Friday, February 24, 2012

The Economic Worldview Is Ruining Our Lives

This post is about the way The Economic Worldview is ruining our lives by making us cold-hearted and alone. 

It's often said that The Economic Worldview is compatible with kindness, love, and altruism, and doesn't entail a selfish view of the world.  My argument here is that even if that is true, the economics of the Economic Worldview make kindness, love, and altruism impossible, because in the world of competition and exchange, they're simply unaffordable.

This post has details, so bear with me. 

Let's say that The Economic Worldview is Rational Choice Theory together with The Individualist Social Contract. 

Rational Choice Theory says that human life is all about the cost-benefit analysis.  To act rationally is to maximize benefits and minimize costs, where what counts as a benefit and cost is determined by a person's preference rankings.  That is, people have a list of things they desire together with some judgments about what those things are worth to them. 

When found alone, Rational Choice Theory often presents himself as Mister Harmless.  "Hey," he says, "I'm just a theory about human behavior!  I'm not telling anyone what to do!  No shenanigans -- honest!"

But the thing is you almost never see him alone.  He used to pal around with Utilitarianism, a somewhat kinder gentler fellow who was all about doing stuff for other people just because, you know, it would help them out.  But Utilitarianism's not out and about much anymore.  In public life these days Rational Choice Theory's got a new sidekick:  The Individualist Social Contract. 

The Individualist Social Contract is the idea that human interactions are generally best understood as episodes of Let's Make A Deal.  Everything is a neo-Hobbesian-tit-for-tat.  Life in the state of nature is nasty brutish and short, The Individualist Social Contract says, but that's OK, because if you refrain from killing, plundering, and walking across my lawn in exchange for me refraining from killing, plundering, and walking across your lawn, we both do better.  It's a  steal of a deal for both of us. 

The Individualist Social Contract is all, "What do you want for that?" "What'll you give me if I do"?

When they're together I call them The Economic Worldview.  Together, these two ideas tell you how to run the world.  Actually, they not only tell you how to run the world, they bully you into running it their way.  They're like the socio-cultural Mafia.

What they'll tell you is to run the world according to The Principle of the Economic Worldview:

The most efficient and fair way to run the world is that everyone should make deals with everyone else based on what they're preferences tell them would function as rational trade-offs. 

Makes sense, right?  Joe has butter and wants bread; he makes a trade.  You want something you gotta pony up.  The Economic Worldview will tell you this is the most efficient way to run the world because everyone gets to directly pursue what they most prefer.  They'll tell you its the fairest way because everyone gets to make whatever deals they want.

Yes, I just made this principle up.  Yes, I know it's possible for preferences to be altruistic, so that the Principle of the Economic Worldview does not immediately entail some kind of crude self-interest -- I'm getting to that. 

The problems and limitations of The Economic Worldview are well-known.  It encourages us to divide everything into costs and benefits, when many things aren't quite one or the other.  It treats altruism, voting, and trust as quirks of human nature.  It takes into account only measurable and exchangeable things.  It treats as stable and unchanging preferences which are contextual, variable, and easy to alter.

I could go on and on.  But my point here is not about how the Economic Worldview gets it right or wrong.  It's about how the Economic Worldview changes us. 

At the basis of the whole scheme are preferences.  But there are some funny things about preferences.  First, many of our best preferences are not for measurable and exchangeable things.  They're for things like love, fairness, and the well-being of other people.  Second, preferences change all the time.  If wanting X makes you feel like a loser then you'll stop wanting X.

And here we are finally at the basic idea of this post:  The Economic Worldview makes losers out of the people with the best preferences and winners out of the people with the worst preferences.  So in a real way it makes us worse human beings.

You can probably see how the mechanism works.  The Economic Worldview allows for simple and effective ways of taking into account and satisfying preferences for exchangeable and measurable things like money and objects.

But not so much for preferences for love, fairness, and the well-being of others.  You can try to satisfy those preference through exchanges, but their satisfaction can't be counted as adding to your success -- because they're not measurable or exchangeable goods. 

