Monday, December 30, 2013

Separated at Birth? Cultural Capitalism and New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking


Over the holidays I stayed in a motel where the TV in the breakfast room was set to the TODAY show. You could probably have a whole blog where you just talked about how weird and depressing the TODAY show is -- like, why are they shouting all the time? is it really just a commercial? for what? But here I want to focus on just one thing.

While I was munching some product of an unholy alliance between "continental breakfast" and "real food" and browsing my twitter feed for non-holiday content, a segment came on in which the hosts visited some women who were dreaming of a better life. Because I was only half paying attention I don't know if the narrative was "poor people in the US, once given the proper tools and a kick in the pants, can really make it work!" or whether it was "poor people from some poor country, provided with a little American ingenuity and a kick in the pants, can really make it work!"

But whatever -- it was about how some people could do some things to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to become Future Bosses of America.

In this case the women were being interviewed about their hopes and dreams and the means they were taking to get where they wanted to be. As one of them explained that "executive" was her goal, a group of them laughed nervously in that "we're teasing, but we're with you" kind of way. I get what she was saying: her goal was vaguely to have money and be in charge of something and wear nice clothes to work.

The TV people asked the women what steps they were taking to achieve their goals. And one thing that came up was that they'd been encouraged, by some do-gooder, I suppose, to make dream books -- like scrapbooks where they'd paste in the things they wanted. These women had pasted in pictures of smartphones, cars, electronics -- basically all the stuff anyone would want in modern society if they didn't already have it.

And I thought, Wait. Is this a "hard-headed Cultural Capitalist world view" narrative or a "soft-headed New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking" world view narrative?" Because it could be either.

Weirdly, these two are twins, separated at birth, with the same "dreams," "you can do it!" and "rise to the top" motifs.

I think of "cultural capitalism" as the cultural aspects of the range of views associated we might call extreme capitalism. As a political and economic set of ideas, extreme capitalism is for free markets, deregulation, the dismantling of government benefits and protections, rights for corporations and so on and so forth.

But like other political and economic ideas, extreme capitalism comes with a set of cultural aspects. These vary, but often are situated so as to contain some or all of the following: individuals are responsible for their own futures; no matter how poor you are, you're "free" unless someone is actively getting in your way; citizens are customers, exercising choice by spending; people, like mini-corporations, have to self-promote and make deals as a way of providing for themselves.

New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking is more diffuse and varied, but I associate it with three things. First, there's the New Age business. Many forms of this suggests "looking inward": since "it's all in how you look at it," if you're unhappy, you should first consider how things are inside your mind, instead of first considering how things are in your external world. Second, there's Life Coaching as a strategy for life. "You can do anything you set your mind to" is the motto here. And third, there's The Secret. You know, that thing where if you want something you think about it really hard and it happens for you.

I expect many people who find one of these world views attractive find the other one disturbing.

And yet the similarities are surprising. The individual is constituted as a contained entity independent from their surroundings. The person is absolutely responsible for her or his own future. What's "possible" is understood as dependent only on the person's internal state, and not on any features of the person's surroundings. Freedom comes from within.

If You don't like what you got, You can change it: You and only You!

As I see it, there's also something interesting and broader here about the role of kindness in personal relations. When it comes to other people, the New Age Positivity is associated with kindness and an open-heart. Which is fine, but as we all know, kindness isn't justice, and there's a difference between institutional support and charity.

Cultural Capitalism, in its own way, is all for kindness as well: when the state is not there to set rules and help provide for the least able and least well off, it is through acts of kindness and grace that the poor will survive.

You know that website McDonald's made with advice for employees that got people so mad? Check these out:

"Breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full."

"Singing along to your favorite songs can lower your blood pressure."

"Stress hormone levels rise by 15% after ten minutes of complaining."

These are Cultural Capitalism: they're advice on how to try to make your life work when you have crappy food, no healthcare, no money and lots of stress. But they'd also fit comfortably within any Best Practices Guide for New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking.

