Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Retribution, The Limits Of Punishment, And The Question Of Unenlightened Motives

Cells of the prison on Alcatraz Island. Posted to Flickr by marine_perez; used under Creative Commons licence.

In last week's New Yorker, the classicist and political scientist Danielle Allen has a searing personal history essay about her cousin Michael, who enters the criminal justice system as a result of minor crimes at age 15, gets derailed in life, and ends up dead -- murdered at a young age.

You should read the whole piece. It is a heartbreaking personal story and also a commentary on race, culture, and the concept of punishment in the contemporary US. Like many young black children, Michael confronts a series of obstacles. Like many young black men, when he gets into trouble, his crimes are punished in ways that are wildly disproportionate.

As Allen explains, among other things Michael was caught up in a serious of specific criminal justice policy changes, motivated by general societal fears and ideas about what the concept of punishment is for. In 1994, eighteen months before Micheal got into trouble, California's Three Strikes and You're Out law had gone into effect: three felonies means twenty-five years to life or a plea deal. In 1995, panic over rising carjackings had led the state to lower the age at which a teenage can be tried as an adult for that crime to 14 years old. Micheal tried to steal a car; the prosecutors found a way to charge him with four felonies based on what the police said were spontaneous confessions at the hospital after he got shot by the car's owner.

From a philosophical point of view, Allen says that California legislators had not only given up on prison as rehabilitation, they had also given up on the idea of prison as retribution. Retribution, as she says, "limits how much punishment you can impose." "Anger drives retribution," she says. "When the punishment fits the crime, retribution is achieved, and anger is sated; it softens."

The policy on carjacking was not about retribution, it was about deterrence. It was driven by fear, and the crafters of the policy were focused on aggregate crime statistics. As Allen says, "The target of Michael’s sentence was not a bright fifteen-year-old boy with a mild proclivity for theft but the thousands of carjackings that occurred in Los Angeles." This is dehumanizing, and wrongly puts the massive burden of society's problems onto a young man's shoulders.

From a philosophical point of view the question about punishment as deterrence versus punishment as retribution often occurs in the context of the debate over ethical theories that are "consequentialist" -- in which we should aim at the production of the most well-being overall -- versus theories that are "deontological" -- in which we should follow certain rules and respect certain specific values.

It is partly because I agree with Allen's perspective on the problems of "aggregative" moral reasoning that I am not a consequentialist; as I've written about, I believe in justice and other values, and I think these values put constraints on our behavior. One of those constraints would concern the appropriate limits of punishment. 

The theoretical debate between consequentialism and deontology is massively complex, and I can't hope to contribute something to that debate here. But I would like to comment on the mood, tone, or quality of motivations associated with retribution versus deterrence.

In my experience, retribution is sometimes informally regarded as a problematic concept, arising from base and unworthy emotions. It is associated with motives that are thought to be low, unenlightened, and uncivilized.

We evolved to have retributive moral judgments, so the thinking goes, because back in the day, evolutionarily speaking, punishing was needed to keep community members in line. But we thinking people should rise above these base motives. Once we know our aim or goal is to make the world a better place, we don't need base motives like anger or retributive judgements. Instead we can cooly calculate which action will have the best effect, and simply do that. Deterrence is seen as "helping" while retribution is seen as abusive.

I once joined a multi-disciplinary audience listening to a speaker talk about ethics and robots. You want your robots to do good things and not bad things, but what does that mean? There was a general sense that the robot-makers wanted to answer the question with consequentialism: do the things that will bring about well-being overall. Aggregate.

In discussion, I tried to explain what seemed to me the importance of moral responsibility, and the inchoate sense I had that moral responsibility was something we do, and should, ascribe to humans. It matters why things are the way they are and who made them that way. Maybe the choices of robots could be tracked back to creators, so that a person would take responsibility for the choices the robot made.

The other people present really did not agree with me -- especially the computer scientists and engineers. They suggested that "moral responsibility" sounded like I wanted to punish people. And wasn't retributive punishment so barbaric? Who needs it? If you're being constructive and positive, you focus on the future. You want good results. Who cares why things are the way they are, except insofar as it's useful for thinking how they should be?

If we'd had more time, I would have tried to explain how, far from being barbaric and unenlightened,  responsibility and retribution fit into what I see as a human way of interacting, that values and respects people for themselves, for who they are, as individuals -- that aggregating people is more like managing them than caring about them.

I realize this brief foray into the cultural moods of retribution and deterrence does not settle the theoretical issues in debates over moral philosophy. But I was so moved by Allen's way of bringing out the potential humaneness of the retributive point of view -- how, far from being base and uncivilized, that framing encourages us to see individual people as worthy of respect, and forces our attention to the limiting of what counts as an appropriate punishment.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Dying Art Of Difficult And Awkward Conversations

A few years ago, I was trying to sleep around 2:00 in the morning and the people in the apartment next to me were making a racket having some kind of party. As I lay there in bed, I contemplated my options and waffled over whether to get up and knock on their door. I believe in the right to party and make noise, but as it got toward 2:30 or 3:00 I decided enough was enough.

As I threw on some clothes, I worked myself up to a state of dread and fear about the conversation. I had never met the neighbors, who had moved in not that long before. I pictured energetic partying people, angry at me for interrupting them. I pictured large guys answering the door and looking at me like I was the worst person ever. I pictured years of living next door to these people who regarded me as an asshole. I pictured them finding the smallest reason to complain back, as the years wore on.

I crept out into the hall and knocked on their door. A woman answered, with a man standing a bit behind her. They were smiling. I explained, nicely, that I was trying to sleep. They were extremely apologetic. They hadn't realized how the noise would carry. They expressed concern and kindness. They immediately quieted down, and the next day they left a ten dollar Starbucks gift card and a note on my door. I wrote them a thank-you note.

And as I have on other occasions, I found myself wondering at the power of talking to people in person and the difference between what we imagine and what is real when it comes to certain kinds of difficult conversations. I have had many similar experiences, where reality confounded expectations. It's a platitude that open honest conversation produces good results, but it's also human nature to want to shy away from conflict. And platitudes are often stupid. But in this case there's something to it.

