Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Problems Of The Environment Are Not (Only) Problems Of Individual Consumer Obligations

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees, via Wikimedia Commons.

I was interested to see this piece by Umbra Fisk on Naked Capitalism about how "withdrawing" and living "off the grid" were bad solutions to environmental problems.

When I first saw it, I confess that in true modern style I had expected it to confirm some beliefs I already had: that living in cities was environmentally friendly, that living in the country often involves a lot of driving and so on, and that spending a lot of time doing outdoorsy activities could be harmful.

I wrote about some of these issues a couple of years ago.  For one thing, it turns out that if you think of elevators as a way of getting from one place to another, they are very energy efficient, because of counter-weights. As the New Yorker put it back in 2008:

"Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete."

I love that image, of the elevator saving people from oozing out all over the earth's surface -- like we're some kind of skin disease or something.

Another interesting thing is that as reported in the NYT, hiking and camping and related activities are "the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered..."

To a certain extent, the NC piece did confirm my existing beliefs. Because of public transportation and other kinds of infrastructure, living in cities can be more environmentally friendly than living "off the grid" or moving into a tiny house.

But in another way, the piece actually pushed me to realize ways that I had failed to take my thinking to the next step. Because the main gist of the piece is really about the relative pointlessness of all those small individual habits we form, the limitedness of thinking just about yourself and your consumer activities, when really you should be trying to think more in terms of community and contributing to large structural changes. The theme of the essay is "get to know your neighbor."

And I realized I really had been framing my thinking about this in a highly individualized way, thinking of myself as a consumer, and then considering what my obligations were in terms of my individual choices.

It's not that that kind of thinking is wrong. Of course it's good to carry your water bottle, and repair your things and, of course, take the bus (like I do!).

But to frame the problem as an individualistic consumer obligations problem is a mistake. It's a mistake we're all likely to make, because we live in a society that for complex reasons is constantly reminding us of our position as individual consumers and never reminding us of our position as anything else.

So yes, ask yourself about sustainable practices for your life. But as the essay says, don't forget to also ask: "How do you cultivate respectful, meaningful relationships with the people who will help you fight fossil fuel infrastructure?"

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hurt Feelings And The Perverse Modern Demand For Invulnerability

Have you seen that comic strip that shows the guy hearing all kinds of praise and one bad thing, and how in the course of the day the praise fades and fades to nothing, 'til when he's lying in bed and all he can think is of that one bad thing?

Here it is:

I think about this comic all the time, because I am very susceptible to this. In the comic, the one negative thing the guy can't get out of his head is "you're a jerk," but my negative things range over all types and categories and can include both comments from other that, for whatever reasons, hurt my feelings, and also vicious negative self-assessment.

Anyone who teaches students can tell you about experiencing this with course evaluations. You can read one positive comment after another, sheet after sheet where the only negative feedback is "the readings were dry," and then you come upon someone who says you're incompetent or boring or disorganized or behind-the-times and -- WHAM. I promise, that is the comment you'll be thinking about for the next few weeks, or maybe forever.

I discuss this comic strip with people often, because it's important to remember what a widely shared experience it is and to keep in mind that feeling this way doesn't make you weak or weird or over-reacting or anything. It's just human nature.

When I share this comic strip and think about it, my mind often turns to thinking about how crazy it is that as humans hyper-sensitive to negative feedback, we've basically created a system in which people are constantly subjected to it. You'd think if we were people like the guy in the comic strip that we would find a way to create a society in which we are surrounded by praise and positive comments and only hear negative feedback in the gentlest and most constructive way.

But it's not like that at all. It's like the opposite. Most of us are surrounded with critical evaluation from all sides and only hear praise if we're lucky enough to have people around who love and care for us.

Worst of all, the people who are -- or who act -- the most impervious to criticism are often the people who are most successful. They exude positivity, and they prop up their personal brand and likability.

It is one of those strange states of affairs: we have massive human vulnerability, and modern society is set up for massive invulnerability. Like we set up society for people radically unlike ourselves. WTF?

