ignore their kids and the kids feel sad.

Every article or opinion piece I read about this problem has the same suggestions. Turn off your phone at certain times. Don't check it during meals. Don't do email in the evening. If all else fails, get this crafty software that changes the quality of the light as it gets later and later. And voilà!

Does no one notice or care that for a lot of people the reason they're reading texts in the car or doing email at night is because their work requires them to? I'm not referring to myself here --  I'm lucky to have one of the last five jobs in the Northern Hemisphere where I can mostly decide how and when to do the things I need to do. But tons of people either work in a place where the culture is for late night email or they work in some kind of super-competitive industry where if they're not clients or whoever emailing at night, they just can't succeed. 

How the hell is it helpful to tell these people, "Oh and BTW -- turn off your phone"?

Another example is this thing I wrote about before about body anxiety. A Guardian writer wrote this very touching and interesting piece about her crushing body anxiety and constant worry about her appearance and thinness. This isn't like just an annoyance. This is like something that's ruining her ability to live a happy life.

This is the kind of thing most women -- and probably a lot of men -- identify with and experience themselves. So I was struck that the author felt guilty and felt that her emotions were at odds with her feminist commitments. Like, if you're a feminist, you should somehow be able to personally and individually regulate your thoughts so you feel "Yay, I love my body!"

Of course that's ridiculous. That's not how social feelings work -- you can't just decide not to have them. Plus, as I pointed out in the previous post, there are armies of people whose job it is to make you feel like you're ugly and fat and stupid and bad. How can the resultant problems be problems with Feel Good Individualism solutions?

A final example is this recent essay about how the modern economy is an asshole factory -- that is, instead of actually making things or providing services or pleasing customers, most companies are just increasing the number of assholes in the world.

The narrative part of the essay is excellent and really showcases how debased modern work has become. The author recounts the experience of a friend who works in retail, being unable to find something better despite multiple degrees. Among other things, the friend is monitored, measured, and shouted at all day long every day. From the essay:
"Her sales figures are monitored…by the microsecond. By hidden cameras and mics. They listen to her every word; they capture her every movement; that track and stalk her as if she were an animal; or a prisoner; or both. She’s jacked into a headset that literally barks algorithmic, programmed “orders” at her, parroting her own 'performance' back to her, telling her how she compares with quotas calculated…down to the second…for all the hundreds of items in the store…which recites 'influence and manipulation techniques' to her…to use on unsuspecting customers…that sound suspiciously like psychological warfare. It’s as if the NSA was following you around……and it was stuck in your head…telling you what an inadequate failure you were…psychologically waterboarding you…all day long…every day for the rest of your life."
If you think he's exaggerating, check out what it's like at an Amazon fulfillment center.

The asshole factory essay points out how once you're in this type of job, you have to become the kind of person who perpetuates the existence of this kind of job -- another asshole created.

These are huge issues, literally wrecking people's lives. And yet, at the end of the essay, when the author address the question of what to do, the answer is, "Don't be an asshole. Be yourself."

I know this is well-intentioned, but WTF? Is the idea really that a million readers are going to show up at work tomorrow and say to their bosses, "No, sorry, I won't monitor/shout at/abuse that employee, and yes I know you'll fire me for that,but that's OK because maybe if the paperwork works out I can go on food stamps and feed my kids from the garbage dumpster?" Please.

How did we get here? It doesn't have to be this way. In France, there are public discussions and policies related to limiting workplace email, and to general working conditions, and even to the fashion industry.

I'm not saying their solutions are the right ones. I'm just that it's possible, in some nearby possible world, to have a completely different framework for these conversations, one that doesn't come down solely to prodding individuals to take action that they can't take anyway and then blaming them when it doesn't happen.

Why can't that nearby possible world be our world? What the hell happened here anyway?

Monday, April 20, 2015

The People Of Finland Have Nice Things. Why Can't We?

I went to Helsinki last week, and on the taxi ride home from the airport, the driver said, "Oh, Finland! They have a lot of Buddhas there. Right?" I didn't know what to say.

But this post isn't about those famous Finnish Buddhas. It's about some Nice Things of Finland, some things Finland has that make life nice and that make you wonder, "Why can't we have that at home?"

First, consider these city statues. All around North America there are statues celebrating war people. Statues of soldiers. Statues of guys on horses. Phallic shaped statues commemorating war activities.

