Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Hasn't Traffic Been More Neo-Liberalized?

If there's one thing I do over the holidays that I almost never do otherwise, it's drive. In my normal life I take the bus, but -- I know this will shock some people -- there are some places in North America where public transportation is sort of impossible.

In my experience, there's nothing like driving to make you contemplate driving -- at least, once you get past the weird anger issues that driving seems to bring out in people. Driving recently, I started to think about carpool lanes, and that reminded me about the temporary "car pool lanes" we had in Toronto last summer for the Pan-Am Games.

The "car pool lanes" weren't really car pool lanes. They were nominally "car pool lanes" that would encourage car pooling to reduce traffic congestion during the games. But to use the lanes you had to either have three people OR you had to be a Pan-Am dignitary -- so everyone quickly understood the lanes were really there for the big shots to be able to get around without the little people getting in the way.

I remember thinking at the time: traffic elitism, eh? Not too surprising. It's actually surprising you don't see it more often.

Then this month the Toronto Star reported that they're taking the whole thing to the next level. New lanes on one of the GTA's busiest highways are going to be "high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes" -- meaning, you can drive on them if 1) you have two people in the car 2) you have a green energy car or ... 3) you are willing to pay.

That really got me thinking. Partly, sure, I was thinking about the fact that this is yet another step  toward the marketization of everything. It's kind of hilarious that a CRITIC of the plan put it so mildly:
"We're concerned about whether or not this is just a way for people who have a lot more money to pay their way to get to work faster than the rest of us, or people who can't afford to get to work quicker."
Um, yeah, that seems to sum it up pretty well actually.

More than that, though, I started thinking about the weird egalitarianism of traffic up to now. I mean, it's kind of weird if you think about it: rich people might have helicopters, but otherwise they're pretty much in the same traffic jams we all are. Someone else might be driving, but they're still stuck. I remember when poor Tracy Morgan got hurt in that awful car crash, and I was like "Oh that sucks. But also: celebrities, they're just like us!"

In a world in which you can upgrade any experience, join the Star Alliance Gold or whatever, how has traffic stayed for so long the one experience you really can't upgrade? Or, to put it another way, why haven't these kind of toll lanes been spreading like kudzu since forever?

Is it that in terms of pure practical materiality we didn't have the technology to monitor the permits so traffic markets couldn't function properly?

Is it that traffic somehow speaks to people of some prelapsarian Wild West, so that even when you're stuck in traffic you tend to see the solution in terms of "more roads" instead of the more obvious "keeping out the hoi polloi"?

Is it something to do with actual old-fashioned democracy, where actual political people who put these into place would get voted out of office?

I don't know. I did find it amusing that the person criticizing the plan felt the need to put the word "fairness" in quotation marks -- like, you can't be concerned just about the fairness of HOT lanes in general, you have to be concerned about the "fairness" of HOT lanes.

Like fairness is some kind of weird quasi-literary concept, rather than an actual thing.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Guest Post: The Special Warmth Of Social Approval

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal

For fifteen years I smoked a pack of Malboros every day. Then, a little over five years ago, I quit. After that I started exercising and also started taking Prozac. This was because without smoking the (pretty precarious) accommodations I had made with the world completely fell apart.

My life got better after I made these changes, exactly the way you would think. When I don’t want to go to the gym, I remind myself of how happy and triumphant and okay I feel walking away from the gym, totaling up the number of times I’ve worked out that week, reliving my most recent victory over the forces of inertia.

And I try not to think too hard about how that mechanism (wherein I feel better) works. There are real physiological analyses of the effects of exercise and Prozac on the mood, and it’s possible that we’re in the realm of the purely physical here.

But I also think about how much society endorses going to the gym. And not smoking. And although there are pockets of weirdness around Prozac, I would say in general society smiles on people taking active pro-social steps to address their mental health issues. And I wonder whether what’s making me feel better is the knowledge that I am living squarely in the sunshine of social approval.

I tell people I used to smoke and they say, “You did?” They say, “I never would have pegged you for a smoker.” I have always wanted to be a little bit mysterious and opaque and so there is something thrilling in that, and then also a little sad, because smoking was so much a part of who I was, and now it is not.

I think about social approval a lot with driving. I live in California, where driving is a thing most people do. And after I quit smoking and started working out and taking Prozac I decided to deal with the fact that I was too terrified to drive. And I took driving lessons and I bought a car and now I drive every day on the freeway and I’ve driven myself to Yosemite more than once and it’s great — it makes my life so much easier and grocery shopping is so much easier and also I never have to explain to a single person ever again why I don’t drive. And yet me driving is not actually a net gain for the world in the ways that you could argue (sort of) that my other changes are. I’m consuming more fuel and producing more pollution and taking up more of other kinds of resources because one thing that driving really makes easy is consumption of various kinds. And yet, being a driver rather than a non-driver makes me less of a conspicuous eccentric, and that in itself, without taking into account all the other ways in which driving is convenient, makes my life so much easier.