I don't know how you undo any of these complicated systemic things that no one really designed, and that seem to emerge out of the always churning blend of capitalism, the Human Resources industrial complex, and people just needing to lord it over other people. But wouldn't it be nice if we could shift things around a little?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In Praise Of Workplace Inefficiency

It's always bothered me the way you can open a newspaper like the New York Times and find completely different perspectives depending on what part of the paper you're in. In the Science page, you might read about how to lower your carbon footprint by taking fewer trips, while in the Travel section you're reading about how it can be a new kind of fun to fly to Europe just for the weekend, and in the Business section you're reading about how to get extra airline miles by making pointless extra stops while you travel -- first class, of course.

One of the main offenders in this regard, I think, has to do with the workplace. In one part of the news, you're likely to read about the importance of having a super-efficient company, with a super-efficient workplace. You might read about strategies to prevent workers from chit-chatting, or looking at the internet, or taking too long in the bathroom.

In another part of the news, though, you might see a completely different take on things, with basically the opposite message -- namely, how to avoid having work completely ruin your life. You might read about strategies for stress relief, like taking frequent small breaks and getting up to walk around.

Personally, I love to see workers being inefficient. This morning I happened to be staying at a hotel, while on a trip to visit my mother, and when I came down to get coffee, there were three hotel employees -- room cleaners, by the look of things -- and they were hanging out, chatting, laughing, and eating pastries from the hotel breakfast room. Yesterday another worker gestured for us go first up the stairs, and when we gestured that he should go first, he said, "Nah. You go ahead first. I'm on the clock!"

I was so happy to see workers in a seemingly relaxed workplace, enjoying themselves a bit. I thought to myself, "This hotel is awesome."

People spend a lot of time at work. And work that requires you to be always on, always pushing forward, never just slacking off -- it's awful. Maybe you saw the news stories about bankers in Canada who were pushed to upsell products in order to meet targets. The described "panic attacks," and "insomnia," "nausea," "anxiety" and "depression."

What must it be like to work as an Amazon picker, where you can never sit down, you can't chat with co-workers, and "if five minutes ever passes without you accomplishing a task, the scanner informs management"? Or in a store in the mall with unrealistic quotas and high pressure consequences like being fired? Or on a chicken conveyor belt, cutting up 45 chickens per minute?

Conversely, just having a bit of a relaxed feeling at work is such a huge component of feeling like things are OK. Those moments between tasks when you can share a joke, or take a look outside, or whatever. Before I became a professor I worked as a waitress, mostly in small, locally owned, low-key diner-type places. I didn't make much money, but I always appreciated it as decent work, mostly because -- unless it was super-busy -- you could chat and joke with your co-workers and customers as the workday rolled along.

This somewhat relaxed feeling at work -- it flies in the face of standard business norms in favor of efficiency, and in a competitive environment, employers might not even be able to afford to make their workplaces more relaxed than other workplaces.

And on top of that, it's not even something that would be easy to regulate. I mean, you can regulate a fifteen minute break. But you can't regulate that feeling that hey, it's OK, we all have plenty of time, if you want to stop and chat or rest your hands or whatever -- it's OK.

It's more like one of those things that has to do with amorphous matters like how it's OK for one person to treat another, and how much you're willing to yell at other people and make their lives miserable on a day to day basis, and how much other people are willing to yell at other people and make their lives miserable on a day to day basis.

Amorphous, shifting, hard to describe -- but very, very real.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hot Housing Markets And The Dutch Tulip Bubble Of 1637

Ambrosius Bosschaert  (1573–1621), Flower Still Life [with a yellow tulip]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A friend of mine sent me this article about the "overheated" condo market in Toronto. I own a condo in Toronto, so I guess issue is certainly relevant to my interests. Personally, the price fluctuations don't matter much to me. Partly, this is because we bought our place before prices got so high, and we are using it more as an actual place to live, rather than an investment, so who cares? Partly, this is because I'm the sort of person whose eyes glaze over when we talk about money.

So, sure, I open the unsolicited mailings that real estate agents send us, with their reports on what sold for what and their endless rhetoric of optimism. And sometimes I'm like OMG, how much?? But who knows what's going to happen next? I don't get too excited. From a personal point of view, it's more like entertainment or a spectator sport than anything else.

Of course more generally, I worry about rising housing prices, because I want people to be able to afford housing. Housing prices are one of the weirdest things to read about in the news. When housing prices go up too fast, it's considered bad. When housing prices fall, it's also considered bad, because people use housing as a way of saving for the future. When I see the news about falling housing prices, I sometimes think, "Yeah, I know. But isn't this also a good thing? For people who want to be able to afford homes?"

