Archive for the 'Equality' Category


Secret Life of the “High 5”

It’s not secret actually, because it’s on wikipedia, but it’s just a classic case of how the richness of the world can really overwhelm you when bother to focus on any one part of it.

Just reading the bare facts of how the high five supposedly originated brings to mind all sorts of questions. It probably originated in sports — that seems likely, but then one wonders how essential the “high” part of the “high 5” is. Is the high five somehow different than the low five? Before you answer, know that the low five was an African American tradition that clearly came before white people. Did white culture have to make the high five “high” to sanitize it and make it uniquely white or appropriate to white people.

And how does this fit into a pattern of cultural appropriation (I would love to read some who seriously took up the issue of cultural appropriation, the world over, from the Elgin marbles to whatever else — embarrassing that I don’t have that many examples)? After all, think of the history of rap, jazz, and today, the question about the N* word. Is it ok if white people appropriate that too, even if they do in fact intend to use it in it positive valence?

Also, consider the SEXUAL history of the high five. One of the most documented claimants to be the first high five was between Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke. Burke transformed the sign into a gay pride expression in San Fran.

In one sense, one thinks that its wonderful and happy that a cultural sign for gay pride is taken on by the wider culture. After all, this type of diffusion is how progress is made in respecting various groups. But when one uses the word “appropriation” one can see a different side to these things.

Endlessly interesting, was the high five taken from gays and blacks, or was it adopted as an affirmation of the activity and indirectly, those who generated it. Without knowing the whole history, I would wager its the latter. There is nothing better for progress then to have a disenfranchised group become “cool.” The risk is that the group will be exploited by cultural forces (im sure some black artists have had this happen to them), but on the whole, I think sex and cool often work for the better in these situations (think of how important it was for civil rights when the supreme court said that black people and white people could date. In history, nothing brings races together like physical attraction. This too can be abused, but on the whole I’m high on sexual and cultural mixing.)


Other People are like Galaxies

I’m reading Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Emile, which is his lengthy text on how to raise someone to be a happy and capable adult. A lot of the advice is interesting. He thinks humans are happiest when their desires are in harmony with their needs so that they can get the things that they want.

Rousseau also thinks that society as we know it is corrupt and invites us to puff up our desires with vanity (Famously, Rousseau, being French, calls vanity “amour propre”) and attention seeking. This distorted form of society makes us get on a treadmill of desire fulfillment that we can never get off of. Permanent unhappiness is the result.

But Rousseau also has the idea that there is something shocking and difficult about “living in society,” i.e., interacting with other people. His proposal is that children should be raised far away from other people so that they have no notion of trying to please others or needing to be pleased by then.

There is something to this idea, though it may not be satisfactory in every dimension. Here is how it might be valuable.

Today I learned the life story of someone I had met before, but only briefly. It was quite incredibly, which is to say, no different than any life story (I find then all incredible). This guy had lived in an extremely violent environment as a young man. He saw his friends shot, random people beat up. Drugs and crimes of every kind. Yet he got out of his neighborhood and became a philosopher. He liked death metal as a boy, and almost couldn’t become a philosopher because of his fear of public speaking and flying. What a life, and so different than mine. And hence the title of this post. Whenever I meet someone new and learn a good deal of their history, I feel the same way that I feel when I look into the night sky. The feeling is one of wonder and awe. When I look at the stars, I think that I am a very small part of a very enormous universe. When I meet someone new, I feel that I am one sliver of the human experience.

This feeling, without the right training, can be daunting. How should one react to others? Tolerance of some type is a virtue, but how are we psychologically prepared for it. It’s not a given that we will be able to appreciate the life of someone else without losing our grip on our life. People who are xenophobic cannot handle the different ways that people things, and so demonize that way of life. This is a common reaction to difference. Others become relativists. After seeing difference, they reach the conclusion that their own way of living is somehow unimportant or not as fully justified as it was before. Others can become jealous (“you did that? How amazing…”) And so we can see that to appreciate difference for its vastness and immensity without losing one’s commitment to “me and my life” requires skill.

Rousseau’s idea is that part of a good upbringing is one that allows a person to remain in touch with his or her own way of life without forcing him or her to simply reject other life paths.


People are attacking Limbaugh’s Comments the Wrong Way

Rush Limbaugh smeared Sandra Fluke with one of the oldest and most gendered of allegations; he called her sexually promiscuous.

