Tuesday, July 26, 2016

That Feeling Of Moral Superiority

Here is one of my first world problems. Sometimes in the course of my day, I find myself at coffee places that have only paper cups. Using a paper cup seems wasteful and bad for the environment. I know I could address this by carrying a mug around. But frankly, I'm already carrying a lot of stuff around. With a laptop, gym clothes, sneakers, a water bottle, and the wallet-keys-phone stuff that guys put in their pockets already in my laptop, there isn't room for a coffee cup. Especially not one of those giant heavy ones everyone seems to favor nowadays.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an idea. At some of these places, they make espresso. I like espresso. Espresso cups are tiny! I bought an espresso cup -- a sharp little Apilco number. That's my cup in the photo at the top. I wasn't sure what the reaction would be to I-brought-my-own-espresso-cup, but so far it's been very positive. The staff at my main library Starbucks not only gave me the reusable-cup-discount, they even cooed over how "cute" my cup is.

Once I started being more conscientious about having my cup with me, I noticed that I started looking down on all those paper cup people. Oh -- you couldn't get it together to bring your cup, eh?! Well, well. So wasteful. Me, I have my cup. That is to say: I immediately started having a slight feeling of moral superiority.

In this case, the feeling was particularly absurd. I often forget my cup, or decide to have some other kind of drink. Even now, I'm often the dope with the paper cup. Other times, I forget my water bottle. Or I'm too lazy to go find a fountain, and there's someone selling bottled water right there, so I buy bottled water. Since I'm often out and about, I'm often using plastic cutlery. On the whole reusability thing, I'm ... trying. But I am uneven.

Amazingly, the unevenness of my success doesn't seem to really get in the way of the feeling of moral superiority. Just having my stupid cup with me on a given day, I can feel myself getting a bit smug about it -- even if I didn't have it just the day before.

When it comes to having a slight feeling of moral superiority about the little things I can sort of get it together to do in a day, I do not think I am alone. There's a lot of that mood out there. Especially on the internet, people kind of lord it over other people when they get it together to do something that other people aren't doing. Even if they're hit-and-miss about it, or even if they're falling down in other areas. It's a thing.

The feeling of moral superiority gets a really bad rap -- being associated with smugness, and elitism, and people thinking they're better than someone else -- but why can't it be a force for good? Doing good things is sometimes hard or annoying or time-consuming or whatever. People need help with motivation.

Somehow I feel like parts of our modern culture converged on this idea that good actions are only good when they're done in this completely disinterested way -- like, it only counts if you expect no gratitude or recognition, if you get nothing out of it, if it's a wholly "selfless" act. In philosophy you can find this in the theory of Immanuel Kant. In culture at large, I don't know where it came from, but maybe it has to do with the outsized lingering effects of Protestantism.

But this idea that you get "full moral points" only for acts of total selflessness holds no resonance for me personally. It conflicts with a lot of things I believe about how people are and about how we live together. I think we do good things because of the web of social interconnections we're in, because we care about what happens in that web of social interconnections, because we want to engage with other people in certain kinds of ways and feel a certain way about ourselves. The pleasure of goodness, and even the graceful reception of gratitude, are important things. 

In some areas of life, there aren't that many built in rewards for doing a good thing. Sure, if you're nice to someone they might perk up and be made happy -- nice! But if you're just carrying your stupid cup around all the time there's not a lot in the way of direct positive reinforcement. If a little feeling of moral superiority, a little bit of internal self-congratulatory "Hey you paper-cup losers, I did it! I've got my cup!" works for you, well -- why the hell not?

Let me emphasize, however, that this recommendation for internal positive reinforcement is just that -- a recommendation for internal positive reinforcement. It is not a hall-pass for going around being a judgmental asshole about everything.

That feeling of moral superiority? Sometimes a force for good, but best enjoyed inside your own head.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

I Liked Ghostbusters (2016)

I saw the new Ghostbusters movie on Sunday and I liked it.


1. There were many small, funny jokes that were also commentary on gender politics -- like when Abby is scrolling down the comments and reads out "Ain't no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts." But my favorite moment in the movie happened when the Ghostbusters are facing down the bad guy, Rowan.

Rowan wants to destroy the world because he feels he hasn't gotten the admiration and attention he deserves. At a climactic moment, he shouts to the women about how no one recognizes his true qualities, his worth, his genius!