They're both. Just like the advice to deal with poverty by pasting pictures of consumer goods into an album.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Real Problem Of Love And Economics

"The difficult choice (money or love)." After Cornelis van Haarlem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Obviously, there is no single problem of love and economics. Clearly, the whole area is fraught and complex. As always, I'm not here with any "key to all mythologies."

But what's on my mind -- and perhaps it's been on yours as well -- has to do with the contrast, and the interaction, between the attitude of economics and the attitude of love.

In the attitude of economics, I think it's fair to say, the basic idea is that of an implicit contract or negotiation, with a good outcome being one that maximizes each person's preference satisfaction. If A has X and B wants X and B has Y and A wants Y, then the birds and the bees .. Oh, wait, that's something else. What I meant to say is, these people will make a deal. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker ... " etc etc etc.

In the attitude of love, if you believe the hype, it's supposed to be different. You're supposed to give and share. It's not all about you. You're supposed to care about the other person and want what's best for them for their own sake.

On one level the problem of love and economics might seem obvious and familiar, in that the attitude of economics is self-oriented and the attitude of love is other oriented. To approach the object of your love with self-oriented preferences would be to misunderstand the nature of love. If that's right, the problem of love and economics, insofar as its a problem, is mostly a problem for lovers, and the problem is that the attitude of economics makes them selfish jerks.


But as I see it, this not actually the real problem of love and economics -- or at least, it's more complicated. The reason I say that is that on closer examination, the distinction between self-oriented and other-oriented is not as simple as this analysis makes out. Even though the attitude of economics requires dealing with preferences, it is well known that there are many ways to understand what a preference is. If we're just talking about what is preferred, of course you can care about the happiness of another person. Nothing prevents you from preferring that your loved one get to have as much happiness and satisfaction as he wants -- indeed, nothing prevents you from preferring the well-being of your loved one to that of yourself.

Since we're doing philosophy, why don't we start with a completely oversimplified toy example using cake? If A and B each prefer cake to no cake, and each prefer the other to have cake rather than no cake, then violà!  A and B make the deal that any loving and consenting adults in their situation would: they agree to share the cake. Their other-oriented cake preferences express their caring and love; A and B both get cake; A and B both get to enjoy the other person's enjoyment of cake. WIN!

However. What this shows is not that there is no problem of love and economics. What this shows is just that when it comes to the problem of love and economics, we're just getting started. Because there are funny things about preferences that concern the preferences of others. One thing that can happen is "double-counting." In the economic approach, a good outcome happens when people's preferences are satisfied. But if A has preferences for B's preferences to be satisfied, it appears that B's preferences get counted twice.

For example, going back to our cake-obsessives, it would appear that the effects of double-counting are most dramatic when one person is in the attitude of love and the other is not. Suppose A loves cake, and A loves B, and because A is in the attitude of love toward B, A wants B to have cake. But now suppose B is just a cold ingrate who wants as much cake as possible, who couldn't care less about others, and who specifically doesn't care much about A. Then it seems that whatever means A and B use to maximize their joint preference satisfaction -- negotiation or an algorithm or whatever -- you know and I know what comes next: B gets all the cake. Dammit!

But wait: if that's correct, then it starts to seem like the real difficulty is less of a problem for the committed lovers and more of a problem for everyone else -- out here interacting with god-knows-what manner of person. Because it's when A is looking out for B and B is looking out for B that things go wrong.

Here is perhaps a more interesting example. In my to Ethics and Values course this past Fall we were talking about whether there are some things for which market norms are inappropriate, and we read this essay by Elizabeth Anderson. Among other things, Anderson says that if a potential surrogate mother has "non-commercial motivations," but are offered only what "the norms of commerce demand in return," then she is open to exploitation. In connection with this I found it striking that the author of this "secret diary of a surrogate," answers her own "would I do it again?" question by appeal to non-commercial motivations, telling her children: "The right thing isn't always the easy thing."

