Monday, February 24, 2014

How Modern Capitalism Perverts The Moral Law, Or, "Can Implies Ought?"

Dividend Day at the Bank of England, By George Elgar Hicks, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems like every morning you wake up and read about some new sinister, awful, or just plain stupid thing happening in the worlds of employment, business, and finance.

Why so awful, Modern Capitalism?

Seems to me that in addition to the usual suspects, there's a quieter one lurking around, which is that the structure of modern capitalism is such that any possible awful thing, if it's likely to make a profit, has to become an actual awful thing.

That is, because of the nature of capitalist competition, obligations to "shareholders," and so on, anything you can do to maximize profit becomes something you "ought to do." That is, if you can do it, you ought to do it. Can implies ought.

This turns on its head the familiar Kantian dictum "ought implies can." This principle (confusingly expressed IMHO, but whatever) just means that you can't be morally obligated to something that is impossible to do. Like, a doctor can't be blamed for not saving someone's life if there's no known medical treatment for the illness.

We could argue 'til the cows come home about whether "ought implies can" is a foundational principle of ethical behavior or a spandrel of Protestantism but it doesn't matter here, because no matter what you think about "ought implies can," its opposite, "can implies ought," is nuts.

Example 1: Worker Surveillance. You can read here about "Businesses Going Into All Surveillance All the Time Mode" -- but really the title says it all. With the new technology, you can watch and record and analyze every single thing your employees are doing, how they're doing it, and even what emotions are revealed by tone of voice. The company described in the post offers ways to monitor "stress in your voice," and "changes in your relationships with your peers," and how long it takes you to commute to and from work.

At first you might think, as I so often do these days, "weren't these people made to read any dystopian fiction in high school?"

But you can see how these things get off the ground. In a world in which intense competition is considered a hallmark of a well-functioning market, you really can't afford not to exploit any available technique for increasing productivity, even if it's a small increase at the cost of treating people like human beings.

If you don't maximize profit for shareholders, they will get rid of you. If your competitors do it, and you don't, then you're out of business. So you have to do it. Can implies ought.

Example 2: Suicidal Financial Risk Taking. Remember back in 2008 when the financial system imploded? In the years since, it's been frequently said that banks and others systematically underestimated risks and tried to mislead the purchasers of both new economic products and old ones like mortgages.

Shenanigans? Sure. But so what? If other banks are making massive returns on investments by pursuing short-term instead of long-term interests, everyone has to, or they'll disappear.

Example 3: Environmental Damage. Suppose your company has a production mechanism that pollutes the environment. Suppose your company discovers a new way of producing energy that has potential for great environmental harm, like fracking. What should you do?

We already know the answer. It doesn't matter how much any particular person at the company cares about the environment, because in the logic of modern capitalism, the obligation to use the new techniques is embedded at every level.

Through these examples we see that "can implies ought" can create obligations to do awful things in several categories. You have to be awful to other individuals you employ, dangerous to the global financial system you're part of, and you have to help break the planet.

So now, when you do something awful, you don't even have to say you were just following orders. You can say you you were just following the logic of modern capitalism. Can implies ought! What could I do?!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Uncooked Thoughts On (Half) The Hunger Games

I'm just getting around to reading The Hunger Games. I know, I know what you're thinking: if you're going to read a book like that, why not read it when eight zillion other people are reading it? Why wait?

I don't have an answer. All I can say is: I seemed to always have something else to read. I'm still in the middle of book 2 -- so these thoughts are raw, and they're only on half the trilogy.

You probably know the basic story. It's a dystopian future; every year the powers-that-be run the Hunger Games, in which teenagers have to fight to the death -- partly as an expression of political power, partly as reality-TV-to-the-max; we follow the story of Katniss, a tough, fatherless, no-nonsense girl from a poor part of a poor district who hunts illegally to help feed her sister and mom.

These thoughts aren't about the political aspects of the book -- interesting as those are -- but more about the personal aspects. The Katniss aspects.

