Archive for February, 2010


par for the course in Boston

So I parked outside of the meter time in Davis square, and there’s a monsoon on. Rain and wind everywhere. I get back to my car and there’s a ticket on the front of my car, who knows why. Wait, I misspeak. There was the remnants of what was a ticket on the front of the car, but since it was placed on my car during a torrential downpour, it had disintegrated. Thanks Boston, for the weather and the ticket.


democracy and sociality

I’ve written many times in this blog (see here and here) about the importance of arbitrariness in life. Sometimes its good that we are forced to read a news article we wouldn’t ordinary read (because it comes in a package of news stories that we bought for other reason), just as its good that we are forced to talk to strangers we don’t know or walk with people that don’t run in our social circles. These lesson apply even more broadly; a good human life is one that responds to arbitrariness. A world that we could completely structure to suit our needs would be a paradise for the flesh, but a prison for the spirit.

I think one political lesson to be learned from noting this fact (especially about sociality) is that democracy is in tension with judicial resolutions of conflicts. Just as it may be useful for people to have to meet people they normally wouldn’t, sometimes its better for people to have to deal with people they normally wouldn’t. Imagine a country in which every dispute was dealt with in courts. In one sense, this would be good. There would be arguments and reasons and rulings and evidence. But think of what we would lose. Some people already complain about the over-judicialization of American life. Lawsuits and lawyers are everywhere, and the court increasingly takes up more and more questions: deciding elections (Bush v. Gore) and controlling access abortion (a bunch of cases). The point is not that the court is right or wrong on these issues: the point is that an over reliance on the judiciary is just like relying too heavily on facebook to meet people. Yep I said it. I compared the judiciary of our country to facebook, and it’s not a silly comparison.

Think. Sometimes in life, you have to deal with lunatics in situations where things are not perfectly structured. You have to get your neighbor to compromise and turn down their music during the day because you have to nap so you can work the late shift, and no lawsuit will solve this problem. They on the other hand might need you to water their flowers. You just have to work with people. Same with meeting people. You can’t just poke and prod and stalk people; you have to go speak to the person you want to meet. The situation is uncertain. You can’t hide behind electronic curtains, and in fact, things might go horribly awry (trust me, I know), but this is the great value of real sociality; it’s unpredictable, and it tests you.

The same is true of democratic systems versus legal systems. If everything we do is structured by contracts, lawsuits, and lawyers, day-to-day life. Just as surely as I have to learn to get along with my insane roommate (who I had to accept because there was no one else, and I needed the cash), I have to learn with my country-mate who lives in Louisiana and believes the opposite of everything I believe. Democracy is the art of compromise and negotiation, where law is about reasons and decisiveness. Democratic discussion is infinitely extendable, and that is it’s great virtue, unless we forgot how to keep the conversation going.


a strange case from bioethics

Here’s a case. You’re a doctor and you have to tell a patient about their options about treatment. However, since having hope is one thing that makes people survive potentially lethal diseases, the doctor has an interesting statistic to tell the patient:

If someone has hope, they have a 15% chance of survival, but without hope, they have only a 5% chance of survival.

However, the doctor knows that telling this statistic to the patient will make him lose hope. The reason is that at best, the patient will die with 85% certainty, which is depressing news. Sure, some patients might react to such a statistic by having hope, but this is psychologically difficult and so unlikely given the situation.

So, the doctor thinks, “if I tell the patient that they have a 50% chance of living and that hope will pull them through, they will be hopeful and so have a 15% of living rather than a 5% chance.”

But this is lying to the patient right? You have to give the patient informed consent about the treatment options they have, don’t you?

But in this case, I don’t think telling the patient false statistics is a lie. Think, a lie is something that is said with the intent to lead someone to a false conclusion. So, pretend I’m mistaken about the weather, and so tell you it’s raining when it’s not. You then believe that it’s raining, which is false, but I just made a mistake, I didn’t lie to you.

