Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Guest Post: The Dream Of The Unvalenced Style Object And The Ill-Fated Honda Crosstour


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

Who are the people who bought the Honda Crosstour, which ceased production in 2015? I have thoughts, but they are probably wrong. My qualifications: I drove the Honda Crosstour for almost a full day, which, given the sales figures cited in Car and Driver’s April 2015 obituary for the Crosstour, puts me ahead of most Americans. I am a Honda enthusiast. The only two cars I have owned have been Honda Civics and barring startling change in either Honda design or my own financial circumstances, I will buy a new Civic at 12-20 year intervals for the rest of my life. (The current Civic is probably the only two-door I will buy, though, which means that my car choices will only become even less remarkable over the course of my life.) I once spent a week being driven to elementary school in a series of incredibly exotic cars that included an Aston Martin and two different Rolls Royces because of an unlikely collision of circumstances (I was staying with my mother’s rich friend). These are not good qualifications, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t really plan on answering the question.

Here is how I came to drive a Honda Crosstour. At 7:30 in the morning I took my two-door Honda Civic in for its 60,000 mile service. I was going to make the service an excuse to call in late to work and sit in the brand new renovated lounge area with proprietary Honda television that my Honda dealership recently installed as its service center and surf the internet until I had forgotten who and where I was. But I was told that the service would take all day, that the service would cost three times as much as my most lavish estimate, and that I was eligible for a loaner car.

I am a bad driver, and for that reason I don’t like driving other people’s cars. I drove for one year in my twenties and then I gave up driving again until I was thirty-five because it freaked me out too much. But I actually had to drive somewhere that day and I had had too many awkward conversations with the dealership’s shuttle drivers in the last few months as the result of a rash of tire punctures and also I was still discombobulated from the early hour. So I accepted the gleaming white Honda Crosstour loaner car and was taught how to start it with a button. It felt like a scam, the whole thing, especially when they told me that I was eligible for an upgrade and if I traded my car in in the next 30 days they would refund the price of the service as well as give me an above-market trade-in value. (A month after I bought my current car the dealership started sending me letters suggesting that I might want another better, newer car.)

The thing that it felt the most like was one of those movies where the hero swaps bodies with somebody else. There I was, and the controls were more or less the same, but different and the steering wheel was different. The steering wheel was actually my favorite part of the Crosstour. I don’t know if it was really leather-wrapped or if it was a synthetic leather-like substance, but the thick braided grip around the edge of the steering wheel was very comforting. My steering wheel is rubbery and sometimes when I get nervous I gouge out small piece with my fingernails. My car, to be frank, looks terrible. There is a scratch along the side, and the bumper gives the impression that I drive with reckless abandon, which is untrue. I’m just not good at judging distances. And now I was in the Crosstour and everything was so big. The back window was so far away. The side and rear cameras made me feel that I was living in some kind of virtual reality, and I found that destabilizing. (I don’t like to wear sunglasses when I drive because the extra layer of lens is too complicating.)

And there I was, puttering around in this gleaming unmarked Crosstour and wondering who the hell would decide that this was the car of their dreams. It was a weird mix of the fancy and the unfancy. There were seat warmers. I didn’t like the seat warmers, especially because I didn’t realize mine was on at first and then when I did realize it I didn’t know how to turn it off. There was an AC control that purported to allow you to set the precise degree of cooling. And it was huge. But it didn’t feel luxurious. Partly that was because I thought it was so ugly. It was the kind of car that has a small or at least normal-sized car shape, and then when you get up close to it it turns out to be large. But not so large as to be comical, not so large as to be obviously a joke, just large enough to be constantly disorienting. Which is my least favorite genre of car. Along the same lines, the chair returned to an extreme reclining position every time I turned off the engine, so every time I turned it on I had to crank it upright again so I could drive the way I like to, in the manner of an eighty year old.

It turns out nobody thinks the Crosstour is the car of their dreams, or at least only a statistically and capitalistically insignificant portion of the population thinks that. That segment was out in force in the comments to the Car and Driver article, talking about the secret excellence of the Crosstour. One person was taking pleasure in how the demise of the Crosstour would give the extant ones rarity value. One person was asking, plaintively, what happened to owners of the Crosstour once it was discontinued, which is a beautiful question.

The Crosstour made me think of the Lotto brand sneakers I had my mother buy me when I was eleven or so. I knew my previous sneakers were uncool. I also knew that I was uncool. If I showed up in school in sneakers that were actively cool, it would be too obvious that I was striving to fit in. If I showed up in school with sneakers that were the same as I had previously worn, I would be stuck where I was. No, I needed to find something new, I needed to find something unvalenced. Lotto — I had never seen anyone wearing Lotto sneakers. But of course the out-of-left-field choice only reinforced everything that everybody already knew about me. Nothing is actually unvalenced; it’s just that sometimes you haven’t done the math.

There are people that have the courage of their convictions and love their Crosstours, but if I had bought a Crosstour I wouldn’t have been one of them. Which is why I have given up trying and why when I bought a car I bought a Civic, so ubiquitous that it admits its defeat up front. Also, for a car, it’s pretty cheap. Which is nice, except when you’ve been scammed into paying too much for your 60,000 mile tuneup. I complained, at the end when I had turned in the Crosstour. I said that they should have told me when I scheduled the appointment how much it would cost. Oh, the guy said, well, how about I take ten percent off? I really appreciate, he said, the chance to make this right. I was just happy to be back in my Civic. I love my Civic.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Dancehall, Nordic Kids Songs, The Golden Age Of Magic, Other Things

I'm traveling this week, and I don't have time to write a proper post, but let me share with you this little story.

