Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Programming Note

There won't be a new post on Monday October 1, because I'll be on a trip.  See you back here on the 8th.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Automotive Omnipresence Sucks

A Porsche Spyder?  Yes, please.
I've never owned a car of my own.  OK, asterisk:  I believe there was once a car registered in my name.  Ages ago, my then-boyfriend and I bought his mother's stick shift Ford something or other, and I was, of course, driven around in that car.  But since I don't drive stick, I believe I can go honestly into the record books with "I've never owned a car of my own."

It's been my experience that the more you take public transportation and the less you drive, the more vividly you experience both the peace of public transportation and the hell of driving.  I know the bus is unpredictable, and the ride can be long.  But I've got my book; I've got my headphones; I've gotten into a quiet mental space; I'm generally good to go.

Conversely, daily taking on the the responsibility of maneuvering a deadly 2-ton piece of machinery on crowded streets?  Is that not insane?  Did you know over 32,000 people people died in the US in car accidents in 2010?  And that was down from previous years.  If that were the death rate from any other activity like sex, drugs, or rock-and-roll people would be going out of their minds.  OMG! Don't drive! Won't somebody please think of the children?!

Anyway, all this just to say:  I have no real intention of buying a car.

However. 

It's also been my experience that unless you live in a monastery, you are in the overlap zone between "car culture" and "consumer culture."  It's impossible not to occasionally day dream about car ownership.  And I do.

And when I daydream about car ownership, my thoughts always run smack into the Great Car Dilemma, which goes something like this:

I cannot own a sensible car.  I know this is ridiculous.  But there's something about cars -- there's something about them that is just so fucking depressing to me.  When I think of cars, I think of long quiet nights in quiet suburban towns, cut off from life; I think of endless driving around to find a parking place; and I think of that feeling of being in that little box, cut off from everyone else in their little boxes.  I remember the cold dark winter mornings of my youth, de-icing a windshield, which at the time seemed to me about the most depressing activity in the world.  When I was really young, I thought "I'll live in the woods, and get around by horse!"  It was only when I got a little older that I realized the bus, train, and occasional taxi could be my salvation.

There's only one thing that can undo and erase the depressingness of cars for me, and that's thinking of a car as an amazing toy, a beautiful object, rather than a way of getting from place to place.  Some cars really are lovely and exciting.  They're sexy to look at, awesome to ride in, and a thrill to drive.  They have extraordinary shapes, like the Ferrari, and extraordinary paint quality, like the new Audis.  To me, a true sports car or luxury car is not a depressing symbol of car culture.  It's a symbol of fun, pleasure, and the life force

So then I think, OK, I don't have a lot of money, but perhaps I could afford a really old version of a really beautiful car.  Like, a thirty year old Jaguar, or one of those refurbished "pre-owned" BMWs.  When I was a kid, my father was obsessed with cars.  His love was the kind of obsessive, inclusive love that embraced the Dodge Dart and the VW Rabbit as well as the Audi he never did buy and the Porsche 914 that he did and that was our family car for about six months.  Perhaps I could buy an old, beat-up Porsche, which would be a kind of homage to my father.  That would lend respectability and intelligibility to an otherwise completely irrational choice, wouldn't it?

You can see where this is going.  What could be more ridiculous for a person who doesn't need a car and doesn't like to drive than the purchase of an old, temperamental car that would suck in the winter and would surely be expensive to maintain?  Old cars aren't even safe.  It's completely crazy. 

So.  Can't have a sensible car.  Can't have a beautiful snazzy car.  No car for Patricia.

Sometimes I worry about what would happen if I absolutely had to move to a place where I could not get around without a car.  I did survive seven years in California with no car.  But there were extenuating circumstances, and I was able to cobble a life together -- even though that life did include walking across overpasses to get from my apartment to stores and restaurants, getting my high heels stuck the grass when (as frequently) there were no sidewalks and I had to walk on the side of the road, getting drenched with sprinklers set to water lawns but really showering down on walking paths that no one ever used, and, of course, often just not going anywhere interesting.  I don't know what I'd do.  I try not to think about it. 

The Great Car Dilemma makes me even more alienated from the automobile way of life than I would be if I were just, you know, a non-driver.  Because not only don't I have a car in the real world, I don't even have a car in any nearby possible world.