One thing about the story I think is really good is the depiction of living under the gaze of public opinion. In the story, this aspect of life is carried to an extreme, because in The Games, public opinion can make or break you. In The Games, if you appeal to people they'll donate or sponsor you, providing you with medicine or food you need to live. Katniss ends up having to present particular narratives not of her own choosing -- a romance narrative, a personality narrative, an emotional narrative -- just in order to survive.

This seems to me an interestingly exaggerated form of something absolutely characteristic of human life. Because we all make decisions with an audience of public opinion. Its easy to think of this as a particularly modern problem -- with social media and all -- but I think it's just that form that is particularly modern. Really, people have always had massive and intense opinions about how other people live, and just like Katniss we are living among those opinions the way we live among air and water.

One of the things I thought was really perceptive about the way Katniss has to construct her public identity is that her public identity is not necessarily opposed, or even really distinct from, her own identity. It's more subtle that that.

A cruder novelistic investigation into this issue would present the-true-Katniss, and then the-fake-Katniss, using interior thoughts to show us the difference and opposing them in stark contrast.

But what these books do is more subtle. As you maybe know, Katniss has to play up and often simply fake her romantic feelings for her fellow Games participant Peeta to engage her public in the right way. But instead of the cruder version, which might be along the lines of "I don't love Peeta and I have to pretend to love him and that's an awful trade-off" Katniss often says she isn't sure how she feels, that sometimes it's real and sometimes it's fake and sometimes she can't really tell the difference herself.

I thought that was smart. Because isn't life sometimes like that? If not about romance, then about other things? You make these choices, about your career or how many kids to have or where to live or whatever and you're making them for yourself but you're also making them in the context of a social world -- and who really knows the degree to which those things feel right because they feel right in context or because they reflect some true inner self. It's not like the two things are really separate.

A second thing I was struck by, though, is that when it comes to one of the central conflicts of many people's lives -- people young and old, and especially girls and women -- the story kind of avoids the whole thing and evaporates the issue. I'm talking about appearance.

Having grown up often not having enough to eat, Katniss is quite thin. It's a ritual for The Games participants to be fed the most luxurious foods in the few days preceding competition ... and of course it's in Katniss's interest to put on a few pounds. So Katniss prepares for being in the public eye by sensibly stuffing herself full of food and sweets. It makes sense in context, I just thought it was an interesting choice, given that in 21st century North America this is the complete opposite of what most girls and women would be doing to get ready to have the eyes of the world upon them.

It's also worth noting the way most of Katniss's decisions about her appearance are made for her. Again, it makes sense in context: Games participants have teams of handlers who make every decision: what to wax, how to do the nails, what to wear, what hairstyle to have. Again though, I thought it striking that decisions many of us would be agonizing over -- how to dress for just the right form of necessary feminine attractiveness and also for essential freedom of movement -- aren't even things Katniss has to think about.

One last thing: sex. WTF? How can a book have multiple scenes in which two teenagers sleep all night in the same bed together and this is not an issue? If you interpret the book literally, they're not having sex (so far, anyway). How can their not having sex not be an issue in some way for either of them? Am I being naive? Is there metaphorical sex happening? Are we supposed to interpret the kisses and "time alone," as sex, as we might do appropriately do when encountering novels from past centuries? I don't think so, for various reasons. But isn't this weird?

OK, I'm getting back to reading. And no, I'm not planning to see the movies. Are you kidding me?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Patricia Takes The Bus

Why, yes, I do! I do take the bus! Thanks for asking!

I take the bus a lot. I take a commuter bus back and forth to work. I take city buses around town wherever I am. I take the occasional long bus trip. At home in Toronto, I also take the subway -- but this post isn't about that, it's about the bus. Because for some reason the bus-in-itself, as distinct from trains, subways, "light rail," or what-have-you, seems to occupy a particular role in the social imaginary of North America -- a role probably best characterized as "No - no way am I taking the fucking bus."

But this isn't a post about how you should take the bus because it's eco-friendly and surprisingly pleasant and it will change the way you view the world and make you a better person -- though I actually believe all those things are all true. This post is just some things that happened to me and what I thought about them about while I was on the bus.