It's not always true and there are assholes everywhere. But if you have a problem or something you need or want, and you express yourself with respect and kindness, it's amazing how many people will be respectful and kind right back to you. 

I would go even further and say that negative or difficult conversations often draw people closer together. I don't know if you've had this experience where only someone's judgment or need conveyed to you the depth of their concern. When people are a hundred percent live and let live, you can't get any grip on where you are with them.

I'm not one of those people who are always complaining about "kids these days" and I think generally speaking the younger generations are wonderful and unjustly accused of all kinds of ridiculousness. I don't buy into the idea that their desire to make the world a better and more just place speaks to some kind of weakness on their part.

But I do think that all of us are getting even more reluctant to have difficult or awkward conversations, probably for a range of reasons, some of which involve the internet. Sometimes out and about, I see people waiting and waiting for their needs to be acknowledged -- by a stranger or a service person -- seemingly reluctant to speak up and say "Excuse me, can I get some help"?

I don't know if you've noticed this, but in women's bathrooms in public places, women will line up behind one another, entering only the stalls that someone is coming out of, and leaving a bunch of stalls open and unused, because they don't want to be "that person" who is either knocking, or trying the door, or looking for shoes under the stall, to see which ones are empty. Because it's awkward.

Somehow I feel like the extra negativity we feel when we hear these things by email or virtually has infected our impression of how we'll feel when we have these difficult conversations in person. It's tempting to think that bad news should come virtually, since the person can react privately and won't be put on the spot. But I think that's a mistake. When I have bad news to convey, I feel like conveying it in person just passes along so many human emotions along with the news, it can't help but be made better.

I remember a long time ago when I was in high school, I had these two teachers. One was relentlessly positive and always told us the nicest, most supportive things. She was like a cheerleader for students. The other was difficult, and caustic; she was the faculty member in charge of the literary magazine and when she thought students were being stupid or lazy she would tell them so in no uncertain terms.

I remember that when I applied to a summer arts program, I had to get some letters of recommendation. And I was so much more comfortable asking the grouchy teacher than the supportive teacher. Because the supportive teacher was so supportive -- I had no idea what she really thought of me, or what she really thought about anything. The grouchy teacher, I knew she thought I was smart and talented, and I knew she thought I was imperfect, and we were good to go.

Difficult and awkward conversations are difficult and awkward. But especially when you have them in person, they're often OK. As we get less comfortable being awkward together, I hope they don't disappear entirely.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

I Am Away But Here Are Two Photos That Gave Me A Complicated Feeling

I'm away at a conference in Prague, and I thought I'd have time to write something, but the stresses and complexities of international travel got to me and I didn't.

For your entertainment, however, I can offer these two photos, of a Prague window/storefront for a place offering iPhone repair: 


In case you can't tell, this is window-areas littered with broken and discarded iPhone parts, mostly screens, with one actual Mac showing gadgetry insides.

I had a complicated emotional response to this sight. I thought it was a cool, original, and artistic idea. I like the way it looks -- it actually does look like art. I like the idea. On the other hand, it's depressing to see all this junk, and it's awful to be reminded of the mass of garbage that our lives generate.

I'm even ambivalent about all the broken screens. I'm the type of person who uses a protective cover for my phone, because I'm the of person who drops my phone and doesn't want to deal with breaking it. When I see young people (and it is mostly young people) using fancy phones with no protection, my first instinct is something to be like "What are you doing! That's a nice phone! What happens if you drop it!"

And yet -- there's something I love admire about the anti-protection commitment. I was also the kind of young person who wouldn't have used any protection on my phone, and would have been heartbroken when the screen cracked, but who would also have gone on the same way, unwilling to give up the aesthetic commitment for some dumb practicality like "the phone might break."

I know I'm more sensible now, but sometimes I miss that adolescent spirit I had, and wish I could be that person again. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Few Philosophical Thoughts On "Taxation Is Coercion"

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, "Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector)," via Wikimedia Commons

I feel like there's been an uptick in people in the US using "taxation is coercion" or "taxation is theft" to support their given point of view. The topic is obviously enormous and too large to be dealt with in a short blog post, but these are just some thoughts that come to my mind about this idea from the philosophical perspective.

Taxation is only coercive against a backdrop of a very specific theory of ownership -- one in which you have full property rights to whatever you gained in a voluntary transaction. But as we've discussed before, this theory of ownership faces several serious and well-known problems.

First, contemporary economic activity is now enmeshed in complex webs of social, cultural, and political structures and relationships. Many modern voluntary exchanges would be impossible without infrastructure, education, etc. etc. etc. As is often pointed out, the question isn't whether we have to pay for these things -- it's just how much.

Second, if we actually tried to follow a principle in which everyone has full property rights to whatever they gained in a voluntary transaction, we'd run immediately into the difficulty that vast wealth and holdings in western countries derives partly from utterly non-voluntary transactions.

This is because in a theory where you have full property rights to whatever you gained in a voluntary transaction, you do not have rights to whatever you gained through a non-voluntary transaction, and you do not have rights to what was stolen or taken by force. If A steals a diamond ring from B, then A doesn't own the ring -- B does. If A sells the ring to C, C also does not own the ring: justly speaking, B owns the ring, C owns the money they were going to trade for the ring, and A doesn't own anything.

But the land and wealth in rich western countries is enmeshed with a violent history of colonialism, slavery, war, and theft. Under the theory of ownership being proposed, who would own the land in North America? Presumably, Native Americans and Indigenous people and no one else. So the theory leads to very different consequences from the ones it's typically taken to support.

Third, when the full ownership theory is used in ways people don't like, there's a lot of uproar about it, suggesting most people do not endorse or agree with that theory. When Martin Shkreli bought the rights to life-saving drugs and then radically raised the prices, what he did was well within his rights in the full-ownership theory of property. It's his -- he gets to do what he wants.

I've been surprised by the degree of hate against this guy from all sides. I mean, I think the outcomes are bad, but then I'd endorse a different health care system entirely. It's the lack of supporters from other sides I'm struck by.

