Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is It Good To Clean Your Own House?

Scene from the movie "The Headless Woman."

I've never paid someone to clean my house, but I'm not against it in principle.

I know there's an argument that says that it's verging exploitation or treating someone like a servant to pay them to clean your house, but I've never found that argument all that convincing -- at least, I never found it all that convincing for people who live in places with labor laws ensuring somewhat reasonable pay and working conditions and so on. Sure, it's unpleasant work, but it's not that unpleasant. I have a friend who worked as a house-cleaner. David Sedaris worked as a house-cleaner. How bad could it be?

There's no real reason I've never paid someone to clean my house except the obvious: I wanted to spend the money on other things.

I've been considering it on and off a lot lately, though, because I've been awfully busy with my job, and working a demanding job and taking care of the house-work -- it just feels like a lot. Sometimes when I'm mopping the kitchen floor I feel kind of sorry for myself, like boo-hoo, why do I have to work all day then come home and clean? It's so unfair! I have to remind myself that that actually makes no sense: what law says you if you work you don't have to clean? None. Lots of people do both.

Then a few weeks ago I saw a movie that actually changed the way I think about this. The movie is The Headless Woman, and it's Argentinian, and it takes place in Argentina. It is excellent in lots of ways that I won't tell you about here because I hate spoilers. But one constant presence in the movie concerns the relationship between the more wealthy "light skinned-bourgoisie" (as the Times review puts it) who live in nice houses and drive nice cars and the "darker skinned workers" who live on the outskirts of the towns.

What's interesting about that relationship, beyond the obvious, is the way that the wealthier class depends on the worker class to do everything they don't want to do: the workers clean the house, of course, but they also wash the cars, carry things around, and do all kinds of other crappy work, all anonymously and interchangeably. Often they're paid just with some clothes or food.

As you can imagine, the effect is creepy. The movie really conveys the sense not only that it is awful in itself to have this incredible class divide and income disparity, but also that the effect is made more powerful by the utter removal of crappiness in the lives of the wealthy. Every upper class woman in the movie has beautiful nails and hair, is immaculate, and has a comfortable assumption of never having to ever scrub a sink or even move a small piece of furniture if she doesn't want to. There's a scene in which the main character has brought home some plants, and I'm thinking, well, she'll have to take off that beautiful dress before she gets all dirty taking them out of the car. But of course that's wrong: there's a kid hanging around happy to do it for a few clean T-shirts. She really is separate from the entire world of annoying physical labor.

It reminded me that part the effect of doing your own housework isn't just that you're not making someone else do it, but that you are doing it yourself, and so at least in some minimal sense you can't become that character.

So now when I'm feeling all sorry for myself because I have to clean the kitchen and my hands have all kinds of dry skin and my nails look terrible and I'm tired and It's so unfair! I try to remember that in the teensiest of ways it's a bit of social equality. Not because of its effect on someone else, but because of its effect on me.

So I guess for now I'm thinking, Yes, maybe it is good to clean your own house. This is not to disparage anyone who doesn't of course -- the question is complex and there may be other reasons not to do it. It's just to say there is some reason.

And if you're looking for a good movie you should see The Headless Woman, which is excellent.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


You know what's been bugging me a lot lately? The concept of treats.

It seems simple enough. Treats are things you don't ordinarily get to have, but that you get to have sometimes. On, say, special occasions, or only at certain times. They're things you like a lot. They're often things that are on balance not good for you in some way -- unhealthful or expensive -- or otherwise you'd just indulge all the time and it wouldn't be a treat anymore.

But if you're like me, this "indulging all the time" tends to happen regardless. It's easy for treats to become, well, part of what you expect on any given day. After all, they're things you like and enjoy so . . . you start to expect your treats, and demand them. And from then on it's all downhill.

For instance, I recently gave up Diet Coke. For me Diet Coke started off as a kind of treat -- mmm, yay, Diet Coke! But pretty soon I drank it more and more often -- because I liked it so much. Eventually Diet Coke was like a ball and chain, because I expected to be able to have it whenever I wanted and when I couldn't I was grouchy and dissatsfied. My treat had become a misery.

I toyed with the idea of turning Diet Coke back into a treat by making a rule for myself that I could only have it occasionally, as, well, you know, a treat. But it turned out to be easier not to drink Diet Coke at all than it was to drink it only once in a while; drinking it only occasionally required too much in the way of focused self-denial. You know, "No Patricia, no Diet Coke today. It's only for special occasions." Ugh. I gave it up altogether. And now I hardly miss it at all.

It got me thinking that it's this way a lot with treats -- at least if you're not a child. If you're going to have something all the time it isn't a treat. But if you're only going to have it occasionally you're going to have to be constantly making sure you don't have it at other times. Your treat becomes a misery of self-denial.

It's not a problem for children though, because adults can control how much access they have and they don't have to suffer the self-control and self-denial problem. Maybe the moral is that treats, like huge piles of gifts under the tree, are best suited for kids and not for grownups.

It's not a paradox, the adult concept of a treat. But it sure is weird.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Why Is The Female Version Always So Complicated?

Out of idle curiosity the other day I was googling "female body building." OK it wasn't just idle curiosity but you know what I mean. The first thing I learned is that the short history of female body building has been fraught with controversy over the following question: should female bodybuilders be judged on relatively objective measures like size and symmetry, as men are, or should they get extra points for femininity?

Well, color me shocked. I guess at first the competitions were judged like the mens, and then some really big women started winning, and of course some people didn't like that, so something had to be done, so there were points for not-being-too-masculine, and of course that made a lot of people mad, and so now it's all really complicated.

I know things for men are sucky in certain ways. Like in bodybuilding you have this problem about steroid use and health and so on. Big problem. What's distinctive about the suckiness for women though is that it so often has this sort of non-straightforward, divided, on two sides of the fence business.

Steroid use may be a problem but if anything it's a problem with too much straightforwardness: everyone wants the same thing, and wants to be best; everyone judges according to roughly the same criteria, leading to a classic arms race situation.

When women get involved, there's always this weird non-straightforwardness to things: We want you to be this way but could you also be, at the same time, this totally different way? And could you please work out what the perfect compromise would be -- the compromise we would like best? And could you then please instantiate just that perfect compromise? Because otherwise we're going to feel all conflicted. KTHX.

Drives me nuts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Caring More About Keeping What I Have: Bias Or Preference?

This is going to have to be short because it's the first day of school and I haven't got my lunchbox ready or my shoes shined and I don't know where my classroom is or who my homeroom teacher is going to be.

Fortunately, today's topic is pretty simple. It's often pointed out that people generally don't think the same way about losses and gains. We tend to care more about losing what we have; we tend to think the status quo is somehow standard. We think about income and spending completely differently.

For example, the amount I'd pay to have someone clean my house is totally different from the amount you'd have to pay me to make me think cleaning someone else's house is worth my time. But why? It's not like the amount of housecleaning to be done is set in stone; both choices involve a trade of housecleaning for money. And yet the two feel totally different. In the same way, I wouldn't place a bet of any substantial amount of money, even if I thought the odds of winning were really really good.

Essentially, I care more about keeping what I have than about getting more. Is this a bias? Or a just preference? Sometimes you hear it suggested that there's something vaguely irrational about it. Writing (about other things) in the Times recently, Paul Krugman says,
"Behavioral finance, drawing on the broader movement known as behavioral economics, tries to answer that question by relating the apparent irrationality of investors to known biases in human cognition, like the tendency to care more about small losses than small gains or the tendency to extrapolate too readily from small samples (e.g., assuming that because home prices rose in the past few years, they’ll keep on rising)."
OK, fine, but why is "the tendency to care more about small losses than small gains" a bias, and why is it irrational?

I mean, I see why it's wrong to extrapolate too readily from small samples -- if you do, you'll make an incorrect prediction about what's going to happen and you'll act accordingly and you won't get what you want. But there's nothing analogous about caring more about small losses than small gains.

I care more about small losses than small gains because:

1) Part of the pleasure of enjoying the things I spend money on is the feeling that they are going to continue, and small losses often mean they won't. I like to drink wine, but I would be far unhappier to have to stop because I can't afford it than I would be happy to be able to afford fancier brands. Sure, fancier brands would be nice, but I feel only tiny amounts of frustration at not being able to afford them. Nothing like I would feel at having to downgrade, or give it up. Looking forward to next time is a big deal, and you don't really look forward to stuff you've never had. Or not that often, anyway.