It may have been my imagination, but I felt like after he shouted that there was pause, while the camera lingered on the faces of the Ghostbusters. What I saw in those faces was "We're women. You're going to try to tell us about having unrecognized worth and unappreciated qualities?!" Priceless.

2. All the ridiculous drama about the movie -- WTF? Sometimes when I disagree with people I sort of get what they're on about. But the rage that people seemed to feel over having four women ghostbusters -- it's truly mystifying to me.

I mean, it's not mystifying in the sense that yes, there are sexist people who just want to see men do things and women look pretty and they're threatened by anything else. But people don't like to state this as a bald fact, so they come up with "reasons." Like -- this movie is going to "ruin my childhood."

You know what? There are a lot of movies with premises I don't appreciate. I don't want to see a movie that guts the social satire of a Jane Austen book and turns it into a rom-com. I don't want to see Sherlock Holmes turned into an action franchise. I don't want to see anyone portraying Bertie Wooster and supplanting the mental Bertie Wooster I have in my head (who is a surprisingly good guy, BTW).

I might have confided to my closest friends that I regarded the making of these films as a perversion of art  and all that is good in the world. But, gee, somehow I managed to refrain from shouting all oer social media that anyone who wanted to make or watch these movies was a horrible cretin who was destroying everything and should go immediately to hell. FFS, people.

3. There's a very good subplot involving a moronic but conventionally attractive guy, Kevin, who becomes the Ghostbusters' receptionist. Some of the jokes are about how the Ghostbusters ogle him and act inappropriately and all that -- obviously a reference to the eleven million other movies in which a bunch of men hire a cute and ineffectual secretary to ogle and flirt with.

This reviewer describes the Kevin bit as "deserved reverse sexism." And I know the reviewer means well, but no, no -- it's not "sexism," and it's not "reverse sexism."

"Sexism" doesn't mean "inappropriate sexualization" and it doesn't just mean anything that is gendered. There's room for various definitions, but plausibly, "sexism" is whatever promotes or props up a certain system -- a particular system of gender difference and gender hierarchy.

If you're in an all male office and the male superiors ogle and flirt with their male subordinates, that is sexual harassment, but it's not sexism, because it's all men.

If you're in a mixed office, and the male superiors ogle and flirt with their female subordinates, that is sexual harassment and sexism: it's harassment that promotes and props up the existing gender system in which men get to do jobs and women are there to be ogled and flirted with.

If you're in a mixed office and the female superiors ogle and flirt with the male subordinates, that is sexual harassment, but it is not sexism -- because it challenges, rather than supporting, the dominant gender system in which men get to do jobs and women are there to be ogled and flirted with.

What happens in the movie is sexual harassment. It's not "deserved," but it is cinematically appropriate and good in the sense that by subverting, rather than promoting, the existing gender system, the depiction is anti-sexist and shows up the sexism of the vast majority of Hollywood blockbusters as movies. 

Sorry to be pedantic. But calling it "deserved reverse sexism" is so confused and wrong, it just plays into the whole misguided idea that calling out sexism is somehow, itself, sexist.

4. Many people have pointed out that it was weird to have the one black Ghostbuster also be the only non-scientist Ghostbuster. I thought that was true. If you want to hear Leslie Jones talk about it, you can, in her excellent interview on the WTF podcast.

5. I was astonished by the degree to which it was a big deal to me to see women -- particularly women scientists -- in a movie. I mean, I know we talk about this all the time, how it matters to see people like you doing your thing, and how there are almost no movies that pass the Bechdel test (must have at least two female characters, they have to talk to one another, about something other than a man), and about how women are virtually always just arm candy, or moms, or absent altogether. But somehow I didn't expect to feel so emotional about it.

I'm not a scientist, but I am an intellectual, and I spend a lot of time having conversations, often with other women, involving big words, and technical details, and complicated ideas, and differences of opinion. Seeing this activity finally depicted on film blew my mind. It's crazy to realize that I'd never, ever seen this activity, which makes up so much of my adult life, in a movie.

At the end of the movie, there's a scene where Sigourney Weaver plays the older, more experienced scientist mentor of the zany, young scientist and Ghostbuster Holtzmann, and tells her to do some things, and to not do some other things. And I got so excited: older, more experienced, female scientist mentor! Unfortunately, since it was a three-second cameo, just like that it was over.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Purchasable Versus The Good: Economic Theory And The Problem Of What Gets Counted

I was reading this interesting post about the role that the "credentialed class" plays in creating societal disasters -- like the opioid epidemic -- when I got thinking about the connections and disconnections between economics, capitalism, and value judgements about what is good and worthwhile.