And indeed, as time goes on, the more strident and angry I am about the whole automotive omnipresence business.  On top of everything else -- on top of the obvious and enormous cost to the environment and all that insanity -- car culture is like an exponential magnifier for inequality and other social problems.  Car ownership is expensive and if you're poor you can't afford it.  If you're old or have certain disabilities you can't drive.  If you screw up, you can get your license taken away.  Car culture means that the initial difficulties, which might otherwise be manageable, become huge, life-destroying problems for many people.

For most people, there is no option of treating a car as fun or a toy, because a car is an absolute necessity for the basics of life -- which is a ridiculous state of affairs. 

It's one of those many domains in which individualism, which is great when leavened with a cup of collective care, becomes intolerable when pursued alone.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Constructive Anger: Maybe An Oxymoron, Maybe Stupid

Jacob Van Loo, Melancholy.  Via Wikimedia Commons.
They say depression is anger turned inward.  Do you think this is true?  a) Always b) Sometimes c) Never d) All of the above.

Sometimes I feel bad:  melancholic, blue, sad, weighed down.  Sometimes it feels like being depressed, but not always.  Mostly it's like "the world is so fucked up," "what is the point of this exactly?" and "couldn't this whole human experience thing be better arranged?"

Of course, the world really is so fucked up, and life really doesn't have a point, so it's not like having these thoughts is evidence of some kind of problem.  Frustration with the paleness and stupidity of the human experience isn't really depression.  It's more like discontent -- something you don't hear a lot about in the modern pscyho-counseling establishment.  If you're just discontented, I guess you're supposed to just suck it up.

But I got thinking about the whole anger-depression thing after I read this book Monkey Mind, which is a funny memoir about a guy's experience with anxiety.  (Sample situation:  at 16, guy has sex with woman he doesn't really like and isn't really attracted to -- then becomes VERY ANXIOUS about it for A LONG TIME.)

Reading the book, I realized that my bad feelings are really not typically anxiety.  It's not like I'm a worrier.  I'm not worried about the future.  I'm depressed and discontented NOW.  I remembered the whole anger->depression idea, and I asked myself, Do I do that?  Do I turn anger inward?



The objective facts suggest maybe Yes.  I have a hard time staying angry at individual people, even when anger is justified and appropriate.  I get angry for like one second, and then somehow my mind always flashes to thinking about how the whole situation is going to seem ten years from now, at which point it will seem ridiculous and far away.  When you've lost your cool, haven't you always felt stupid later?  I've always thought my approach a pretty rational one, actually.  But maybe it's "turning anger inward."  Who knows? 

Following this line of thought, I asked the next question a philosopher would ask, which is "Well, what is a constructive way to express anger?"  I mean, clearly no one is better off becoming more the kind of person who shouts and throws things and makes mean cutting remarks.  Duh.  So what are you supposed to do exactly?

The google tells me the following things.  When expressing anger, talk directly to the person you're angry with.  Speak in a calm and caring way, and make eye contact.  Use "I" language:  instead of saying "Hey, you almost ran me over you stupid inattentive piece of shit!" say, "I know you mean well but I really feel nervous and vulnerable when you run the yellow light and almost kill me with your car."

As I thought about putting this into practice, I noticed a huge obstacle.  The vast majority of what I'm angry about has nothing to do with the people around me, and has everything to do with the state of the world, with money, with war, with politics, with environmental degradation.  Who am I supposed to look in the eye while I deliver my "I" statements if I'm mad about impending war in Iran? 

What do to?  Maybe I should write a letter?  Let's give it a shot, shall we?

Dear USA,
The absurd and immoral wars and other violence you are initiating and perpetuating around the world are an outrage to decency, you self-important ignorant bully...

Oops, scratch that!  Let's start over:

Dear USA,
I think you mean well, but maybe you didn't realize well over 100,000 civilians have died as a result of the Iraq war.  Have you considered -- wait, scratch that! I often think about them and their families and ... let's just say it makes me feel upset and sad, OK?  I just wanted to let you know.

Dear People of Banking and Finance,
You guys are completely beyond the pale with your lying, fraud, gambling, foreclosure misbehavior and other shenanigans.  Who the fuck do you think you are? 