2) Like most people, my financial life involve a range of money committments: a mortgage, ongoing bills, a cellphone contract, internet for my home. Other people have even more complex committments: kids' tuition, say, or insurance for expensive things they own. The impact of a small loss on these is great: I have to figure out some plan, change things around, lose things I've gotten used to (see 1). The impact of a small gain -- especially a one-time gain -- is somewhat significant, but it's not big in the same sort of way.

With respect to 2), I remember once when I was a graduate student, a faculty member told me they couldn't live on 80 percent of their current salaray (which is what they'd get if they did a year sabbatical or something). At the time I thought, Really? But thinking it over it makes sense: when you have any regular income, you structure your life according to it. Small losses are a huge deal.

So my answer is: Caring more about keeping what I have seems a preference, a legitimate one, and not a bias.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Kinder Gentler Henry James

My whole life I wanted to be the sort of person who enjoyed reading Henry James. James readers, I thought, seemed so cool and interesting: so thoughtful, worldly, sophisticated. They always seemed to have the right kind of glasses and the coolest clothes. Not like me with my crazy passion for the overheated Italo Svevo and my comfortable love for the friendly Trollope and my stupid jacket left over from high school. No, being a James reader would finally make me one of the cool kids.

The thing is, I could barely stand to read Henry James. I tried to read The Europeans. I tried to read The Golden Bowl. I tried to read The Ambassadors about seven times and never got past about page twenty. I think I got through The Turn of the Screw but it wasn't any great epiphany or anything and that's where it ended.

What was it about James and me? I came to think the same thing that made me wistful about James was what made me not like to read the books: he is one cool cool customer. I'd read those descriptions and bits of dialogue in the beginning of the Ambassadors and I'd feel James's implicit commentary on those characters so keenly, I could hardly stand it. James, I felt, doesn't love his characters -- he maybe doesn't even really like them. It's more like he's trying to tell the truth about them. So dispassionate! Svevo and Trollope, on the other hand, love their characters so much it leaps of the page. Trollope can't even produce a villian without telling you, Oh, he's not so bad, really, don't be too judgmental! There's a hilarious character in the Barchester books, Mrs. Proudie, who clearly represents everything Trollope finds ridiculous and pernicious in the world around him, and is also just a real pain. But Trollope makes sure to tell us: Now, remember, she really has some wonderful qualities!

Something about that affection always gave me -- and gives me -- a real life-affirmed feeling. Conversely, the detachment of James always made me feel just depressed.

But here's the weird thing. Since reading on the bus often makes me feel ill, I decided to listen to some audio book recordings. I bought a pair of those Bose Noise Cancelling headphones (and can I just say, these things are a miracle and a wonder and the best thing ever?). I joined "Audible." And the first book I downloaded was James's The Europeans.

And I love it. It's not like reading the book at all. The book seems so perceptive, and funny, and interesting. I feel the cool detachment but it doesn't bother me -- in fact, I kind of like it.

To tell you the truth I find it slightly destabilizing to think that a novel in one form can feel so different from the same novel in a different form. Like a lot of people, I want a novel to be a particular thing, with its particular qualities; I don't want to feel like how I feel about it depends on something so trivial as whether I read it or heard it read. What's next, I'll like a book in one font and not in another? Very disturbing.

What explains the difference? What makes James-on-tape a kinder gentler James? I don't know. Is it that the voice doing the reading is itself a warm friendly voice, and this counteracts the coolness of James? This is possible. The reader in this case is a woman with a Britishy sort of accent and a very engaged reading style. Maybe it would feel warm and friendly no matter what the text was. Or is it that listening is actually a less absorbing activity than reading? This is possible, too. When you're reading a book, the book is like the only thing going on in your mind; it's incredibly absorbing. When you're listening, it's not like that. You see the scenery; you have mental energy left over for observing what's going on around you; sometimes your mind even wanders. At least my mind does. That doesn't really happen to me when I'm reading.

The Aspern Papers is next. Baby steps. Maybe I'll turn into an enjoyer of Henry James. But it won't make me someone who enjoys reading Henry James, and so it probably won't make me one of the cool kids. :(

Monday, August 31, 2009

When Is A Choice "Yours"?

In my philosophy work I've been doing some reading and thinking about the notion of autonomy, which it turns out is a really hard concept to understand. Intuitively, the idea is supposed to be that if a choice is yours its autonomous, and if you're forced into it, it's not.

But it turns out to be harder than you think to make this idea precise. Consider the question of whether facts about your social environment can ever make your choice not fully your own. For example, maybe you're a teen girl who wants to dress as a tomboy but who goes to a school where no one does that and no one will date you if you do. Or maybe you're a student who doesn't want to take (non-prescribed) Ritalin but how knows that since half the other kids are taking it, your relative test score will seem lower if you don't.

Are these kinds of choices autonomous ones? Suppose we say "yes," on grounds that you're not being *forced* to do what others do, it's just pressure, and you still have choices. The tomboy can choose whether to dress femininely, or whether to dress as she wants and be more of a loner. The student can choose whether to take the Ritalin, or whether to refuse and take the consequences. In support of this view, we might say, Well, all choices in life are among a range of alternatives. Sometimes those alternatives are good; sometimes they all suck. But the mere fact that you're choosing among particular alternatives cannot itself render a choice non-autonomous. All choices are like that: the fact that a person has to choose whether to major in Engineering to make more money or major in English because they love it doesn't render their choice non-autonomous, no matter what they end up choosing.

But if this is right, it starts to look like all choices are autonomous. Because really, what happens when someone holds a gun to your head? They're giving you a new range of alternative to choose among, right? You can still choose: give him the money, or die. But to say this this choice is autonomous is nuts: the fact that you can choose among alternatives means nothing. The "gun to your head" is like a paradigm example of a non-autonomous choice.

Now, suppose we say "no," on grounds that the tomboy and Ritalin choices, like the one where you have a gun to your head, seem to have its origins not from inside you but from forces external to you. In both cases, someone or something is structuring your world for you, in ways you don't like.

But if this is right, it starts to look like all choices are non-autonomous. After all, every choice every one ever makes is made in an environment of some kind, an environment that structures their choices. Many of the choices you make in life you make because someone you love needs or wants something from you. Your love makes you do things you wouldn't do otherwise: save money, or quit smoking. Or lie to your friends, or to the cops, to protect them. These choices are all highly influenced by social forces external to you, but that doesn't make them non-autonomous. Sometimes they feel like the ultimate expression of self-hood: I do this for you because I love you.

So, I don't know what to say; it's very puzzling. Reading enough of the theories of autonomy and how different they are and how inconsistent they are with each other, I started to think maybe there is no such thing as autonomy, really, and no real distinction between autonomous and non-autonomous choices. But then I was talking with my friend about that weird parasite that makes ants climb to the top of grass so it'll get ingested by sheep, and I thought WOW, if there was a parasite like that for humans, OF COURSE their choices would be non-autonomous. That's like being made into a ZOMBIE for heaven's sake.

So, again, one of those moments where real life just comes outta nowhere, right at you. Real life 1; Philosophy 0.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mid-Year Resolutions

So I made some mid-year resolutions a while ago and I sort of kept them. The results are in and there are a few surprises.

1. Resolved: not to look at the internet before noon.

Status: Successful.

OK, let me qualify that. I don't meant I don't check my email in the morning. I do. I also allow myself to download the Times Reader and look at that. Since that is just an electronic version of the Times downloaded onto the computer, in my view it doesn't count.

What I mean is: I'm not allowed to look at fun or newsy websites. No; no No browsing around. Zero, nada, zip. Not 'til noon, anyway. This way at least the morning is productive and isn't eaten up on things I would enjoy just as much at 6pm or 9pm if I just had the goddamn patience to wait.

Results: Excellent and surprising. Less fussing over the state of the world; less moping over the comparisons between my life and other people's lives; less moaning over consumer goods I can't afford. More accomplishments. I get five stars.

2. Resolved: no more using the credit cards.

Status: Successful.

You always read how anyone who has a problem with overusing their credit cards should use a debit card instead. It's a fine idea, but it has some drawbacks. One of the main reasons to use a credit card is that you're shopping on the internet. Do you really want to put the number of your bank card into a website form? I mean, I understand that those cards have legal protections, but that's going to be cold comfort during the first few weeks after someone empties your checking account.