As I mentioned before, on Reddit there was general applause when a doctor pressed Shkreli on what improvements in the drug "warranted" the price increase. But that's not how our system works. I actually thought Shkreli made a valid point when he said in 2015, “Our shareholders expect us to make as much money as possible ... That’s the ugly, dirty truth.” That's true. The problem is with the system, not with one specific guy.

Anyway, moving beyond the full ownership theory, it seems to me that whatever theory of ownership you adopt, a claim about "coercion" is a moral claim, and once you're in the realm of morality, things are never straightforward. As I discuss in my 2015 book, many people endorse multiple values. In our society, that range of values often includes some right to be free of certain kinds of interference. But it also often includes other values like justice, benevolence, honesty, fidelity, and so on.

So whether taxation is "coercive" isn't the end of a discussion. It's the beginning of a larger discussion, about ownership and what is and isn't coercive, but also about how all the various values we endorse should be implemented and prioritized in some sensible way. Obviously, this is something the citizens can, and do, disagree about, and that's one reason politics is complicated and fraught. 

I don't endorse the kind of full ownership theory that would be necessary to conclude that taxation is coercive, partly because, as this book review explains, taxes are "part of the entire system of property relations, not something that happens after property accrues in private hands." That is, there's no "A owns X and B owns Y" and then you have taxes. Rather, taxes are part of the system of property relations that entails what, exactly, A and B own.

And if property relations are a system of which taxes are one part, then I also believe that other values, like justice and fairness, should play a rule in structuring that system. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why I Deactivated My Facebook Account


I recently deactivated my Facebook account. When Facebook asked me why I was deactivating, I put in the text box: "I don't want to aid in Facebook's quest to take over the entire universe."

I know social media platforms all share the same kinds of problems. I know that "if you're not paying, you're the product." I know that their ultimate goal is to make money off us, often by tracking our info and selling it to advertisers or whatever. I know that they're all engaged in various shenanigans.

But Facebook is in a class by itself. I've always felt pushed around and creeped out by Facebook, what with its perverse privacy settings and options and with Mark Zuckerberg basically acting like if you're not willing to make something public you must be some kind of criminal. Every time I went on Facebook -- and often by email when I didn't log in -- Facebook would remind me that I didn't really have a lot of friends, and I might be able to connect with more friends, and the things I posted weren't really getting any traction, and there might be ways to make traction happen.

Just last week, I wanted to message something to an old friend, and --oops! -- You can't message people any more unless you've properly opted into the chat feature and signed on to all the extra crap Facebook wants to you to sign on for. Good god.

But beyond the manipulation, to me the deeper threat is the depth to which Facebook is embedding itself in everyone's lives, becoming something you can't live without, becoming essential to what you thought were entirely non-Facebook related things. I'm sure you heard about the old news that lenders were going to use Facebook to judge your credit worthiness. Recently I was using a book reading app and there was an option to share notes. How do you share notes? You have to authenticate through Facebook. Want to use a dating app? Oh -- you can authenticate through Facebook.

What's it going to be like when you have to authenticate through Facebook to vote, to apply for a job, or to satisfy a customs official?

It also freaks me out that people are increasingly getting their news -- and their everything -- from Facebook. People often tell me they won't see anything unless a link pops up on their Facebook feed. It is disturbing. Plus, as we've written about before, do you really want Facebook determining what is and isn't a genuine news source?

The way Facebook deploys its real name policy is frightening. The brilliant sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote about her experience being kicked off Facebook for using "TressieMcPhd" -- the name she uses in her online writing and with her 20,000+ Twitter following -- as her name. Someone reported her -- and bam! As Dr. Cottom explains, for all kinds of reasons, the enforcement of these kinds of policies have particularly negative effects for people who are already oppressed:

"It is more common that Facebook will ban non-white, non-male, non-Western users for violating ethical codes when they write against racism or sexism or inequality than they will ban those who post actual racist or sexist content."

In my academic field of philosophy, it is amazing how much discussion relevant to issues in the profession happens on Facebook. Often, before I learn about something from a blog post, there has already been extensive discussion of it on Facebook. But one problem with this is that Facebook actually reinforces some of the problems we're already having. For example, philosophy has an in-group out-group problem: some people are, or are perceived to be, the in-crowd, while others are, or feel, marginalized; overlaid on that there is a sense of people in factions or cliques. Because Facebook encourages and facilitates sharing with your friends, more than with strangers, opinions are shared in ways that track, rather than challenging, the sense of factions, groups, subgroups, who's in, and who's out.

I know my deactivation will go zero distance toward challenging Facebook's success at global domination. It is a tiny symbolic gesture in a cold and uncaring universe. But maybe some day some event or something will be organized and there will be this tiny resistance of people who aren't on Facebook, and the whole business will have to be conducted in some other way, like a blog, or on the non-walled garden parts of the internet, or -- god forbid -- email.

As I was writing this post, I was reminded of the 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty by Albert Hirschman. Hirschman argues that when an organization of any kind is being a pain in the ass, its members can "exit" but they also have the alternative of "voice" -- of sticking around and trying to change things. Maybe the current members of Facebook can change the way Facebook operates, as they did when drag queens won the right to use their preferred names. God knows, when it comes to members of Facebook, there certainly are enough of them.

It's a testament to the power of Facebook that I didn't delete my account but merely deactivated it. Which is temporary. We'll see how things go. In the meantime, why not connect with me on Twitter? It's far from perfect, but there's no real name bullshit. Plus, isn't it weirdly comforting that Twitter is so far from world domination that they still haven't even managed to make any money?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Life's Confounding Open-Endedness And The Problem Of How To Spend Your Day


I don't know if you read this in-depth piece in The New Yorker about the opiate crisis and how it is affecting a community in West Virginia.

West Virginia has the highest overdose death rate in the country, and mostly the article describes how communities are responding to the crisis -- in some cases blaming drug users, but mostly doing heroic things to save them and to increase the measly support for people who want to quit.