The same goes for the doctor. If he tells the patient the false statistics, then he is not intending to deceive them. Rather, its better to think of the lie as a treatment. The doctor has two treatments available to him: the truth treatment or the false treatment, and it just so happens that in this case, the false treatment is better for his patient. Isn’t he required, as a doctor who must look after his patient, to give the false statistics to the patient? If he does give the false statistic, he is not lying because his intent is not to give the patient a false belief, his intent is to get the patient to have a certain mental attitude toward recovery. Sure, a false belief in the patient is a side-effect of telling the false statistics, but it is not the doctor’s intention.

But then, you might say, nothing is a lie because don’t all likes aim at getting the person being lied to either do or not do something on the basis of the lie. No one lies, just so the person has a false belief. Well fine then, maybe the doctor does lie: he needs to get the patient to have a false belief so that the patient does something in his own interest. Still though, the lie should be thought of as a treatment, and on what grounds can the doctor forgo the best treatment to the patient? Doctor’s shouldn’t lie, but they shouldn’t pick suboptimal treatments either.

Still, there is the issue of the original treatment. Can the doctor administer chemo or whatever if he can’t truthfully tell the patient its risks/rewards? Again, I think this is just a treatment issue masquerading as a truth telling issue. Why is the doctor required, under the truth telling doctrine, to reduce the effectiveness of what he thinks is the best course of treatment (lie + whatever procedure the lie is supposed to be about)? He has an obligation to do what’s best for the patient.


a dilemma for the future media

Many arguments are put forward as disjunctions. Either A or B, where both A and B lead to the same conclusion.

Here is an argument of this form that relates to the media in this country. It is based on the assumption that distribution costs for media content are becoming alarmingly small.

1. Either you monetize distribution of your news content or you do not.

2. If you monetize distribution of your news content, then your news sucks because you have to cater to people with money. In other words, news has to become entertainment to pay for itself (see, all cable news), and the content can no longer have any independence.

3. you do not monetize your news content, in which case you cannot afford to actually find out any news. You are merely a commentator, a blogger (like me) who just has opinions, but clearly, no news.

Conclusion: there cannot be news in this country.

Is there a third way? Yes. I think news organizations will have to become charities or non-profit organizations. Sure, they’ll have to rely on donations then, but theoretically that will come from people who are interested in the real value of news, not entertainment. In the future, there will be stable organizations who do real research and can pay people to do it. They may have gain the respect of the public….yea right.

More interestingly, just as there are humanitarian disasters, there will be crises of public information demand (when a scandal breaks or a war starts or a bill is being debate, think healthcare), and we may even see donations stream into news organizations as they have streamed in to help Haiti. People may think, “healthcare is a really big issue, we should put some money into the news so that we can figure out how it works.” News organizations will become more like public think tanks, receiving money to research day to day news, but also getting infusions of cash to delve into complex issues of public interest. Of course, as you’re probably thinking, this is pure fantasy, and it clearly is, but the point is that it needs to become a reality if we are going to have any worthwhile information for democracy to make decisions with. Also, for the record, some organizations of the type I am describing are slowly coming into existence. This is a really good thing.


big military again

Not sure why I’m thinking about the size of militaries lately, but here is another reason why an outsized military might be better than one might initially think.

If you spend a lot of money on the military, than your troops are likely to believe that they would prevail in a conflict (I don’t think there were hardly any casualties in the initial invasion of Iraq, though of course a lot of people died afterward). This translates into a higher morale and might reduce the marginal cost of recruiting and retaining personnel (retention saves a lot of money because you get gains to experience and you don’t have to train new people all the time).

Not sure the best way to put this in strictly economic terms, but essentially, I think it indicates that above a certain point, there are increasing returns to scale of the military, at least in regard to this one factor. What I mean is that your first dollar is probably really effective. Having a military versus not having one probably has huge returns (unless you’re the Swiss), and as spending on the military reaches parity with other countries, each dollar will buy less total security or benefit to your country (so diminishing marginal returns at this point), but if you just keep spending money, then at a certain point, the overwhelming superiority of your forces will lead to a return to increasing marginal returns.