The main action place on a recent cross border bus trip. I often travel back and forth between Toronto and Buffalo. Here my commitment to the bus comes with an asterisk, because normally I do not cross the border on the bus: I take the bus to/from "near the border" and get a ride the rest of the way.

Presumably, the reason is obvious: crossing the border on the bus sucks. When you cross the border on the bus, everyone has to get off the bus, gather together all their luggage -- what they had with them on the bus and what they had stowed underneath -- get in line, speak with a border agent one by one, stand around 'til the bus gets inspected, put all their luggage back under the bus, get back on, then wait, and wait, and wait, while the last few problems get sorted out.

If you happen to be crossing from Canada into the US, you have to wait, in traffic, behind the cars that get backed up, before you can pull into the special bus lane -- this is just a completely pointless waste of time, designed, like so many things at the US border, to make you feel like a powerless bug who'll do anything to avoid getting stepped on.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago for various reasons I took the bus the whole way, crossing into Canada. I boarded at the Buffalo terminal, and as we approached the border five minutes later I had the usual range of grouchy misanthropic thoughts. Did people have to bring so much stuff with them? Why can't they follow the SIMPLE instructions to stay put 'til the driver comes to get us? Why don't people understand how to answer the fucking questions?

Pop quiz people: when a border guard says "So where are you headed?" or "How long are you staying?" in what circumstances is it appropriate to say "I'm not really sure, we're going to see how it goes?" Answer: NEVER. How the hell have you reached adulthood without learning that this is never, ever, the right answer -- least of all when it is actually THE TRUTH? Honestly, get it together.

I fumed as I waited and waited and listened to people stumble over unexpected questions like "What are you bringing back with you?" Gee, who'd have thought that issue might come up? Couldn't have seen that one coming, eh?

Eventually I was through the line, and since it was cold, we all smushed ourselves into the tiny post-question area instead of venturing outside. I started to get a better look at my fellow passengers. Some were quietly tending children, who were clearly worn out by having been on the bus since New York, many hours earlier. Many were speaking languages other than English. I overheard some people finishing up in line, and some were presenting visas -- meaning they were traveling from countries that the US and Canada make it difficult to enter from. One person seemed to be processing an actual entry document -- as in, entering Canada, to live, for the first time.

Huddled together with these people under the florescent lighting, my whole point of view suddenly shifted. I saw everyone through different eyes. These people seemed so admirable: taking their children for long bus rides, traveling to new places where they might not speak the language well, waiting patiently through our little ordeal to get back on the bus.

I exchanged a glance with a young woman and we craned our necks to see if we could tell whether the bus had been checked. It hadn't. We each registered identical mixed expressions of "this is taking forever" and "oh, well, it'll be over eventually." Finally someone said, "there it is," and we all ambled out together, sorted ourselves into the right organization for loading luggage and getting back on. Everyone got into the exact same seat they had had before -- no jostling for better position, no grumbling about the fact that the bus was packed. I watched some people help some other people put some heavy carry-ons up above the seats, and we were off.

And then I had my second shift in view. Not only was I OK with all these people, I actually was one of them. We were in it together, off to Toronto. If the bus was super-late we'd all be starving; if it broke down we'd all be in the same mess. None of those things happened. It was early evening; there wasn't much traffic; we zoomed into the city.

As I mulled over my emotional ups and downs, I remembered that this sort of experience happens to me on the bus all the time. Bus-taking is a deeply embodied experience of just being a person among other people.

Often when I take the bus to or from campus, I'm on the bus with a handful of other people like me, and a sea of students. On campus, I'm a prof: I have my own book-lined office, and when I speak in class, people are supposed to listen. It's a thing a person gets used to -- being in a position of special respect. But out there in line for the bus, I'm not special at all. I'm just 10th in a line of 30 - or, if it's Friday, 45th in a line of 70, all of us chilly and checking our phones for the time and trying to be patient.

It's a powerful reminder. You: just another person.

I've sometimes reflected on the fact that airplanes, even though they bundle people together and make them go through miseries, never induce the kind of fellow feeling that the bus does. I'm sure it has to do with complex things like class and the way air travel is branded and perceived and the way the miseries seem so stupid and avoidable and self-inflicted. But that's a post for another day.