My attention was caught, though, by something that might seem a bit to one side of the main topic. Toward the end of the article, the author describes a person formerly addicted who points out how hard it is for people who've never had the experience to understand what it's like to be addicted, how everything is grey and your mind just shuts down. And then the author says:

"As she described it, the constant hunt for heroin imposed a kind of order on life's confounding open-endedness. Addiction told you what every day was for, when otherwise you might not have known."

I was struck by this description of opiate addition. I had heard of the idea that opiate addiction transforms the vast range of human motivations and emotions into a single kind of thought -- do I have access to drugs, and if not, how can I get them? But it had never occurred to me how that might be a relief from something.

Regular readers won't be surprised to hear that this resonated with me -- I mean, the idea that "life's confounding open-endedness" could be a burden. At first I was inclined to see it as part of the human condition. As humans, we have to make decisions about what to do, and this means putting yourself behind something, in a sense. Unlike with other animals, even our less reflective decisions can feel like they are the result of decisions --  even if you're not going to think about something, you often have to choose not to think about it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that life's confounding open-endedness might be a particular burden in our particular time and place. We live in a culture that has take to an extreme the idea that you should be free to do as you please, that one way of living is as good as another, that happiness involves finding your particular "passion" or developing some personalized "dream," that the things you chose are somehow more important than the things that just, somehow, choose you.

This is not only a departure from previous less "modern" forms of living, it's also largely bullshit. I think one reason it can be hard to see it as bullshit is that the sometimes less modernity seems less "progressive." When the contrary to "everyone can do as they please" is "women do this, men do that, gay people shouldn't exist," it's horrible. But the fact that X is bad doesn't mean everything not-X is good. We're already asking people to create their own personalities, branding, and entrepreneurial selves. Maybe  asking them to craft a day out of nothing is too much to bear.


Ages ago I wrote a post about our "independence fetish" and how strange it is. People talk about how important it is to be "happy within yourself," and to have a sense of self that doesn't depend on family, job, friends, home. There's the idea that you have to assert the rights of that self within relationships. But these ideas seem directly at odds with basic beliefs most of us have about how close relationships work, and why they're so valuable. I mean, isn't caring about someone a kind of dependence on them? Isn't thinking of your own good as separate from, and maybe at odds with, the good of others a way of keeping them at arms length? Isn't being needed by someone one of the best things in life?

Maybe the kinds of activities and relationships that relieve the burden of the "confoundingness open-endedness of life" require the opposite perspective: that you're radically dependent on other people, and they are on you, and sometimes the things you find yourself immersed in are just yours, whether they're the ones you'd have chosen or not.

Since I had seen the "confounding open-endedness" of life as somewhat to one side of the main point of the article, I was struck that a New Yorker letter writer mentioned it as well, as a manifestation of a "spiritual crisis" and in that sense a central cause of addiction. Correctly observing that detox, rehab, etc. do not really address these causes, the letter writer then goes on to way that what really is needed is job creation -- some New Deal type of thing that would put people back to work.

Being immersed in my own interpretation of the burden of life's "open-endedness" I was startled to see the idea of "jobs" being proposed as a solution. Of course, there's no question that having meaningful work, and being able to support a family, are crucial elements of well-being! And yet, the idea that this kind of spiritual crisis could be cured with a little extra dose of capitalism -- well, I guess it just seemed to me a little sad.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Mother Audrey Would Not Just Follow Your Stupid Rules

My mom in her twenties
As regular readers know, my mother had been in ill health for quite a while. Last week I posted that picture of my parents from back in the day. The following day, my mother died.

As you may know if you read the obituary, my mother was a political activist, feminist, cat-lover, and Red Sox fan, known for her open-mindedness, humor, warmth, and compassion. But she was also what you would call an "independent thinker."

People toss around phrases like "independent thinker" to be nice about eccentrics, intellectuals, or weirdos, but my mom was the real deal. She just refused to go along with things just because they were things everyone else was doing, or things someone else wanted her to do, or things you'd be expected to do just because doing them was part of how the system works.

When my mom was just out of high school, she moved out of her parents house, got a job, and got an apartment in Boston with her friends -- something single women never did in the mid-fifties. Though she never went to college, she read widely in a range of subjects and especially in politics and education. She thought elementary school should have more freedom and more play and more unstructured learning -- and she said so to anyone who would listen -- even while my father was running for school committee in our town on almost the opposite platform.

My mom played the piano and was seriously into classical music, but she refused to play in front of people -- she said it drove her crazy if she was playing and people were talking, so she just said, "Nope!" In 1976, when everyone was arguing about Carter versus Ford, my mom campaigned for Senator Gene McCarthy. Her favorite movie was Auntie Mame.

I'm not going to lie: being the child of an independent thinker wasn't always easy. My mom's feminist commitments included the concept that children should be dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers -- basically, clothes you could run around in. But I was a girly girl from the earliest age. Why couldn't I run around in a dress? My mom valued eduction, and sometimes said she wished she'd gone to college -- but then she also said she only wanted to go if she didn't have to do any assignments she didn't want to do. Why couldn't she just suck it up, like everyone else? When she drove around without car insurance or registration because "nothing bad is going to happen" or wouldn't go to the doctor because she was "mad at the American health care system," I went nuts.

But my mom's habits of independent thought have obviously had a profound impact on who I am as a person. I myself enjoy challenging the status quo. Even though my mom seemed to think academic philosophy was an unimaginative and irrelevant way to think about things, the impulse to ask "why are things way rather than some other way" is one that clearly forms a basic part of my intellectual approach to the world. Also, I don't mind being thought a weirdo. For these things, crucial to who I am, I have my mother to thank.

My mom had a heart condition that caused her to have heart failure last fall, and after a hospital stay she was weakened enough that had to move permanently to a nursing home. In a way, she was OK there: reading, following politics, and watching the Red Sox were all activities easy to continue, and her warmth and caring attitudes were appreciated. But she didn't like the rules. She didn't like being told that she had to do physical therapy, or that she had to take a shower at a certain time. She didn't like that she had an identifying bracelet with her doctor's name written on it. She didn't like being part of the system.

