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IYI: I’m going to adopt a particular innovation in notation, created (as far as I know) by David Foster Wallace. It goes like this: most of what I’m writing is pretty straightforward and I’ll cover pretty much everything eventually. If I’m talking about something a little abstruse that’s tangential enough that it doesn’t warrant further elucidation, like, right away, then I’ll mark it “if you’re interested”—IYI—before the section to set it off. These are what I think are interesting or important, but not essential, qualifications or excursions.

Two of the things I’ve always been interested in are closely related — desirelessness and effortlessness. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to articulate their connection, in my mind, and why I think it can be so advantageous to cultivate both senses.

I have essentially two goals in life: to be happy and to make the world a better place. You can think of these as products. The first is creating my own happiness and the second is creating, fostering, supporting happiness in everyone else.

IYI: Defining “happiness” is pretty tough, but kind of important. I don’t mean contentment and I don’t mean short-term pleasure. The best definition I’ve come across for what I mean is more properly referred to as “eudaimonia” or “doing and living well.” Economists might refer to it as “utility,” although revealed preference makes the definition of utility endogenous, and I definitely don’t mean “whatever the underlying thing is that I’m evidently optimizing for,” because one of the things I’m trying to do is transform my utility function so that it becomes an eudaimonia-maximization function. As noted in the little part in the Wikipedia page that discusses Elizabeth Anscombe, this has the advantage of “ground[ing]  morality in the interests and well being of human moral agents …without appealing to any questionable metaphysics.” = Yay! IYI2: My personal morality differs from my prescriptive morality, so this is more a benchmark for me, rather than a standard to which I hold other people, about which more later, perhaps.

These seem reasonable enough that I’d like to teach Violet what I’ve discovered vis-a-vis happiness-production technologies when she begins to start thinking about how to produce happiness in herself and others.

If you’re someone who has ever struggled with motivation, then I find one of the easiest ways to be productive is to do things of value that don’t feel like work. One of the best ways to be happy is to want the things you have, and to extract as much enjoyment from them as possible. These approaches use desirelessness and effortlessness as inputs to production. I think of them as expanding on the intensive margin.

And this is why effortlessness and desirelessness are so useful and important on a personal level: A. they’re cheap, B. they’re sustainable, and C. they’re investments in human capital–improvements in production technology–so expenditure on them isn’t burned, it’s stored and reused. Like everything else, they’re subject to diminishing marginal returns, but when you think of the emotional depth and maturity of the average human being, I think we still have some pretty low-hanging fruit here.

For a parent, they’re great as well. They encourage your kid to seek internal validation rather than measuring her success by the amount of stuff she has or the amount of money she earns. They teach your kid to naturally follow a course to find interests that feel consonant with a coherent worldview, ethic, aesthetic, and eventually choice of career and lifestyle. Finally, for parent and child, they make it so you never get panicky or string yourself too thin, so you have untapped emotional reserves to ride out the vicissitudes of life.

At the same time, I think it’s important that these aren’t confused with laziness and self-abnegation. They sure are a nice alternative to solipsism or materialism or consumerism, though. One way to solve this problem, I guess is to want the things I will have, and to enjoy the wait.

So yeah: work to want the things I have and to want to do the things I must, and live my best life. More on my experience with this later.

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Another really amazing class. The material was very critical of Unitarian Universalism in a really insightful and responsible way, and it really gave me a new sense of depth on the foundations of our institution and on the challenges we face as a community. I’m very new to the UU thing, so I have a bit of a tin ear to the internal monologues common to UU-ers, but I got the sense that there was a sense of skepticism, interest and critical thought among the group tonight–which is pretty much what I think you shoot for in a class like this.

The material for today’s class was:

David E. Bumbaugh – On Being a Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Anthony David – Torn Between Unitarianism and Universalism

Anthony David – A Unitarian Universalist Creation Myth

Before class started, I started thinking about the material we read before class and drawing up a little mental map for myself about “born-again-ness”, and mostly came up with stuff about devotion and diversity–devotion to making faith and metaphysics a central part of life and diversity in the sense that it is no longer compartmentalized into a small segment of life, but instead covers all aspects of your life.

I started making a list of questions that would go on the “faith form”: who are you, where are you, what were you, what will you become, where will you go, why are you here, etc. I then started thinking about meta-questions. “Is the individualistic paradigm a valid approach to these metaphysical questions?” “Does ‘who am I?’ even makes semantic sense?” “Upon what assumptions are my fundamental questions predicated?”