Next time you want to avoid the "Hobbesian logic of a [traffic] jam," as Elizabeth Kolbert so eloquently put it, just do what I do. Take the bus. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

The (Contradictory?) Why Of (Some) Economics

One of the basic elements of contemporary economic reasoning is attributing to people self-interest. Sure, we might quibble at the margins about whether limited range altruism is well-modeled by economic theory -- as in Becker's famous "economics of the family." But those debates don't really touch the basic and widely shared assumption that when it comes to generally understanding the way strangers relate and interact, the economic answer to the "why" question is self-interest: rational people do what they do because they think it will benefit them.

Often, it seems this answer seems intended to have both a descriptive and a normative dimension. Descriptively, it says that people are this way. Normatively, it says that, at least in some sense and in some contexts, people ought to be this way, that it is good and appropriate that they are. In an Adam Smithian mood, we might say that when people make self-interested exchanges, good things happen. People get what they want, on all sides, in a way compatible with self-respect and dignity.

In one strain of contemporary economic thinking, the sense in which "good things happen" in this normative dimension is understood in terms of "efficiency." This term has multiple meanings and a slippery history (as I discuss here), but often it's deployed to mean that something good -- money, or preference satisfaction, or whatever -- is being maximized overall. So self-interest is thought to be good *because* it promotes maximum overall benefits at the least cost.

But here's where the why of economics seems to me to get self-contradictory. Because on the one hand, the answer about why people do what they do is self-interest. But then on the other hand, the answer about why it's good and appropriate that people do that is in terms of the interest of everyone.

It seems to me that this isn't just academic weird. It's actually weird-weird. And the weirdness of it comes out when you notice that economic methods are used to address questions of how society should be set up -- of what laws and policies and so on we ought to have. Economic analysis tells us that the way we should make decisions about these things is to consider what system will produce the most overall efficiency: how can we structure incentives so that people acting-self-interestedly will bring about the best overall benefits at the least cost?

In this case, you really do have two incompatible things going on: self-interest as a guide to action, and efficiency as a guide to action.

So, for instance, what if you're making a decision about a policy that you personally will get screwed by? Then suddenly you're supposed to put aside your self-interest, not only to consider your fellows, but to consider them equally, and to be made as satisfied by their flourishing as if it was your own? 

That's not just a different perspective. It's like the opposite perspective.

Consider this example, the details of which get discussed in this recent New York Times Economix blog post, in which we have to decide whether to have a draft or volunteer army. Before going on to challenge it, the author of the post describes the standard economic reasoning in favor of a volunteer army. That reasoning points out, roughly, that in a volunteer army, the principle of rational self-interest dictates that people without other good options are the ones most likely to sign up, while those who are talented and able enough to become doctors, lawyers, etc are most likely to stay home. And things are better overall if those people stay home, since they are most productive. The draft, because it drafts everyone, entails a "social cost" relative to the volunteer army, in making these productive people go to war. 

But this is weird. If you're among the poor and less talented, the idea is you'll opt for the possible injury, trauma, and death associated with being a soldier because it's the best option you have. The reasons are self-interest. But with respect to why it's a good policy, the idea is you have to look at the impersonal benefits conferred on people in general -- people who may be far away strangers to you. The reasons are utterly impersonal, completely other-regarding. Those are two totally different things.

It might be objected here that the volunteers in the volunteer army don't "lose out" because the volunteer option gives them an option they didn't have before. But whatever we want to say about that complex issue, the general point remains: of course there are policies that bring costs to some people even as they benefit the whole. What are those people supposed to favor? Themselves or everyone?

It's almost like if you personally lose out relative to others by a policy that results in overall positive benefits, you're suddenly supposed to put aside your self-interest and think "hey, it's OK, we're all in this together?"

Not only would would violate both the normative and descriptive aspect mentioned at the start, it's also the sort of idea that if you said it in favor of any policy favoring, say, equality instead of self-interest or efficiency, you'd be sure to get some response along the lines of "poor kid, she just doesn't understand economics."