The post tries to trace some of the particular mechanisms through which pharmaceutical companies used aggressive and questionable tactics to market opioids after they were introduced, so that they made a fortune, without regard to the fact that part of that fortune was being made as a result of usage leading to addiction, overdose, and death.

It reminded me immediately of the somewhat strange role that concepts like "economic growth" and "preference satisfaction" play in economic theory and policy making. It's always seemed odd to me that from a theoretical point of view, economic theory understands "preferences" in a formal neutral sense, while at the same time, policy makers tend to regard maximizing preference satisfaction as somehow a "good thing."

The disconnect between these is well brought out by examples of consumer goods that are successfully marketed but also bad for people over the long term. From the standard theoretical point of view of "revealed preference theory," it's all sort of a tautology: if a person drinks a Coke, they are simply satisfying a preference they had for Coke; if a person gives 10 dollars away, they are simply satisfying a preference for giving money away; if a person educates their children, they are simply satisfying a preference for educating their children.

This means that using economic theory to figure out what would be "best overall," we should just do the things that maximize the satisfaction of all these preferences, where they are all on a par. It wouldn't matter whether what the preferences are. Coke, schooling, it's all the same.

But most of use don't regard these preferences as all being on a par. We want our society to be full of people who are healthy, generous, and educated. So, taking up a different perspective, we do things like taxing and benefiting when people do one thing instead of doing another.

It's like we have two completely different systems for evaluating how things are supposed to work. We have the capitalism system, where free trades promote individual preference satisfaction. Then we have a completely different value-based system, where we try to figure out what is and isn't working well in our society and try to fix it. The two systems are not the same. And we're constantly bouncing around about which one to use.

I think this same disconnection is at play in the recently debated question about whether black market activities should count for GDP. The EU has always had a policy that since GDP should measure "everything," calculations should include black market exchanges -- like the buying and selling of drugs, sex, and smuggled goods. In 2014, they started requiring countries to actually start measuring.

You can see the incentive for the inclusion. All kinds of decisions are based on GDP. The EU has a policy that restricts expenditures to a percent of GDP. So having a higher number puts more options on the table.

How far are we willing to go with this? Should payment to a hit man to carry out a murder count as "economic activity"?

This New York Times story says that Italy refuses to count "business conducted by the Italian mob" -- even though that would add to GDP astronomically -- and that France refuses to count drugs and sex work -- "out of concern that prostitution, for example, often stems from sexual slavery and should not be given the veneer of economic legitimacy."

And this critic of the policy wonders how far things will go. Will we count "forced labor, human trafficking and illegal organ trade"? If we do, doesn't this lend legitimacy to such behaviors?

Again, I think this shows how we have two different evaluative systems which only sometimes overlap. We have the capitalism system, which counts economic activity as economic activity, and we have the actual evaluative system, in which we know that mafia activity and forced labor are Bad Things.

The Times points out that moral considerations cast doubt on using GDP to measure anything at all, quoting Robert F. Kennedy as saying that GDP measures everything "except that which makes life worthwhile." In response to objections related to values, one EU economist said black market activity should not be included in GDP:
If you think that drugs and prostitution are things that do not necessarily improve the quality of life in a country, then including them undermines G.D.P. as measure of well-being.
But if I am right about the disconnect between the capitalist system of evaluation and the value-judgment system, there are real problems using GDP as a measure of anything to do with "goodness" or "well-being." Which market things increase well-being and which ones don't? And where do aggressively marketed opioids and Coca-Cola fit in?

It seems to me that sometimes the two systems for how things should work seem, at least to a lot of people, to run closer to parallel, so that with a little fudging, it appears like we can sort of nudge the capitalist system and the how-things-should-work system toward one another.

But I feel like at other times, they start to look far, far apart, so that the economically efficient ways of proceeding seem radically unlike the how-things-should-work ways of proceeding. Other times -- that is, like maybe now.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Skepticism About Economic Efficiency Isn't Stupid

On Sunday the New York Times ran this think piece about how maybe "economic efficiency" isn't all its cracked up to be, or at least isn't the only thing in life.

The main point of the piece is that overall economic growth isn't the only thing people care about. People also care about things like equality, the distribution of wealth, the texture of their lives and their social world. Because of this, people may reasonably endorse policies -- like limits on trade or rent control -- that economists -- and other people -- think of as "idiocy."