I take it the exploitation possibility arises because in caring you look out for others and in markets you look out for yourself. Any preference maximizing solution to this problem takes into account the purchaser's self-oriented preferences and the potential surrogate's other-oriented preferences. It's the real life equivalent of B getting all the cake. A gets no cake : ( 

Indeed, by developing other-related preferences, A gets less of what she wants for herself than she would have had otherwise.

If these thoughts are on the right track, then the real problem of love and economics is way bigger than the one inside the love relationship -- because it's a problem about how everyone relates to everyone else in the wide wide world. If you adopt a love attitude toward anyone who is not also committed to taking the love attitude back, you're screwing yourself over. You're getting the wrong end of the stick. In fact, if you approach the non-loving with any other-oriented preferences at all, you're putting yourself at a real disadvantage.

The implications of this seem to me vast. Just to start:

1) You have to basically divide the world into separate categories: the love category and the non-love category.

2) You'd better make sure that all the people in your love category have you in theirs, and even with comparable strength and caring, or you're fucked.

3) If you even care about the people in your non-love category you're a chump who's going home with no cake.

So the real problem of love and economics? It's not just for lovers anymore. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Nature Abhors A Math Nerd In Sparkly Shoes

Elisabeth of Bohemia-Palatinate, known for her correspondence with Descartes, with hunting spear and enviable arch expression.
A couple of weeks ago MathBabe wrote an interesting post -- "I’m already fat so I may as well be smart" -- where she talked about the ways being fat had freed her up to live the kind of life she wanted. The basic idea was that, particularly as a young person, she was already outside the "cool kid" and "thin sexy girl" paradigms; she thus didn't have to worry about those things and just did the weird nerdy things she wanted.

You should read the whole thing, but here's a quick sample:
"Namely, being a fat school kid meant that I was so uncool, so outside of normal social activity with boys and the like, that I was freed up to be as smart and as nerdy as I wanted, with very little stress about how that would 'look.' You’re already fat, so why not be smart too? You’re not doing anything else, nobody’s paying attention to you, and there’s nothing to gossip about, so might as well join the math team."
This got me thinking about my own very different experience years ago as a girl/young woman who was into math and other nerdy things. When I was a kid I was thin, and kind of girly. But I was never a cool kid. Basically my social status was that non-cool-kid who has a small number of good friends who are also non-cool-kids. Mostly I didn't care about the cool kids and their opinions -- except for trying to dodge their stupid attempts to belittle or harass or whatever.

My whole life I thought of math as cool -- how could something so creative and yet hard edged not be cool? So for me the problem was never a conflict between cool and not-cool, or a concern that doing math would make me uncool. I was proud to be good at math and eager for everyone to know I was.

The problem for me was something else: basically, I had so little in common with the nerdy boys that they seemed like aliens to me. And in my experience at least, nerdy guys of all kinds have often seemed to enjoy the company of other guys.

So the social issue for me was never one of how to be freed from the coolness hegemony. I was already free of the coolness hegemony. The social issue for me was the pressure of being the singular exception or weirdo in a small group of people I had nothing in common with.

Just a couple of illustrative memories. When I was in 8th grade computers were just becoming the kind of thing a kid could learn to use, and I signed up for a class learning programming in BASIC. Nobody needed to sell me on this or "make it fun for girls": I thought it was great. But I was also a girly-girl who took dance classes and liked clothes. Continuing with computers meant days and days spent in windowless rooms with 8th grade boys with whom I had no other shared interest or even style of communication. I was like, "forget it."

We didn't have a math club but I'm sure I would have felt similarly about that. I got into drama and found other fun weirdos to spend time with.

When I went to college I majored in math, and again I was often the only girl in a sea of guys. The complicated truth is even when there were women, I felt I we had nothing in common. The other people in my math classes were often opaque to me. I wasn't into sci-fi and they weren't into novels, and shoes. We looked at one another like birds of different species across a wide lagoon.