Over the last few weeks my mom's health declined rapidly, likely because of her heart. On one of her last days, the doctor came in to check on her. "Audrey," he said, as he leaned down to speak into her ear. "It's me, Dr. Sharma."

My mother had just been lying there with her eyes closed, but at this she perked up. "Oh!" she said, raising her braceleted wrist, her tone eye-rolly and sarcastic. "I guess I belong to you." Everybody laughed. Complaining about the system, right to the very end. That's my mom!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Picture Of My Parents

Regular readers may remember that my mother's health hasn't been good. Unfortunately, she has rapidly declined over the last couple of weeks, and isn't doing well. Partly because of this, I wasn't able to write a blog post this week.

So I thought instead I'd post this photo of my mom and dad, taken some time in the 60s or early 70s:



I love this picture. I think my mom made this dress, since sewing her own clothes was a thing she did in her youth, even though by the time I came along -- and wanted to learn to sew my own clothes! -- she had decided this was somehow regressive and anti-feminist. I also love that my mom has both a drink and a cigarette -- my mom loved a Southern Comfort Manhattan, which is a crazy drink along multiple dimensions.

Thanks for your patience and kindness, loyal readers. I'll see you next week!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

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

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees, via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hurt Feelings And The Perverse Modern Demand For Invulnerability

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

Here it is:



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In Praise Of Workplace Inefficiency

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hot Housing Markets And The Dutch Tulip Bubble Of 1637


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Which Ideas Should Have A Place On University Campuses?

Which ideas should have a place on university campuses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Comedy And The Implied Author As Window-Dressing

I don't know if you read Emily Nussbaum's piece in the New Yorker a few months ago about comedy and modern politics, but one of the things she talks about is how the distinction between acting like a Nazi for "lulz" and and being an actual Nazi is breaking down, and how crucial the idea of "but it's just a joke!" has become to our cultural interactions.

Though her focus is more on politics, one of the things her analysis made me think of was the idea of an "implied author." I know this concept from reading about it in Martha Nussbaum's work on objectification, but it's really an idea from literary theory. The idea is that while the story or the narrator might present a certain thing one way, the normative stance toward that thing conveyed by the work of art might be something else entirely. For example, in Henry James's work, the characters use and "objectify" one another for various things like status and money. But the book as a whole seems to subject those actions to critical scrutiny rather than celebrating them.

It's obviously not an idea without complexities, since saying anything about an implied author requires interpretation and and interpretations can vary. But I'd also say that some texts are better suited to the idea of an implied author than others. And, of course, you can intentionally try to subvert the idea through ambiguity, and that's something that's gone on for a long time.

But I feel like there's a thing now that isn't ambiguity but that's more like a cynical attempt to allow people to enjoy and participate in something bad while holding on to the soothing cover of an "implied author" -- to kind of hold in reserve that the point isn't to celebrate something but rather to mock it or "comment" on it.

One example in the New Yorker piece is a story line from South Park, in which a megalomaniac presidential candidate goes on stage as a standup comedian intending to offend his fans. He starts with a joke about how awful it is to have to stand in line because of "all the freakin' Muslims," and then he moves on to how all the black TSA agents look like "thugs" from the inner city, and when he just gets bigger and bigger laughs, he finally starts talking about putting his fingers into women's butts and pussies. Finally, some white women walk out, and the candidate says "You’ve been O.K. with the ‘Fuck ’Em All to Death’ and all the Mexican and Muslim shit, but fingers in the ass did it for you. Cool. Just wanted to see where your line was."

"I just wanted to see where your line was." It's easy to make an argument that the implied author of this bit is making a joke about the entrenched racism of American culture -- that a large bunch of people are happy to tolerate and engage in offensive racist remarks and attitudes.

But I couldn't help but wonder if there was also an audience was that was enjoying those very same jokes, and perhaps inattentive to the possibility of this other implied author. In fact, you could read the whole thing the other way around, that the candidate is making a fearlessly politically incorrect speech (hey, free speech everyone!) and then making fun of the women who walk out for being "unable to take a joke."

The bit can work on both levels. In fact, the more outrageous the candidate's speech is, the more it's likely to work on both levels: the person wants to engage in racism can enjoy the speech and ignore any complexities.

And where I think the whole thing gets maximally creepy is that because of the way the entertainment industry works, shows almost have to work on multiple levels: shows cost a fortune to make, and they have to appeal to a massively wide range of people, sometimes a globally massively wide range of people.

You can do that by being action-adventure-bland, of course. But if you're going to be funny or edgy or whatever, you can only do it by working all the levels. Islamophobic and racist jokes that work for the islamphobes and racists, and an "implied author" the creators can point to to justify that they're not really doing the thing, they're not really participating in it. But, of course, in a sense they are.

If this is right, the whole breakdown of distinctions like "Nazi-for-lulz" and "actual Nazi" isn't really a bug, but more of a feature. It may have started with 4chan or whatever. But it's a great move, capitalism-wise. Working all the levels at the same time makes for bigger audiences, more money, all the things a complex and hyper-competitive industry needs to keep going.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The New Myers-Briggs

I've always thought that the Myers-Briggs test -- like most psychological classification tests -- had a kind of bullshitty aspect to it. But for some reason. the human urge to develop acronyms and short quizzes to unlock the mysteries of our inner lives seems unsatisfiable. So, in that spirit, here are some other categories I like to use to understand other people.

1. "Straight Man" Versus "Funny Man."

We live in a very fucked up world. As I see it, you can either laugh at the ridiculous of the world directly, or you can take up the quieter, more subtle, implicit side-eye approach. In defining "straight man," Wikipedia says "The ability to maintain a serious demeanor in the face of even the most preposterous comedy is crucial to a successful straight man." But this is a bit narrow. How about "in the face of even them most preposterous .. well, anything?"

Personally, I wish I'd learned about the whole straight man concept at a younger age. When I was around eight years old, I had a friend named Katie who was not only a creative genius but also a classic "funny man." We wrote and performed for our parents a serious of comedy sketches based on two characters: I was the stern and angry school principal (Mr. Valteman), and she was the carefree, rebellious teen (I had an awesome purple vinyl jacket that worked perfectly for her costume). Over and over, she'd call me "Mr. V," and flash the peace sign or whatever, and over and over I'd bring down on her head all the impotent rage that principals have brought down all through the centuries.