That was as far as I got, more or less, and then class started.

As an ice-breaker, we paired up and tried to come up with UU signature aspects. I was a little disappointed in myself, I think. I went for the ingathering of the waters, which has deep and personal meaning for me, but it was right there at hand, and I feel like I would have earned more for trying harder.

(The summer after freshman year, when I went to the river and moved rocks and smoked cigarettes with my pant legs rolled up and tried to find a place to fit–it’s worth writing about some time in here, as a lot of my analogues derive from what I learned moving rocks and changing the course of the river.)

The majority of the class was about the “ghosts” that haunt our Unitarian Universalism and the reading on a creation myth started us off–the driving force there being that as a tradition derived from a standing order church continues to feel a compulsion to serve everyone within the sound of its bell.(which, upon further review, is an interesting economic institution. The argument was that the presence of the church was a Public Good, and so in order to solve the freerider problem, taxation was used to support the church…makes economic sense, but violate the principle of separation of church and state)

While the idea of ghosts was by no means intended to be negative, I argued that ghosts are unavoidable in a liberal religious tradition. Insofar as liberal religious traditions take pains not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” there will always be aspects of the baby that then become our haunting spectres. We call it a church, and neither a mosque nor a synagogue, despite my atheism, for example. That said, I wouldn’t argue that we should just call it a building… In many cases, these ghosts just complicate things, like baroque ornamentation, or other odd architectural features that merely seemed like a good idea at the time. In some cases, though, they can hold us back.

We talked at length about the idea that Unitarian Universalists favor universality rather than particulars, and that this is both a strength and a weakness. At its best, it belies our belief that there are many paths to truth. At its worst, we end up doing nothing but singing songs about how inclusive we are and taking a Noah’s Ark (two of each)–or Pokemon (gotta catch ’em all!)–approach to building a congregation. Rev. David made the very good point that, for all our inclusiveness, we are neither a terribly large nor an incredibly diverse faith tradition. He also noted that megachurches–not renowned for their inclusivity–are among the most culturally diverse faith organizations.

This got me thinking–why do megachurches work?

One reason: trying to get two of everything doesn’t work. Then each person only has one person like them in the congregation. Try getting 150 of every type of person and suddenly you have a diverse community where everyone feels like they have someone to talk to. So sheer scale can help a lot.

At the same time, I think there is an irony to inclusiveness. By valuing our inclusiveness so much, we effectively become a very exclusive congregation: we only attract people who can stand to be around strangers, people who are themselves personally inclusive. So by trying to include lots of kinds of people, we end up only attracting one kind of person–the inclusive kind. Consequently, we are a pretty exclusive bunch.

Megachurches only attract one kind of person as well–those willing to embrace conformity, within certain bounds. They, too, are an exclusive bunch.

As conformity has historically been favored by evolution, and as a willingness to embrace strangers is sort of a freakish mutation (although one I value greatly), it’s not surprising that megachurches have a larger draw than UU congregations. (I have to say, though, I think UU has a lot more to offer many people than they realize, and at least some of this difference is certainly due by a relative difference in willingness to evangelize.)

We talked about a bunch of other stuff, but as I’ve got a TychoCelcchu CoH shoutcast (don’t ask–it’s dorktacular) burning a hole in my desktop, I’m gonna wrapt this up pretty soon.

So, the last thing on my mind is the idea of questions as ends in themselves. We talked about this briefly in class, but I think about it a lot. We require at least tentative answers to take actions, but without negative capability (or omniscience), we will have trouble drawing a conclusion without certainty, and trouble being okay without a conclusion.

When the nagging need for answers gnaws at us, we have to either embrace doubt (this is especially integral for undecideable propositions, the definition of which I torture into including such questions as “Does God exist?” and “Does free will exist?) or turn to faith. In truth, I think doing both is the best course of action. Without at least a tentative answer, we cannot act. In order to arrive a tentative answer in a morally responsible way, we have to move past doubt to take a leap of faith; that said, in order to arrive at a tentative answer in an intellectually responsible way, we have to remember that we doubt our faith, and thus that the answer can only be tentative. More on this later, for sure.

Another heck of a class.