What I got instead was a prepaid card - it's like a credit card, only you prepay. Now, you'd think banks would be falling all over themselves to market these cards to consumers -- after all, they get the money sitting in the account before you spend it, and they get the fees, and it's a pretty good deal for them. Strangely, I found the prepaid cards were marketed in peculiar "can't get credit yourself?" kind of way -- with pictures of families wearing "we're in debt, boo hoo" expressions. Why not market these cards to people like me, who just want a convenient way to budget their discretionary spending?

Results: Astonishing. I'm amazed at how differently I use my prepaid card from how I used my credit card. It sounds ridiculous, but I actually treat it as money instead of some kind of possible fantasy thing I might possibly pay of in some imaginary future time. I'm a little weirded out by this failure to understand the abstract concept of money in such a way that credit card debt is real money, but who knows? there it is.

Resolved: to exercise more.

Status: Failed.

Results: One thing that always really annoys me is when people act like working out is a matter of rational choice. "Why need a personal trainer? How silly! If I know what to do at the gym I can just go do it myself."

Sounds good in theory, but obviously this is just false for most people.

Anyway two out of three ain't bad.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Years ago I read a few excellent books by a cartoonist named John Callahan. When he was young, Callahan was in a terrible car accident, and he became a quadriplegic. He draws cartoons by gripping the pen between his two hands (I think one arm works sort of OK) and you'd be surprised how well the drawings come out.

Callahan got really depressed after his accident and drank a lot, and as you can imagine, his cartoons involve a lot of "black humor" -- like the one where a guy with two hooks for hands stands on a street corner with a sign saying "Will refrain from shaking hands with you: $5.00." Now he's sober and I just learned on his wikipedia page that he's involved in a million new projects, which I gotta say was pretty cool and nice to find out about someone.

So back then when I was reading a lot of Callahan, one thing I read was his sort of memoir, Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up? (ha ha) and the two things I remember best are his hilarious descriptions of sex education and advice for disabled people (humorless, unsexy, pathetic) and his indignation at being called "wheelchair-bound."

Sure, he uses a wheelchair to get around sometimes, but that doesn't mean he is "wheelchair bound" any more than the fact that you use a car to get around sometimes means you are "carbound." So it's just dumb to say that he's "confined to a wheelchair."

I remember finding that very persuasive, and I tried from then on to avoid using the term "wheelchair-bound," which if you think about it is kind of a stupid term anyway.

But I've been thinking a lot about Callahan lately, because I've started to think "car-bound" is actually a kind of apt description of the way a lot of us live in North America in the early 21st century. Personally, I hate driving and I feel lucky to be able to live in one of the few places in which living without a car is reasonably comfortable. Over the past few weeks I've visited three fairly typical American places in which living without a car is not so easy. And it seems to me that the way the landscape and the driving habits of people are changing, it's becoming not just difficult but actually impossible to get around town on foot any more -- even if the distances are reasonable and the weather is OK.

Sidewalks appear and disappear. Plazas have impossibly long entrance-ways and huge parking lots. When you want to cross the street, drivers don't stop and wait for you anymore -- instead, they just slow down, creeping along as if avoiding actually hitting you is the most effort that can be required of them. And if the drivers are on the phone or in a hurry, forget it: you have to practically wave your arms and shout if you want to cross safely. "Hello! Pedestrian here! I know you don't see pedestrians here very often! But I am here! PLEASE DON'T HIT ME! THX!"

No one should have to be car-bound. It's a terrible condition with awful symptoms. I don't know what the answer is but maybe as they say in my favorite novel Amazons of Jumping Frenchman's disease, "What this disease needs is some good PR."

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Mom Virtues: Not Just For Women Anymore

There was a great Roz Chast cartoon in the New Yorker a few weeks ago captioned "Mothers Without Borders." It showed a range of moms saying things like "Lack of infrastructure is no excuse for such language," and "If so-and-so jumped off a bridge, would you?"

I don't have kids of my own, but I had an immediate feeling of identification with this cartoon. Because really, most grown-up women are moms in some sense. I mean, if you're out and about and you cut your finger, and you need a bandaid, or you get thirsty and you need something to drink, or you get a tear in your pants and need a safety pin, odds are there's a woman around you're going to ask to help you out. It's not a 100 percent sort of thing but it's a thing.

I've been surprised to find myself becoming more and more mom-like as I get older. I've always been conceptually comitted to not nagging people, but as I get older and wiser, it's hard to refrain from trying to nudge the people I love toward more sensible behavior -- or at least, toward behavior I'm pretty sure is going to be better for them in the long run. "Eat your vegetables!" "Have you been going to the gym?" "Don't forget to make your travel plans early!" "Have you considered turning off the TV and reading a good book?"

As I see it, the omnipresence of moms is a basiscally a good thing. If you listen, you benefit, and if you want to ignore, well, at least you can set yourself up as a rebel without having to take anything to extremes.

The mom virtues don't just include worrying, though. They also include comfort and hospitality. There's an incredibly moving scene in one of Trollope's Palliser books describing an intense meeting between a man and a woman. They haven't seen each other in a long time; they used to love one another; at the time of the meeting she is living in desperately unhappy circumstances. The man travels far to reach her, in wintery cold, on a night train, and the first thing she does is tend to his comforts: she makes tea; she gets some food ready; she makes the fire warm. Trollope observes that no matter how complex the relationships are and no matter how important the meeting, a man who has traveled through the cold and is hungry needs to have his comforts seen to. And you know, it's true. Of all of us.

I think of these virtues as the mom virtues, but lots of men have them, and if you know one of them, you know how excellent a thing it is to be looked after in life. Now that more women are busy working and so on, we need more men with the mom virtues. You don't have to call them that -- maybe someone can think up a snappier and less feminine-sounding name. But yeah everyone, take Roz Chast as your model. Mothers without borders. Play nice together! Clean up your toys! Don't eat all the candy! OK?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control . . .

. . . we cannot update The Kramer Is Now today. I am, as Cleo Birdwell would say, in the dark schizzy heart of America, where strangely enough, I can't get a convenient internet connection. So see y'all next week.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Driving And The Compulsion Of The Cell Phone

The most arresting image in this recent New York Times story on cell phones and driving comes at the end: a man, whose son was recently killed by a driver on a cell phone, says that although he is committed to not talking on the phone while driving, he finds it impossible to resist.

He has to put the phone in the trunk not to use it on the road. As he says, "With all the motivation in the world I couldn’t do it."

The story focuses on the increasing data showing that talking on the phone -- whether on a hands-free device or on an ordinary phone -- causes people to have more accidents. You'd think this would create a national outcry of some sort. After all, when people drive, they don't just put themselves at risk, they put others at risk, including kids, who never even got to choose for themselves whether to be in the stupid car or not.

It's weird. Most people will say that among the most important things in the world is the health and safety of children. The leading cause of death among children 5-9 years old is auto accidents. Talking on the phone is shown to increase the risk of those accidents. You'd think if people were thinking clearly they'd cool it with the phone already, not to mention, of course texting while driving (!) which is even more dangerous.

Their reluctance cries out for explanations beyond the usual suspects. I mean, I get that people feel they have work to do or something but seriously, if you went around saying, "There's this chemical I want to put in the drinking water that will make my job more convenient but it's going to kill some children every year. Too bad for that but I gotta get my work done," it would sound ridiculous. Nobody would buy this explanation.

In the Times story, the scientists who study this behavior say there are two reasons people find it so very hard to give up their phones while behind the wheel. One is the "intense social pressure" to be constantly connected, and the other is that we are really f***ing bored most of the time and so we find the brain stimulation associated with phoning just completely impossible to resist.

I am skeptical about the "intense social pressure" hypothesis. I mean, doesn't everyone do lots of activities that are incompatible with answering the phone? Bathing, for instance? Working? Having sex? How can it be a big deal if you let someone leave a message and get back to them?

The "boredom" hypothesis, though, I think is spot on. As Britney Spears so eloquently pointed out recently, ordinary life is really monotonous and boring. And driving is especially boring. At least, it is if you're doing it right.

One of the scientists cited says it's a particularly modern problem we have, that "the modern brain is being rewired to crave stimulation." He calls this "acquired attention deficit disorder." Probably there's something to this, though I tend to think it's also just human nature to want more stimulation. I don't have a car, myself, and when I do drive, I find it pretty easy to avoid talking on the phone. On the other hand, I find the internet so distracting that to concentrate, I often physically take my laptop to where I have no internet access. It's like the philosophers' equivalent of putting the cell phone in the trunk; everyone finds it hard to just sit quietly and do their thing.