By contrast, in Helsinki we have things like this novelist:

and this Laplandian moose:

Don't these statues immediately convey a culture of peace and arts and quiet reflection? Why can't we have statues of people sitting around thinking?

Next, consider gender representation in the arts. I went to the big Ateneum museum, and I saw a bunch of paintings by the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck. Here is her "Self-portrait with Black Background":

There were also tons of women in the museum of contemporary art. This doesn't seem to be some kind of gender initiative or whatever. It's just that there's a pretty gender egalitarian society, and in it some women paint and make art, and their art get into the big galleries. How hard is that? Why can't we have that at home? At the Pompidou, to get art by women on the walls, they have to to put on a big special thing.

Finally, how do the people of Finland just have things organized and comfortable where we cannot? The food is fresh and good. Everything is clearly labeled with respect to allergies, gluten, and lactose. When it's time to pay you say "I had the pea soup and pancake" and they say "That's 8 euros" and you pay and it takes two seconds.

The most striking example of this for me was at the Helsinki Philharmonic. The concert was excellent and fun along several dimensions, but what took my by surprise was how well set-up it was for the things you need at a concert. Knowing that in a cold climate everyone will arrive with large coats, there are armies of coat checkers at 40 stations, ready and waiting. Check it out:

Also, knowing people will be wanting to drink and snack before the concert and at intermission -- especially since the snacks are fresh and delicious! -- there are rows and rows of tables set up. This is just a small sample:

I don't know what it's like where you live, but the concert halls I go to fail these basic items in a pretty dramatic way. The food is packaged crap. At the opera house here in Toronto, there is almost no place to sit or set your drink down. This is especially ridiculous given the number of older attendees. It leads to the sad sad spectacle of dozens of people crowding around a few teeny tables leaning on canes as they try to eat ice cream, and seventy-year-olds sitting on the staircase looking uncomfortable.

Why can't we have comfortable tables and lovely snacks at home? Is that too much to ask?

When I'm in North America too long, I start to think, "Oh yeah, we can't have X, because X is so difficult." And then I go away and I'm like, "Wait. They have X here. And they make it look so easy. Our warlike, unequal, sexist, crappified qualities aren't some kind of default setting for modern life. They're actually a sign of real pathologies.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Flash Boys And Philosophy Redux, Or, Finance, WTF?

I guess the paperback version of Michael Lewis's Flashboys is coming out, so we're doing that thing where we revisit a book a year later to have the same conversation over again.

Actually -- in this updated discussion at the BBC news site, I was stuck by how the conversation not only hadn't moved forward but actually seemed to have congealed. I was also amazed by how this brief piece brings up so many central issues in conceptual thinking about economics, most of which we covered before.

1) Fairness versus efficiency

The standard measure in typical economics reasoning is efficiency of some kind. It can mean several different things, but all of them are some version of improving or maximizing how things are overall.

The philosophical knock on efficiency is that it's incompatible with justice and fairness. As E. F. Carritt put it decades ago, the pursuit of efficiency requires us to forget rights, to forget justice, and "to dump happiness whereever we most conveniently can."

Lewis and other critics say HFT creates a "rigged" marketplace that is unfair to investors. So from a philosopher's point of view, it's very amusing to see HFT defenders explicating in response that HFT has "brought efficiency to the market."

In one way, this reads like a complete non-sequitor, as if you'd been complaining about a stomach ailment and your doctor praised your hearing. In another way, it echoes centuries of debate over ethical reasoning: is it just overall efficiency that matters? Or is fairness a real thing?

2) Incentives for what?

Lewis says of HFT:
"When the incentives are screwed up the behaviour is screwed up ... "And it creates a culture where screwed up behaviour is normal, it is even praised because it increases profits... Unless you change the incentives, you won't change anything else."

All these statements seem plausible to me. But what's the criteria for screwed up versus non-screwed up behavior in trading anyway?

From where I sit, the whole idea of spending your day inputing decisions into a computer about something amorphous and trying to do it better than other people feels completely bizarre as a way to spend your time.

Even accepting that there could be a non-screwed up concept of trading, what makes "trying to be faster than the other guy" screwed-up? I'd have thought it was on a par with any other strategy for doing any other thing when you're engaged in some competition with some other people. Run out the clock. Pass the ball when the blitz is on. Try to be faster than the next guy. From what normative perspective are any of these any more screwed up than anything else?