It all starts with this song "Too Original,' by Major Lazer, featuring Elliphant and Jovi Rockwell. As regular readers know, I usually get exposed to new music during my Les Mills exercise classes. "Too Original" was Track 5 for release 92 of BodyAttack, and I fell in love with it right away.

If you know the song or you've watched this video, maybe you had the same experience that I had, namely: WTF is this song about? In fact, most things about this song were obscure to me. So I started looking things up.

First I learned that "Too Original" is a song in the tradition of Jamaican dancehall. Like other people, I inferred from this that the lead singer was Jamaican. But then I learned that Elliphant is "a Swedish singer, songwriter and rapper." (Also, "Elliphant,"as Wikipedia warns, is "not to be confused with elephant.").

Elliphant in the other video for "Too Original."
Over at genius.com, I learned that in the chorus Elliphant is saying "Too original fi dem pawdie," and from the internet I learned that "pawdie" is Jamaican patois for friend and that "fi dem" means "for them." I learned from the comments of Diplo, the actual producer, that when it comes to the meaning of lyrics like "Drop baba juice, make it goddamn strong," don't bother trying to figure it out, because, as he says, "Elliphant makes up her own language. That’s why we love her."

Then I got to the middle of the lyrics, where Elliphant says "Simsalabim naah, I'm a norden gyal, Bim bim sala, kicking dreadlock style." With respect to "Simsalabim," some random commenter wrote: "'Simsalabim' is a word for 'abracadabra' used almost everywhere in Europe. Her trick consists in being a northern Swedish girl with a Jamaican music style."

And I was like, "wait, what?" I'd never heard "simsalabim." It's used "almost everywhere in Europe?" I looked it up. Turns out "Sim Sala Bim" is the famous because of a guy named "Dante the Magician," who was born in 1883 and worked in "vaudeville, burlesque, legitimate theatre, films, and in later years, television."

Dante, who was born Harry August Jansen in Copenhagen, took "Sim Sala Bim" from a Danish children's song. Wikipedia notes that Dante the Magician "can be seen using these words in the Swedish 1931 feature Dantes mysterier and in the 1942 Laurel and Hardy comedy "A-Haunting We Will Go," and also that "with Dante's death, what historically has been known as the 'Golden Age of Magic' came to an end."

I don't know if Elliphant knows "Sim Sala Bim," because she's Swedish and it comes from a Danish children's song, or whether some causal chain links Dante the musician to dancehall, or whether random commenter has the right story about "Europe," or what. But I was very happy to learn all these things. For a brief shining moment, it all felt like one peaceful and interconnected world.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Airspace, Cosmpolitanism, Frictionlessness, And Global Gentrification

Last week in my post about cash I mentioned this idea about how the drive toward the frictionless world sometimes ends up leading us away from where we want to go. Silent cars are dangerous unless we build in fake noises. Virtual payment schemes screw up our spending unless we build in fake pain. As we've noted before, dreams of a frictionless world run into the hard fact that even the internet needs things like energy-sucking data centres and so on.

After the post went up, my friend directed me toward this discussion of "Airspace." "Airspace" is that space of modern capitalist nowhere: the coffee shop, office, or shared work space that all have the same comfort symbols: fast wifi, innocuous background music, wood tables, exposed brick, minimalist furniture.

Noting the increasing homogenization in AirBbB rentals, this article explores the "aesthetic gentrification" that is causing the rise in global sameness. As Lambert says over at Naked Capitalism, one thing about Airspace is that it's frictionless.

This was all on my mind  a few days ago when I encountered this profile of a guy who only owns fifteen objects. James Altucher, described here as "the world's least likely success guru," got rich from being involved with a successful start-up, lived lavishly, tried to make even more money through investments, then went broke.

After losing all his money, he had various epiphanies. He gave away or threw away everything he owns, and now he travels with his laptop and three pairs of chinos and three T-shirts, staying with friends and in AirBnB rentals.

In a way, this whole "own nothing" trend is really the height of frictionlessness, and of course it goes hand in hand with Airspace. To me, it is also annoying. "Own nothing" is always treated as some kind of anti-materialism, but in fact it's only the most ultra privileged, and usually male, people who can live with no objects. Most of us have objects because we are using them to do things -- often with and for other people. We cook meals with our pots and pans, we eat off our dishes, and we sit on our sofas with friends. If we have kids, we provide them with toys and educational materials and things they like to wear. Shared activities require objects, so either you own those objects or you're using someone else's.

And speaking of this whole "other people" thing, there is one moment in the interview where Mr. Altucher makes a joke about his "kids." Does he have children? Did the reporter ask? If he does, how does he make food for them? Where are their toys? As we've noted before, if you're reading about "Mister Interesting," somehow the whole fatherhood thing never comes up. If "Ms. Interesting" was running around being the "Oprah of the internet" and owning fifteen objects -- wouldn't the very first question be "OMG, how do you take care of your children?!"

Anyway, this was all percolating in my mind when I read this article about how "Intellectuals are Freaks." The article points out that intellectuals are atypical, which is absolutely true. I think often about how my hours and hours of education and time alone in a library reading make the texture of my life radically unlike that of most other people. Many intellectuals probably start off atypical, and then become even more atypical as they go along.