This was deeply offensive to just about everybody, but most of the responses I’ve seen to this comment are about how women use contraception for other things. The claim is, effectively, that Sandra Fluke is not a whore for wanting birth control because women use birth control to prevent things like polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, and other reproductive diseases. But what if Sandra Fluke did want birth control for sex? What if she wasn’t concerned about those diseases and wanted to have sex with more people. Would she be a whore then? Would it be right for her to ask for such contraceptives? This is the questions that I think feminists should be asking.

Put another way, imagine that scientists invented a pill that prevented all of these reproductive diseases, but that the pills did not prevent pregnancy. Imagine also that preventative, medicinal pills were provided to all women free of charge. Would women in this fictional world have any right to ask for contraception on top of the first type of pill? Would women have a right to ask for others to pay for their contraception, solely used to prevent pregnancy?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question, but it’s much less inflammatory and puts the issue much more clearly. I for one think that women are at a disadvantage in many situations when asking a partner to use a condom. They also bear the consequences of accidents much more highly (even when both parties are being conscientious). So, subsidizing contraception for women would effectively allow them to have more sex, and to have it with the same flexibility and confidence that men have when they have sex (with a condom for example). The argument here would be that sex is an important value in someone’s life and that society should take steps to make sure women can have it in the same way as men.

I don’t think that is a bad result, but notice that it’s not an argument anyone is making. No one is standing up and saying “Sandra Fluke should have contraception because she’s a college student and wants to have more sex.” There’s a real lesson here about the bounds of argument, and what counts as a legitimate point in debates about women can and can’t do.


It should be illegal to inherit anything?

Megan McArdle at the Atlantic is really impressing me these days. Check this out: she argues that people should not be able to inherit anything. If rich grandaddy wants to give me money, he has to do it while he’s alive: he’s got to give me a gift. He cant’ just hold it in abeyance and have it turned over to me after he dies.

This isn’t really that new of a concept, and in fact some libertarians endorse it as a way to make people entitled to only what they “earn.” (scare quotes because what you earn is really hard to determine I think). Many liberals also like it because it seems to go after rich people and takes all their money away before they can give it away to their spoiled grandkids.

But there are a lot of issues. McArdle looks at the economic effects and claims that such a tax might be economically non-optimal because parents will work less hard because they can’t give away the excess that they don’t use when they die. Of course, kids will work harder, because that pepsico heir taking Econ 001, “the economics of being rich as hell” will have to get some real skills and make his own way. McArdle rightly says that parents are more productive than kids so the fire that is lit under the asses of kids would hardly make up for the slacking that would result from adults. But even that is a little deceptive. What if parents, rather than working less, expend more money on their kids while they’re alive. For instance, I could see a no-estate tax world filled with colleges that provide healthcare, career services, guaranteed jobs on campus after school, and a pension. These colleges would cost 400,000 over four years, but parents would pay them as a way of making sure their kids are safe and protected after they die. This transfer from savings to increased investment while alive would almost surely be economically inefficient. Better to save money to be used when needed rather than find ridiculous uses for it all before one dies. Think, if you had to spend all your money tomorrow, how happy could you really make yourself than if you could spend it over a period of a year, for example? Your happiness wouldn’t increase that much after you bought that first new car and the penthouse suite at all the las vegas casinos. There is only so much you can consume at once.

But one really good effect that McArdle doesn’t talk about, is that rich people would all of a sudden become very interested in the wider social world. If you can’t guarantee that your kid will live off your money, you might start to care about medicare and social security and take an interest in these policy problems. At the margins, you might even start to care more about things like the public school system (if you have a young kid and are afraid you might die soon). The public world would likely benefit from elite attention rather than indifference (or would elites make things even worse if they trained their eyes on social problems?)

There are a bunch of deeper philosophical questions too. One is: is the problem with rich people giving their money to their kids that they are giving some people a leg up who didn’t work for that leg up, or is it there something special about the way inheritance goes to people I value and not other people in need. What if, when I died, I put in my will that my fortune was to be given to a random person living below the poverty line. Should the government be able to tax away to its coffers. It really reinvigorates the whole debate about people’s entitlement to their money in any case. A 100% estate tax would basically that any money I don’t spend is de facto tax money. But why? What if I want my fortune to go to HIV research and not the USFG? See, I think the 100% estate tax gets some of its umph from the idea that people who benefit their own kids are blue-blooded selfish bastards who want to perpetuate a family lineage where a lot of people have first names like “Dale” and “Sebastian.”