I just had a few thoughts in the shower this morning and wanted to elaborate on my reinterpretation of the concept of sin. As I interpret sin, the idea of “original sin” and the “fallen state of man” have radically different interpretations, in that they become almost tautological. This is to say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is literally equivalent to the statement “Nobody’s perfect.” The denotation is pretty similar (although I don’t believe in the existence of the divine except insofar as it represents an humanly constructed ideal to which we all strive), but the connotation is incredibly different.

In particular, human conscience is fundamentally correct, but limited by our human fallibility. That human fallibility is the source of our essential triumphs, our ability to appreciate our brief existence for its scarcity, and our ability to work together to transcend our individual mortality and fallibility to be better version of ourselves and achieve greater goals than any of us could achieve individually before we shuffle off this mortal coil. By the same token, that fallibility is the source of many of our shortcomings, as we underestimate the risks inherent in future tasks and make bad decisions based on faulty information, and give in to time-inconsistency of preferences, and fall victim to our lacks of sympathy and foresight.

In my view, though, this “sin” should never be a source of shame–for one thing, without sin, we would each be perfect, and there would be nothing of interest. For another thing, and this is the really important one for me, perfection is simply not feasible–it doesn’t exist outside of our concept of the divine; it’s a stylized model, just like perfect competition or a frictionless vacuum. We don’t expect the world to feel guilt or shame for having friction or air–in fact, while a world without friction might make Newtonian mechanics a little easier to understand, it would be a fundamentally (and, since I love the world we live in, tragically) different world than the one we know and love. It’s not even clear what it means–it’s not internally consistent, because the source of friction is the electromagnetic forces that keep solids coherent and thus a projectile wouldn’t just take a purely parabolic arc in a frictionless world, it would also cease to cohere. All of which is why we ended up coming up with physical models that incorporate friction and electromagnetics and why scientists keep searching for better and more coherent models.

By the same token, I think sin functions much better as a descriptive concept–a heuristic device, really–that allows us to think about the negative space between intention and action, and allows us to engage with these ideas in useful ways. It’s tautological in that “sinful” means “less than perfect” which is to say “possible in our universe.” Wherever there is entropy, there is “sin” in this sense, and it becomes the source of all beauty and love, chaos and complexity and change. Without sin, there is no growth, no progress; all is stagnant and fixed.

So to the extent that “sin” is useful as a concept for thinking about human behavior, I like to make use of it, but I’d really like to see it stripped of its associations with shame. I think all human error derives from our very real and beautiful limitations, which we can come to embrace, accept, and occasionally transcend, but which should not be associated with guilt or recrimination.

I’ve been a full-time stay-at-home dad/full-time grad student for the last five months or so, now, which really mostly means I’m not getting as far ahead on my dissertation as I’d like. That said, thanks to Violet’s near-constant demands for entertainment and my interest in saving my lower back by sitting as much as possible and letting her go unheld as often and long as she’s willing, I can now play guitar–badly, but I can decisively call it playing guitar now, not just whatever it was I did when I held a guitar and interfaced over the last near-decade. I now know all the basic chords and can string them together at will and have memorized a bunch of songs, many of which include at least one drop of the f-bomb. This is complicated.

Many of my favorite songs feature the f-bomb, and at their best, they feature it just the once (the exception that proves the rule: “F$%# and Run” by Liz Phair) , but it serves an essential purpose–it’s either the part of the song where the decrescendo ends and you need to imply that the meaning is still emphatic, even if the sound is not loud, or it’s the part of the song where the crescendo has occurred and the words contain too much denotative meaning to express the necessary, and so only expletives can get the job done, and when one is grasping for an expletive, anything worth doing is worth doing right: hence, f-bomb. (example of the first: “1330 Oak 1995” by Kind of Like Spitting. example of the second: can’t think of it right now–feel free to come up with one of your own and holler if you like)

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I got a mailer on the introduction of FF Meta Serif, which is a font for those out there not into design. It’s exciting because I liked FF Meta a lot, but mostly because now I’m pretty much an economist/dad and I like that I get mail when new fonts are invented.