Speaking of which, this is actually an excellent idea, putting the phone in the trunk. If you miss a call, and the person has to leave a message, you can always tell them you couldn't answer because you were busy saving the nations' children -- by not answering the stupid phone.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Morality and Christianity: The Prodigal Son

I was in a cafe the other day and the song "Prodigal Son," by the Rolling Stones came on. It's an amazing song, and I hadn't heard it in ages, and I got to thinking about the parable. I'm sure you know the story: father has two sons; one takes his inheritance and squanders it, living a dissolute life, while the other stays close to home; when the "prodigal son" returns, begging help and forgiveness from his father, his father is thrilled to have him home and throws a giant celebration. The other son, naturally, is indignant at this unfair treatment.

The father says to him,
"My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."

I consider myself a morally sensitive person even though I'm not religious, and I got to thinking about how to understand this story from a secular moral point of view. It's not obvious, I think, because we tend to put fairness front and center when we talk about morality, and there's a sense in which the celebration for the prodigal son really isn't fair to his brother. The point of the story in a religious context seems to be partly that approaching human life with excess concern for things like "equal treatment" reflects a narrow and ungenerous nature. Which seems sort of right to me, prompting me to wonder: how might such a thought be explained in a non-religious context?

Some traditional interpretations of the story seem to take the lesson to concern the importance of forgiveness. But forgiveness is very puzzling from a moral point of view. The famous "paradox of forgiveness" points out that if the person deserves condemnation, then forgiveness is unjust, whereas if the person does not deserve condemnation, there is nothing to forgive. And furthermore, we tend to think that morality is fair when it applies to everyone in the same way. But a lesson of forgiveness can't be a lesson to treat everyone the same way: if you forgave everyone all the time there would be no meaning to forgiveness at all. In a way, forgiveness isn't even something you can plan for. If the father planned to forgive the son from the beginning the story wouldn't really be about forgiveness at all - it would be more about a father who doesn't mind that his son squanders his money and lives a bad life. But uncaring is different from forgiveness.

Other traditional interpratations seem to focus on compassion and love instead of forgiveness per se. The father is so patient and loving with his son that he cannot but rejoice to see the son returned to him. This seems to be a little different from the forgiveness idea: it's not that there was a transgression that must be forgiven but more that any considerations of justice, punishment, and equality are just insignificant in the face of the power of the basic fact that this person, who was gone astray, has now returned.

They're not mutually exclusive, of course, but I resonate more to the compassion and love idea than to the forgiveness one, perhaps because forgiveness seems so puzzling. Interestingly, love and compassion, while certainly having moral aspects, don't fit tidily into the category of "secular morality" the way "fairness" and "equality" seem to. But they're not unsecular emotions at all. This seems a pretty universal experience: the joy at the return and safety of someone you love suddenly overwhelming any indignation you might have felt, or even would have been justified in feeling. This universality transcends the religious/secular distinction.

So maybe the "moral" point of view is too narrow for living a good life, and we need some richer concepts for talking about how to live in the secular way -- concepts that go beyond just "morality," concepts that would include the importance of things like love, compassion, and even forgiveness.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Invisible Hand Meets The Five Foot Antler

Listen, I got a question about economics that's been bugging me for a really long time. Maybe someone can help me out.

Let me take as a starting point here the excellent short piece in yesterday's New York Times by the economist, Robert H. Frank on the successes and limitations of free market competition. The successes, he points out, were seen and understood by Adam Smith. As Frank puts it, "when greedy people trade for their own advantage in unfettered private markets, they will often be led, as if by an invisible hand, to produce the greatest good for all."

The invisible hand: a powerful idea. But Frank says that though most economists probably think of it as the most basic and fundamental idea of their discipline, he predicts they won't do so for long. Because alongside the invisible hand, he says, we have the powerful example of evolution putting self-interest against the interests of the group. Sometimes individual and collective interests coincide; sometimes they don't.

Consider the example of the elk, he says. Though a mutation for huge antlers tends to help any individual elk, the resulting evolutionary pressure for larger and larger antlers is a disaster for elk as a whole, who now have antlers that are a hazard in general -- getting in the way, for instance, when the elk are pursued into forests by predators.

It's like an antlers arms race. If male elk could vote to scale back their antlers, with a kind of antler-regulation, Frank says, they would have excellent reason to do so. Likewise, he says, in those cases in which unfettered competition puts individual interests against group interests, humans have excellent reason to enact regulation to, in effect, scale back our antlers.

Frank cites examples of neighborhood schools and steroid use. If everyone works extra to earn money to try to get the house with the best schools for their kids, housing prices just go up, while schools stay the same. If everyone uses steroids in sports, then you must use them to be competitive, and everyone suffers. What is good for the individual is bad for us collectively.

Frank uses these points as an argument for regulation in certain cases. Sounds good to me. In fact, it sounds so obvious to me that I'm prompted to wonder again, as I have before, about why it gets so little attention.

The idea that what is good for individuals is sometimes good for groups, but not always, seems pretty obvious just from looking around, but it was confirmed in precise terms by game theory. In games like the prisoner's dilemma, pursuing what is best for you alone doesn't always lead to the optimal outcome for all. Indeed, a classic example is the arms race: if any country disobeys a disrmament treaty while its neighbors obey it, they do best as individuals. But if all countries obey, the outcome is best overall.

But game theory, and prisoners' dilemma cases, have been known to economists for decades. These are concepts familiar to most of my undergraduates. So if the conflict between individual and collective success is underappreciated by economists in general and free market proponents in particular, as Frank suggests and as seems plausible, what is going on?

That's my question: why do economists still talk so often in terms of the rationality of doing what is in one's individual self-interest, when game theory shows clearly that optimal outcomes in certain cases are only reached by not doing so, are reached only through treaties, regulation, and antler-decreasing voting?

Is it a normative committment to the idea that that it is better to allow people maximal individual autonomy even if the outcome isn't best overall?

Or is it a factual committment to the belief that the vast range of cases we tend to see in terms of conflict between individual and collective good -- like the housing prices-schools case Frank cites -- aren't really examples of conflict after all, appearances to the contrary?

Either way, I'm skeptical.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Full And Vivid Information"

Image from the website

I have crappy teeth. I've got a gazillion fillings; I've got several crowns; I've got other problems you don't want to hear more about. When I was in Paris recently I broke a piece off of a tooth by biting into a biscotte. A biscotte! It's like a little piece of toasted bread! OK, this one was multigrain. But still.

One reason I have crappy teeth is that for a long time I didn't really take care of my teeth properly. Years went by with no dentist visits, minimal flossing, general lackadaisicalness. While there were a lot of reasons for all this carelessness, probably the number one reason is that I just hate thinking about teeth and and the fact that they decay. And you kind of have to think about it to be motivated to do anything to prevent it.

I hate thinking about tooth decay because as soon as I think about tooth decay, my next thought is almost always, Oh Yeah, I Am Going To Die. Teeth are a profound reminder of mortality. I think it's because unlike the rest of your body, teeth don't heal. They just stay bad or get worse until it's all over and you are dead. It's extraordinary, but there have been times when I've been reduced almost to tears by just sitting in the dentist's chair for a cleaning. I know the hygenist must think I'm nuts, because I'm always so unhappy even when I don't have any cavities and I'm just there for a check-up.

When philosphers talk about what it is rational to do, or what is the right thing to do, or about deciding among alternatives, they sometimes talk about "full and vivid information." So, you know, you might say the sensible thing to do is what you would do if you had full and vivid information about all the alternatives and you were reflecting in a calm state of mind.

I wrote about my doubts about the calm state of mind business before. But I'm nervous about this full and vivid information stuff too. Because when I have full and vivid information about the dental facts -- when I really have in my mind, front and center, that unless I take steps they are going to decay, fall apart, fall out of my head, break on a biscotte -- I feel so discouraged I feel motivated not to brush and floss but rather to stretch out in despair on the living room floor and feel sad about the human condition.

I guess you could say this is a defect about me, that a fully rational person wouldn't be motivated in such perverse ways, but would simply note the dental facts and act accordingly, without going through the whole "discouraged" and "depressed" phases. Like Spock, you could just do the calculations and choose the right outcome.