Oops!

Dear People of Banking and Finance,
I know you're doing your best, but I think you've developed a few regrettable habits lately, and I was hoping you'd take a moment to consider things from our point of view.  I felt really sad and upset when I read about Wells Fargo destroying the home of these people who didn't even have a mortgage.  The effects of the economic collapse of 2008 mean some people are unemployed and I think that makes them unhappy, which makes me unhappy.  If you ever need to talk, I'm here, OK?

Dear Forces that Control the Universe,
WTF is wrong with you?  Disease, hunger, death -- and for what?  Do you just like to see us suffer?  I think you suck.

Oops!

Dear Forces that Control the Universe,
I've heard it said that you have ways that are beyond my understanding and my paltry powers of reasons.  I don't know.  I just wanted to make sure you knew that things are difficult.  We humans need love, food, warmth, companionship, and when we don't get those things - it's like really hard on us OK?  

Conclusion:  I don't think this constructive anger thing is going to work for me.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Back To School, Or, How I Gave Up A Life Of Chaos And Became A Prof

When I was a kid, I thought being a prof was the kind of job that fell outside the acceptable range for glamour, excitement, and coolness.  My dad was a prof -- and later, a university administrator (chemical engineering) -- and while I thought it an excellent career for a person of his sensibility and talents, I thought "No, that is not for me."

I was an eye-rolly type of kid, at least on the inside, and every time some well-meaning person said "Oh, you're good at math! You could become an engineer!" I imagined rolling those eyes right back into my head. 

I didn't really think in a coherent way about what I was going to do with my life during school.  I double-majored in math and dance, the two things that interested me most.  OK, I virtually double-majored.  As the distracted youth that I was, I didn't finish the final project for the dance BA.  If you know me as a prof now, you might be surprised to learn how deep and vast was my disaffection, disorganization, and general living in chaos when I was a Young Person.

I guess in the back of my mind, I thought I'd get plucked from obscurity to do something interesting, or I'd meet some other person who'd show me something fascinating that I was good at and enjoyed.  But boy oh boy was that wrong.  If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that doing interesting things requires working really hard at Doing Interesting Things, and isn't the sort of thing where the opportunities fall from the sky just because you happen to be an Interesting Person.

The first glimmer of interest I had in a life in academia was the September after I'd finished my four years.  I stuck around the town (Middletown) my school (Wesleyan University) was in, and got a job working at the campus bookstore and an apartment in someone's attic.  And what gave me that glimmer of interest wasn't anything really substantive or intellectual.  It was really just the mood of back to school.

Working at the bookstore, I spent the start of school helping all these new hopeful and nervous kids and occasionally their hopeful and nervous parents.  I saw, from a different point of view, the returning students greet one another with whoops and hugs and questions about the summer.  It seemed so nice:  so optimistic, so full of life.  I thought, "Well, being part of this could be an OK thing."

But I wasn't quite ready to give up my dreams of being the next Edie Sedgwick. Where was my Andy Warhol, who would think me fascinating and feed me drugs?  For the next while, I lived in different places -- including New Orleans -- doing different waitressing jobs -- including one at a tourist trap cocktail bar on Bourbon Street and another at an all-night diner attached to a fleabag hotel.  The customers at that diner on the midnight to 8am shift at the diner were one third junkies who lived upstairs, one third drunk and laughing tourists who wanted eggs and cheeseburgers at 4:00 am, and one-third Danish/Swedish/European travelers who read in some book that the hotel was perfect for local color.  It was, of course, well before the internet, so people never knew what was going on 'til they were in the middle of things.  A lost world, that world.

I sort of didn't know what the hell I was going to do.  My dad had died when I was fifteen, and since he was the breadwinner, there wasn't any financial cushion.  After about two years, the Great American Problem of Living in Poverty hit me like a ton of bricks:  I had no health insurance.  I'd managed to stay pretty healthy.  But then I caught something, and had some problems, and I realized, fuck, I have to go to an emergency room and hope they forgive the charges.

What to do about this state of affairs?  The only skill I had that I could imagine applying in a way that would get me health insurance was my intellectual skills, and I figured I'd go back to graduate school.  Because it was the stone age, when school info came and went on paper, and because I didn't have a phone of my own, I had to borrow someone's for the long-distance calls and request written information packets.

