Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Rising Price Of Cars In A Pedestrian Wasteland And The Complexity Of Measuring Well-Being

This week I am visiting family in one of those places in the United States where you really have to have a car to get around -- not because it's like rural farmland or anything, but just because everything is sprawly and spread out and there isn't much in the way of pubic transport.

I am fortunate enough to be able to rent a car (and to be able to know how to drive, for that matter), but when I'm here I often think about how the landscape illustrates something important about how economic quality of life is something that transcends simple measures like "how much money you have."

Because to have a job, a family, or even a life at all here, you pretty much have to have access to a car. And "access to a car," while it sounds like something sort of straightforward is actually one of those things that is complicated and very contextual.

It's complicated and contextual, I think, because cars are one of those things where there's a minimum buy-in price -- and it's a price that is relative to the context. It's amazing how expensive cars have become, and how the effect of that has trickled down so that buying used cars is expensive and fixing cars is expensive.

As is often pointed out, cars have gotten expensive for reasons: modern cars are typically way safer than cars of the past, and they are more energy efficient, and they have more features and so on and so forth. So it's not just inflation, and it's not that cars just happened to get expensive. It's that cars got better. But cars got better in a kind of March of the Penguins kind of way -- that is, they got better all at the same time -- options to buy a cheap, less safe, less good car just disappear as time goes on.

If you look at the landscape in terms of how much money people have, it might look like they're doing pretty well. People who own these cars, after all, own something that not only costs a lot, but also has a lot of value. They own something that is genuinely worth something.

But if you look at the landscape in terms of how much people are able to do the things they need to do, it might look very different. A family with two adults and two grown children and one car, for example, owns something of great value -- and yet that family would be seriously constrained with respect to doing things. It would be hard to more than one of them to work, and maybe impossible for two of them to work, and even if they drive each other around and pick each other up, it'd be impossible for them to do all kinds of other things.

Obviously they don't have the scaling-down option that people often, unthinkingly, associate with constrained economic circumstances. It's easy to think that in a modern consumer economy that offers a lot of choices and options, people can sort of ratchet down their quality of life to fit their economic situation. If you can't afford beef, at least you can have pasta. If you can't afford Nikes, at least you can get some knock-offs at T. J. Maxx.

But with somethings, and especially electronics and appliances and large scale items, this isn't always the case. Sometimes they all improve at the same time, and if you can't afford the expensive version, you're just screwed.

For example, years ago my mother needed a new TV. A few months before, I had noticed the price of TV's falling dramatically, and I thought: no problem. I'd seen a medium-sized tube TV for sale for like 75 dollars. But when we went out shopping, there were no tube TVs. Now all TVs were flat screen, and the cheapest medium-sized one was like 250 dollars. If you're the person whose TV budged was 75 dollars -- well, you just got screwed, TV-wise.

And it's the same thing with cars. Once they all improve, the old ones go away. Sure -- you can buy a used car. But even fixing a car has become astronomically expensive. What you can't do is go back to the old fashioned car that someone could fix in their garage with cast off parts and a manual.

If you live in a place where cars are a necessity, this is a big, big, deal.

I guess the moral of the story is that when you're evaluating how people are doing, you can't just count money. Of course, that's long been known, and a related idea forms the cornerstone of the "capabilities approach": that you have to look not only at what people have but also at what they are enabled to do. I think that's right, but I also think the parable of the rising costs of cars shows that you don't need to take on board any fancy theoretical apparatus to see that measuring well-being is actually very complicated.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Economics Policies Have Losers and Winners. Why Don't Experts Talk About It?

Often, economic policies are justified by appeal to the fact that they will increase overall economic growth. And sometimes, resistance to those policies is framed as ignorance or lack of understanding about how economies work.

For example, in discussions of free trade and globalization, it is said in their favor that in certain contexts they are a kind of win-win: economic activity goes up, so things are just better overall.

Of course, as has been long understood, there's a problem: things being "better overall" is compatible with some people being made worse off -- perhaps even dramatically worse off. If a change in policy creates winners and losers, then as long as the winners gain more than the losers lose, this is making things "better overall."

Just as a simple example, policies that facilitate free trade might allow a commodity to be produced in a different country at lower cost. Shareholders of the company making the commodity might be made better off, and consumers who want to buy it might be made better off, while workers who used to produce that commodity at home will be made worse off -- because they will lose their jobs.

So, sometimes there are winners and losers. In a society committed to democracy, justice, and respect for persons, how is it OK to just create winners at the loser's expense?