At the time, I thought she was the star of the show and I was kind of an also-ran. What I didn't know is that the straight man is a crucial ingredient. Now, I get it: you actually don't even need a funny man to be a great straight man. All you need is to live among absurdity (check), show that you know you do, and say your piece with a straight face. 

2. Lolcat Versus Doge


I know these are dated memes. But philosophy moves slowly.

I am a cat person along any available dimension you can outline, so it's not surprising that I love looking at pictures of cats in different poses, pictures of cats with captions, and pictures of cats with words printed on them.


What is a bit surprising -- or, at least, it surprised me -- was the degree to which I was left cold by the Doge meme. You know, where there's a picture of that Shiba Inu and there are words around it. I am left so cold by this meme that I don't even know the sense in which it is meant to be charming. Is it supposed to be funny? cute? meta?

There is something deep being shared and communicated by people who love this meme that is utterly and completely lost on me.

3. The Terror of Activity Versus the Terror of Inactivity

Rationally enough, some people's anxieties are triggered by things. They have to do something, or be somewhere. They have to talk on the phone, or organize some papers, or meet a deadline. They become anxious, and they dream of a world where all of that fades away: things are taken care of, there's nothing else they have to do, and they can rest quietly on a sofa in a softly lit room.

While I share the normal human tendency toward dread and fear of doing things, I'm actually more likely to be reduced to despair by a quiet and empty day. Time to think means  ... time to think. And thinking leads me nowhere good. You start by asking yourself what to do, you move on to asking what the point of various activities are, and before long you're either 1) wasting the whole day looking at the internet or 2) staring down the existential crisis that life is, actually, totally pointless.

This is the terror of inactivity.

Unlike the old Myers-Briggs proponents, I don't claim that psychological insight into these types will help you figure out, as we would have said in the 70s, the "color of your parachute." But isn't it more interesting and fun to know you're a straight man, than, say, an INTJ? 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

No Post Today Because The Blogger Is Sick - Again!!

Just a really bad cold, but I'm kind of incapacitated for the moment. Looking forward to meeting you all here next Tuesday and as always, thank for reading!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Consumer Micromanagement

One of the things I don't like about modern life is what I think of as "consumer micromanagement" -- by which I mean the way people who are selling me things are able track my choices and alter their goods and content in response. While it may seem to them like profit management and capitalism business as usual, the effect I feel in my life is to make me into a worse version of myself.


Before your individual choices were tracked, it was possible for your consumer dollar to express an interest in a bundle of things, appropriately bundled. A bundle of things that might range from the easy to the challenging, or the stupid to the complex, or the childish to the sophisticated, or the bad to the good. And even if you sometimes lapsed into choosing the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad, you could feel like in the larger scheme of things you were at least supporting something that was, on balance, OK.

Now that choices are tracked, it's no longer like that. Now if you choose the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad, the goods or content provider you are dealing with will take that as a sign that they should be providing -- and providing only -- the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad.

Here are a few examples.

1. In the news

I like to read the news. When I'm tired or depressed, I often click on what is easy and the stupid. But that doesn't mean I want my newspaper to stop providing the challenging and the complex. On the contrary.

It used to be that I could buy the New York Times or the local paper -- and know that I was, in a sense, throwing my consumer dollar toward the mix of things they had. 

If I was feeling low energy, I might head immediately to the comics, or study the "boldface names," or peruse the letters to the editor. I might not study the long article about the what's going on in Egypt or Syria. But I was happy to know it was there, glad to feel I could read it later or read a relevantly similar story some other day, and satisfied to know that in purchasing the paper I had expressed this full range of preferences.

Well, those halcyon days are over. If you read the news online, everyone knows immediately whether you clicked on the comics and whether you failed to inform yourself about something complicated or sophisticated. News providers being part of capitalism, they draw the obvious inference: they should run more comics -- or, in the modern situation, more listicles -- and less of all that other boring stuff.

2. In the bookstore

Bookstores used to go out of their way to stock a range of things, perhaps with the intelligent thought that people shopping for mystery stories might still enjoy the experience of being around books about Milton or quantum physics or the history of Mesopotamia.

Now, I realize that for a long time a store might know which books it's selling more of. But before the tracking mania, book industry people actually went out of their way to craft an audience. They didn't assume that a person, having bought seventeen light mystery-reading books in a row, would just want to read more like mystery-reading. They assumed, correctly, that people who read books could be interested in anything. Now, it's more like "Oh, we know what to print and stock -- we'll print and stock things like the things people have already bought!"

3. At the grocery store

Sometimes I buy tofu and yogurt and cashews. Sometimes I buy candy. I'm always paranoid that if I don't buy expensive blueberries or my preferred kind of feta cheese, that next time it won't be there. In a paranoid way, I have to shop for what I think I might want to shop for later. It's exhausting. If the store just had some vague sense that the things they were buying were the things their customers were purchasing, at least I wouldn't to worry in such a fine-grained kind of way.

I know we can't go back to the days when my dollar just expressed a general approval of some general range of things and not some specific version of myself at a specific time and place. But maybe we can just chill a little with the specificity.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Facebook, Fake News, And The Problems Of Trust And Legitimacy

When I heard that Facebook was going to try to "do something" about fake news, my first thought was "Oh yeah, that'll end well. What could go wrong"?

It's not that lies, hoaxes, and misinformation aren't a problem (and by the way, what was wrong with "lies" "hoaxes" and "misinformation"?) -- it's just that truth and factuality are not simple problems, they're not algorithmic problems, and they're not problems you can take a "neutral" stand on. Yet you know Facebook will try to treat them as if they are.

The first kind of example that came into my mind on thinking about this was about the aftermath of the protests in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown. I got a lot of my news from following people on Twitter who were there -- some, like Jelani Cobb, professional journalists, and others people who were not. 