One of the ways the article says intellectuals are atypical is in their cosmopolitanism. Intellectuals often consider themselves "citizens of the world" and see borders and boundaries as arbitrary and meaningless. Sometimes this extends to the idea that being invested in the local -- a family, a community, a nation -- is somehow stupidly parochial or naive. Intellectuals, seeing their own experience, are likely to endorse education as a means of curing the inequality and other ills that forces like globalization sometimes create.

I consider myself an intellectual, and I think this critique points to something real and important. It's not naive or stupid to want to live in a particular community, tied to particular people, with a particular way of life. For many people, these are the things that make up a good life.

And while education is wonderful, it's not a cure for inequality. As long as there are agricultural workers and baristas and Amazon warehouse workers and call center employees, there are going to be people who are deeply vulnerable to the forces of inequality. It doesn't matter what degrees they have.

I feel like that whole idea of cosmopolitanism, of feeling at home anywhere, a citizen of the world -- it has something to do with frictionlessness, with the idea of transcending specifics and ties, with owning nothing, with the feeling of Airspace.

This is not to say that frictionlessness is always bad. I spend a huge amount of time in Airspace, and I feel like I thrive there. Traveling the world is wonderful, and it's one of the great things of our time that we communicate with a zillion different people and feel like citizens of the world.

It's just that there's lot to say for friction too -- for the feeling that specific people, specific ways of life, and even specific objects are part of what makes human life what it is.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Why Is Cash Disappearing, Just When We Need It Most?

Did you know: Cash Cats is a thing?

I know things are crashing down all around us, but do you have a few minutes to listen to me talk about cash? Specifically, why is cash disappearing now, just when we need it most?

Cash offers so many huge and unappreciated benefits. For one thing, it is mostly untracked. In the surveillance state and the surveillance economy, everything you do is being watched. The government is watching. Corporations are watching. Retailers are watching. Don't you find it a little creepy being followed around the internet by targeted advertising?

I recently recommitted to using cash on a regular basis, and I found that some retailers go out of their way to make this payment method painful. I wanted to buy a simple Wüstof at Williams-Sonoma, and when I said I'd pay with cash and refrained from giving my email address, the salesclerk said, in a threatening tone, "Really? I have to warn you, you're going to get a huge receipt, it's a big pain. Is that going to be OK for you?" Luckily I carry a backpack, so the "huge receipt" was not a problem.

I know cash is now going to be trackable and whatever, but still. For now, if you're a regular person using it to buy stuff, you're basically flying under the radar.

Another benefit of cash is that it is harder to spend than other, more up-to-date forms of money. It is a bit obscure to me why this should be true, since cash is a symbol of something and not, itself, the thing. And yet cash is harder to spend. In one study, MBA students were willing to pay twice as much for something if they paid by credit card than if they had to pay with cash.

This certainly resonates with my experience. If I'm thinking about buying some sort-of-optional thing, like a piece of clothing or a new backpack or whatever, I find my feelings shift noticeably if I think about paying in cash than paying by card. There's something about handing over a wad of twenties that just hurts in a way that paying by card doesn't. In fact, I'd say that paying by card can feel downright pleasant -- and this aesthetic aspect is surely something people are thinking about when they design systems like ApplePay.

I recommitted to using cash for several reasons. I fear that if people don't use cash, cash will disappear, and I don't want that to happen. I want to incentivize the ongoing existence of cash. I use it to keep track of how much I am spending over time. I occasionally take taxi cabs in cities where drivers really really prefer cash.

But my cash quest is a lonely one. People seem to prefer cards so deeply and by such a wide margin that using cash is almost unthinkable. On campus, students use cards even to buy a cup of coffee -- they even use bank cards, where you have to wait and type in a PIN, and wait again! Aren't young people supposed to  be the impatient ones?

Even though this article in the New York Times showcases research showing that because is harder to pay cash for things you end up liking them more, the researcher seems to treat the idea of cash as almost unthinkable: "I’m not saying we should revert back to cash," she says, adding that maybe there could be a buzzing noise or email associated with a transaction that would bring back the pain of paying by cash.

As with fake noises for electric cars, this makes me think how odd it is that our new frictionless systems have to build the friction back in somehow.

I live in Canada, where the cash system is working pretty well. Theres' a sensible distribution of coins and paper, no pennies, and fresh bills. I'm from the US, and whenever I come back to the US for a visit, I'm appalled by the cash situation, and especially by the ongoing inclusion of pennies in a cash transaction -- which is the main thing making carrying cash, paying with exact change, and receiving change all a huge pain in the ass.

This has gotten to the point where I have started considering the possibility that the powers-that-be are intentionally letting the US cash situation get annoying. How else to march everyone off to the promised land, where we all pay by app, there's no shady markets, there's no coins to give to people on the street, and there's 100 percent tracking and 100 percent surveillance?

Anyway, it's interesting to me to think about why modern consumers find the idea of cash so unthinkable. Is it just that carrying around some paper and metal is now an unbearable convenience? Is it self-surveillance, life-hacking style? Is it that the "pain" of paying cash is too painful, given all the other painful things going on? Is it something to do with wanting "payment" to feel like the fun of a video game?