You wouldn't know it to read the news, but this is something people have actually given quite a bit of thought to, and there are a couple of potential answers.

One answer is that they way things are should be evaluated not for being "best overall" but rather for being what's called "Pareto optimal": this means that no one could be made better off without making someone else worse off. "Pareto improvements" make some people better off without making anyone else worse off. One way to think about "Pareto improvements" is that since they are changes that make someone better off without making anyone worse off, they are changes that everyone would consent to -- at least in the abstract.

Personally, I'm skeptical about this idea of abstract consent. If you're a member of a historically oppressed and marginalized group, and a policy could create improvements for people in the dominant group and no improvements for people in your group, why would you consent in the abstract? I wouldn't.

But what's more directly relevant here is that insisting that a change make a Pareto improvement is a high bar and a restrictive criterion. In essence, Pareto improvements create winners with no losers. How many economic policies or changes in society are going to do that? (Freakonomics blog says: "Extremely few"). Our imaginary example wouldn't qualify, because the workers are losing out and being made worse off.

A less restrictive criterion is "Kaldor-Hicks" efficiency, with the corresponding notion of a Kaldor-Hicks improvement. A change is an improvement in this sense "if those that are made better off could hypothetically compensate those that are made worse off (thus leading to a Pareto-improving outcome)."

Now, maybe we're getting somewhere. In our imaginary example, the change would be a Kaldor-Hicks improvement if the amount by which the winners would gain would be greater than the amount by which the losers would lose. If the winners' gains were used to compensate the losers, they'd still have gains left over, and then, bracketing the problem of historical injustice, we are at least approaching the idea of the change being a "win-win" and something that could be an improvement for everyone. There would effectively be no losers after all.

And here, finally, we arrive at the question of this post. Why do you never hear about this idea of compensation? Never mind the fact that it never happens in practice -- why does no one ever even talk about it? When's the last time you heard a policy-maker, public intellectual, or economist quoted in the news talking about how policies like free trade and changes like increased globalization are OK because, although they create winners and losers, the winners could compensate the losers so everyone is made better off?

The answer is never. I'd never heard of this criterion until I started studying philosophy of economics. So, what's up with that?

Is it: 1) that, appearances to the contrary, the criterion has nothing to do with "compensation," and is just a nice-sounding way to say that the benefits exceed the costs? So "it is justifiable for society as a whole to make some worse off if this means a greater gain for others"? So it's OK that losers lose out, and who cares?

If this is it, I think we're back at square one. Suppose a policy change will add massive wealth to the rich and take resources away from the poorest people. What if the wealth of the rich is ill-gotten gains in the first place. Does the fact that the massiveness of the wealth is massive enough make this change OK? I don't think so, and I expect a lot of other people don't think so either.

Is it 2): that policy-makers and people talking about these things know and believe in the abstract about the compensation idea, but think that talking about it publicly is gauche or dangerous? Remember how Mitt Romney said it was OK to talk about inequality, but only in "quiet rooms"?

If this is it, I take it the problems are obvious. In a democracy, you can't expect experts to work out policy solutions in quiet rooms behind closed doors and expect people to put up with it. As people are making increasingly clear, they will not put up with it.

Is it 3): that, ultra-cynically, there's a hope that the losers will just somehow die off, and leave the winners winning with all their gains intact? It might sound extreme. But if you're living in one of the areas of the US decimated by opiate addiction, job loss, and no health care, it might seem completely plausible.

Anyway, I expect that if you talk to people about these matters, most people don't know or care about abstractions involving optimality and cost-benefit-analysis, they just think that people who work hard should be able to live a decent life, and things like that. There are also people who are committed to free trade on other grounds -- absolute liberty rights, or something. My question is not about these people, but rather about the public experts who tow the party line about overall economic growth and who are immersed in this sort of thinking.

The next time such an expert is interviewed by a reporter about trade policies and economic growth, wouldn't it be great if they stopped and said, "You know, the really important thing about economic growth is that for a policy to be a good one, the winners have to compensate the losers, and so we need clear mechanisms to make that happen"?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mysteries Of The Toronto Bus Terminal: WTF?

As we've had occasion to discuss in this space before, I take the bus. Since I live in Toronto, this means I spend a certain amount of time in the Toronto bus terminal, downtown at Bay and Dundas. Since I often take an early morning bus, much of that time is spent in the predawn light and corresponding predawn mood one tends to get into on dark mornings, when you look around and wonder: what is this grim world, and how did it get to be this way?