This isn’t a paid promotion or plug–hell, I bought FF Meta with expenses paid, so I don’t know that I’d pay for it; plus, I’ve never used it. Still, if you want to see what looks like a nice, fat, readable font, go for it: http://www.fontshop.com/features/newsletters/nov2007_a/

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Now, for what I intended originally to write about. Cheryl and Violet and I have become members at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, and it’s been a really great experience so far, a few months into attending. I have an elaborate religious life-story, so I won’t go into it here, except to say that it’s been uniformly positive, and still I’m an atheist. Going to/joining what is, effectively, a church, definitely seemed like a complicated idea–one I bristled against at first when Cheryl said she thought we should try it out.

I comprehended my hesitation a little better during today’s service. There’s a quiet period in the service, an “Invitation to Meditation” is what I believe they call it. As the meditation closes, the minister names those people who are having milestones or hardships so that we may keep then in thoughts/prayers as we see fit. After he says names, everyone is invited to say their own names, out loud or silently. It’s a beautiful ritual, the effect of which is at least to give everyone there a moment in the week to think about the people in their lives and try to figure out if anyone is experienced abnormally great joy or sorrow. I don’t believe in any metaphysical powers of prayer, but I still find I really like it.

Not to mention the “sanctioned” or what-have-you stating of names/events made by the minister, which often involves requests for cards/flowers/visitors/donations/condolences in the case of people in the hospital or grieving and merely information in the case of landmarks.

The rationale of it notwithstanding: today the Rev mentioned a member whose name I had never heard and don’t remember. She had, evidently, after a long and difficult process, successfully brought her adopted 18-month-old daughter home from Nepal.

I’ve been really callous, internally, at least, about international adoption (I have begun/continued to default on really callous, internally, I’ve begun to notice–which is one of the reasons why I sort of need to be part of a spiritually nourishing and challenging congregation) and sort of miserably failed at viewing it as a personal milestone, and seen it more as sort of a weird upper-class white affectation.

It dawned on me today that the brief reference Rev. David was making was a really watershed moment in someone’s life. She had sought out and successfully taken responsibility for a new person. A new person in her life.

A new person! A new person. A real, live, life. A new life. Someone different than everyone else–not even just everyone else you know, but EVERYONE else, ever.

I don’t know–for many people, this may be far less complicated than it is for me. I have spent a lot of spare brain cycles justifying decisions to strip people away, to reduce interpersonal connections. These were people who had other people; I am (or at least have been historically) almost universally unnecessary in the lives of others. This isn’t just a fear of commitment–I’m fine with commitment, which is sort of a well-delineated and totally enforceable contract, the optimal length and terms of which are totally solvable.

To some extent, it has been a question of the best way to climb that mountain.

(That mountain, here, is how to be good–which is sort of the central question of my life, I think.)

When being good is a destination, even if it is a destination in only the most abstract sense, it becomes simple, sometimes, to see other people as hindrances. It’s like trying to go to the movies in large groups. It’s difficult, verging on pointless, at times. It’s just better to all go by yourselves.

This is sort of the dominant meme of personal existence in a lot of our culture, I think, and it’s certainly something I’ve imbibed. The explosion of the nuclear family is in part, a result of this and a cause of this. Growing up, I definitely was urged to move out and move on, as my father had done before me and his before him. The suburban American dream involved perfect labor mobility, a lack of emotional and personal attachment to a place and people and a culture and a tradition.

We are not atomic; we are not built thusly. And people have expectations of us, they place constraints on us, on our hearts, even through no wish or fault of their own. These are the ties that bind, and they sometimes constrict.

More often in my life, if I choose to be honest with myself, people know me better than I know myself. They know my best self, at least, and when I have guests, my house gets clean, and when I cook for other people, I make everything more delicious (the trick is that extra stick or two of butter), and when people disagree with me, I either figure out why I’m right, or find out I’m wrong and then I can be right forreal, forreal.

A new person. I know better now what that means, because I have one of them. In fact, I have lots–not just Violet but new friends, fellow members of the congregation. I was going to say “So often,” but the truth is “Always…” Always, the other people sitting in the service are total ciphers, and not only do I neither know nor care, but I can hardly fathom that they have lives outside those walls, that things happen, that they lie awake at night hoping that they outlive their children, hoping that they get to see all of it, then when they face their own personal end, that it be sweet and not bitter, and that the version of themselves they get to know therein is someone with honor and honesty and decency.

I never really saw other people as keys to that before today–I must have known on some level, because I’ve spent much of my life attaching and detaching–I mean, I am living a full and healthy life (much of which has been rigged in my favor, I’ll admit). I still think of conversation as an unpleasant necessity sometimes, and I think I’ll embrace it more, now.