But that doesn't seem quite right to me. I don't think I would be a better person if I were less inclined to despair over the human condition, and I don't think I would be a better person if I were more like Spock. Even Spock isn't a better person when he is more like Spock: it's when we see glimpses of Spock caring about things that we start to care about him.

As a practical solution to these problems, I try to channel my motivations in more short-term directions. I work out because of how it will make me feel tomorrow, not because I want to live longer. I refrain from smoking so I can breathe today, not so I can avoid a horrible death from lung cancer. I floss so my teeth will feel healthy and look good, this month, rather than worrying about the big picture.

This little bait-and-switch works pretty well when things are going fine. But it's not a real solution to the problem, and interestingly, it requires keeping in one's mind a set of less full, and less vivid, information, than what is really the truth.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Trois Sourires (Three Smiles)

You know what I'm sick of? I'm sick of listening to people complain. Since I'm visiting Paris just now, I'm particularly sick of listening to people complain about Paris: waah, it's crowded; waah the bathroom's dirty; it's hot; the line is too long, waah waah waah. But it's not just Paris I'm sick of hearing about; it's everything.

The worst part of it is, the person I'm most sick of listening to is ME. Complain complain complain.

So in the interest of shutting up about everything I don't like in the world just now, I thought I'd write about three things I saw in Paris today that made me smile.

First: the Solferino metro sign.

I have a soft spot for all the metro signs in Paris: they're big and blue with nice bold white letters. But the ones I love best are the old ones. They're ceramic tile, and the letters are really big and really blocky. When I see these signs, instead of a soft voice saying "You're now at the Solferino station," I hear a voice like James Earl Jones's booming out, "SOLFERINO." Isn't this sign just so pretty?

Second: some weird art.

I love the Pompidou museum, and I often go to the cafe there. The Pompidou isn't just an art collection; it's a whole complex commitment to public space. There's a huge open area in front outside that anyone can use -- and there are performers and homeless people and little kids and everybody all hanging out there. There's free wireless access for anyone. There's a spacious and low-key cafe. There's even a place to buy stamps and mail letters. It's like a tiny tiny town all in itself.

Anyway, I went today and there was this crazy funny work of art that is a giant gold plant holder. I don't know why I like this so much but I do.

Third: plastic ants in a window display.

This is the window display of a little pharmacy near my house. I don't know what the point of the ants is exactly, except maybe it's to say, Hey Guys!! It's Summertime!

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Examined Life: Not So Great Either

There was cute post on one of the Times blogs last week in which a guy -- a food writer -- reflects on marathon running. And there's a great moment in his recounting of past marathons where he describes getting to the middle of some race, and thinking to himself, "Why am I doing this?" As he says, it's a question you should never ask yourself while running a marathon. After he thinks of it, he simply gives up, quits the race, and goes to the park.

This story really resonated with me, because that's a feeling I have a lot. I always think it would be cool to be really into some sports team, or have an interesting hobby, or get all into crafts. I'd love to know all about current opera singers, or exotic mushrooms; I'd love to be able to whip up some really great pasta sauce, or grow fresh vegetables in a garden, or ride a horse. But the truth is, about one minute into most of those activities, I'm already thinking, "Why am I doing this?" And that's it, game over.

I'm sure you've heard that idea, attributed to Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. I suppose there's a sense in which, as a person who both philosophizes and teaches other people to do so, I'm professionally committed to a certain amount of faith in this idea.

But the truth is I regard philosophical reflection with a certain amount of ambivalence and wariness. While of course it would be stupid to live without ever thinking about how you live, it's also undeniable, as the marathon story suggests, sometimes the Why question isn't the question to ask.

Some of the great things in life are just impossible to engage in without a heavy dose of real unthinkingness. Would you ever make a lego illustrated story of the bible, or learn Esperanto, or make a super gigantic astronomical complex, if you were closely focused on the question of "Why am I doing this?" I know I wouldn't.

Eventually the marathon guy's daughter says she wants to run a marathon, too, and when he asks her, "Why a marathon?" she says, "It seems like the right thing to do now," which he says is "as good an answer as any."

I envy her this answer, just as I envy most people who have manias for things like marathon running, or amateur astronomy, or whatever. But instead of nursing a grudge, I'm going to take a page from this woman's playbook. Now I've got the words, if not the music, and I'm going to practice. Next time I find myself thinking, "Why am I doing this?" I'm going to tell myself, "It seems like the right thing to do now. . . So stop bothering me with all these pointless questions, and let me get back to my Puttanesca sauce!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Objectification: It's Quantity Not Just Quality

So as it happens I am in Paris, visiting. Two things always strike me immediately on arriving here. One, everyone is better dressed than I am. Two, I encounter far fewer images of women that are 1) scantily-clad and 2) being used to sell me something.

This second thing tends to take me by surprise. You tend to think, well, Paris, a city of romance and fashion, in a country of topless sunbathing; there must be a lot of images of women around, right? But there aren't really. There are some, for sure, but there are also images of men and children, and of buildings, and of landscapes, and so on and so forth. The main thing is that there aren't that many images around with women in them, and in the ones there are, the women are usually beautifully dressed, engaged, intelligent-looking, or at least presented in a dramatic and interesting way.

My main response to this is Ah, how relaxing! Indeed, I tend not to notice how stressful and anxiety-producing it is to be constantly bombarded with images of women's bodies to sell diet products, images of women's bodies to sell cars, images of women's bodies to sell consumer electronics, and images of women's bodies to sell a whole kind of cultural narrative of women-as-decorator-items, but only-if-they-look-just-right.

The usual line on this sort of thing is that what's wrong with using images of women's bodies to sell things is that the women in question are objectified, and that this is inherently wrong.

But as it stands, I don't think this line of thought can be quite right. Because people use other people -- and their bodies -- for all sorts of things all the time in ways that are just fine. We have sex with people; we watch them play sports; we pay them to cook for us; we enjoy looking at the curve of a stranger's neck or a rippling set of abdominal muscles. When we do these things respectfully and kindly, none of them seems to me bad in itself.

Furthermore, it doesn't seem that the more objectifying the worse it is, necessarily. If an artist creates a sculpture of a headless woman from a model, and puts it in a gallery, this strikes me as a much better form of objectification than when a Maxim editor pastes a photo of some girl who looks 16 next to a caption about how she's an aspiring model and speaks several languages. This despite the fact that in absolute terms, the sculpture shows an objectified woman in a more extreme, literal sense.

But I think the usual line of thought is almost right. What's missing are two ideas. First, being treated as an object is always bad when it's something you can't opt out of, when you're treated just as an object whether you like it or not. Second, one way conditions arise under which a woman can't help but be treated as an object is when women, in general, are just generally treated as objects, all the time.

Now this second item rests essentially on quantity, not quality. That is, it's not the details of some particular act of objectification that make it bad; it's whether there are so many acts of objectification of that type around that they create the effect that women are, in a sense, objects -- objects we may use to sell things.

Basically, the idea is that when women are frequently and relentlessly objectified, this creates a tendency for people to regard them as objects whether they like it or not; since they can't opt out they can't be treated as fully human with full agency. But when particular people are occasionally objectified in particular and uncommon ways, no such danger arises.

If I am right this explains why the Maxim pictorial seems worse than the sculpture, even though the Maxim story "humanizes" the woman depicted and the sculpture does not: objectifications like those in "lad magazines" are relentless, and present a kind of objectification that is very pervasive already.

If I am right this also explains why the same sort of objectification -- in, say, pornography -- is more of a problem when it depicts women than when it depicts men. Because women really are in far greater danger, in our society, of being regarded as less than fully human.

Of course, if I am right this also explains why I find Paris so relaxing in this regard. Sure, women may be objectified on the catwalks of the great fashion houses, when it is their bodies we want to use and look at. But there it's not too relentless, or too pervasive about it, and therefore, in itself, it feeds less pernicious effects than the ubiquitous girls-in-ads of North America.

So . . . how do you create a culture that doesn't constantly use images of women's bodies to sell crap? I wish I knew.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Assume Your Vices!

Maybe you remember the classic scene from the movie "As Good As It Gets," where Carol (Helen Hunt) has completely lost patience with the shenanigans of Melvin (!) (Jack Nicholson) who is both genuinely obsessive-compulsive and also just sort of a pain in the ass kind of guy. It's a-do-or-die moment, and she's maybe going to leave forever, unless he can say something nice. Say something really nice, she demands. There's a long pause and then he says, "You make me want to be a better man."