I moved to Toronto in 2005, and the bus terminal seemed to me a fairly typical urban bus station -- except for the absurdity that you have to line up for the bus outside, while even a crowded city like New York manages a heated indoor line-up system. You could see how the building used to be cool, and even elegant: right in the middle, a now-blocked off double staircase leads to a second floor with stained glass decoration and so on. And you could see how over time, cheap additions and fixes had made it crappy-looking.

Still, it was a completely serviceable bus terminal. A set of kindly and knowledgable middle-aged people worked the ticket counters, and I always appreciated that they all sold tickets for both Greyhound and Coach Canada, reducing overall line-up times. There was a weird, dark bar in the bottom floor -- not a place I'd ever considered going, given nearby attractive alternatives, but you know -- it was always nice to know that if you got stranded by a snowstorm, at least you'd have TV and drinks. The station is attached by underground pathway -- with shops and coffee -- to the subway, and there were up escalators from coffee to bus in the morning and down escalators from bus to subway at night.

Bizarrely, the first step in the decline of the bus station was Greyhound's introduction of a "facility fee" that you had to pay whenever you bought a ticket at the counter instead of online. At first it was a dollar, and I thought to myself, "Good, this place could use some improvement." One set of doors was blocked off, and the other two were made automatic and more accessible, which seemed like a step forward.

But from then on it's been a descent into utter dysfunction. The automatic doors stopped working soon after, and never really got fixed. The reasonable waiting area was divided into a normal waiting area (now small and cramped) and a special waiting area (for certain special buses). You'd think the bus station would be the last place you'd have to deal with the insane drive toward the "first-classification" of society -- but you'd be wrong!

The "facility fee" was increased -- to two dollars. And then the set of kindly and knowledgable middle-aged people disappeared overnight, replaced with young, untrained people who don't know the rules for using flex-packs, and, of course, now the Greyhound and Coach Canada lines are separate. Since Coach Canada attracts like one-tenth the customers, this means the Greyhound lines are twice as long while the Coach Canada ticket sellers are just sitting there.

Years and years ago -- I can't even tell you how many, it's been such a long time -- the up escalator broke. For years, I thought, "Why don't they at least flip the down escalator to up, so people can get their bags up to the bus?" And for years, I thought, "how is it even possible that an escalator can just stay broken for such a long time"? Then, about a year ago, the down escalator broke as well. They're both still broken. And, of course, the bar in the bottom floor is now gone and boarded up.

This is the biggest city in a rich modern country. And we can't keep the bus terminal functioning? WTF? What are the forces in question? Is it public-private squabbling over who should pay? Is it Greyhound dysfunction? Is it the city that doesn't want to pay? Toronto just built this super glam terminus for the Union Pearson express, they whole of Union Station is getting a make over -- and we can't keep the bus terminal functioning?

I've heard it darkly suggested that the city doesn't want a bus terminal at Bay and Dundas -- preferring instead a transit hub somewhere way out of the way. If you take the bus like I do, you'll know why that is a sinister, offensive, and elitist idea. It's one thing to hop on a bus downtown. It's a whole other thing entirely to take public transit out to some insane "transit hub," wait on some freezing platform in the middle of nowhere, just to get on another bus to get to where you're going. The fact that it's prime real estate is what makes it a good location for a bus terminal.

If there are these kinds of forces in play, it's hard not to suspect that they have something to do with the fact that poor people tend to take the bus, and with the way that homeless people tend to gather around the station to ask for money from people. It's another step on the steady march of disenfranchising poor people by getting them out of the way so the elite, professional, and managerial classes don't have to deal with them. Horrible.

The city is constantly wringing its hands about how to get people to drive less and take public transit more. Just today a major plan was announced in response to the massive increase in drive times expected to happen in the next decade or so, because of all the traffic.

And in the face of all this, we can't fix a couple of escalators? It's insane.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Consent Is A Really Low Bar For Most Human Interaction

I was talking with someone yesterday about consent. I often think about consent in connection with sexual consent, because I teach and research in that area, but then our conversation moved on to other kinds of consent -- consent to have certain kinds of verbal interactions or other exchanges or engaging in other activities together.

And one of the things I started thinking about was about how consent is a really low bar for most human interaction. What I mean by that is: when you're interacting with people, there's a wide range of things you might concern yourself with that go way beyond whether they're consenting to something. These include things like how your words and actions make them feel in the moment, or how your words and actions are going to make them feel later, or how your words and actions are going to seem in retrospect. You might consider whether the person is is in a moment of difficulty, or doubt, or peer pressure. You might consider whether the nature of the relationship between you, or the specific tone or context, makes it difficult to disagree with or go against you.