Often, what I read on Twitter did not match up with what I read in the mainstream press. The press interviewed the police or asked government officials to comment on things; in the nature of things they had a vested interested in portraying the protestors as initiators of violence. Reports from people there emphasized the militarized police response and also the number of peaceful protestors doing things like protecting property and cleaning up.

When the reports of the citizens on the ground don't match up with official reports or reports in the news, who are you going to trust to tell you the truth? And when, and why? These are difficult questions. But do you really want Facebook answering them for you?

Maybe you might say the is for simpler, more straightforward cases (like, you know, "lies," "hoaxes" and "misinformation"). But that's not how the response to "fake news" has been shaking out so far. Maybe you've heard about the "B. S. Detector" that claims to "alert users to unreliable news sources." One of the first things that happened was the site Naked Capitalism got incorrectly tagged as a "fake news" site. In fact, what Naked Capitalism is is in-depth analysis of current events that sometimes diverges from official positions and mainstream media.

Are we really so far down the rabbit hole that we want social media companies to pronounce on what is and is not a legitimate critique of government statements or the New York Times?

Facebook, in fashion characteristic of the tech industry, wants to be address the problem of "fake news" while also maintaining "neutrality." As we've discussed before, the dream is to off-load judgments onto users so that algorithm's can solve all problems and no value judgments have to be explicitly endorsed. And as we've discussed before, this is impossible: there is no "value-free" way to offload judgments about what is and is not acceptable speech, or what does and does not constitute unacceptable forms of discrimination, or what is or is not sexist, racist, and so on. You let users decide you're often going to get an outcome that goes horribly wrong.

I had to laugh when I learned that the term Facebook is going to use for hoaxes, lies, and misinformation is "disputed." For one thing, could anything be a more obvious attempt to sound "neutral?" It's like, "WE'RE not saying there's a problem. But SOMEBODY out there is disputing this."

In a more sinister vein, when it comes to actual hoaxes, lies, and misinformation, doesn't "disputed" actually seem like it would add an air of legitimacy? One of the more interesting things I read about "fake news" was how that guy in California created a ton of fake news  -- like "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide" -- and earned a ton of money. You can read an interview with him here. But then it turns out that teens in Macedonia (and presumably people all over the world) are creating fake news just for profit.

Isn't using the term "disputed" to describe "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide" heading off in the wrong direction entirely? Doesn't that make it sound like some obscure point about Benghazi, where some partisans think one thing happened and some partisans think another thing happened, but who really knows? Doesn't it make it sound like a possibly legit thing? When, in fact, it is just a hoax, a set of lies!

The problem of truth and belief goes way beyond algorithms and neutrality and involves complicated issues of community and trust. When the New York Times ran a whole article explaining why "pizzagate" was based on a set of lies, do you think people who believed in pizzagate said to themselves "Oh, I guess that pizzagate wasn't true." Of course not. They went and wrote articles debunking the debunking. Just a few days ago there was a protest in DC with people demanding an inquiry. 

Looking up pizzagate on Wikipedia, I see a journalist quoted as saying that pizzagate is "two worlds clashing. People don't trust the mainstream media anymore, but it's true that people shouldn't take the alternative media as truth, either." This is aptly said. People trust different sources. No algorithm is going to deal with that problem.

If Facebook's proposed solution is to add a "disputed" tag to posts, potentially undermining citizen reports that contradict official news, and legitimating things that are lies and hoaxes in the first place -- well, it seems to me this may well do more harm than good. Maybe Facebook should stay out of the social epistemology business altogether.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Modern Condition: No Slack In The System

There was maybe going to be a transit strike this past Monday in the area where I work, starting this Monday. It didn't happen, because of a tentative agreement reached late Sunday night. But it got me thinking about the ways that systems of modern life are so tightly wound that any disruption is like the end of the world.

Of course, having a major bus system stop functioning is a big deal no matter what the time and place. But it feels like these days, especially, a lot of people have employment that is particularly inflexible, precarious, and high-pressure. Work schedules can be posted late. Failure to obey the schedules can result in reprimands and dismissals. Quotas are set for a range of criteria and if you can't meet them, well -- you're screwed.

I don't know if you've been following the news about the Amazon warehouses, and how the pickers are under constant surveillance, not allowed to sit ever, forced to aim for a "target rate" of 100-120 items an hour. This story describes how Mail UK deals with employees as independent contractors, so that if they get sick, they not only don't get paid, they have to pay for replacement workers; a worker was charged £216 per day of absence after got hit by a car while delivering packages. Bankers across Canada are told if they can't upsell enough products to people who don't need them, they'll be fired.

But it's not only labor where there's no slack in the system. If you ever fly these days, you know that if something goes wrong with your plane, or a crew member gets sick, or there's bad weather or whatever, there's no "Oh, we'll get another plane' or "Oh, we'll put you on the next one." The planes are all in use; the crew are all maxed out; the planes are all full. There is no duplication, or overlap, or plan B, or whatever.

One thing about this that interests me is that although I have used a negative formulation to describe the phenomenon I am talking about, there is another description of the same thing, a positive one, one you'd probably find more often in the Business Section of the paper, and that is: "It's efficient."

It's efficient in one ordinary sense of the word: you're doing as much as you can with the "resources" you have. Amazon moves a ton of stuff for low financial cost. Planes fly a ton of people with lower fares. UK Mail made a profit of £16m last year when it was bought out by the Deutsche Post DHL Group.

You can ask the question of why "no slack in the system" seems to be so dramatically on the rise, but once you notice that "no slack" is also "financially efficient," you start to wonder about other things, like why this didn't happen earlier, or why there used to be so much flexibility, easy-goingness, and duplication, or why this is all happening now.

To these questions I do not have answers. Is it that electronic communication made possible a tightness that wasn't possible before? Is it that globalization and the financial crisis made everyone focus their attention on the bottom line? Is it a cultural thing involving negative attitudes toward labor and consumer protections? Or maybe it's actually been a really gradual thing that just seemed dramatic to me?

There's a point of view from which an important part of the explanation of things like this involves "corporate greed." The idea is that in a normal world, corporations are happy to make a moderate amount of money, and prioritize other things like worker well-being and so on. So the problem is that "greedy" corporations are trying to make a lot of money, instead of a moderate amount of money. And so they can't prioritize anything else.