It's a total success as a reply (indeed, when says says it's the best compliment she's ever gotten, he says maybe he overshot a little). And we know basically what he means. There are things you want, and there are things you think are worth wanting, and they're not always the same. Melvin wants to wash his hands with a new bar of soap every five minutes but he doesn't regard this as a worthy desire to have. He doesn't want to be the kind of person who wants to wash his hands every five minutes; he just can't help it.

This is a common feeling. In lots of ordinary cases it seems like what we want to want and what we find worth wanting aren't the same. Maybe you want to eat a whole bag or Doritos while you watch "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" but you wish you wanted to snack on mineral water while watching PBS. Maybe you want to be snippy with your sister in retaliation for some hurtful thing she said, but you wish you wanted to have a warm friendly chat about it. Maybe you want to have sex with your neighbor's spouse, but you wish you wanted only to have sex with your own.

It's a common feeling, but I'm here to tell you it's maybe a little too common. That is, we say it, but we don't really mean it. It's often just an excuse. Because we are, generally, way more attached to our bad qualities than we are willing to let on.

Imagine some future time and some other place, in which mood-drugs are highly specialized. Imagine you're told: "You have a problem with junk food and bad TV? Here, take these "Eau de Sante" and "Masterpiece Theater" pills; you'll only want to watch Brideshead Revisited and drink Perrier from now on. You have a problem with your temper? Here, take the "Can't We All Get Along" pill; you'll be transformed immediately into a mild, even-tempered type person who never loses her cool. You have a problem with desiring people who are not your spouse? Here, take the "Hi-Fidelity" pill; you'll only feel sexual desire for your spouse.

Would you take these pills? I'm guessing not only would most people not want to take these pills; but they wouldn't even want their loved ones taking them. Living with someone transformed this way would be like living with a zombie.

Of course, this isn't Melvin's situation at all; he really would take a pill to stop wanting to wash his hands. That's not a pretend-vice; it's something he really wishes he didn't have. There are such things, for sure. I'm just saying a lot of what masquerades as real helplessness in the face of a bad impulse actually reflects qualities we're not so unhappy with after all. If you wouldn't take the pill to get rid of the desire, how can you say you want not to have it? You can't.

The moral of this story is that we might not be so alienated from our vices as we like to think. That's OK; but if you're not alienated from your vices, why think of them as vices at all? Why not, as the French say, assumer your vice, acknowledge it, stand behind it, take it on as part of you? After all, as long as you're not mean, or violent, dishonest, or incredibly intemperate, desiring junk food, bad TV, snippiness, and sex isn't so bad.

It's desires like these that make us the humans we are. Might as well give them a little respect now and then.

Monday, June 1, 2009

This Week I Was An Angry Feminist

This week I got mad about some stuff. You'd think being mad would be the perfect state of mind for blogging -- and I think, for some people it is -- but not for me. I get mad about stuff, I just want to go home, get under a blanket with a novel and a glass of wine, and sulk.

At first I was just a little mad. I went to see Star Trek, and while the movie is delightful, I got mad about the whole Bechdel-test-failure problem. Maybe you've heard about Allison Bechdel's famous comic strip, where one woman says to another that she only sees movies in which one woman talks to another woman about something other than a man? The punch line is that the last movie she was able to see was "Alien," because two women talk about the monster.

OK so that was a while ago, but how many movies have you seen lately that would pass the test? The Devil Wears Prada. Sunshine Cleaners. Um ...?

The thing with Star Trek is it's not like it's just in violation of the letter of the law; it's in violation of the spirit. The women in this movie are either 1) giving birth 2) symbolizing "motherhood" or 3) Lt. Uhura. Uhura starts off OK, but immedately becomes just a source of love, support, and sexual intrigue for Kirk and Spock. And did you notice how many women were on council of elders or whatever that was on Vulcan, or on the board that administers the hearing for Starfleet? Oh yeah, its ZERO. And of course, all women in the movie obey the cardinal rule of being an accomplished woman: it only counts if you can look super-cute while you're doing it. Why else are all the female cadets in mini skirts and boots?

But I got madder later in the week when I made the mistake of clicking on Ross Douthat's piece in the The New York Times, "Liberated and Unhappy." Douthat discusses the "paradox" of declining female happiness: women are more liberated and yet less happy. How can this be?

While some of Douthat's conclusions are reasonable (we need to think about work-parenthood balance issues), the title and frame of his ideas are enraging. Isn't it obvious that the point of liberation is not happiness, but freedom, autonomy, and self-directedness? It is offsensively patronizing to suggest of any group of people that they're "better off " when someone else looks after their interests and tells them what to do. People want rights not -- or not only -- because the happiness they might expect to enjoy, but because freedom and autonomy are good in themselves.

And anyway, lots of thing worth doing don't necessarily increase happiness. Research suggests parents are less happy than non-parents. Does this undermine the good of having children? Of course not. Likewise, it's not a "paradox of parenting" that people want to have kids and value parenting and yet are less happy than non-parents. It's just part of the obvious fact of life that some things worth doing are difficult.

So I was pretty mad about those things, and then Dr. George Tiller, provider of late-term abortions that saved women's lives and protected their health, was shot and killed at church on Sunday morning.

A good blogger would some interesting thoughts and news analysis, but me, I'm just mad.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I Have No Self-Control

Odysseus tied to the mast; image from a detail of Greek pottery. Via Wikimedia Commons, here.

OK OK let me rephrase that: I have less self-control than you probably think. I've been thinking about self-control a lot lately because 1) there was some interesting research on being distracted described recently in The Times; 2) there was a great article about the famous so-called "marshmallow test" in The New Yorker and 3) I'm amazed and astonished at my own inability to do the simplest things I want to do. Like, update this blog with regular entries. Just for instance.

In the marshmallow test, kids are given one marshmallow and told that if they can wait for a few minutes before eating, they can have two marshmallows instead. Then 30 years later the ones who waited are more likely to be Mister and Mrs. Success-in-life. Leaving aside all the questions you might want to ask about this, I want to talk instead about the strategies people use to increase their likelihood of not giving in to impulse. How, and how well, do these work?

The main researcher involved, Walter Mischel, says that that kids who are good at waiting find ways not to think about the marshmallow in front of them. They sing songs, or cover their eyes, or whatever. The kids who stare at the marshmallow, though, pondering its sweet deliciousness, give in right away. The author of the article, Jonah Lehrer, explains that knowing how to avoid thinking about the marshmallow is based on metacognition: thinking about thinking. As an example of metacogntive reasoning, Lehrer mention Odysseus having himself tied to the mast of his ship so he won't give in to the siren's song.

These two examples, though, got me thinking. Because they're actually really different. The marshmallow kids aren't changing their environment, they're changing their own thoughts. But Odysseus, having himself tied to the mast, is changing the world he lives in. He is making it impossible for himself to give in. He's not just putting his fingers in his ears and saying "La la la I can't hear you! I'm going to sing the alphabet song! And say no to marshmallows!" He's making it physically impossible to do what he does not want himself to do.

The important thing about the second strategy is it's not actually a strategy for improving your self-control at all. It's a strategy for not letting yourself give in. Once you got the ropes and all that you don't need self-control; you can't do anything anyway.

Doesn't this make it seem like a much more effective strategy? Especially if, you know, you haven't got a lot of self-control? For your average impulsive person, the more you can tie yourself to the mast, the better, right? Obviously this won't work in all cases; if you gotta steer the ship you can't be screwing around with rope and masts and all that. But as everyone knows who has tried to quit a bad habit, you can change a lot about your environment. You can not go to the coffeeshop with the pastries; you can tell your friends not to smoke in front of you; you can take your laptop to places where there is no wifi. It's not quite ropes to the mast but you see what I mean.

The article goes on to explain how some schools are trying to teach self-control. But I got to wondering about this, too. How do you know when you're teaching self-control, and when you're just getting kids used to a new set of habits? Some schools have long days of classes, with lots of rules, and they insist kids show respect for their teachers and for each other. Sometimes it works, and kids improve dramatically. Insisting on respect sounds like a great lesson to me. But it sounds less like a lesson in self-control than a lesson on proper behavior and, well, respect. Are these kids thinking about their gratification deferral differently? Or are they absorbing, from their environment, a new way of being in the world? Is there a difference? Does it matter?