This drove me nuts. Thankfully math is the kind of thing that makes sense to do alone because if there had been group work and collective study projects I would have been out of there so fast it would have made your head spin.

I've always maintained that there's nothing inherently or essentially conflicting about being intellectually ambitious and wearing girly fancy clothes. I identify with this four-year-old, who wants to be a princess: when told that being a princess is "boring" because all you do is wear a "nice dress" all day, she says OK, she'll become a "princess firefighter." (As regular readers know, being a princess is NOT about nice dresses and is in fact serious business! But I digress.)

There's also nothing conflicting about being into math and into sparkly shoes, or being into computers and being into Anne of Green Gables.

The world, however, does not make it easy.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not Out To Get You: Revealed Preference Edition

Giacinto Gimignani, An Angel and a Devil Fighting for the Soul of a Child, via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe you've had an inchoate sense that dark forces are aligning against you. Maybe you're scared. Maybe you're too bored to think about it for more than five minutes. Well you're in luck, because to preferred clients of TKIN like yourself, we are proud to offer our premium service: we think it through so you don't have to.

This week, how advertising and cost-benefit analysis bond in unholy matrimony, spawning The Policy Methodology From Hell.

As we all know, if you're wondering how to make policy decisions, one popular answer is "cost-benefit analysis." And as we all know, if you're wondering what to count as a cost and what to count as a benefit, one popular answer is an "economic" one. What a person prefers is what is a benefit to them; giving up what is preferred is a cost; where for a preference set to be rational just means that it obeys formal consistency axioms like transitivity.

Maybe less well-known is that if you're wondering how to tell what preferences a person has, one popular answer is that the preferences to count are "revealed preferences." If you chose x over y, you manifested a preference for x; if you paid good money for that future-item-in-a-landfill tchotchke, you showed that you revealed a tchotchke-related preference.

It's obviously not news that there's something shady about the use of revealed preferences to reason about what is good and bad. What people choose is shaped by what options they have. And in classic "sour grapes" fashion, people who have no access to a given option sometimes come not to prefer it -- their preferences are "adaptive." Also, people might choose on the basis of false information. No one thinks the person who mistakenly ingests pesticide in food has some kind of latent preference for death.

But one another interesting fact about revealed preferences doesn't come up as often, overshadowed as it is by all these other things. That has to do with weakness of will. It's evidently a problem, because if you thought choosing y was for the best, but you caved to pressure/cravings/madness for x, then your choosing x plausibly does not plausibly reflect a way that x is good for you, and so counting your revealed preference as a preference would be a mistake.

It's easy to get lost in the philosophical thickets of weakness of will, meandering around like a drunk person, trying to figure out what could possibly determine the difference between "I chose it even though I thought it best not to" and "I chose it because I changed my mind" and other important distinctions. But perhaps we can say this: there is sufficient agreement on the concept to allow for a robust research program in the social sciences. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have conducted study after study measuring the effects various things have on weakness of will.

One conclusion they came to will surprise no one who has lived a human existence, and that is that the will is a thing that can be worn down.

Ask people to exercise their will -- eating radishes instead of chocolate, keeping a straight face when something is funny, etc. etc. -- and they'll become less and less able to effectively exercise their will. They call this "ego depletion." The "active self" is a "limited resource."

Among other weird things, this means that they more you have to resist temptations, the more you deplete your ego. The more you deplete your ego, the less you're able to resist temptations. So the more environmental factors there are requiring resistance -- the more bakeries you have to walk past, the more click-bait you have to ignore, the more advertised consumer items you have to not buy, the more likely you'll exhibit the weakness of will.

And this is where it gets interesting. Because when you put "the preference taken into account in cost-benefit reasoning fail to track your good when there's weakness of will" together with "the more you have to resist, the less you can resist," what you get is that the massive forces always present in a consumer society, urging you to BUY EAT DRINK ENTERTAIN YOURSELF YOU DESERVE IT, are actually making your revealed preferences less likely to be for your actual preferences.