Is it all of these things?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

That Feeling Of Moral Superiority

Here is one of my first world problems. Sometimes in the course of my day, I find myself at coffee places that have only paper cups. Using a paper cup seems wasteful and bad for the environment. I know I could address this by carrying a mug around. But frankly, I'm already carrying a lot of stuff around. With a laptop, gym clothes, sneakers, a water bottle, and the wallet-keys-phone stuff that guys put in their pockets already in my laptop, there isn't room for a coffee cup. Especially not one of those giant heavy ones everyone seems to favor nowadays.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an idea. At some of these places, they make espresso. I like espresso. Espresso cups are tiny! I bought an espresso cup -- a sharp little Apilco number. That's my cup in the photo at the top. I wasn't sure what the reaction would be to I-brought-my-own-espresso-cup, but so far it's been very positive. The staff at my main library Starbucks not only gave me the reusable-cup-discount, they even cooed over how "cute" my cup is.

Once I started being more conscientious about having my cup with me, I noticed that I started looking down on all those paper cup people. Oh -- you couldn't get it together to bring your cup, eh?! Well, well. So wasteful. Me, I have my cup. That is to say: I immediately started having a slight feeling of moral superiority.

In this case, the feeling was particularly absurd. I often forget my cup, or decide to have some other kind of drink. Even now, I'm often the dope with the paper cup. Other times, I forget my water bottle. Or I'm too lazy to go find a fountain, and there's someone selling bottled water right there, so I buy bottled water. Since I'm often out and about, I'm often using plastic cutlery. On the whole reusability thing, I'm ... trying. But I am uneven.

Amazingly, the unevenness of my success doesn't seem to really get in the way of the feeling of moral superiority. Just having my stupid cup with me on a given day, I can feel myself getting a bit smug about it -- even if I didn't have it just the day before.

When it comes to having a slight feeling of moral superiority about the little things I can sort of get it together to do in a day, I do not think I am alone. There's a lot of that mood out there. Especially on the internet, people kind of lord it over other people when they get it together to do something that other people aren't doing. Even if they're hit-and-miss about it, or even if they're falling down in other areas. It's a thing.

The feeling of moral superiority gets a really bad rap -- being associated with smugness, and elitism, and people thinking they're better than someone else -- but why can't it be a force for good? Doing good things is sometimes hard or annoying or time-consuming or whatever. People need help with motivation.

Somehow I feel like parts of our modern culture converged on this idea that good actions are only good when they're done in this completely disinterested way -- like, it only counts if you expect no gratitude or recognition, if you get nothing out of it, if it's a wholly "selfless" act. In philosophy you can find this in the theory of Immanuel Kant. In culture at large, I don't know where it came from, but maybe it has to do with the outsized lingering effects of Protestantism.

But this idea that you get "full moral points" only for acts of total selflessness holds no resonance for me personally. It conflicts with a lot of things I believe about how people are and about how we live together. I think we do good things because of the web of social interconnections we're in, because we care about what happens in that web of social interconnections, because we want to engage with other people in certain kinds of ways and feel a certain way about ourselves. The pleasure of goodness, and even the graceful reception of gratitude, are important things. 

In some areas of life, there aren't that many built in rewards for doing a good thing. Sure, if you're nice to someone they might perk up and be made happy -- nice! But if you're just carrying your stupid cup around all the time there's not a lot in the way of direct positive reinforcement. If a little feeling of moral superiority, a little bit of internal self-congratulatory "Hey you paper-cup losers, I did it! I've got my cup!" works for you, well -- why the hell not?

Let me emphasize, however, that this recommendation for internal positive reinforcement is just that -- a recommendation for internal positive reinforcement. It is not a hall-pass for going around being a judgmental asshole about everything.

That feeling of moral superiority? Sometimes a force for good, but best enjoyed inside your own head.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

I Liked Ghostbusters (2016)

I saw the new Ghostbusters movie on Sunday and I liked it.


1. There were many small, funny jokes that were also commentary on gender politics -- like when Abby is scrolling down the comments and reads out "Ain't no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts." But my favorite moment in the movie happened when the Ghostbusters are facing down the bad guy, Rowan.

Rowan wants to destroy the world because he feels he hasn't gotten the admiration and attention he deserves. At a climactic moment, he shouts to the women about how no one recognizes his true qualities, his worth, his genius!

It may have been my imagination, but I felt like after he shouted that there was pause, while the camera lingered on the faces of the Ghostbusters. What I saw in those faces was "We're women. You're going to try to tell us about having unrecognized worth and unappreciated qualities?!" Priceless.

2. All the ridiculous drama about the movie -- WTF? Sometimes when I disagree with people I sort of get what they're on about. But the rage that people seemed to feel over having four women ghostbusters -- it's truly mystifying to me.

I mean, it's not mystifying in the sense that yes, there are sexist people who just want to see men do things and women look pretty and they're threatened by anything else. But people don't like to state this as a bald fact, so they come up with "reasons." Like -- this movie is going to "ruin my childhood."

You know what? There are a lot of movies with premises I don't appreciate. I don't want to see a movie that guts the social satire of a Jane Austen book and turns it into a rom-com. I don't want to see Sherlock Holmes turned into an action franchise. I don't want to see anyone portraying Bertie Wooster and supplanting the mental Bertie Wooster I have in my head (who is a surprisingly good guy, BTW).

I might have confided to my closest friends that I regarded the making of these films as a perversion of art  and all that is good in the world. But, gee, somehow I managed to refrain from shouting all oer social media that anyone who wanted to make or watch these movies was a horrible cretin who was destroying everything and should go immediately to hell. FFS, people.