3) What is the point exactly?

This question of screwed-up versus non-screwed up behavior brings us naturally to the question: what is the point of the whole practice? In professional sports, the rules are there to maximize entertainment. But what's the point of the finance enterprise?

From the rhetoric you'd think there was this clearly defined reason the practice exists from which you could deduce what's a "good" incentive for "good" behavior and what isn't. But what's good behavior? What's the whole thing there for in the first place?

Just as I was searching for a concise and clear way to suggest how profoundly iffy the whole thing is, the New York Times went ahead and did it for me, in a Sunday editorial by a Harvard economics professor, who argues that while the finance industry could, in some possible world, engage in activities that promote social value, at this point it's mostly just an elaborate kind of rent-seeking.

Of course, this being Harvard and the NYT, the solution to that problem isn't some massive overhaul of the whole system or doubt about the whole capitalist project -- no, it's just reminding your students how great personal "idealism and inventiveness" are.

As always in 21st-century America, the response to systematic ethical problems is an injunction to improve your personal morals.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Optimize This

While I was distracted doing things like reading books and thinking about things, somehow the categorical imperative of our time shifted out of the whole "do unto others" thing and into OPTIMIZE. It's like the central norm of our age.

"Optimize" sounds good. It's got that word part "opt" which sounds like optimism and optimal, suggesting once they're optimized things will be hunky dory. But most of the time people don't even know what they're optimizing. Ninety percent of the time I think it's a scam or a shell-game.

For example, the big thing in devices now is optimizing your health. But what does that even mean? What are you trying to optimize, exactly?

Are you trying to optimize your adherence to the guidelines for "normal" blood sugar blood pressure and so on? Low cortisol? Nothing against the medical science biz, but did you notice they're not always clear on how and whether those improve your well-being or even longevity?

Are you trying to optimize your well-being? OK, but what is that? Surely it's not just living longer. Many things that make you live longer, like certain medications, can make you feel worse. If you had a horrible illness, and it could be treated with a miracle medication which would make you feel great but would shorten your life a bit? Of course you would take it.

More broadly, as we've discussed before, people have priorities other than living longer. As I said there:

"There are trade-offs between medications and sex. There are tradeoffs between medications and other medications. Virtually all birth control entails trade-offs. And, of course, there are relentless constant trade-offs between things that "will make you live longer" and things that you enjoy doing that make you feel good."

Given the complexities of those trade-offs, how does the concept of "optimize" even apply?

You'd think moving into the economic sphere it would be more obvious what it means to optimize -- but I think even there it's pretty obscure. Say you run a business. Are you trying to maximize the amount of money that business brings in overall this year? Or over ten years? Or over a hundred years? Are you trying to maximize gains for shareholders, or profit for the owners?

Do you also have goals having to do with providing reasonable employment for people and goods that will make their lives better and not worse? How does that figure into optimization?

And what about ethics? Does the norm of "optimize" imply that honesty is something you're committed to only because you might get caught? Do you have no ethical commitments against defrauding people? Come to that, do you have any reasons against just killing off the competition with guns, other than the fact that you might get punished?

If you have any actual commitments against lying cheating and defrauding people, then what you're doing is not optimizing. It's weighing options and alternatives and making fine-grained decisions about how much things matter.

I was thinking about optimizing the other day while I was listening to some old songs, including Paul Simon's "Kodachrome," Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes," and the Clash's version of the song "Junco Partner." These songs all have these weird brilliant moments where the sounds isn't quite what you expect. Simon's voice gets all weird in one chorus when he sings about the "greens of summer" and whatever string instrument is in Junco Partner is crazy and wobbly.

Those weird moments are some of the best things in those songs and you don't hear that sort of thing much anymore. Sometimes people talk about what's lost as involving "authenticity" -- but that's never seemed right to me.

I think instead it's that much modern music is "optimized" -- but we since we don't have a good grip on what makes music so great when it is, we don't know how to optimize, and we're basically just optimizing away the things that are the best things.

In the end, every choice expresses decisions about what matters. That's why optimizing language is such a scam. It works like a cloaking device, making you think you have "reasons," when really you're just flailing around like the rest of us.