Often with sexual consent the same things apply. We talk a lot about consent (and properly so) in the sexual domain, partly engaging in sexual activity with someone without their consent is a particularly egregious harm, so this is a morally bright line. But here, too, consent is often a low bar. If you're in a relationship with someone, and you want to discuss your sex life, and they just keep coming back to how you "consented" to every activity, that person would be acting like an asshole: shutting down the conversation that ought to be happening, about pleasure, and desire, and the texture of life and so on.

And the same thing applies more broadly. If you're asking someone personal questions, or requesting help with your school assignment or something at work, or you're trying to figure out a good way to share share domestic tasks or childcare with you, a respectful and kind person pays attention not only to agreements but also to how the other person seems to feel and the background context and so on.

Sometimes I feel like the whole consent framework is becoming so deeply woven into our way of thinking that it's hard to even see it as a thing -- it just feels like the "way things are." In so many domains we refer back to the idea that if someone agreed to something, then they have to take their lumps: if you said OK, then don't come crying to me. But this is an awful way to interact with the people you care about, and by extension, it's often a crappy way to interact with people in general.

Years ago I wrote a post about how the idea of pursuing self-interest through contract and negotiation had somehow expanded beyond the domains of business or market exchanges and into the fabric of our personal lives. In addition to the points above, I tried to say how constant negotiation was exhausting us: there's no port in the storm, no part of our lives where we can stop trying to create the self-image and situation that will allow us to get the things, like love and caring, that we need to survive.

In that older post I mentioned an idea I'd remembered reading from Simone de Beauvoir: that one reason Western patriarchical gender norms constructed "woman" as naturally nurturing and passive was just in response to this kind of problem: if you take one whole gender as naturally providing the love and care and attention -- not because of negotiation and who is consenting to what, but because that's part of who they are -- well, then the necessity of negotiation and looking out for yourself in "public life" is ameliorated. Some woman -- maybe your mother, maybe your wife -- will be there to offer care and concern. Not necessarily in public life, but domestically, at home, in personal interaction,

Currently, our ideas of "public life" and whatever is the alternative to that are mixed up together, and we're often operating in some weird hybrid domain where we're forming a friendship but also forming a career contact, or we're flirting but we're also hoping for a useful introduction, or we're hanging out but we're also hoping to impress. It's complicated and exhausting. We now know that gender equality means we're all in the problem in the same way together.

The moral, I think, is that taking other people's point of view into account is something we should see as part of normal, respectful, human interaction. Sure, consent is important. But most of what we want to do with one another is not like getting a bank loan, where you sign on the dotted line and you're good to go.  Even if it is helpful as one morally bright line, consent is not the only thing, and in fact it's often pretty minimal for a way of thinking about how you treat the people around you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Thing On The Other Side Of "Political Correctness" Is (Often) Not "Free Speech"

Often when people argue over political correctness, you hear the opposing point of view framed in terms of "free speech": proponents of political correctness, it is suggested, want to restrict speech, and opponents want not to restrict it.

But for a long time I've felt like something about this doesn't fit. The term "political correctness" is typically used to refer to a specific content -- speech that respects certain norms surrounding certain issues. Those norms are themselves contested, of course -- but still, if a neo-nazi party put a ban on anti-racist speech at their convention, no one would use the term "political correctness" to describe that. The term "political correctness" is about a certain set of ideas.

By contrast, "free speech" is a general principle -- a principle about speech that does not refer to specific content surrounding certain issues. In the classic formulation, speech should be in some sense protected as long as it's not harming other people. Again, these boundaries are themselves contested -- does "protection" mean just legal protection or does it mean you shouldn't lose your job? what is "harm"? But again, even those questions are general ones, potentially applicable in the same way to any content.

This suggests that there is something wrong with treating the two as if they're directly opposed. I think that this is true, and I think it's possible to see it by thinking about how often the concept of "political correctness" is used in contexts where it doesn't refer to formal policies or punishments but just with what ideas of appropriateness will inform which contexts. This contextuality means that the real question often isn't about "free speech" but rather about the specific content in specific contexts.

As is often pointed out, in a lot of cases where people talk about "free speech," there is no policy or punishment in question, it's just a matter of getting criticized a lot -- and criticism is an exercise of free speech not a way of limiting it. But it's also important to notice that in a lot of cases, the question turns not on general considerations but rather on "appropriateness" in context.