Once, before I made any of these changes, I was in a car being driven somewhere by a guy that I knew a little but not all that well. Because when you don’t drive third parties tend to bully other people into driving you places. Especially when you go to a picnic that’s all couples and people with children in Los Angeles. Those people often worry about you taking the bus across town; it makes them feel bad for you and concerned for you. I’m being a little mean here because I had such mixed feelings about it at the time. Part of me wanted the concern and the arrangements and the being-tended-to, and part of me just wanted everyone else to treat the way I lived my life as if it was normal.

So I was leaving this picnic filled with really nice people with really nice families and I was being given a ride by the one guy who was also single and we were talking about that and I was saying that it was a little hard for me to meet guys who wanted to date me, being as I was a smoker and having at the time really short hair cut in an ostentatiously unstylish way and never doing my dishes or cooking anything healthy and this guy said, “Look, there are a lot of guys who like exactly that in a woman,” and I knew immediately what he meant and I said, “Yeah, but those guys don’t want somebody like me.” And what I meant was that I had those attributes, but I wasn’t rebellious and cool in a way that would go along with them; I worried about hurting people’s feeling and I cared about being nice and I didn’t even jaywalk. And he thought about it and he was like, “I see what you mean.”

When I think about that conversation now, I think that I was not very good at understanding that we all contain multitudes, that what I was trying to say is that I was complicated and human and I was assuming that it was less than true of other people, who were either straightforwardly in compliance with the world or defying the world in a perpendicular fashion. And of course I was wrong about the other people.

But I wasn’t wrong in thinking that I was paying a cost in being weird. And I thought it was a cost in terms of opportunities lost but what I didn’t know, and what my current line of thinking suggests, is that it was also a cost inside my tangled self. And what I sort of knew then, and know clearly now but try not to think about too much, is that the value of being weird is directly related to that cost. Smoking is a bad thing, and I am glad I don’t smoke, and yet to the extent I am less visibly a weirdo now it seems like a loss of some kind.

Sometimes I dream that I am smoking. In the dream, I think, “But I quit! What am I doing? Now I’ll have the whole thing to do all over again!” And then in the dream I realize that I never quit, that I’ve been lying to people all along, that I am still a smoker.

Monday, December 14, 2015

If We're So Rich, Why Do We Feel So Poor?

For the last class in my course on ethical theory this term, we discussed some passages from a book called Ethics for a Broken World. This book has a brilliant concept: it takes place in a future world that has been broken by catastrophic climate change, and presents imaginary lectures that discuss, as we do other historical periods, the philosophical writings of our era.

In the book, our world -- the world of 21st century western liberal democracies -- is called "the affluent world." Clearly, relative to the broken world, we are utterly affluent. In the broken future, there aren't enough resources for everyone to live. There are "survival bottlenecks," which necessitate "survival lotteries."

Looking back from the future, the affluence of our world seems astonishing. We have enough resources for everyone to survive, and we frequently spend enormously on gratuitous entertainments like flying around just to see new places.

Of course, you don't have to look back from a broken future to realize the affluence of 21st century western liberal democracies. We are richer than we were in the past -- maybe richer than ever before. We are richer than some countries, and way, way richer than others.

According to this, if you make more than $34,000 USD, you're in the top one percent of the world's richest people. If that's even sort of right, then in some sense, relatively speaking, we are living in an affluent society.

So why, if we are so relatively affluent, do we feel so economically crunched? Why does it seem like everyone is freaking out about not having enough money? Why is everyone so indignant about the bits of money that go into sensible projects like fighting climate change, improving elementary education, and helping refugees?

The obvious answers have to do with cost of living, changes from the status quo, and inequality. Yes, things cost a lot in modern liberal democracies, so what seems like "a lot of money" may not translate into a lot of buying power. Plus, what feels like "a lot of money" is often relative to some previous point in time, and since the economic crisis, we feel we're doing less well than a few years before. And rising inequality means "we" experience non-affluence in very different ways.

But I think there are also some subtler effects.

First, when it comes to living human life, it's not the case that "everything is relative": there are things and activities that everyone needs to survive and there and also things and activities that everyone needs just to feel part of their social and cultural world.

In our society, you need food and shelter, but you also need other things: to feel part of our social and cultural world, you have to be able to get around, you have to have access to the internet and other forms of news information, you have to have access to banking, and so on and so forth.

And here's the thing: in our society, when it comes to these things we need, it's not like there are a range of ways to do it and if you're poor you do it one way and if you're rich you do it another. It's more like -- there are pretty expensive ways to do it or you're just SOL.

For example. You want a TV? There used to be old technology that made TVs pretty expensive. Then new technology came along, and the old technology got pretty cheap. For a while there you could buy a TV with the old technology for almost nothing. Then they stopped selling those. Now it's back to a TV is a pretty expensive thing.