Thank heaven, despite the rough lifestyle of my youth, I was still pretty good at math, and I got in.  There's a long rest of the story about how I decided to give up math and study philosophy and all that, but we'll talk about that some other time, because the essential die was cast:  I was in graduate school and I became a professor. 

Intellectual life suited me, even more than I expected.  I worked like a dog to accustom myself to long hours spent alone, doing proofs -- and later, writing papers.  Now my favorite moments of my work life are when I walk into the library, and it's still morning so it's quiet and empty, and alongside my interest in what I'll do that day, I have a sense of belonging somewhere.  I feel at home.

If you know about profs you know our jobs are often part research, part teaching, and part service, which means being on committees and going to meetings and stuff like that.  Today is the first day of school which means back to teaching.  Like a little kid, I often think about what to wear to the first day of school.  When I was a child, my father -- from whom I inherited my material objects obsessions -- always liked to put nice things away 'til a special day, and back-to-school clothes were always in a closet until the actual first day of school.

I love my scholarship and I love my hours alone in the library, but I have to say I'm ambivalent about actual teaching.  Teaching is very difficult, and requires thinking about difficult things and interacting with large groups of people all at the same time.  As an introvert, I find it overwhelming.

Though I'm ambivalent about teaching itself, I love my students, and I love being around 18-22 year-olds all the time.  Talk about the life force.  Whether they're studying for a test, updating Facebook, stressing about romance, or just getting some coffee, they do everything with energy and aplomb.  I often think how weird and maybe sad it would be to have a job where you just see other middle-aged people all the time, and you never hear the particular squeals of pleasure or indignation so characteristic of people just past high-school.

So I have to say:  that glimmer of interest I had from the Big Return in September, when I was just 21 years old myself -- it was a trustworthy emotion, in the sense that the same things -- the hopeful and nervous new students and parents, the whoops of reconnection with summer friends all give me a feeling of happiness and connection to life every year. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

I Am Mad At Economists (Part 2 of 2)

J. S. Mill (1806-1873).  Mill is the opposite of what I'm mad about, because he was explicit about basing his economic principles on his ethical ones.
If you're just tuning in, this is Part 2 of why I'm mad at economists.  In Part 1 I started by explaining a bunch of things I'm not mad at economists about.  I'm not mad about the whole "economics isn't a science" business.  I'm not mad about the use of false idealizing assumptions like "rational actors" and "perfect information."  I'm not mad about the use of mathematical methods originally designed for other things. 

What I am mad about -- well, the first thing, as I said in Part 1 -- is the utterly misplaced confidence with with economic conclusions are put forward.  That argument was addressed to economists in their role as empirical researchers -- that is, as people saying what will follow from what.  Like if you put into place policy A or regulation B or tax C, such-and-so will be the result.  My point was that in a complex science in which you don't really know how your false idealizing assumptions and mathematical tools affect the accuracy of your conclusions, no one really knows what will result.  But you never hear anyone saying that -- least of all economists.

This post is a little different, and concerns what I call the ethics bait and switch.  It applies in a somewhat different way, to economists who put forward arguments for one policy or another.  Sometimes those are economists acting qua economists -- as scholars and researchers who have opinions on what is best to do.  Sometimes those are economists acting in a role as a policy maker or advisor.

When economists promote a policy in what they like to think of as a neutral mode, typically they imply -- and I think they are best interpreted as saying -- that the given policy will increase overall financial prosperity.  This is offered as basic, unprejudiced, neutral cost-benefit analysis. 

Is there a reason to do the thing that will bring about the most overall increase in prosperity?  In ethics, the idea that one ought to do the thing that will bring about the best consequences overall is known as utilitarianism.  One of the most striking things about utilitarianism is that things like fairness, respect for autonomy, and equality are not directly valuable or relevant to decision making.  Those other values are good only when, and insofar as, they promote good consequences -- which they might do in some situations and not others.  So we can interpret economists as appealing roughly to a utilitarian outlook in deciding what to do.

Yet one seldom hears a defense of the idea that overall gains are the only thing that matters.  I think one reason is that most people, including most economists, do not really believe it.  That is, as people, they do not think ethically that overall gains are the only thing that matters.  They also believe in things like fairness, liberty, and (maybe) equality. 