3. There's a very good subplot involving a moronic but conventionally attractive guy, Kevin, who becomes the Ghostbusters' receptionist. Some of the jokes are about how the Ghostbusters ogle him and act inappropriately and all that -- obviously a reference to the eleven million other movies in which a bunch of men hire a cute and ineffectual secretary to ogle and flirt with.

This reviewer describes the Kevin bit as "deserved reverse sexism." And I know the reviewer means well, but no, no -- it's not "sexism," and it's not "reverse sexism."

"Sexism" doesn't mean "inappropriate sexualization" and it doesn't just mean anything that is gendered. There's room for various definitions, but plausibly, "sexism" is whatever promotes or props up a certain system -- a particular system of gender difference and gender hierarchy.

If you're in an all male office and the male superiors ogle and flirt with their male subordinates, that is sexual harassment, but it's not sexism, because it's all men.

If you're in a mixed office, and the male superiors ogle and flirt with their female subordinates, that is sexual harassment and sexism: it's harassment that promotes and props up the existing gender system in which men get to do jobs and women are there to be ogled and flirted with.

If you're in a mixed office and the female superiors ogle and flirt with the male subordinates, that is sexual harassment, but it is not sexism -- because it challenges, rather than supporting, the dominant gender system in which men get to do jobs and women are there to be ogled and flirted with.

What happens in the movie is sexual harassment. It's not "deserved," but it is cinematically appropriate and good in the sense that by subverting, rather than promoting, the existing gender system, the depiction is anti-sexist and shows up the sexism of the vast majority of Hollywood blockbusters as movies. 

Sorry to be pedantic. But calling it "deserved reverse sexism" is so confused and wrong, it just plays into the whole misguided idea that calling out sexism is somehow, itself, sexist.

4. Many people have pointed out that it was weird to have the one black Ghostbuster also be the only non-scientist Ghostbuster. I thought that was true. If you want to hear Leslie Jones talk about it, you can, in her excellent interview on the WTF podcast.

5. I was astonished by the degree to which it was a big deal to me to see women -- particularly women scientists -- in a movie. I mean, I know we talk about this all the time, how it matters to see people like you doing your thing, and how there are almost no movies that pass the Bechdel test (must have at least two female characters, they have to talk to one another, about something other than a man), and about how women are virtually always just arm candy, or moms, or absent altogether. But somehow I didn't expect to feel so emotional about it.

I'm not a scientist, but I am an intellectual, and I spend a lot of time having conversations, often with other women, involving big words, and technical details, and complicated ideas, and differences of opinion. Seeing this activity finally depicted on film blew my mind. It's crazy to realize that I'd never, ever seen this activity, which makes up so much of my adult life, in a movie.

At the end of the movie, there's a scene where Sigourney Weaver plays the older, more experienced scientist mentor of the zany, young scientist and Ghostbuster Holtzmann, and tells her to do some things, and to not do some other things. And I got so excited: older, more experienced, female scientist mentor! Unfortunately, since it was a three-second cameo, just like that it was over.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Purchasable Versus The Good: Economic Theory And The Problem Of What Gets Counted

I was reading this interesting post about the role that the "credentialed class" plays in creating societal disasters -- like the opioid epidemic -- when I got thinking about the connections and disconnections between economics, capitalism, and value judgements about what is good and worthwhile.

The post tries to trace some of the particular mechanisms through which pharmaceutical companies used aggressive and questionable tactics to market opioids after they were introduced, so that they made a fortune, without regard to the fact that part of that fortune was being made as a result of usage leading to addiction, overdose, and death.

It reminded me immediately of the somewhat strange role that concepts like "economic growth" and "preference satisfaction" play in economic theory and policy making. It's always seemed odd to me that from a theoretical point of view, economic theory understands "preferences" in a formal neutral sense, while at the same time, policy makers tend to regard maximizing preference satisfaction as somehow a "good thing."

The disconnect between these is well brought out by examples of consumer goods that are successfully marketed but also bad for people over the long term. From the standard theoretical point of view of "revealed preference theory," it's all sort of a tautology: if a person drinks a Coke, they are simply satisfying a preference they had for Coke; if a person gives 10 dollars away, they are simply satisfying a preference for giving money away; if a person educates their children, they are simply satisfying a preference for educating their children.

This means that using economic theory to figure out what would be "best overall," we should just do the things that maximize the satisfaction of all these preferences, where they are all on a par. It wouldn't matter whether what the preferences are. Coke, schooling, it's all the same.

But most of use don't regard these preferences as all being on a par. We want our society to be full of people who are healthy, generous, and educated. So, taking up a different perspective, we do things like taxing and benefiting when people do one thing instead of doing another.

It's like we have two completely different systems for evaluating how things are supposed to work. We have the capitalism system, where free trades promote individual preference satisfaction. Then we have a completely different value-based system, where we try to figure out what is and isn't working well in our society and try to fix it. The two systems are not the same. And we're constantly bouncing around about which one to use.

I think this same disconnection is at play in the recently debated question about whether black market activities should count for GDP. The EU has always had a policy that since GDP should measure "everything," calculations should include black market exchanges -- like the buying and selling of drugs, sex, and smuggled goods. In 2014, they started requiring countries to actually start measuring.

You can see the incentive for the inclusion. All kinds of decisions are based on GDP. The EU has a policy that restricts expenditures to a percent of GDP. So having a higher number puts more options on the table.