Same with cars, which are astronomically expensive and which you need to get around if you're not lucky enough -- and rich enough! -- to live in a densely populated area with public transit. Same with housing. Houses are bigger and nicer, so you can get a nice one if you have the money or ... not.

This is where rising inequality makes such a difference. If enough people over a certain level means consumer demand shifts, and the only version of things you can do is the expensive one. If you can't afford the expensive one, you're in trouble. This is one way we are so deeply economically interdependent, even when we don't want to be.

I think this phenomenon is part of why the post-economic crisis time feels like such a huge problem rather than a dip in an already affluent set up. When times are even a bit flush, we ramp up -- we create systems in which the things we need to do work in a certain kind of way and demand a certain level of resources.

Then when things shift down -- even a bit -- we can no longer use those systems. It is, legitimately, a crisis, even if in some sense there is still a lot of money around.

Of course, another reason that virtually everyone, at all points up the economic ladder, feels like OMG we don't have enough money has to do with this obvious but usually unspoken fact: in advanced capitalism, the whole point of the system is to make you feel like you don't have enough money.

Especially in an affluent world, where you have to convince people to buy, what is advertising, except a massive scheme to convince people that they're inadequate as they are and that they would be less inadequate if they had this or that thing? 

You put it all together, it's really no wonder we're all feeling so poor. In a way we have so much, and in another way, we don't have what we need. Those things seem contradictory but in a deep sense I think they're not.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When Life Is Work, Who Can You Flirt With?

With whom is it appropriate to pursue a sexualized or even just flirty relationship? Who is in and out of bounds for hooking up, asking out, and so on?

We know from sexual harassment law and from intuitive reflection on sexual autonomy that there are some obvious guidelines. Don't do it with the people you supervise at work. Don't ask anyone over and over, because that is harassment.

There are, however, more complicated cases. Recently MathBabe had a very interesting discussion about "Romance and math meetings," prompted by a question about asking people out on dates at math conferences. A woman was at a math conference talking to a fellow mathematician, a guy, about math. The guy mathematician asked her out. She was upset, because she'd hoped to be regarded in the light of a mathematician instead of possible date material, and hoped to be able to collaborate with him in the future -- something she felt was off the table if she turned him down.

MathBabe initially said she didn't think the issue was so serious. Why can't you collaborate with people who've turned you down? And given that many couples meet under similar circumstances and live happily ever after, wouldn't it be a shame to put the kibosh on such activities?

This, of course, generated a lively discussion, which you can read all about here. People pointed out that if you're one of a few women at a conference with a lot of heterosexual men, then even if no one asks you out twice, you might get asked out a zillion times. You feel like you're at a bar, not a conference, and you feel like you're of interest only for your potential as a romantic partner. Plus, in that case have to micro-navigate every situation to avoid giving someone the wrong idea-- added to all the other burdens of being a woman in a professional and guy-centered environment. Bad.

Other cases, including colleagues who aren't in direct power-relations, can also be complicated. Some times people who work at the same kind of thing you do can seem like equals one minute and gate-keepers the next. Suppose A and B flirt or have sex and then A gets a prestigious job while B remains under-employed. Now A is, in a sense, in a position of power with respect to B. What if A starts rewarding the people who continue to respond sexually and shunning people who reject their advances?

What if, as happens so often in the modern world, there happen to be a bunch of hetero male As and a bunch of female Bs? You know what happens. Women don't get hired unless they're willing to play along, flirt when they don't feel like it, or worse. Indeed, MathBabe ends her discussion with just such a warning: it's not OK to be sexual with someone "whose career you influence."

But here's the thing: in the modern world of 24-7 work and the "entrepreneur of the self," the people who work in your area or who could influence your career somehow ... well, isn't that almost everyone you ever meet? I don't know how your life works, but I feel like unless I went way out of my way to take a flower-arranging class or something like that, I would seldom meet people who are neither "colleagues" in the broad sense of doing what I do nor people who could in some way "influence" my career.

It's like there's a collision course between some sensible-sounding restriction on who you flirt, date, and hook up with, and the culture of modern life in which every relationship is kind of a work relationship. Put the two together and BOOM: there really isn't anyone in the green light category.

What's the answer? I don't know, but like MathBabe, I have a pro-love, pro-flirting, and pro-sex personal orientation, and from a larger perspective, wouldn't it be sad and bizarre if no one could ever flirt or hook up with or find true love with someone who shares their professional interests just because they do, in fact, share professional interests?

It's like, given the omnipresent nature of work in so many people's lives, a broad interpretation of the out-of-bounds rules would come down to no flirting ever. 

I don't know what to say except maybe, like so many things in modern life, it's not the sort of thing you can figure out by looking for general principles you can apply across the board. Maybe it depends on context, and tone, and particulars. We humans aren't always so good at deploying contextual and variable norms. tending as we do toward a love of commandments and categorical imperatives. But maybe with the nature of modernity, we're going to have to evolve into the next level.