HOWEVER, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, I think society should be thought of as a competition. Not a cutthroat, war of all against all type of competition, but like a basketball game; a fair but somewhat antagonistic arena where greatness can emerge and each participant can be honored for their good faith attempt to be great. So, I think an estate tax would further that goal, of making sure each person was put into a position where they are pushed to succeed for themselves. For the same reason I cringe when I see a parent spoiling their kid, I cringe when I see someone getting inordinate resources from their parents, and this means I cringe many times at myself, since I’ve been the beneficiary of their generosity. I’m not saying everyone has to fend for themselves. I think welfare, education and medicare, and on and on are similar to salary caps and free agent restrictions: they ensure everyone gets a shot to compete.


Just Shooting Some B-Ball

Yo Homes, Fresh Prince intro.

I played basketball for the first time in a while, and if one is willing (to waste time with excessive ratiocination), even the simplest experiences have a treasure trove of lessons.

Here are a few. First, I experienced, for the 100th time, the importance of competition and why I find it philosophically interesting. When you’re playing a complex game, you’re reacting to the environment in a seamless, uninterrupted way, but it would be wrong to say that you’re just reacting or following impulse. Rather, you’re reading situations and constructing patterns, as well as reasoning in a kind of background, non-conceptual way. But this is old hat.

Here are two other lessons.

1. I played three games. In the second game, our opponents were not very good, but the team we had beaten in the previous game were. The good team was waiting and resting while we beat up on the bad team. I was conscious of my desire not to expend too much energy beating up on the bad team so that we could beat the better team when they came back into the game. The point is that I wonder how NCAA teams must feel. My experience suggested to me that the temptation to “look ahead” to the next round is VERY REAL, and I think could be said to have a measurable effect on what players do. In a way, thinking ahead is very dangerous, because competing almost inevitably requires that one give oneself over to the task at hand completely. There are no half-measures.

On the other hand, playing so many games in such a short time has very real consequences and issues like rest and injury can definitely play a role. Perhaps coaching is what allows one to bridge the gap between these extremes. Perhaps well coached teams are able to ratchet down their energy WITHOUT ratcheting down their intensity.

2. There are often arguments about to what extent men and women are the way they are because of society or genetic makeup. Usually the subject matter is women, and some say that women have certain attributes that are resilient to many types of social organization. These traits often include being more nurturing and emotional (and many people immediately say that because women are emotional, they are not rational. I could not disagree more, and in fact, I hope people who read this blog on a regular basis can see how the argument might go.).

But how much is the “nature” of women malleable by the institutions that we create and sustain jointly in a complex society. I think a lot, and I think this is an optimistic result, because it means that some types of devaluing of the sexes (men are devalued too in some ways) are correctable if we can correct our institutions.

My evidence is that in one of the basketball games there was a girl (woman? she was like 22) who played. Now, first things first: girls who play in pick up basketball games earn my respect immediately, because personality and attitude aside, girls ARE usually smaller, and so to bang around in a serious basketball game takes a lot of courage. Not to mention the “gender” specific difficulties that arise.

This girl though, who was flirting coyly with one of the players before the game, changed completely once the game started. I won’t say she became manly, because that’s the whole point — I don’t think that basketball is gendered. But she did conform herself to the conventions of a competitive game among equally matched players. How so? Well, there are a lot of subtleties in a pick up game. When to call a foul, how to react when someone else calls a foul, and how to behave at the end of a game. When you win, you need to shake the hands of the losers — not doing so is an obvious snub. BUT, being too friendly with someone who lost after you won is the patronizing and insulting. The middle ground is delicate, but its EASY TO FIND, if you know how this sort of thing works.

And my point is that this girl knew how things worked. She knew how to check the ball in the right way, dispute the score, and the appropriate type of chatter during the game. She also knew how to PLAY, which doesn’t hurt, but even that in a way is a learned skill. If girls are so caring, how is it that this girl was terrorizing everyone (ok terrorizing is an exaggeration, but she played well) with a VERY competitive intent in her eyes.

Bottom line, people grow and expand into the opportunities you give them, and most institutions, when they are running well — which is to say, close to their IDEAL manifestations — then all people can be induced to act so as to take advantage.

In my mind, pick-up basketball games with a reasonable group of people approach the ideal of competition, in which there is no referee because one is not needed. A group of people come together with the honest goal of defeating one another (the killer instinct) WITHIN a set of rules that lay out how each person is to be treated. The result of participating in this framework is an elevated character.



Contradiction in our gender attitudes

One thing I find fascinating is the way that our personalities and micro-level concerns help to contribute to shaping in society in ways that bolster those various traits and reward them. We consciously shape our world all the time by intervening in it, but we unconsciously shape it in our image through various means as well.

