Monday, August 26, 2013

Economics and The Lost Art of Not Worrying About Stuff

It's not news that when all you have is a ruler, everything looks like a piece of string ... Oh, wait, that's not it.

It's not news that when all you have is a cup, everything looks like coffee. No, no, that isn't it either.

I know: when all you have is an odometer, everything looks like a mile?

OK forget it. The principle, of course, is that when you have only one way of measuring, you only see the things you can measure that way. Which sounds pretty innocuous. But as everyone points out, the fact that you can measure "money" or maybe "goods" but not "love," "community" or even "that pleasant feeling you get crossing little items off your to-do list," means that the economic lens, when you use it, is always distorting your life.

I say "when you use it," but really do you have any choice? These days with the economic lens, you can run but you can't hide. You have to practically fashion yourself some kind of crazed rebel to even have the blandest opinions that contradict what the economic lens shows you.

An example of this I think about a lot has to do with risk, rationality, and the comforts of planning. A few years ago my friend and I had to renew our mortgage for a condo we own. For everyone who doesn't live in Canada: this is a thing we do here, where the terms of a mortgage are only good for five years, and you have to renew or renegotiate or whatever. Obviously it doesn't mean you have a five-year mortgage. Just the terms are only good for five years.

I don't know how this started or who it's supposed to benefit. It doesn't matter. We used what's called a mortgage broker, whose job is to help you find the best deal. At one point, we had to make a decision about whether to accept a certain fixed-rate (for the next five years only!) or go for a variable rate. For certain reasons the broker was convinced that the variable rate would be better in the long run.

I told him, as I'd told him before, that we wanted a fixed rate.

He insisted, as he'd insisted before, that we wanted the variable rate --that it would be better in the long run.

We went back and forth a few times until I just stopped offering reasons and justifications and just ordered him to put us down for the fixed rate. Now, I'm able to do that sort of thing, because I'm somewhat naturally who-gives-a-fuck about things like this and also because years of being a professor has reinforced my ability to just say "no, we're doing it this way." If I'd been a more deferential, shy, or uncertain person -- forget it. We'd have had a variable rate mortgage.

Now, it's worth considering what could make a mortgage broker so convinced that there could be no good reason for preferring a fixed rate -- for preferring it even granting, for the sake of argument, that it might cost you more dollars in the long run.

From various things the broker said, I know one thought he had concerned what he thought of as the irrationality of risk-averseness. The principle behind this idea is that from the economic point of view, money you get is no different from money you fail to lose; money you lose is no different from money you fail to get. So while I might have balked at a risk of losing money, I was not balking at the risk of failing to gain it. And that's "irrational."

I suppose from one point of view, whether something is framed as a loss or a failure to gain might seem arbitrary and then risk averseness would indeed be a bias.

But from the point of view of your actual life, it's obviously not. In increasing order of importance, a non-exhaustive list of reasons losing is genuinely worse than failing to gain:

4. Human lives are enmeshed with commitments and plans, many of which depend on money. You can plan for what you have if you're not going to lose it, but you can't plan for what you might gain if you don't fail to not gain it.

3. People get used to things. Think about your home. Giving up its comforts would be traumatic compared to failing to gain house twice its size and luxuriousness.

2. Not everything is relative for humans. The difference between having three chances to eat per day and having six are small. The difference between having three chances to eat per day and having none are -- well they're about as big as you get.

1. Only the risk averse can Stop Worrying and Actually Enjoy Life. Are people so unimaginative about their lives that they can't imagine anything they'd rather be doing than worrying about their money?  How is the time I enjoy not worrying not factored in? When I factor that pleasure in, the fixed rate would have to far far outstrip the variable rate to even make me consider the variable rate.

But of course we know the answer to the last question. The economic lens doesn't even see that pleasure. There's no way to count it, so it might as well not be there.

For this post, a tip of the hat to my former co-blogger Captain Colossal, with whom I had a meeting of the minds on these subjects a few weeks ago. These days, if you're to be a crazed lunatic who actually cares about having a nice life, it helps to have some fellow travelers with you. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why So Hateful, Internet? Rage And The New Entreprenurial Self

Hey internet -- why so much hate?

There's a theory out there that the reason people are so hateful to one another on the internet has to do with 1) anonymity, which means internet people can dish out the hate without having to take it and 2) e-distance = dehumanizing.