In other words, if the total military budget is $100 dollars, then it might cost $1 to recruit a single new soldier and convince him to stay for a whole tour of duty. But, if the budget is $1000 (and, critically, much higher than the budgets of other countries), then it might only cost $0.50 to recruit and retain that same soldier (he’s not as scared of dying and more comfortable hanging around). This might explain why the US military budget is SO MUCH greater than other countries. Perhaps there was decreasing returns to scale up until a point, but then we reached a level of superiority in which there were increasing returns again, which then caused us to spend EVEN MORE up until a point when marginal returns were decreasing again.


what is desert?

Some people really chafe at the notion, favored by utilitarianism, that there is no such thing as desert, at least in any robust sense. Sure, you are entitled to your property, but only because it’s in general good for people to have some rights to property. Sure, you are entitled to a fair trial and not to be thrown in jail for no reason, but only as long as a rampaging mob wouldn’t make a mock trial resulting in your execution expedient. Under utilitarianism, people just deserve whatever will make the most good. Nothing more and nothing less.

For those who don’t like this picture (like me), it’s worth seeing how powerful the argument actually is. Of course we are upset when we find out about someone who is punished unfairly, even when the punishment was for the better. We say something like “you can’t just do that to someone!”

But is our notion of desert symmetrical? We don’t like it when an innocent person is made worse off for no reason, but do we protest when someone is made better off for no reason? Not really. We think to ourselves “lucky them.”

But is that right? I’m going to reveal a seemingly angry part of my psychology to make a point (I not really this bitter). Sometimes, and maybe you think this too but don’t like to admit it, we see some really obnoxious people living the high life without any justification. This happens very often with the children of rich people. They’re out, dressed to the nines with every conceivable amenity at their fingertips, just generally being snobby and pretentious. Is there not some part of us that recoils and whispers silently “you don’t deserve that happiness.” Then, we often tell ourselves a long and detailed story about how such people aren’t TRULY happy, because, say, their psychology is burdensome. But this is just a lie we tell ourselves. There are genuinely obnoxious and malicious people who are happy, and who have every advantage. Should we wish ill on them; a pox on their kingdom?

Maybe we should. I’m not sure. This is certainly what egalitarians believe. They believe that equality is intrinsically valuable, and so advocate raising the poor because they don’t deserve their poverty. However, they also believe in lowering the rich, because they don’t deserve their wealth (see this post).

So there is at least this similarity, but maybe this just shows that equality trades on our notion of desert unfairly. With a real theory of desert in hand, we might be able to say which people should be leveled down and which should get to enjoy their talents/wealth/beauty/whatever.


achievement and competition

As a society, we have lost contact with the value of excellence. On the one hand, we have diluted it to mere market rhetoric. When I searched the other day for books about competition, I found business strategy tomes about how to make my business more competitive and how to help it survive in the global marketplace.” Yawn.

I tried searching for books about “excellence” and “achievement” and all I found were books about how to make my children try hard in school or how to start living my best life now. Damn.

The only place I could find something half-way serious about the value of competition was in a book about sportsmanship, and unfortunately, in the state of our culture, this is a metaphor I have to lean most heavily on.

There is an excellence that comes out of competition; out of facing other people and trying to do them harm or to dominate them. I’m using such heavy-handed words because the critique of competition in all spheres comes couched in terms of the importance of cooperation and the psychological damage that confrontation must inevitably create. The critique of competition asks “why can’t we just all get along?” But people forget that the paradigm examples of excellence are not malicious and not economic. In competitive situations, excellence is created communally. It emerges out of the willpower of all the participants, and these displays are impressive.

The good sport does not congratulate his defeated opponents for show or out of a sick desire to gloat. No, the victor in a hard fought competition is genuinely impressed with his competitors and most of all, he is honored to have such had such a challenge presented to him. On the other side, the loser is of course devastated by loss, but they too are excited and invigorated merely to have been the opponent for the victor; merely to have shared the same stage.

Competition does not have to do with firms and achievement does not have to do with grades. Both words are value categories that express important truths about human greatness, and our culture has forgotten their lessons.