As I've explained before, I think this explanation is inaccurate and possibly naive. In a modern capitalist marketplace context, the pressures toward efficiency are enormous. If you're less efficient, you'll just get run out of town by some other organization that can offer the same product for a lower price. In fact, this is just what we've seen over and over again, with smaller retailers going out of business because Amazon, Walmart, and so on are so hyper efficient. So: often it's efficiency or die.

I don't know whether we ought to do anything about the slack-freeness involved in things like having no planes sitting around unused. Fewer and more packed airplanes is actually better from the environmental point of view.

But when it comes to workers, my sense is that the slack-free workplace is horrible for people. It creates jobs that are massively stressful and ruin people's health and well-being. It illustrates something we've talked about before: that what is efficient when you're measuring money is not always what is "efficient" at producing good outcomes overall -- assuming "good outcomes" includes personal well-being and happiness of people.

Given the competitive nature of capitalism, it seems to me any solution will have to be systemic, and will have to involve labor laws, worker organizations and so on. Given that the bus driver's union Unifor Local 4303 retweeted a link to this webpage, about fairness in labor laws, including a comment about how "fair work schedules" means "2 week's notice," I'm guessing they're thinking the same sort of thing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Humanities Teaching Is Difficult And Time-Consuming

Before I studied philosophy, I studied math. I was working on a PhD in set theory when I became less interested in how-do-you-prove-the-theorem and more interested in questions like what-does-it-mean-if-you-can't-prove-or-disprove-the-theorem?

Among other things, this means that before I started studying philosophy I spent a certain amount of time teaching mathematics. I started as a teaching assistant for introductory courses like Calculus and Statistics, and then I was a teaching assistant for more advanced courses like Differential Equations, and then toward the end I taught a few classes myself, including one on how to do mathematical proofs.

Math is hard. But I found teaching mathematics to be mostly straightforward and rewarding. Students are usually externally motivated to learn: they want to do physics, or engineering, or more advanced math, or whatever, and to do it they have to learn some math. Except in the case of bogus requirements -- like baby calculus for no reason for majors like business to "weed out" students they didn't like  -- the importance and relevance of the subject was relatively obvious.

At the level of undergraduate teaching at least, math is also coherent and unchanging. Because of the nature of the subject, the same kinds of things confuse people, and similar kinds of questions arise again and again. Once I had explained concepts like limits, differentiation, and integration a few times, the ideas were cemented in my head in such a way that very little teaching preparation was required.

On top of everything else, because math is obviously difficult, a teacher's ability to break down difficult concepts to make them seem simple earns them great respect. And this was something I was relatively good at.

Several years into the process of studying for a PhD in math I switched to philosophy. I've now been teaching philosophy in one form or another for ... well, a lot of years. And my personal opinion is that teaching philosophy is way more difficult and way more time-consuming than teaching mathematics. I don't have a lot of experience with the other humanities, but it is my belief that the reasons apply to humanities teaching generally.


Those reasons are several. For one thing, math seems difficult and a teacher is there to make it seem simpler, but in the humanities, it's often necessary to start by taking something that seems simple and showing students how difficult it is. I teach ethics, and philosophy of sex and love, and contemporary moral problems, and philosophy of economics. In all of these areas there's a sense in which a student already knows what they think about things, and part of my job is to complicate that -- to raise questions about things that seem obvious, to showcase views that seem counter-intuitive, and to just generally show how many different factors and perspectives can come into play.

This is intellectually difficult, and it can also be emotionally draining. How do you frame the issues when students are coming into the room with very different background assumptions - and you don't even know what those background assumptions are? How do you encourage people to speak up when part of your job is to suggest they might be totally wrong? How, exactly, do you figure out the line between constructively challenging existing beliefs and just being a contrarian pain in the ass?

Some people love the way humanities thinking challenges them, but other people find it exhausting and annoying. Sometimes science students in my ethical thinking class tell me how frustrated they are by the lack of a "right answer" in philosophy. I sympathize! It can be frustrating as hell. Unfortunately, the problems we're talking about are the ones that don't have straightforward answers, so it's the best we can do to muddle through.

Another factor, of course, is the variation and unpredictability of what kinds of things are going to come up. The social and cultural world we're living in makes different things seem obvious in different times. Even just contingently there are classrooms where one thing seems really important that didn't seem important to some other group.

This variation and unpredictability is, of course, part of what makes humanities teaching so important, relevant, engaging, and fun. But it also means that while teaching an interactive mathematics class can feel like a going through a play you're performed a thousand times, teaching an interactive humanities class can feel like a high-wire act where the tricks are constantly changing.

And finally, of course, there's grading. While mathematics grading can be time-consuming (when I did it, we didn't just grade yes-or-no, we looked at student work for partial credit) it's not like grading a paper -- work that combines engaging with someone's novel ideas and helping them toward an amorphous goal like "writing well." As we've discussed before, it takes a lot of time and energy, and it's not something you can scale up.

A few times recently I happened to be in large university group settings, where people were coming from a range of disciplines. And in that context, I heard some remarks about how, from the point of view of the sciences, what we humanities might regard as a large-ish class -- like, 50 or 100 students -- is to them a very small class. No one said it, but I felt the suggestion that somehow we humanities people weren't pulling our weight, that what we were doing was some kind of niche thing, cute and nice if you can afford it, but not really where the action is.

And I can't really say, because I have no experience teaching science. I only taught math -- which to me is a completely different kettle of fish. But from my perspective, the time and energy to teach a philosophy class is way more than the time and energy of teaching a mathematics class. Even when the classes are a lot smaller.

None of this is meant as a complaint. I love university students, and I love being around them. I think the people who criticize the younger generation for being phone-obsessed and jobless are wrong and ill-informed, and that today's young people are the hope of the future. I regard helping these young people understand the complex world around them as one of the best things anyone can do.

I'm just saying: for me, anyway, teaching about utilitarianism is way harder than teaching what it means to take the limit as h goes to zero.