You might think that rising housing prices would be a reason to create more housing, the theory of supply and demand suggesting that the more supply there is, the more the cost would go down. But in the article my friend sent me, the chief economist at Bank of Montreal is cited saying this isn't so. Creating supply in response to more demand, he said, creates more demand. Prices will then go even higher.

He mentions the example of the example of the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637, when people starting paying more and more for tulip bulbs, with prices reaching obscene levels, before a sudden crash in the market. The economist asks rhetorically, "Do you think that the best response to the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637 was to cultivate more land and grow more tulips?"

Later he makes the same point with the example of the dot-com bubble of the 90s, asking whether the right response would have been an increased supply of shares of Pets.com or Toys.com.

I don't know if he's trying to simplify a complicated point or something, but these struck me as peculiar analogies. I mean, tulips and dot-coms shares are something no one needs. Housing is something everybody needs. I know, not everyone needs housing in a particular place. But still, tulips and shares are like the opposite of homes: the former you can buy and sell easily and there's no point to owning them beyond making money and impressing people. The other is a huge pain to buy and sell and most people use them for something essential to life. It doesn't add up.

Perhaps the implication is that housing prices are surging in Toronto not for normal supply-and-demand related reasons, but because people are doing with condos what they did before with tulips and dot-com shares, namely buying them not to live in, but more to make money and impress people.

I have no idea if this is true -- in fact, I'm not even sure how someone would know whether it is true. But if it is, even a bit, true, then I guess this means that there are a lot of people with a lot of extra money to throw around and a lot of leeway with respect to how they're throwing it. Are there really so many people who can afford to buy a whole condo just as an investment for the future? In addition to the home they're actually, you know, living in? Tossing them around the way you might throw around a tulip?

I've always thought these kinds of discussions were haunted by the old idea of a "just price." As I've written about before, a long time ago there was the idea that there was a "just" or "fair" or "appropriate" price for something. This makes it easy to explain how a tulip costing ten times someone's annual salary is insane. In some basic sense, a tulip just isn't worth that much.

But as economics developed, the idea of a just price started to seem unscientific and impossible to define. What would it mean, to say one thing is "worth" a certain amount? All the data we have just concern prices: what it's "worth" in modern parlance is just what people think it is worth, which is basically what people are willing to pay. The idea that there is "worth" inherent in objects, that transcends what people want to pay, seems peculiar, like some kind of weird bad metaphysics or voodoo science. 

But if worth is just what people are willing to pay, then it's difficult to say that things are costing "too much." You can't say that tulips were insanely overpriced, and by extension, you can't say that the housing market's pricing is out-of-whack. At most, you could say something about the future: that you think prices are going to come crashing down. But you'd have to refrain from saying anything about which price is what the housing is really worth.

The reason I say just price theory "haunts" these discussions is just that I think certain intuitive but hazy background ideas about worth are sometimes in play. When the pharmabro guy wanted to put skyrocketing prices on his drugs, people said he wasn't charging a "fair price." When people talk about housing prices being out-of-whack, there's a suggestion that there is something a condo is actually worth, generally speaking.

So when someone says it would be silly to make more tulips in response to demand, I think one reason this rings true is because we feel, in some inchoate sense, that tulips just aren't worth that much. After all, if tulips were found to have some cancer-curing chemical we could use to treat people, then a rational response to skyrocketing tulip costs would be -- of course, for God's sake, make more tulips.

It wouldn't be surprising if judgments of whether housing has some inherent worth varied along with wealth: if you think of housing as a think you use to live, like those life-saving tulips, then it seems to have some hazy inherent value relative to other goods in your life and so on. And a rational response to demand is to make more.

But if you think of housing in terms of a thing people just buy and sell, then it's hard to see how its "value" can be understood in any way except what people are willing to pay. And in that case, it might seem that the creation of supply would be, on balance, not a good thing.

I don't know all the ins and outs, so I can't say what will cause what to happen overall. But as someone thinking of housing as a good thing, the analogy to the tulip market doesn't ring true to me. If you have a good thing, and costs for it go up, then why not make more?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Which Ideas Should Have A Place On University Campuses?

Which ideas should have a place on university campuses?