OK, but actually I'm not buying it.

One reason I'm not buying it is that when it comes to 1), pointing out that people can do something is hardly an explanation of why they do do it. I mean, if someone were to burn down your house, and you said "Why??!" and they said "Well, there was a can of gas and a match and I knew I could get away with it ..." -- It wouldn't be much of an explanation.

But if 1) is useless, 2) just seems false. Why would you bother randomly hurting someone who couldn't feel pain? You wouldn't. Nobody who felt they were dealing with a non-person on the other end would take the time and mental energy to be rude and hateful. Who cares about hating on a machine?  If rage could be dissipated by cruelty-to-machines, we could just set up little stations where people could shout at robots and feel all better and the real world would be a peaceful quiet place.  I hope you share my feeling that is not going to happen.

No -- this kind of rage and hate make sense only when the target is humanized, when you are actively hoping they will be damaged and hurt by what you've said. 

So unfortunately I think what we're seeking is less an explanation of hate on the internet and more an explanation of Generalized Rage Disorder in the Modern World. Internet isn't really "internet hate" but more like Hate, As Seen On The Internet.

Having coffee recently in a neighborhood off my beaten path, I overheard several conversations that seemed to me to suggest possibly explanations for our Generalized Rage Disorder. They all seemed variations on a theme: Mid-Level Guy has to give Entry-Level Supplicant advice on Reeling in Clients/Pleasing Top Level Guy/Making Numbers. They were all expressed in the most hateful tones of condescension and this-is-for-your-own-good ness. 

You'd have to be Mother Theresa not to leave a conversation like that in some kind of rage.

And really, if you think about it, the "entrepreneurial" self" required by today's neoliberal paradigm, in which branding and not being a chump are tops on everyone's to do list, entails that strategies for making other people feel bad are quite rational. The more other people are beaten down, the more you can get out of them for less, and the less threat they are to you in competitive advantage.

If that's where it starts, we know where it goes from there. Everyone knows what it feels like when the world is out to make you feel bad: it gives you a feeling of rage: You want to pass that bullshit on.

It's like Pay It Forward, but with hate instead of love.

If internet hate is like a thermometer measuring our cultural Pan-Directed Anger Syndrome, I'm putting our current readings somewhere around: Call 911! Now! Before it's too late!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Historian of the Future Writes A Letter To A Friend

Date: August 6, 2075

Hey Julie,
How are things there in the Desert Areas?  I've been here in the Undersea Districts for about six months now, working on that research project I told you about -- the one where I try to understand the douchebags -- sorry, I mean "citizens" -- of the time before ours, from about 1980 to 2050. That period is called the "Age of Affluence" because of this amazingly prescient philosophy book from the time that tried to imagine what their moral theories would seem like to us.

Philosophy is one thing, but this archival work I'm doing really sucks. I've wasted hundreds of hours sitting in this damp, cavernous archive, sifting through Tweets and Facebook postings from those overprivileged, spoiled brats, trying to weed out the cats, the "irony," and then more cats.

Maybe you remember that when I applied for funding, I promised the The Nostalgia Institute that I'd produce a monograph about the Mystery of Economic Trust -- why the Affluent were so credulous about economics.

But it is really hard to understand what the hell they were thinking. Like, I discovered that the economic models that led to the First Great Collapse in 2008 were part of standard economic theory at the time. Though for some reason they kept issuing new textbook editions year after year (why? a mystery), the theory hardly ever changed. What is up with that?

And you've heard of "austerity," right? It turns out that after the IMF -- one of the economic power players from those days -- acknowledged that they had way underestimated the damage it would do in Greece, they still concluded in 2013 that "the thrust of policies under the program [were] appropriate." I mean, WTF?

And in the middle of all this, as the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting screwed, President Hope and Change appointed the same people to finance positions over and over -- like this one guy Larry Summers, who must have had everyone hypnotized or something.

The one real discovery I've made is about an actual protest. They called it the "Occupy" movement, though I can't figure out what they were Occupying -- was the name a riff on "Occupied" vs. "Vacant" on bathroom doors? Anyway, they seemed hell-bent on challenging the status quo. From what I can gather, though, everyone just thought they were doofuses. This one TV talking head of the time, P. J. O'Rourke, referred to them as "drum bangers who had failed Econ 101."