There's a lot of agreement, I think, that for many contexts, there ought to be standards of appropriateness. And this means that when we argue about "free speech" versus "political correctness," the real disagreement often isn't over abstractions like "free speech," but rather over the specific content in the specific context.

For example, if there are guidelines about appropriate speech and conduct in a classroom, that is something context-specific, and there is wide agreement that some such standards make sense. I can't find it now, but in the aftermath of one of the big US campus controversies, someone wrote a humor piece in which a student claimed a "free speech" restriction because they weren't allowed to spend the entire class shouting over and over that fellow-student "Bob" was a moron. Of course, it's funny because that's not a restriction on free speech because the guideline in question -- you can't disrupt class to personally malign other students -- is a context-specific and reasonable one.

Other contexts allow people to create guidelines. If you have people over and one of them says something horrible and offensive, you can ask them to leave: it's your house; you can set the guidelines. If a visitor calls your spouse an ugly, lying, piece of shit, you're not violating their free speech when you ask them to leave.

The real question, I think, often isn't "free speech" but rather what's appropriate in what context and why. In a classroom, it's reasonable to have guidelines that foster a learning atmosphere. If some forms of speech destroy that atmosphere, it's reasonable to restrict them. In a home, the people who live there get to set the guidelines.

What critics of "political correctness" often have in mind, I think, really has to do with what they feel is regarded as appropriate in certain contexts: they think this "appropriateness" criterion is often set too broadly, or includes the wrong things.

I often disagree completely with these critics about specific items (like, of course I think names like "Redskins" are racist and offensive) but I think at the abstract level the question of what is and isn't appropriate in context can be fraught, unclear, contested, something without an obvious right answer. In these cases, though, we're not arguing about "free speech" at all -- we're arguing about the actual content of the actual example and the actual context in question.

For example, in the case of the Yale Halloween controversy, the initial email asked students to think carefully about their choices, and to consider the negative impact that culturally insensitive costumes could have. It's been framed as an issue about "free speech." But not only was there no policy or punishment suggested, the question of costumes in a community of students is one that is obviously bound by *some* standards and guidelines. If a student had a physical disability or an unusual appearance and a hundred other students got organized to mock them via costume on Halloween, this would be inappropriate and wrong. The question has to do not with freedom of expression but rather with how the standards and guidelines should be interpreted and set.

If this is right, then contested speech really turns on discussion of the ins and outs of the particular content in question. This, I believe, can be simple, or it can be very complicated. In the case of the costumes, I think the initial email proposed a guideline that was completely reasonable: your costume could hurt and alienate someone else, and on the other side ... what? Some important truth is going unseen?

But in other cases, it might be less clear. In what contexts is it appropriate or inappropriate to say that women belong at home taking care of domestic matters? I think if you're debating a policy or intellectual issue with someone who happens to be a woman, it's completely inappropriate. But what if you're debating the nature and limits of multiculturalism? Or what if you're trying to challenge the Western feminist orthodoxy that choice and autonomy always make for the good life? What if this is part of your brand of communitarian radical feminism?

When matters are contested, I think we're often really debating the particular speech in question, and how it fits into the particular context. If this is right, there can be reasonable disagreements, even among the most well-meaning people -- and even among people ultra committed to "free speech"! -- over what speech should be regarded in what way and when and so on. If this is right, it also means that speech that gets criticized for being politically incorrect needs more than "free speech' as a defense: it needs a specific reason why the speech is appropriate or potentially important to protect in the given context.

I think one reason these matters have come to seem so confusing and flattened out these days is that so much speech is happening on "the internet," which is something tech people want to pretend is like a street corner soap box -- no particular context, free speech! -- but which functions in people's lives as as series of very specific mini-contexts where many things are not OK. As I've said before, it drives me crazy to see the tech companies treat as simple and algorithmic problems that are ultra complicated and require thought and judgment.  

Again, I don't mean to imply here that all free speech debates are of the category I'm discussing in this post. If you're talking about a law restricting speech, that is a free speech issue, and there are a lot of grey areas, such as policies that create punishments for forms of speech.

It's just to say that in a lot of cases, the issue has more to do with the content of the speech than any principle of "free speech." As a corollary, it would follow that, contra what we keep reading on the internet, being in favor of "free speech" and also in favor of "political correctness" is a coherent and consistent position.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thank You For Your Patience

Loyal readers, I was too busy and over-committed this week and I thought I'd have time to write something but then I didn't. Just wanted to post this note so no one would worry. Thank you for reading, as always, I appreciate it! See you back here next Tuesday.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Is Giving Away More Money Easy Or Hard?