How far are we willing to go with this? Should payment to a hit man to carry out a murder count as "economic activity"?

This New York Times story says that Italy refuses to count "business conducted by the Italian mob" -- even though that would add to GDP astronomically -- and that France refuses to count drugs and sex work -- "out of concern that prostitution, for example, often stems from sexual slavery and should not be given the veneer of economic legitimacy."

And this critic of the policy wonders how far things will go. Will we count "forced labor, human trafficking and illegal organ trade"? If we do, doesn't this lend legitimacy to such behaviors?

Again, I think this shows how we have two different evaluative systems which only sometimes overlap. We have the capitalism system, which counts economic activity as economic activity, and we have the actual evaluative system, in which we know that mafia activity and forced labor are Bad Things.

The Times points out that moral considerations cast doubt on using GDP to measure anything at all, quoting Robert F. Kennedy as saying that GDP measures everything "except that which makes life worthwhile." In response to objections related to values, one EU economist said black market activity should not be included in GDP:
If you think that drugs and prostitution are things that do not necessarily improve the quality of life in a country, then including them undermines G.D.P. as measure of well-being.
But if I am right about the disconnect between the capitalist system of evaluation and the value-judgment system, there are real problems using GDP as a measure of anything to do with "goodness" or "well-being." Which market things increase well-being and which ones don't? And where do aggressively marketed opioids and Coca-Cola fit in?

It seems to me that sometimes the two systems for how things should work seem, at least to a lot of people, to run closer to parallel, so that with a little fudging, it appears like we can sort of nudge the capitalist system and the how-things-should-work system toward one another.

But I feel like at other times, they start to look far, far apart, so that the economically efficient ways of proceeding seem radically unlike the how-things-should-work ways of proceeding. Other times -- that is, like maybe now.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Skepticism About Economic Efficiency Isn't Stupid

On Sunday the New York Times ran this think piece about how maybe "economic efficiency" isn't all its cracked up to be, or at least isn't the only thing in life.

The main point of the piece is that overall economic growth isn't the only thing people care about. People also care about things like equality, the distribution of wealth, the texture of their lives and their social world. Because of this, people may reasonably endorse policies -- like limits on trade or rent control -- that economists -- and other people -- think of as "idiocy."

A few thoughts:

1. Isn't it obvious that overall economic growth isn't the only thing that matters? When I first read this, I had that weird feeling you get when something is in the news and you're like "wait, this is something people are thinking of as a new idea?"

With any policy there are winners and losers. You'd never endorse a policy because it resulted in one person gaining more than the entire current global wealth while everyone else starved to death. It wouldn't matter if it made for more "overall growth" because that one guy was so rich. It would be stupid. And in general, if all the growth goes to some people, the other people -- the losers -- would rationally oppose the policy. It's strange to me that skepticism about economic efficiency is so often just treated as stupidity.

2. Use of the term "efficiency" in these discussions is a bit confusing. As a technical term in economics, it refers to optimization. It can mean a kind of maximizing -- say, of overall economic prosperity -- or it can refer to something like "Pareto efficiency" -- which just means that no one can be made better off without someone being made worse off.

Again, a state of affairs can be "Pareto efficient" and also be utterly intolerable. If one person has everything and everyone else is starving, and if the only way for the starving people to get what they need would involve make the rich person slightly worse off, then that state of affairs in which that one person has everything is "Pareto efficient." But it is also ridiculous.

As we've discussed before, though, in ordinary language, the word "efficiency" carries with it other connotations. It means things like "not being wasteful." But this isn't the same thing as technical optimization. If the one rich person is a bit less well off and everyone else can have a meal, this isn't "wasteful," even if somehow that resulted in there being less wealth overall. And analogously, if trade regulations ensure worker protections or lessen inequality or whatever, they're not "wasteful," even if there's not as much overall wealth.

The Times piece alludes to the idea that opposing efficiency seems absurd, asking rhetorically, "What kind of monster doesn't want to optimize possibilities, minimize waste and make the most of finite resources?" But putting it this way is misleading: optimizing wealth and minimizing "waste" are two very different things.

3. From a philosophical point of view, the problems with using optimality as a goal have been well-known for a long time. Ethical consequentialism says that you should do the action that brings about the best overall consequences (measured not in money but in something else like well-being or happiness). But this is incompatible with taking other values, like liberty, fairness, and equality, to be fundamental.

I think that valuing "efficiency" as the only goal means rejecting all these other important values for no good reason and is therefore a huge mistake. If you want a lengthy explanation of why I think that, you can read my recent book, Moral Reasoning in a Pluralistic World.

4. The typical response to skepticism about efficiency is to say that as long as there is more money in existence, the money can be moved around to compensate the less well-off -- but the problem is that in practice, this is never how it works.

The idea is that, theoretically, if you pursue the policy that makes for the most overall prosperity, then it doesn't matter that some people are winners and some are losers, because you can just move the money around. There is more money, so you can compensate the losers and voilà! Win-win.

But not only does this not seem to happen in real life, I'd say the trend is away from it. Increasingly, people who get what they get from whatever policy exists tend to just think that is "theirs" -- so that when you move the money around you're "taking it away" from them. It doesn't matter if this is false if everyone believes it.

5.The Times piece discusses some interesting empirical research showing that many people do value equality as well as efficiency but that economic winners may not. In this research, they ran a game where they gave people tokens, with real cash value, and people had to decide whether to keep them all or share them. If you shared them, the total number of tokens would go down. The idea is that more equality meant less overall prosperity.