It might seem like the answer is "all of them," but I think that can't be right. Should universities invite speakers to give public lectures on "Why All Episcopalians are Evil People"? How about "My Personal Theory On Why The Germ Theory of Disease is False"? Or "Do You Have Cancer? It's Your Own Fault." 

What about a speaker who promises to show that "shape-shifting reptilian aliens control Earth by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate human societies." Or, just for something really simple, how about an hour long presentation on how "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable."

None of these topics, I think, would be appropriate use of university resources and none would be appropriate as a sponsored event at a university. None, I think, involve ideas that would be appropriate for a teacher to endorse in a classroom setting.

As is often pointed out, giving people a platform is different from "free speech." According to the principles of free speech, if you want to walk around promoting your crackpot theory of illness, or explaining your personal ideas about how reptiles secretly rule the world, or ranting and raving about what a dope that Joe Green is, there's nothing to stop you. Knock yourself out. While there are legitimate questions in the margins -- like, whether you should be able to speak out without being fired -- the platform in question is not in that category. Having these as university sponsored themes would be ridiculous and offensive, and people would be right to be upset.

I think about this often, of course, when people talk about "free speech" issues on campus. There is a lot of concern out there that campuses are becoming intolerant of a free exchange of ideas, but as I've explained before, I think that often -- and especially when we're talking about university sponsored and promoted events -- "free speech" isn't really the issue at all. If students objected to a talk on "Why All Episcopalians are Evil People" or "Do You Have Cancer? It's Your Own Fault" or whatever -- I think they'd be right to do so. The issue with campus sponsored events isn't about "free speech," but rather about which ideas deserve a hearing and which do not.

When you put it this way, it's not surprising that people disagree -- because once you get into controversial topics, people not only disagree about what is true, they disagree about what is reasonable versus obviously false, what is worth debating versus what is a conspiracy theory, what is worth discussing versus what is just propaganda for instruments of oppression and so on. But this isn't a disagreement about free speech versus something else. It's a disagreement about actual ideas, about what is and isn't an open question, about what is and isn't harmful and how bad those harms are.

The question of which ideas deserve a platform, which deserve our time and serious engagement, is complicated. Judgments have to be decided on the merits of the case, and cannot be decided with a universalizing meta-principle. There are many factors to consider, like the degree to which a set of ideas might cause harm. One of the most important factors concerns the likely merits of the proposed contribution. On the face of it, people who deny the germ theory of disease, or want to tell us about global reptile domination -- the merit of the contribution is, to put it politely, "obscure."

If this is right, appeal to universalizing meta-principles like "free speech" or even "open exchanges of ideas" do not provide the relevant rationale. Cases have to be argued on their merits.

I was thinking about this recently when Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at Berkeley and protestors prevented that from happening. Leaving aside for the moment the difficult question of the tactics used to prevent the speech, I was curious to know why he was invited to speak in the first place. Not knowing much about him beyond his abuse of Leslie Jones, I was curious what his defenders might think of as the merits of the proposed contribution.

In this article from The Guardian, The Berkeley College Republicans are quoted as saying that the opportunity to invite Yiannopoulos was "too good to pass up," while emphasizing they don't agree with everything he says. The Chancellor is quoted as describing Yiannopoulos a "troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in parts to 'entertain,' but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas," while also defending his right to speak on campus.

These remarks seem to me to leave the crucial question unaddressed. What is it that his defenders thought were the merits of the contribution? "Too good to pass up" -- why, exactly? Is it that his presence on campus would make people upset and angry? I think that on its own, in this context, this is not a reason.

I am a supporter of free speech. I think people like Milo Yiannopoulos and other provocateurs like Dieudonné have a right to say what they want to say. But people don't have rights to university platforms. It would be my opinion that if Milo Yiannopoulos proposed to give a campus talk consisting of abuse of Leslie Jones, then just like the "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable," the talk would be wildly inappropriate and he shouldn't be invited to give it.

If we don't have a lecture series on why the germ theory of disease is false, or how the world is run by reptiles, this isn't because of enemies of "free speech." It's because those ideas are stupid, and not worth our time and attention. If you want to defend campus speakers, it's not enough to be in favor of free speech. You have to have a case for why, exactly, the proposed ideas are worth taking seriously. You don't have to think the proposed ideas are true. But you have to say why they're worth discussing.

I'm not saying that these cases don't exist. I'm just saying that in this context, appeals to "free speech" are never sufficient on their own.