To put it bluntly, the more you love others, the more altruistic preferences you have, the more of a loser you are in the preference-satisfaction scheme cooked up by The Economic Worldview.  Because the exchanges you make to try to satisfy them just leave you poorer in every other dimension, and the gains you get in satisfying them aren't for measurable and exchangeable things. 

Think of it this way.  What kind of preferences should you have?  To be successful in the world of The Economic Worldview, you should cultivate preferences for money and material objects and you should suppress cultivation of ties of affection, which will get in the way.

In his astonishing book, Gomorrah, about the Camorra mob in Naples, Roberto Saviano talks often of the mob as the natural logical end of liberal free market ideals.  And at one point he explains why loyalty and friendship can have no place there.  "Every bond, be it affection, law, rights, love, emotion, or religion, is a concession to the competition, a stumbling block to success." 

So those altruistic preferences?  In The Economic Worldview, you just can't afford them

Maybe you're thinking, "Well, you're getting carried away.  The problem with The Economic Worldview isn't with the "Economic" part, it's with the "Worldview" part.  Economic principles of exchange are fine in their place, applied in the proper sphere, you just don't want to get carried away.  And everyone knows that."

Nice idea, but no. 

A) We do get carried away.  We use theories of human behavior and interaction to understand and interpret ourselves, and we're doing this now with The Economic Worldview. 

B) Everyone knows that?  Are you kidding me?

What does The New York Times call its "Economix" blog?  "Narrow science applied beyond its scope?"  No.  It calls it "Explaining the science of everyday life."

I rest my case.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Former Angry Young Man: A Gendered Character Study

Cool weird old poster of an Angry Young Man.  By James Montgomery Flagg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe you've encountered this guy:  the Former Angry Young Man.

When he was young, the Former Angry Young Man (FAYM) (yes, "Man," we're getting to that) was full of piss and vinegar.  He was ambitious for himself, and idealistic for his world.  He took shit from nobody.  He spoke truth to power; he raged against injustice.  He had no time for niceties like planning birthday parties, listening to long pointless stories, or being nice just for the hell of it.

The FAYM, though, has changed.  Now that he's older, he recognizes that "no man is an island."  Maybe he went through a divorce, and needed his friends.  Maybe he had kids, and realized that someone has to buy the birthday cake.  Maybe he got sober and realized he was being an asshole.  Now, he knows that life is too short for all that negativity.  Now, he knows what really matters:  other people.

This narrative has attractive elements, and the classic FAYM doesn't hesitate to play them up.  The idea of the FAYM brings together worldly sophistication and down home values.  It has the sheen of learning and wisdom.  Like the parable of the prodigal son, it engages our love for the reprobate who finally learns his lessons.  It makes a person seem fun and good at the same time, which is never easy.

But attractive or not, the FAYM thing is a guy kind of thing.

For one thing, young or old, nobody likes an angry woman.

The only teensy loophole to this law is that if you're very attractive or very young your anger can be interesting and legitimate, because it is sexy.  When Courtney Love got plastic surgery back in the 90's, she said she had to do it because she was angry, and only physical beauty would legitimate her anger.  Like, if a babe goes on MTV and shouts a lot it's "hot" and interesting but if some regular looking girl does it she's just a mess and someone we feel sorry for.  Say what you want about Ms. Love, but that is true.   

For another thing, some of the stuff that happens to guys to trip the "no man is an island" brain wire in men happens to girls when they're like 14. 

The reason I got thinking about this is that I'd been reading or hearing about some FAYMs and kind of half-heartedly absorbing their narratives, and it kind of came to me like a flash:  you know, I'm not Formerly Angry.  I'm Angry right now.  All the stupid idiocy in the world, the wars, the pointless suffering, the stupidity ... I'm probably ten times more angry about that now than I was when I was younger. 

Where we're going to go with that Cultural Icon-Wise, I don't know.  The "Currently Angry Middle-Aged Woman" doesn't have a lot of style or panache.  

I guess you'll have to just call me a Feminazi Boner-Killer.