Sometimes in discussions about poverty, taxation, charity and inequality, I encounter a very specific debate over whether choosing to give money away is more difficult in some way than paying a required tax. If yes, the suggestion goes, that'd be an argument for a system involving taxes to move money around. If not, things are less clear. 

Some people seem to suggest that it's no more difficult to give your money away than to have it taxed. I remember that this thought comes up in Cohen's book If You're an Egalitarian Why Are You So Rich?  It's not really harder to give money away voluntarily, the thinking goes. If you're the kind of person who has trouble being motivated or who tends to get distracted and spend your money on other things, you can just automate the process. You know, monthly auto-pay or something. By pre-committing to donation, you can lock yourself in.

Let me say first that while I appreciate the debate over voluntary action and alternatives, it seems to me first that this is the wrong framework to apply to questions of poverty, charity, and taxation. As I've said before, the real problem is the theory of ownership that implies -- falsely IMO -- that what we end up with after some exchange is uncomplicatedly "ours" -- as if our interaction were happening outside of history and outside of a social structure with vast historical and contemporary injustices already built in. From my point of view, moving money around isn't a matter of charity but rather a matter of justice. So it's a different kind of thing altogether.

The other reason this framework seems to me wrong for this problem is that there are vastly different effects from individual voluntary giving than from general taxation. If everyone at my income level is taxed in the same way, all those people have less money, and this will affect prices and which goods are available and whether or not I can afford various things. With individual giving, you're just individually making yourself financially worse off than other people with none of the ameliorating effects.

But let's leave all those problems aside for the moment and just consider this question about difficulty. Is it difficult to give away more? For me, I would say that the answer is yes. The pleasures that money can buy speak to me just as they speak to anyone else, and it's not news that in our version of capitalism the forces encouraging you to buy things are relentless. When I have discretionary income, I want to spend it. More treats for me! More gifts for my people!

It's interesting to me that the question of automation comes up in this domain. I see the point: if you automate the process of giving, then the giving happens automatically and there's a sense in which you don't have to "make a decision" about it over and over. It just happens. You're locked in.

But you know what? For me, there's locked-in, and then there's locked-in. Voluntary automated systems that take money away from me are just not the same as involuntary systems like taxation. They're not the same because I can simply change my mind any time. And knowing I can change my mind any time, continuing to give requires the same mental energy and the same motivation and the same -- let's be honest, struggle -- that non-automated giving entails.

I don't know what it's like for everyone else, but I'd say there are some reasons to think my feelings are not uncommon. We're constantly reading that people are not saving enough for retirement, or saving enough for emergencies, or allowing their credit card debt to pile up. If automating a payment system solved the problems of motivation and commitment, then dealing with these problems would be a no-brainer for most people. But obviously that is not the case.

So, while I don't buy the framework of comparing voluntary giving to taxation in addressing poverty and inequality, I will say this: within that framework, my answer to the question of whether giving away more money is easy or hard is clear: it's hard, not easy.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things Part 3

It's the first day of school -- which if you work anywhere near the education field you know induces in most of us the same kind of anxiety and freakout that we all felt when we were back in kindergarden. What if I miss the bus? What if the other kids make fun of my lunchbox? Then when you're the teacher you have to add on top of that mundane things like getting your syllabus finished and your course list downloaded and yada yada yada.

With all that going on I didn't have time for a full essay. But here are some recent images that interested me:

I never understood --and I still don't understand -- how people are excited about 3D printing. What things exactly are there that you feel you want or need that have no special parts, that you feel could make more easily at home? I can't even think of things in that category. The only exciting thing I know about 3D printing is how kids are using it to create their own superhero cyborg prosthetics. Now that is cool. Anyway, here's the answer, in a San Francisco shop window. 3D printed replicas of .. yourself! Um .. thanks but ... I think I'm good.

I saw this lage ... mirrored lion? .. for sale in at at Home Goods (like Marshalls or Winners but home stuff) in the goodhearted but downmarket town of Vernon CT. WTF? I like to imagine it in someone's home. With the right context it'd be awesome.

It probably just goes to show I don't get out enough, but this sign at Indigo Books made me laugh. They're selling.. large letters you can put on things. The whole idea of the letters being "exclusive" and "available in black and white" with the warning of "select letters only" -- I just thought that was amusing. What if you're looking for one of the other letters? You're SOL? How hard would it have been to include all 26 letters?