A few thoughts:

1. Isn't it obvious that overall economic growth isn't the only thing that matters? When I first read this, I had that weird feeling you get when something is in the news and you're like "wait, this is something people are thinking of as a new idea?"

With any policy there are winners and losers. You'd never endorse a policy because it resulted in one person gaining more than the entire current global wealth while everyone else starved to death. It wouldn't matter if it made for more "overall growth" because that one guy was so rich. It would be stupid. And in general, if all the growth goes to some people, the other people -- the losers -- would rationally oppose the policy. It's strange to me that skepticism about economic efficiency is so often just treated as stupidity.

2. Use of the term "efficiency" in these discussions is a bit confusing. As a technical term in economics, it refers to optimization. It can mean a kind of maximizing -- say, of overall economic prosperity -- or it can refer to something like "Pareto efficiency" -- which just means that no one can be made better off without someone being made worse off.

Again, a state of affairs can be "Pareto efficient" and also be utterly intolerable. If one person has everything and everyone else is starving, and if the only way for the starving people to get what they need would involve make the rich person slightly worse off, then that state of affairs in which that one person has everything is "Pareto efficient." But it is also ridiculous.

As we've discussed before, though, in ordinary language, the word "efficiency" carries with it other connotations. It means things like "not being wasteful." But this isn't the same thing as technical optimization. If the one rich person is a bit less well off and everyone else can have a meal, this isn't "wasteful," even if somehow that resulted in there being less wealth overall. And analogously, if trade regulations ensure worker protections or lessen inequality or whatever, they're not "wasteful," even if there's not as much overall wealth.

The Times piece alludes to the idea that opposing efficiency seems absurd, asking rhetorically, "What kind of monster doesn't want to optimize possibilities, minimize waste and make the most of finite resources?" But putting it this way is misleading: optimizing wealth and minimizing "waste" are two very different things.

3. From a philosophical point of view, the problems with using optimality as a goal have been well-known for a long time. Ethical consequentialism says that you should do the action that brings about the best overall consequences (measured not in money but in something else like well-being or happiness). But this is incompatible with taking other values, like liberty, fairness, and equality, to be fundamental.

I think that valuing "efficiency" as the only goal means rejecting all these other important values for no good reason and is therefore a huge mistake. If you want a lengthy explanation of why I think that, you can read my recent book, Moral Reasoning in a Pluralistic World.

4. The typical response to skepticism about efficiency is to say that as long as there is more money in existence, the money can be moved around to compensate the less well-off -- but the problem is that in practice, this is never how it works.

The idea is that, theoretically, if you pursue the policy that makes for the most overall prosperity, then it doesn't matter that some people are winners and some are losers, because you can just move the money around. There is more money, so you can compensate the losers and voilà! Win-win.

But not only does this not seem to happen in real life, I'd say the trend is away from it. Increasingly, people who get what they get from whatever policy exists tend to just think that is "theirs" -- so that when you move the money around you're "taking it away" from them. It doesn't matter if this is false if everyone believes it.

5.The Times piece discusses some interesting empirical research showing that many people do value equality as well as efficiency but that economic winners may not. In this research, they ran a game where they gave people tokens, with real cash value, and people had to decide whether to keep them all or share them. If you shared them, the total number of tokens would go down. The idea is that more equality meant less overall prosperity.

Among Americans, about half shared anyway. They valued equality as well as efficiency. But when they ran the study at Yale Law School, 80 percent of people did not share. They valued efficiency over equality. The lead author of the study speculates that people at Yale Law School are disproportionately among society's winners and future-winners, and they don't need to worry about how the distribution pans out. Because they'll be OK no matter what happens.

6. To me, one frustrating aspect of these discussions is the way projected and losses gains are treated as obvious and inevitable -- as if predicting the economic impact of decision-making was simple and straightforward. I'll try to put this nicely: prediction-wise, economics is a work in progress.

In conclusion: All this means that when someone is skeptical about overall efficiency, and questions a policy like the TPP or eliminating rent control or whatever, there can be lots of good reasons. It may be because the policy is sure to have some winners and losers. It may be that the winners are going to people who already have a ton, while the losers are the worst off people. It may be because the predictions of overall gains are uncertain or based on questionable assumptions.

The Times piece concludes by saying that modern politics is teaching us that "dynamism and efficiency sound a lot better to people who are confident they’ll always end up being winners." I think that is correct.

So if someone questions a policy, and the people doing the questioning are poor or disenfranchised -- we would do well to listen to them attentively, and refrain from assuming they're stupid or ill-informed.