At one point the researcher, Mischal, says about teaching kids self-control, "We can't control the world, but we can control how we think about it (p. 27). This doesn't seem right to me -- or at least, it doesn't seem obvious. Often we can control the world, especially when it comes to stuff like whether there is fresh produce in everybody's supermarket. And often we can't control how we think about it -- or, not altogether, anyway. Just because it's thinking doesn't mean it's free of influences.

Anyway, I'm bad at controlling how I think about the world; thinking always leads me back to the same, boring, oh, who cares, what difference does it make? One marshmallow, two. . . what's the difference? But I get along in life because 1) I am lucky enough to have a reasonable set of desires and preferences (I sometimes crave vegetables as well as cookies) and 2) I'm good at deploying the other strategies, of changing the environment and developing new habits.

I always thought if I had done the marshmallow test, I'd probably have waited, not because I like marshmallows so much, but because I fear embarrassment. Hell, the actual marshmallow test requires you to ring a bell to summon the researcher if you want to eat the first marshmallow before the time is up. I'm inclined to say there is no way at four years old I would have rung a bell to summon a strange adult. Even if 50 marshmallows had been on the line.

So, self-control? Not so much. Luck, cunning, and rote habit formation? More like it. I don't know what to say about the luck part, but happily the development of cunning and new habits is open to everyone. Even if you're a marshmallow-grabbing self-control drop-out.

Finally, in the interest of changing my environment to make myself do the right thing, let me announce here that this blog will now update every Monday morning. It's not a guarantee. But as we know, fear of embarrassment can be highly motivating.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What Is Wrong With Consumer Culture?

This is a mannequin in a store near my home. What is this strange expression he has, and who thought it would be useful for selling me something?

Now that the economy sucks, we're getting a lot of funny reverse moralizing about the consumers we once were. "Wow, were we ever profligate, eh? All that spending! What a bunch of . . . gluttons we were!"

The implication is that now that we have no money, we're starting to remember the happier, simpler pleasures of life. "The kids and I have rediscovered the library, and boy are we having fun!" No need to spend spend spend. Fun is just around the corner.

Now it seems to me there is some truth to all this. Too much consumer culture really is bad for people, and going to the library really is fun and wholesome.

But I think the basic elements are often misidentified. It's often suggested that consumer culture is inherently evil because it involves superficial values, or because it induces conformity, but it seems to me this is mistaken: what is wrong with consumer culture isn't that it is inherently bad, but just that it is so goddamn distracting.

Consider the charge of superficiality. Sometimes people seem to think there's something wrong with the whole shopping concept -- that buying stuff, especially stuff you don't really need, is itself a suspect activity.

But this just seems false. Not because of abstractions about how the economy functions (though those may be relevant too), but just because an economy with shopping has jobs that workers can go to, with specified hours, predictable demands, and life and family benefits -- all of which can be profitably regulated by the state. No shopping would put many of us at the whims of nature and chance. No rain this year? No crops? Too bad for you. Sure, you may say, some of the jobs associated with consumer culture suck. And that is true. But that is not a problem with consumer culture itself; it's a problem with the particular implementation of it we've got hold of here and now.

Other times the superficiality charge comes packaged differently, and people will say that it's shallow to enjoy buying things when you could be enjoying more sophisticated activities, like reading novels and listening to music. Now, anyone who knows me knows that no one is more supportive of the so-called "sophisticated activities" than I am. I read; I go to artsy French movies and opera performances; I don't own a TV. But none of these conflict with liking things, and liking to buy them. On the contrary, it's all of a piece. I enjoy beauty and pleasure; I like nice things; so I like having them in my home where I can use and look at them all the time. Sure, this doesn't justify the buying of ugly, useless, crap. But that just means the thinking participant in consumer culture should shop wisely, not that he shouldn't shop at all.

Some people think what's bad about consumer culture is that it leads to conformity. If everyone sews, everyone's clothes are different. If everyone goes to the same store to buy their prom dress, everyone looks the same.

It is true that consumer culture can tend toward conformity. But that's not always bad. One amazing and great thing about the can of Diet Coke you had with breakfast (OK, the can of Diet Coke I had with breakfast) is that it's exactly the same as the can of Diet Coke Lindsay Lohan is drinking on her movie set. There's no vintages, no guide book to selecting the best kind of Diet Coke. It's all the same. Conformity can be democratizing.

And shopping needn't produce conformity. Anyone with a crazed obsession for wearing 70's clothes with fringe isn't going to stay home every evening sewing. She's just going to buy them on Ebay.

The problem with consumer culture isn't that it's superficial to shop, or that it consumerism induces conformity. The problem with consumer culture is that it's so distracting. You live in a consumer culture, and voila! you find you can't think about anything except buying stuff. It's exhausting. You have a perfectly good MacBook Pro, and all you can think about is a MacBook Air. You have some workout clothes, but gee, wouldn't it be nice to go shopping for some shiny new tanktops? Is that new TV technology? Are those new sandals? Want, want, want; buy buy buy. It's relentless.

It's this distracting influence, I think, that makes gives consumer culture its truly morally questionable quality. Because the more you're thinking about what you want to buy, the less you're thinking about other stuff -- and for sure, the less you're thinking about giving your money away to people who actually need stuff more than you do. There used to be sort of natural checks on the all-encompassing nature of consumer culture. People used to go more regularly to church, to be reminded about other people; they used to see other people face-to-face more often; there weren't as many affordable things to buy.

If you think about it, it's no surprise that consumer culture tends to take over your entire brain, given that it's the job of thousands of people to make it do just that. All day, every day, they're thinking, how can we get inside this person's mind? So it's not a big shock that they're successful.

As I see it, the answer isn't to try to get rid of consumer products, or to change your entire value system so you start growing your own cotton. You just have to build in a few checks on the system. Put yourself in situations where you'll be reminded of other people, and where you'll be likely to forget, for a few moments, the siren call of the shiny, the new, the cute, the awesome.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Love Public Transportation

I do. I love public transportation. The depth of my passion is due not to its environmental sensibleness, or its contribution to a well-organized city, though those are great too. No, my passion for public transportation is based on the way it makes you feel about the people around you.

For a long time I didn't drive at all, and so I was missing the contrast between driving and not driving. And then I started doing a little driving, and I was astonished at the immediate sense of other cars being IN MY WAY and other drivers being ANNOYING IDIOTS who didn't know what they were doing or couldn't be bothered to put down the phone/cheeseburger/eyeliner/tall skinny latte long enough to pay attention and, well, you know, DRIVE.

You might think the feelings raised by driving stay put in your mind, directed only at drivers, not at fellow citizens. Or, rather, at fellow-citizens-as-drivers, rather as fellow-citizens-as neighbors. But in my experience this isn't how it works, with me or with anyone I know. You drive, and your sense that the people around you are rude nincompoops who can't be bothered with basic safety gives you a feeling of righteous indignation that lasts the whole day, and prompts thoughts like "What ever happened to civilized society?" "People today suck," and "That's it, I'm never going out to dinner in that neighborhood again." And that's just driving. If you factor in the hassles of parking, forget it.

Not only does taking public transportation not cause these feelings, it actually gives you other ones in its place. You see people on the bus who are completely and totally different from you. And what are they doing? Same thing you're doing. Waiting in the rain, riding on the train, reading their book, playing with their iPods, looking around at the scenery. It's like an experience cooked up to remind you how much you have in common with all the different people around you. It's the opposite of dehumanizing.

It's not perfect. Sometimes there's some horrible kid blasting music and taking up three places. But. Overall, it's this way. And I will go out on a limb here and say that even listening to people use their cell phones is not the end of the f***ing world. Sometimes it's annoying, sure. But many times those phone calls end with the warmest thoughts. "I love you, I'll see you soon." Parents to kids, kids to parents, friends to friends, lovers . . . I actually enjoy remembering that all these people can't wait to talk to the other people in their lives. How nice is that?

The main downside of taking public transportation is that it is slow. True. But at least you can read, and you arrive in a peaceful frame of mind. Also people don't often recognize is that there's a steep learning curve with taking public transportation. I mean, the first few times, you're trying to find the schedule, you're not sure whether the bus is always late, you don't know which route . . . it's a huge hassle. After about two months it's the most seamless thing imaginable.