Among Americans, about half shared anyway. They valued equality as well as efficiency. But when they ran the study at Yale Law School, 80 percent of people did not share. They valued efficiency over equality. The lead author of the study speculates that people at Yale Law School are disproportionately among society's winners and future-winners, and they don't need to worry about how the distribution pans out. Because they'll be OK no matter what happens.

6. To me, one frustrating aspect of these discussions is the way projected and losses gains are treated as obvious and inevitable -- as if predicting the economic impact of decision-making was simple and straightforward. I'll try to put this nicely: prediction-wise, economics is a work in progress.

In conclusion: All this means that when someone is skeptical about overall efficiency, and questions a policy like the TPP or eliminating rent control or whatever, there can be lots of good reasons. It may be because the policy is sure to have some winners and losers. It may be that the winners are going to people who already have a ton, while the losers are the worst off people. It may be because the predictions of overall gains are uncertain or based on questionable assumptions.

The Times piece concludes by saying that modern politics is teaching us that "dynamism and efficiency sound a lot better to people who are confident they’ll always end up being winners." I think that is correct.

So if someone questions a policy, and the people doing the questioning are poor or disenfranchised -- we would do well to listen to them attentively, and refrain from assuming they're stupid or ill-informed.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fiction, Investment Banking, And The Creation Of Reality

Last month I read this amazing novel called The Mark and the Void, nominally about a French guy who works in an investment bank in Dublin in the wake of the great financial crash of 2008, but really about global capitalism, the Greek economic crisis, the culture of banking, the fictional philosopher François Texier, simulacra, the creation of reality, climate change, art, literature, and love.

There are many varied plots, subplots, and metaplots, but the basic theme is how fucked up modern banking is and how that fucked-upedness affects and even creates our world. In the classic way that the fiction of literature can represent reality more effectively than the truth of something else, the book shows how the finance industry makes the world we are living in. The book is hilarious and you should read the whole thing -- but here are a few examples to whet your appetite.

Claude, the hero, is an analyst for the Bank of Torabundo -- "Torabundo" being a fictional island with longstanding indigenous culture that is now a tax haven. The Bank of Torabundo (BOT) survived the crash of 2008 because it had a cautious and careful CEO. So of course their next step is to fire that guy. How can you have a cautious and careful CEO in the context of modern banking?

To usher in their new era of growth, they install instead Porter Blankly, an aggressive lunatic who sends mass emails like "think counterintuitive" and has already destroyed several other huge banks. When someone naively asks, "Aren't they worried about history repeating itself?" Jurgen confidently replies: "History has already repeated itself with the last crisis. We do not think there will be any more repeating."

But just to make sure that "there is no more repeating," the bank finds they must avoid caution and care at all costs. Blankly's strategy is to acquire other banks, regardless of their status, thus pushing BOT further and further into debt -- so that eventually it can become too big to fall. As the banker Jurgen says: "A sufficiently large bank would create its own reality as opposed to simply reacting to consensus." Sound familiar

There is one softy in the bank, a woman named Ish. Ish studied anthropology in school before becoming a banker, and she knows about Torabundo and the people who live there. She also knows that climate change is likely to destroy the island soon through rising water levels and that the people who live there are going to be wiped out.

She's such a softy that she decides to email Porter Blankly about it directly, hoping to persuade him to take steps or offer aid. This, of course, shows radical misunderstanding of the bank, of her place in it, and really of everything. Or, as her colleague puts it, "We're in the middle of not one but two giant takeovers, and she's writing the CEO letters, like my fucking eight-year-old asking Santa Claus to save the rainforest?"

Ish is clearly going to get fired for sending this absurd email -- until her friend Howie steps in. Howie, who is in charge of the creation of new economic instruments, immediately realizes that they can monetize the whole thing. In fact, they can hedge it so that the island's destruction gives then a direct profit. All they need to do is "monetize failure."

As Howie says, this is basically the concept behind credit-default swaps. At first, they were used to insure loans against defaultin. But then people started using them to bet on other people's loans defaulting. All BOT has to do is create, and then deliberatively target, losing propositions.

With Torabundo, it's easy. You set up a bunch of conventional investment to make people thing it is worth something -- hotels, a golf course (Ish: "A golf course?"). Then you put in your money in ways that create a bet on the failure of the investment. As Howie says, it's the ultimate hedge. If climate change wipes out the island completely -- you win big! And if it doesn't -- well, you still have the hotels and the golf course and all that crap.

As the plot moves along, our hero, who is sort of a cipher, becomes caught up in various things and in particular finds himself becoming more and more enamoured with an artist, Ariadne. Ariadne runs a restaurant, has family in Greece, and often brings leftovers to the diehard protestors who gather near the bank to try to convince the government to take action against the the forces of capitalism that are ruining their society.

Claude is slow to put it all together, but over time he comes to see the connections -- how the bank, through their chains of investment and the incentives those chains create, are causing the world to be a worse place. If you're too big to fail and you've monetize failure -- well, you see the problem. Eventually he comes to believe the bank is responsible for the suffering of Ariadne, and her family, her friends, and many other people, including the poor inhabitants of Torabundo.

At one point, Ariadne tells him with despair that her restaurant is going to have to close. The landlord has raised the rent, astronomically. She can't understand it: "I don' know who does the landlord expect to move in and pay his crazy rent. Or does he jus' want to force us out"?