When it concerns gender roles in society, we need to wake up to our own actions and they so often contradict with our words. The example that spurred this particular post is the way that some men get angry because women are attracted to power or money. It’s a common refrain among men in their more private moments that women are gold diggers or always go for the bad boy or the asshole.

In the same breadth that men say that though they are unconcerned with the fact that women get lower wages, are often treated as less competent, and forced into roles that are domestic and subordinate. For example, in the far past (I’m talking like 200-300 years) the social system was incredibly discriminatory and a woman without a man to bring home and wield certain legal privileges on her behalf had a VERY hard life. The isn’t true to the same extent today, but insofar as we make it hard for women to earn respect and money, we make them dependent on men for those things. In other words, our culture reaps what it sows. If we treat women as objects, or adornments, or housewives, then we get women who need financial support, emotional protection, and constant affirmation. We inhabit the society we create.

That’s why, I think many men who have money, power, or a generally controlling disposition toward the other people they meet are often very defensive when it comes to issues involving sex and gender. The reason is that a society of dependent and marginalized women suits their needs; in such a society they can command sex and affection from women for their attributes.

For all the other, more normal guys out there who flourish on companionship and mutual respect, a time of recognition is it hand. People have to recognize that they control the society that they live in and if they treat women as equals by giving them power, wealth, and responsibility when they deserve it, then the result is a more equal society and women who need not pander to the inequities of our culture.



Soda Welfare

A friend sent me this piece about New York City’s recent attempt to prevent food stamps from being used to buy sweetened drinks like soda on the idea that the public is simply financing health problems for the destitute. The article comes in response to a recent op-ed written by the health commissioners of both New York State and City respectively (see here for a considered economic analysis of fat tax type measures by Richard Posner).

What I find interesting about the policy to prevent food stamps from being used for sugary drinks is that it’s hard to see how the policy is either a) not justified or b) justified on grounds that would warrant its extension to more parts of the populace.

Consider the question of why NYC thinks this policy is worthwhile. Is it better for the actual people receiving food stamps and now use them to buy sugary drinks? Well, the people presumably take some pleasure in these drinks and are currently consume these drinks despite their deleterious affects on health. If we assume the poor are rational consumers, then we are effectively lower their overall welfare (according to a subjective view of welfare). But maybe the poor, like the rest of us, do not make decisions about our health rationally or perhaps we purchase with imperfect information about how damaging these drinks really are, in which case the justification for the policy is the health of the people buying these drinks. But if health is the goal of the policy, to be achieved by taxing a harmful activity, then taxes should be put in place so that the regular populace can also benefit from these measures (and be disincentivized to drink these harmful drinks). I hope the implication is not that only the poor are behaving irrationally with regard to sugar drink consumption.

Another point is that the government should not be spending money to help people continue to do something harmful, but this raises an interesting question of why we give people money at all. Do we give food stamps because we want poor people to have more PLEASUREFUL lives, because if that’s the reason, then we’re contradicting that goal by denying them the sweet release of a sugary soda (again, on the view that pleasure is determined by willingness to pay). Or do we give food stamps to poor people because we want them to live HEALTHIER lives, in which case the sugary drink restriction policy would be justified.

There is also a repeated mention of the money that obesity costs the public. Sugary drinks = obesity = various diseases like diabetes and heart disease = taxpayer dollars. Here too though, if tax dollars are lost to obesity, then we should be using a tax to recoup those lost dollars in ALL segments of society.

Anyway, I’m kind of vaguely dancing around the main question here, which is: why do we give poor people money so that they can eat and how does that goal interact with this soda policy? Are we trying to make the poor as well off as possible, or only ensure they have a certain minimum amount of welfare, or make sure that they can DO certain things, or make sure they are to a certain degree HEALTHY. All of these notions are separate.

These are tough questions, but my answer is this: I think we give money to the poor so that they can participate in society on equal footing with other people, and this means the money must go primarily not toward making poor happier (as if we could just buy a lot of cocaine for them, or some more sophisticated sedative) but toward making them be able to healthily participate in society (and not be obese and not sick), to be able to learn skills (education), impact our government (vote and have their voices heard).

Toward this goal, I think the policy of NYC is justified. The goal of the policy is to make public dollars maximally translate into able-bodied and capable citizens, and that’s why food stamps already don’t go to alcohol. The rest of public money should go to helping poor people purchase the things they need to be active members of society, so housing, healthcare, education, and food are obviously justified. Still, there will be some who are so ineffective at making use of these opportunities and so fall into miserable lives, and the government should not let these people languish in their suffering, but programs designed to address these people will not be based at ability to participate in society but in overall welfare or happiness.