I was reminded of these reflections today because I saw a wonderful set of drawings in The New York Times, in which two people unhappy about route cuts set out to draw and describe all the actual people on the bus routes that are going to be cut. You can see them all there: the older couples, the little kids, the "guy in an orange jacket." All present and accounted for in the art. I loved the pictures, and I thought to myself, yeah, that is what it is like.

Check out the Times thing here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Against Mindful Detachment

I was in the kitchen the other night, looking at the dirty dinner dishes and contemplating my next act, and I thought: I don't want to do these dishes. I want another glass of wine. I want some of that dark chocolate in the fridge. And, hey, while we're at it, could I have those things while reclining on the sofa please?

I got no answer from the universe. Peevishness set in. "What about me, huh? What about my needs? Are you just ignoring me?" Hmph.

It's always a little astonishing to me how limitless my wants and desires are. I mean, this dishes episode came at the end of a pretty pleasant and easy day. I'm a professor, so I spent the morning at the library working on some research. I did some class preparation, and then some email. I went to the gym. I came home and made some simple food, and drank some wine.

A day full of pleasures, and very few privations. And yet, at its end, I was still not satisfied. Reflecting on this as I washed up, I was reminded that what I was experiencing is often thought of as a kind of troubling "attachment." On some philosophical views like Buddhism, the proper aim of life is getting rid of these attachments so you're not constantly beset by wants and desires. Like I tend to be.

I've always been resistant to this kind of thinking. I'm not claiming to have thought it all through, but I've always thought of my attachments to things as one of the better parts of my personality. I like it when people get all into stuff -- into caring about people, or causes, or clothes, or into some obsession with a TV show, or all into some sports team. It's nice when people are like that. I've always thought it was one of the nicer things about human beings that they get all into stuff in that sort of way. It's just not something I'd want to give up, and it's not really something I'd want the people I love to give up either.

It just so happened that just a few days after my dishes evening Judith Warner wrote in her Times blog about her experience with mindfulness. I guess mindfulness is like the hot new thing among a certain group of people -- "all the rage now in psychotherapy, women’s magazines, even business journals," as Warner puts it. Meditation for calm, cool, acceptance of whatever happens to be going on at the time. Mindful detachment.

Warner says in her essay that while mindfulness may be great for the person being mindful, basically it leaves their friends and family in the dust. While you're being all calm, cool, collected and detached, your friends are wondering what happened to the cranky hothead fun best pal they used to love and your kids are . . . well, actually I've never really understood how detachment could apply to your connection to kids anyway, so I don't know. But you get the idea.

Warner puts it in terms of ragged edges -- that part of not being all detached is being human. But in a way, I feel she's kind of still a mindfulness appreciator. She admires mindfulness OK, she just seems to think that being fallible -- in the sense of occasionally flying off the handle, being impatient, or shouting -- is part of what makes us human, even if it is also kind of, well, less than ideal.

In my opinion this gives mindfulness too much credit. At least, it gives this form of mindfulness too much credit. Attachment isn't just a natural human foible. It's part of our best selves. All that wanting, caring, desiring -- even the getting mad, and irritated, and impatient -- it's part of the good life. Without it . . . well, without it, what would be the point of anything? Attachment isn't just necessary. It's great. You know what it is? It's fun, fun, fun. Think about it. How could you have "sex drugs and rock and roll" without attachment? You couldn't.

I'm not saying it can't be good to be calm and collected. It can. But here's the thing: what most of us really want, and need, isn't detachment, it's something else. As I see it, what most people really want, and need, is more like a combination of slowing down and appreciating what they've got. It's true most of us are frazzled and wound up most of the time, and that a few minutes spend on the sofa doing absolutely nothing in total quiet would be benefit us greatly. It's true that most of us get really upset over trivia -- traffic, for example, reduces everyone I know to hurling expletives -- and that spending a little time reflecting on what really matters would help a lot.

But these aren't detachment or mindfulness at all. They're just better ways of being attached to the things you're attached to. Thinking more about the people you love, being good to them, and feeling nice about the things that make you happy. Better attachment.

These things never catch on. Because unlike mindfulness, which sounds all interesting and life-changing and dramatic, taking time to sit quietly, counting your blessings, and refocusing on what you really care about are all boring and incremental. Nobody ever gets excited about stuff like that. Even on my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, the "thanks" part takes about five seconds.

Well, whatever. That's my take on things, take it or leave it. Now if you'll excuse me I have some drinking and reclining to do.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Rationalization: A New Model For Our "Collective Consumer Conscience"

I'm not usually one for chick lit. But when I read an interview with the author of Confessions of a Shopaholic, talking about how the novel is not so much about shopping per se, but about buying what you can't afford, I figured I had to make an exception.

I'm glad I did, because let me tell you, this woman is onto something. What she's onto is that you don't have to be an addict, you don't have to be a psychological weakling, you don't have to be a candidate for rehab, to continually make decisions that are clearly in your long term worst interest. The phenomenon of rationalization is far more common than that of addiction, and aptly describes pretty much all of us.

Many people are making many such decisions every day. Up to now, the only model we had for such decisions was the model of addiction: you must be a kind of addict if you continue to do something knowing it is bad for you. Hence: shopping addict, sex addict, "chocoholic," etc. etc.

But the great thing about COAS is that, despite having "shopaholic" in the title, the book presents a different and much more plausible model for self-destructive behavior. This is based on "rationalization": we tell ourselves a story for why doing the stupid thing is better, just this once, just right now, just on this occasion, than doing the sensible thing.

Of course, it's not new to notice that people rationalize. But I think Kinsella may be the first to give a realistic account of just how such rationalizing goes, for most of us, all the time, now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

This matters a lot. Because it's one thing to consider a person performing a rationalization that you, yourself, would never consider. But it's another thing altogether to consider a person making mental moves that you yourself make every day, or that your friends make, or that your teenage kids drive you crazy with.

As I see it, Kinsella presents roughly three paradigms of rationalization. First, there's simple wishful thinking. Nothing new there, really: the confidence that your lottery win/new job/tax refund/publisher's clearinghouse check is going to come through just when you need it - pretty standard.

The second paradigm is the rise and fall of the grand scheme. As far as I can tell, this hasn't been pursued much in literature -- though as I've written about before, Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno is what I would call a canonical text in this domain. The idea here is that people only feel they can change their bad habits through the implementation of a bold new way of living, preferably adopted to great fanfare at a dramatic moment in life.

In COAS, the heroine, Becky, seeing she is in financial trouble, consults a book called Controlling Your Cash. She says on buying it, "Quite honestly, it's going to change my life." And indeed, the next morning Becky awakes, full of zeal, and makes a cheese sandwich for lunch, and wraps it in tinfoil. She is thrilled: wow, this is thrifty, easy, fun! Why doesn't everyone do this every day, she wonders?

Noon comes. The sandwich is soggy, and gross. Her friends are heaing out to get take out. Really, what would you do?

Happiness 1, Frugality 0. The grand scheme: always a f***ing disappointment.

But the most interesting and original paradigm Kinsella gives us is the "I deserve it" one. This isn't the old "because I'm worth it" of the L'Oreal ads. This is rather the idea that since denying one's self even a small amount takes such extraordinary energy and effort, naturally one needs a reward for having exercised any self-control whatsoever.

Becky does this again and again: after an afternoon of worrying about her finances, she feels she has earned a reward -- some clothes, a nice dinner, whatever -- despite the fact that the reward is going to cost more than what she's saved through worrying all day.

It's easy to dismiss such behavior as "stupid" or whatever, but recent research supports the view that active self-denial is an effort for people, and that it weighs them down (see "ego depletion," and also this blog post I wrote about it once before). What is special about our current consumer culture is that since things, and credit, are so easily available, every act of not buying stuff is an act of self-control, rather than an act of acquiescence in simply having no money.

So until you've actually maxed out your cards, it really is a depleting, and exhausting, act not to spend, and it's not surprising that at the end of it you feel you need a reward. Even one that undermines all your efforts.

The interesting thing about this third paradigm is that it's not at all restricted to shopping and spending. Twenty-first century western culture is all about choice, right? So no matter what your weakness is, the availability of all those choices means you have to exercise your self-control more than ever before. Whatever your particular mania is, we've got the environment to encourage you to rationalize about it.

I don't know what the answer is. But I do think conceptualizing the question in terms of rationalization rather than addiction is the right way to go. So next time you're tempted to say that you're an addict, why not use the language of rationalization instead? "Hi, I'm Becky, and I'm a shopping rationalizer." Not as catchy. But more accurate!