Claude: "I start to explain the logic of upward-only rent review -- that the value of a building as an asset is based on the rent that could be charged for it, meaning it often makes more sense to keep that rent high and the building unoccupied than to lower the rent and have to mark down its overall ... " Ariadne just stares at him in bewilderment and horror.

When I read that I thought of all the empty storefronts in the poorer cities I've lived in, and how they'd often had thriving business in them, which had suddenly closed, and how often I had wondered to myself, "What the hell happened there"?

And now, maybe I know.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Pernicious Illusion Of User-Generated Neutrality

I feel like this there's this dream in late-capitalist societies that somehow you can write a neutral set of rules for human interaction -- that is, a way of setting up a set of rules or procedures that doesn't rely on contentious and messy stuff like what matters and why, or what is or isn't harmful, or what people do or don't have the right to do.

Of course that isn't true. There's no such thing as a neutral set of rules for human interaction. If you're going to talk about how people should treat one another, you're going to have to base that on all kinds of value-laden beliefs.

But there's this tenacious implicit idea or hope that somehow, if you just wrote the right rules, and got an effective enforcement mechanism, you'd be good to go. On the internet, this often takes the form of letting users determine everything. The dream is we can introduce a ratings system, step back, and let it all sort it self out.

I feel like it's getting more and more difficult to ignore the fact that this dream is an illusion. You can't make things work without some dialogue and agreement about what's important and what's sort of OK and what isn't OK.

It's long been known that the sharing economy has a race problem. But I was reminded of this issue when I read this recent article on "Broadly," about discrimination and the gig economy. It starts with the story of a trans woman, who wants to rent a room on AirBnB. When she informs her potential host she is trans, she is refused because the host doesn't want her son to feel uncomfortable.

The article also has this other story, where a young woman hires a cleaner through a gig economy site. When he shows up, he becomes aggressive and angry and tells her off for how messy her place is. She can't get him to leave, and eventually gives him an extra 40 dollars to go home.

Then there's also discussion of how, when women let out rooms to men, they end up feeling uncomfortable in their homes -- not threatened, just uneasy, because of the way the men take up a lot of space, put their stuff everywhere, and help themselves to the music collection.

The focus of the article is on women, people of color, and others being "safe" in the gig economy, but it also touches briefly on the deeper problem: that having an app "ratings" system -- effectively punishing bad guys -- really just doesn't cut it. Proper resolution of all of these cases requires not "ratings" from customers but rather informed judgment about what is and isn't appropriate in the way we treat one another.

It's complicated. People get to feel comfortable and not threatened. But sometimes -- as in the trans case -- if a person feels unsafe or uncomfortable it's their problem. Other times -- as in the cleaner case -- if a person feels unsafe or uncomfortable it's the other person's problem. Still others -- as in the case of guys "taking up space" -- I'm really not sure whose problem it is.

To say that everyone can rent to whoever they want and that people can go ahead and "rate" one another really doesn't address the relevant difficulties. You actually have to make judgments about what's fair, not fair, OK, not OK. And then you have to have some system for putting those judgments into practice.

It's the same thing for social media. You can't distinguish protected speech from abusive speech without making value judgments about what kinds of things are OK and not OK. For example, did you read about how Facebook banned a plus-sized model who was advertising a thing about positive and healthy body-image? 

Though the reversed the decision later, Facebook banned it for showing "body parts in an undesirable manner."

Explaining their decision, Facebook wrote: "Ads may not depict a state of health or body weight as being perfect or extremely undesirable. Ads like these are not allowed since they make viewers feel bad about themselves. Instead, we recommend using an image of a relevant activity, such as running or riding a bike."

Leaving aside all the other baffling questions this passage raises -- like, you're going to ban all ads that make people feel bad about themselves? WTF? -- obviously it's a value judgment to say that making people feel "bad" is worth banning and it's a value judgment to say when making people feel bad is OK and when it isn't. Anti-smoking campaigns make people feel bad too. So what?

In reversing the decision, Facebook said that the policy was meant to guard against the promotion of anorexia and eating disorders. A worthy goal, but again, not a factual one, not a value-neutral one, and not an obvious one to put into practice -- as the kerfuffle itself shows.

At the end of the Broadly article, an expert on the gig economy is quoted as saying,
"It's not really fashionable to be in favour of bureaucracy and rules, but equal pay for equal work, minimum wage laws, employment standards that limit employers' right to fire at will, and anti-discrimination laws were the results of years of struggle by feminists, unionists, and anti-racism groups," he says. "I don't think they should be thrown away just because a new app has a rating system."
I think this is spot-on. I've never understood the depth of antagonism to bureaucracy. If you're falsely accused, it's bureaucracy that's going to save you. If you want safe drinking water, it's bureaucracy that's there for you. And if you want fairness -- in education, in employment, or even just in your gig economy -- it's bureaucracy that's going to do that for you.

But it's not because they're value-neutral that bureaucracies do this. It's because, at least when they're working well, they encode values that we care about, and they put into place systems for making things happen. Systems that epitomize what tech companies seem to be trying to get away from.

An user-generated ratings system does neither of these things. It just allows everyone to put into concrete practice all the crappy, racist, sexist, transphobic, hate and phobia that they're carrying around. It's not "user-generated neutrality." It's like an amplifier for all of our worst qualities.