Let's do an example. In one of their Freakonomics books, Levitt and Dubner said that fighting climate change through change in behavior was pointless because "It's not that we don't know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don't want to stop, or aren't willing to pay the price."

Their evidence for the implicit claim about preferences is our behavior: our behavior reveals preferences for convenience and fun over environmental goals. Plausibly, our actual preferences are sometimes for clean air and a world inhabitable by our children even when immediate forces make it hard to resist the temptations of climate damaging behavior. So basing judgments about our good based on our revealed preferences is a planning FAIL.

What's crazy about this whole thing is that the more other stupid temptations we have to resist -- the more we're subjected to BUY EAT DRINK ENTERTAIN YOURSELF YOU DESERVE IT -- the more likely we'll fail to act in accordance with our judgments, and thus the more likely that cost-benefit analysis will track our preferences for stupid consumer goods instead of, you know, clean air and water.

Remember the old picture of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other? This is like the devil has two kinds of minions: those shouting at you to listen and obey, and those who watch you obey and conclude: Well, we know what will make that person better off, nudge nudge wink wink.

You see why I called it an unholy alliance, eh?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Threat Alerts Of The Future, Or, Friends Don't Let Friends Spend Time Quietly At Home

Maybe a rating system of 0 - 6 meerkats would be better.

Remember the "Terror Alert Level," AKA the Homeland Security Advisory System, with codes up at the top consisting of red "SEVERE" and orange "HIGH"? Did you remember there was a blue level for "GUARDED"?

Did you know it was phased out and replaced with the National Terrorism Advisory System, partly because the color scheme was considered too ridiculous? 

Now that those colors aren't tied down to terror, maybe we can use them for some other important threat alerts.

-- The Consumer Rationality Alert: YELLOW = ELEVATED

We all know that in a modern society, economic growth is the new categorical imperative. But for many modern consumers, it makes no sense to keep spending. Poor people have no money, and thus can spend only by borrowing against their best interests. Better off people already have tons of stuff, and do not need more things.

The only way forward is through the familiar consumer manias that induce people to buy against their interests. It is well-known that these manias typically function at peak capacity around the holiday season, with consumers saying things like "My TV from last year is in beautiful, perfect condition, but this one is bigger and better."

But sometimes consumer rationality begins to rear its ugly head, prompting citizens toward unpatriotic activities like "making dinner" and "going for a walk." This year we're seeing some early warning signs, which is why the alert is ELEVATED. Remember, friends don't let friends spend time quietly at home.

-- The Tolerance and Openness Alert: GREEN = LOW


Fear is essential to an obedient, and thus peaceful, populace. In our modern complex world, fear, like so many things, has become less easy to control and direct. Back in the day, obvious enemies and threats like the USSR and "communism" could be trusted to reliably work everyone up into a frenzy.

Things are changing. With same-sex marriage on the rise, more and more mixed-race and ethnicity people being born, and a tendency to see people in other countries as "just people," good unifying sources of fear and hate may seem to be on the wane.

But a quick glance at virtually any unmoderated internet comments discussion will reassure anyone: fear and hatred are doing fine. A special shout-out here to Quebec for its ban on religious symbols in the workplace that allows "discreet cross pendants" or "star of David rings" but not Sikh turbans or other head scarves -- a classic expression of the "we know what we don't like when we see it" doctrine.
 
The Solidarity Alert: BLUE = GUARDED

Compared with other alerts, the issues here are complex and experts are divided over how likely threats from attempted solidarity are. On the one hand, ever since Governor Walker and his "Wisconsin budget repair bill," there's been an assumption that anti-solidarity legislation is working. In support of this, anti-solidarity forces point to high profile victories, such as the dismantling of the Occupy movements.

Other caution, however, that complacency is never the right response. Given the way the internet facilitates communication among people hoping to band together for common purposes, outbreaks of solidarity can never be far from us. Our rating the Alert Level at BLUE is a compromise among these divergent and opposite opinions.