And indeed, when economist X wants to promote policy P and overall prosperity wouldn't result, sometimes the arguments shift:  all of a sudden it would be unfair to tax the rich/burden small business/let farmers go bankrupt or whatever. 

OK, fine, I'm all for fairness.  But you can't pick and choose.  If fairness matters sometimes, it matters all the time, and you can't go around pretending you're just doing cost-benefit analysis.  You'd have to have a whole debate about what's fair, and when fairness does and doesn't include equality, and why -- a debate, I take it, the Occupy protestors were/are trying to have, and they just keep getting shut down, by asshats like P. J. O'Rourke who said they failed Econ 101.  Needless to say, I didn't see a lot of economists defending them. 

Occasionally, when economist X wants to promote policy P they might bring in the liberty argument.  This argument attempts to justify economic policies on grounds that certain alternatives don't respect individual autonomy -- they're coercive. 

Again, OK, I'm for respecting autonomy.  But just like with fairness, if you're going to make this argument,  it's clearly not a cost-benefit-analysis argument, and you have to be prepared to have a discussion about ethics.  You're going to have to talk about the nature of rights and duties, why the freedom to die from lack of health care is an important freedom to protect, and most importantly, why liberty matters so much while other common sense moral values -- like fairness, benevolence, and loyalty -- do not.  I'm sure there are economists prepared to have this discussion.  But those in the public eye seem to do everything they can to avoid it. 

Even cost-benefit analysis can lay no claim to ethical neutrality.  For one thing, as we've seen, it takes into account one value -- overall economic prosperity -- while leaving aside others, like fairness and respect for autonomy.  But the problem goes even deeper than that.  If you're weighing consequences, why count dollars?  Why not count well-being?  Certainly ten dollars to a poor hungry person is a much more dramatic increase in overall well-being than ten dollars to a rich person.  Economists doing cost benefit analysis treat those gains as the same, which, whatever you want to say about it, is clearly not an ethically neutral thing to do.

J. S. Mill, pictured above, knew that:  he tried to count overall well-being, and he tried to show why that was the right thing, ethically, to count.  I don't agree with him, but it's the right kind of argument to be making. 

My sense is that most people care about all of the things I've mentioned:  the overall size of the pie, the fairness of the slices in terms of rewards and so on, the relative equality of the slices, the freedom of people to negotiate with others for the size of their particular piece, and the increased well-being that results from benefits to the worst off.  They value all of these. The question isn't "which one matters."  The question is how to make sensible tradeoffs among all of them, which compromises make the most sense. 

No one wants to talk about that question, because it has to do explicitly with ethics, and we live in modern Western liberal society where it's like OH NOES you can't justify something with ETHICS -- people might have different views and policies are supposed to be NEUTRAL!  

Also, economists tell us, to get anywhere, you have to think like a "cold-hearted economist," not a "warm-hearted humanist" (this phrase adapted from Levitt and Dubner's passage against Gore in Freakonomics).  Those dumb humanists, always getting in the way of our science!

But in this context, there is no neutrality.  Every way of proceeding rests on some conception of value.  Even cost-benefit analysis isn't neutral.  The fact that ethics is always present in some way supports one of the conclusions I came to in Part 1, that organizations like the IMF should leave people in different countries alone to work out their economics as they see fit, instead of strong-arming them into free-marketism.  If it's values all the way down, you have to grant that other people might have different ideas about how to do things, and they have a prima facie right to put those ideas into practice. 

I suppose you could say, "Oh, these things aren't the fault of economists.  Public discussion being f-ed up is everyone's fault."  Well, you know, in one sense, sure.  But in another sense, no.  Insofar as they lay claim to being scholars, researchers, and scientists, rather than just policy shills, it's the whole job of economists to understand these things in depth and to promote truth, honesty, and rationality.  Every time the overconfidence thing happens or the role of ethics in policy discussions is obscured by economists, they're failing in that job.

So those are the things I'm mad about.  I expect I would also be really angry about intellectual fraud and lying in the study of economics -- and finance -- if I knew more about it.  But I don't.  It's OK.  I have enough stuff to be angry about already.