OK this isn't a photograph but it's an image capture of something I find so astonishing I had to capture and save it. What this shows is that if you want to get from Hamilton, ON, to Buffalo, NY -- which is about an hour's drive -- on transit, that trip will take you almost five hours. Four hours and fifty-five minutes, to be precise. It didn't used to be this way. I take the bus, so I know. You used to be able to catch a very reasonable CoachCanada bus. But that's not there any more. What happened? Why isn't the end of a bus route major news in all the papers? What's wrong with the world, anyway?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Some Books To Alleviate Holiday Boredom And Dread

For me, inactivity often induces existential angst and the feeling of the pointlessness of life. So I don't do well with blah holidays like New Year's Day, when people tend to laze around eating and watching sports and everything is closed. Maybe you're a bit this way yourself. If so, here are some books you could read -- my favorite novels and memoirs from the last year or two. All highly recommended!

Don't forget: if you want to support alternatives to the dystopian future where Amazon controls the world's reading material, you can always buy these from Barnes and Noble or Indigo.

Rakesh Satyal, Blue Boy
This novel tells the story of a kid named Kiran, of Indian descent, growing up in Ohio, who wants to wear makeup, hang out with girls, and possibly have sex with boys. Not surprisingly, Kiran struggles to find a way to fit in to his world. Funny and sad, but mostly funny.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout
It's almost impossible to describe The Sellout, as people have been discovering since it won the Man Booker prize and all kinds of other things. It's a satirical commentary on modern culture and modern America and modern race relations, told through some very .. unlikely plot elements, like a black hero who gets in trouble for trying to bring back segregation and slavery. Hilarious and biting.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
The "sympathizer" in question is a a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist double agent at the end of the Vietnam War, who travels to the US ostensibly alongside US-supporting Vietnamese but secretly reporting back to his communist allies in Vietnam. I don't usually read the Q and Y type things at the end of books, but I did with this one, and the author said this one brilliant and fascinating thing. Usually, he said, books about colonized places written for the west fall into this trap of explaining the culture of the colonized place to the imperialist listener; this serves to flatten and misrepresent it. By having his narrator travel to the US and report back, he was able to fill his book with the opposite: explanations of US culture to outsiders. An amazing book.

Paul Murray, The Mark and the Void
About modern banking and everything else wrong with the world. We've already covered it in detail.

Riad Sattouf, Arab of the Future
Graphic memoir by an author who is half French and half Syrian, about growing up in Libya, Syria, and France, but also about the terrifying helplessness of childhood no matter what is going on.

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime
This memoir by the host of The Daily Show was so much better and more interesting than I thought it would be. Noah grew up in South Africa as a mixed race kid when it was literally illegal for people of different races to have sex and children. The book is about life under apartheid, complicated family relations, and being an awkward teenager. Also, it explains many things you probably didn't know, like why people sometimes name their kids "Hilter" in South Africa. Funny and sad, in equal measure. There is also violence, including domestic violence, so be careful to read this in the proper frame of mind.

Tarquin Hall, The Vish Puri detective series

If you're looking for something lighter and less serious than the other books listed, check out this serious about an Indian crime-solving detective. These books are entertaining and also contain many small interesting details about Indian food, politics, culture, corruption, family life, spirituality, language, history ... you name it. I had assumed the author was Indian, and when I discovered that he's a guy of British and American ancestry who grew up in the UK I was surprised, and honestly a bit disturbed -- it just seems different when this kind of culture commentary comes from an outsider. But Tarquin Hall lives in Delhi, and is married to an Indian woman, and the end of this interview at least suggests his novels are popular with readers in India.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Culture And Identity Everywhere, Or, Where Are The Reluctant Vegetarians?

For a long time, I used to be a vegetarian. It was for ethical reasons only: I've always loved to eat meat. OK maybe it wasn't for such a long time, but it was .. maybe 15 years or something.

For various reasons it all kind of fell apart around the time I moved from California to Canada in 2004. For one thing, I had persistently low ferritin -- and yes, you can take iron supplements for that, but no, it's not easy or straightforward, since they upset your stomach and make you feel gross. For another, I suck at pre-preparing food; I found that in Canada, going out for a quick lunch as a vegetarian often meant a pile of pasta or a pile of French fries or a grilled cheese sandwich -- all foods that are fine as a one-off but disgusting if you eat them every day. And then I accidentally ate some mistranslated poultry while traveling in France, and I was like "OMG, this tastes amazing."