I have three hypotheses -- but I can't figure out which one is right. Were the Affluent dupes, deer in the headlights, who just didn't know what was going on? Were they devotés, who abandoned their judgment to a cult of experts, like a herd of lobotomized goats? Or were they more like racketeers, who knowingly exploited their fellows for economic gain? I know they watched a lot of mafia shows, so racketeering might have been on their minds.

Well, Julie, I'd better sign this and get it off before the weekly postal cycling brigade leaves town. 

Love 'ya,


Monday, August 5, 2013

The Worst Thing About Philosophical Method Is The Best Thing About Philosophical Method

Suddenly last weekend philosophy was in the news. I'm always hoping to see philosophy in the news putting its best face forward, with philosophers commenting on topics like medical ethics, science, intellectual property, human rights, war, mental health and illness, why we believe what we believe, the list goes on and on.

For whatever reasons -- and I'm sure there are several -- that doesn't generally happen.

And last weekend, instead, we were in the news for our problems with women -- of which we have a few. The article discussed several important topics, including What It's Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy. I have to say that though I was glad to see this issue receiving attention, I was also a little sad to have our moment in the limelight focus on our flaws.

I've often reflected about the things that make philosophy an uneasy fit with the modern world, and thus why philosophers' opinions are not more frequently sought out -- by the media and also by scholars in other areas. Chief among these, as I see it, is that philosophy often requires some abstracting away from the way things seem, or the way they just happen to be, to get at some more essential truth about how they are, or could be in radically different circumstances.

That is, to some extent, philosophical thinking has to be disconnected from the real world, has to see as separate things that just happen to tend to go together. For instance, just war theory is theory; it tries to analyze what's just in war in abstract terms that don't depend on contingent factors about particular wars.

This quality can sometimes be a problem, because of the intense interest people have, not unnaturally, in how things are, here and now, for us, in these very particular circumstances. I feel it myself. Why can't philosophy be engaged with what's actually going on, with what happens contingently to be the case? For us?

But then I reflect that this element of abstraction is in some ways the best thing about philosophy, because it can result in original and new imaginings about the world.

For example, in 1869, when J. S. Mill wrote The Subjection of Women, probably together with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill, and certainly with her intellectual input, they imagined an equality of the sexes that challenged everything about the society they lived in. Confronted with facts about the relative standing and accomplishments of women in their day, the Mills pointed out that these were the result of contingent social forces, forces that functioned to make it appear that women were weaker or intellectually inferior, and that in the absence of those forces men and women both would be happier.

It's a great example of how challenging what seems to be the case, and getting away from what just happens to be true in your own particular world, produces truly radical thought in the best possible way.

In this sense the worst thing about philosophical methodology -- its pie-in-the-sky disconnection from "the real world" -- is also the best thing about philosophical methodology, because only through this disconnection can you truly challenge the status quo.

Of course, once you've had the abstract thoughts, you can change the world only by bringing them to bear on the here and now, on the world we live in. And you can only develop abstract thoughts relevant to changing the world by constant careful attention to that hear and now, our actual world. So it seems to me philosophy is always in a certain balancing act: you need the one but you also need the other.

What does surprise me in my discipline is how often scholars seem to move in the abstraction direction instead of the application direction.

I mean, you might think that figuring out what you believe about some very abstract thing, the next interesting order of business would be to figure out how it fits, or doesn't, with some real stuff. The work I do on ethical reasoning is abstract, but now that I know what I think about some basic aspects of it, I'm interested in how that fits with bioethics, ethics in application, the real problems and decision making processes people are using.

That's often not what happens. What happens instead is that Professor X develops a view about the foundations of ethical claims. And instead of getting gripped next by the potential implications of this view for how we live, Professor X gets gripped instead by a more abstract question, like what epistemological view, or philosophy of language view, would fit best with the foundations of ethics views.

Given the way various forces combine in our discipline to make the more abstract work seem hierarchically superior, it seems to me the "balance" is out of whack: though we need both, right now we could use more of the connection, real world aspect and less of the disconnection, abstract aspect.

And though this post has been about philosophy as a methodology and not about the particular problems the field has with women, there are certainly connections. These seem complex enough to me that I'll leave them aside for another occasion.

But I do share the view, common among women in philosophy, that addressing the one problem would help address the other: in addition to the issues about fairness and opportunity, it's also simply the case that more women in philosophy will simply make philosophy better.