Even my feminism tended me toward meat eating: as a steak-lover, I was super-pissed about all the men out there enjoying steak, and never giving it a second thought, while here I was worrying and depriving myself. Well -- I thought -- I'm going to eat it too, so there. 

All this time I've had some vague cognitive dissonance, but honestly there's so much else going on in the world to be upset about that I found it hard to prioritize. But then recently I kept seeing references to meat-eating's effect on the environment and contribution to climate change, and I kept remembering the reasons I'd been a vegetarian in the first place. I read Oryx and Crake, which paints a disturbingly plausible dystopian future of our relations to our animal friends. Plus, I remembered the symbolism of it -- the feeling that regardless of whether your actions are "making a difference," at least there's that feeling that you're standing up for something that isn't actively contributing to a status quo that is frankly pretty deeply screwed up.

So a few months ago I decided I could at least do this: eat vegetarian when it's easy to do so. It's easy at a lot of restaurants. It's pretty easy when I'm at home by myself -- especially since I actually like tofu. Where I teach, you can now get some decent felafel, so it's pretty easy to do on campus.

Since I started doing this, I keep finding two things: one, how few restaurants offer decent vegetarian food, and two, how many people associate vegetarianism with somehow not liking meat or not wanting to eat it or regarding it as somehow unhealthy or gross.

These are bizarre to me. I mean, it's 2016. Aren't vegetarians everywhere? And don't they want to eat with non-vegetarians? Sometimes fancier restaurants do OK, though often it's just some crappy pasta thing like pumpkin ravioli that is basically starch on starch filled with starch. Kind of blech. The real puzzle, though, is casual places and pubs. If you're serving burgers already, is it that hard to add a veggie burger? Don't they come pre-packaged and frozen? 

I think in some deep sense this restaurant problem is related to the other thing -- that is, with the way avoiding meat somehow is seen as a distinctive identity or approach to the world, rather than just a relatively simple and possibly occasional way make an environmentally friendly and animal-friendly choice. I was recently in a large group of people where the conversation turned to meat, and someone told a story about how they'd cooked something in meat that isn't usually cooked in meat, and how some nearby vegetarian had said, "oh that smells so good!" and everyone in the room laughed knowingly, as if that poor vegetarian had been outed as some kind of hypocrite -- which is, of course, ridiculous.

I love to eat meat. I think it tastes delicious, and it makes me feel good. If I'm eating a veggie burger, it's not because I have some weird identity commitment to pasta being a virtuous food, or meat being decadent, or beef being disgusting. It's not even that I think veggie burgers are healthier. Given the latest research, I expect they're not. It's just, you know, a bit of less factory farming misery and a bit of saving the planet.

As I say, I think somehow the two things to together: that seeing vegetarianism as a taste and thus identity is related to how hard it is to find vegetarian food in casual eating places. I don't know how it works, but maybe it's something like this. As with so many things these days, the choice to do one thing or other is seen as reflecting not just a means-end calculation you made (avoiding meat better for environment) but rather something about what kind of person you are. And since it would be weird to be the kind of person who thinks meat is somehow wrong or evil or bad or gross, and still go around saying you like it, it's expected that you'll present a coherent identity choice on the issue. Then, naturally, it's expected you'll choose your friends and restaurants accordingly. Vegetarians will hang out with other vegetarians at vegetarian restaurants; pub people will hang out with other pub people at burger places.

I don't know what else to say about this except - "I don't like it." I feel like a burger person who is trying to eat vegetarian food, and I feel like a pub person who is in the wrong restaurant. I feel like saying I am avoiding meat even though I like it makes people feel weird, like I'm doing something bizarrely out of character or something.

Last semester when I was teaching philosophy of sex and love, we discussed Foucault, and we got talking about the idea not all societies had/have a concept of "sexual orientation," because sometimes you can just have a set of things you choose and it's not seen as revealing something deep or unchangeable about who you are. It's just: you chose that thing that time. I feel like with almost everything we're going in the other directions. Every choice is taken to reflect something deep or important about who you are. But why?

Weirdly, I feel like even most of the vegetarians I know seem happy with their vegetarianism. I don't hear a lot of other people talking about how they wanted steak but they ate tofu instead. Why not? Is it true that most people who don't eat meat don't want to? Or is it that it's easier to sacrifice if you convince yourself you didn't like the thing in the first place? Is it some deep manifestation of the harmony myth of human nature?

Or is it something much simpler: that the people who feel this -- the reluctant vegetarians -- just don't talk about it much?