I’m glad to be necessary, to feel like I have to–like it’s a moral imperative to– sacrifice some of my maximization just to help out, that maybe that’s maxing something else–a better function (by maximizing of course, I really mean blindly staggering generally northward, metaphysically, but the modeling thereof is similar, WLOG, I argue).

A new person. It’s a whole new life opening up ahead of you, every time you engage. And I think I thought it stood as good a chance of being bad as good. I was almost certainly wrong. New people are almost always a boon, a gift; even to brush up against people briefly and tangentially is to live a richer life. As I say that, a part of me I’ve known for a long time rebels, but the evidence is against him, and I don’t know that the argument of experience is enough to quash the force of identity–but it’s definitely a conflict worth embracing.

and your mother, fuhgeddaboutit. Some nights, the bear eats you.

Not much you can do about it.

I’m salvaging a never-posted post from before the summer:

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You’re kicking around in there now and I’m going to DC in less than a month. It’s going to be a long summer away from you and your mom, but it’s all good news–it means I’ll get to be back for the rest of everything, and that we’ll get to live wherever we want someday, I hope.

There’s been a lot of sad stuff going on in the broader world. In the news today, there’s the Virginia Tech shooting, continuing bad news from Iraq, problems in the Department of Justice, the French seem to be drifting creepily rightward. Nonetheless, life is good, on the whole, and especially for us, so let us mourn for others and rejoice and be grateful for ourselves, shall we?

I’m not sure what all I’ve told you so far–it’s hard to remember, exactly, and I’m too lazy to go back and read. You should have faith in people. Kurt Vonnegut died last week, and I keep coming back to that in my head. You’ll probably read all his books, I’m guessing, considering the fact that we have them around. His essays are really my favorite parts. He put little faith in people in the aggregate and a lot of faith in people individually. Probably wise, although, I think he gives us as a whole too little credit.

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Sorry, wandered off there to format data, which is probably good.
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I was thinking about my dad yesterday–his hands used to seem so …fatherly, I guess.

The Mets have the best record in baseball 14 games into the season. I just found pretty robust results that indicate that a 1% increase in the number of skilled immigrants to an area leads to a 2.5% increase in population in that area,
while a similar increase in the number of family preference immigrants leads to a 1.7% increase, both at 5 years out. At zero years out, they both are correlated with a 1.9% increase in population.

It’s exciting. Life is exciting. I hope you feel the same way.

People are kind, generally, and life is exciting. There’s so much to learn. You get to hear Cat Stevens for the first time, and that’s amazing. The same thing with The Promise Ring. You’re going to know the words to Dismemberment Plan songs without trying, the same way I did with James Taylor. You’re going to get to form an opinion about political parties and abstract expressionism. You’re going to go to your first baseball game and learn how to draw and memorize all the lines to your favorite movie.
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That’s all I wrote then, incidentally. It was a sad year, in a lot of ways. Not for us–these are high times in the Treacy-Lenda/Delaney family. Still, the roaring 90s are gone and the 00s, into which you were born, will probably be remembered as a pretty rough decade.

Grammie and Grampie — my Grammie and Grampie, my maternal grandparents, your paternal (patrimaternal? matripaternal?) great-grandparents got to meet you this weekend. We don’t see eye-to-eye on political matters, but we always have fun when we hang out. I think it’s a matter of consumer sovereignty. Grampie seems to maintain the seemingly inconsistent beliefs that people are capable of making good decisions, yet persist in regularly making bad ones. I generally think the reason they make bad decisions is that they’re just intrinsically bad at making decisions. There’s probably more to it than that, but it’s striking sometimes how so subtle a difference plays itself out in political, moral, and ethical views.

It should be a good week. We have rain! Probably not enough to make a dent in what’s apparently a drought of biblical proportions. Nonetheless, I’ll remember this week as The Week we Got Rain. Let’s hope it lasts.

Your mom and I have already started shifting things to accommodate your presence. We’re eating more consciously, sleeping less, paying less attention to the pets, sitting around a lot more, paying more attention to laundry. I splurged for organic milk yesterday. There’s no debt just yet–mortgage and car loan aside–but I have a feeling my grad student stipend won’t cover everything for the next few years. Frugal or not, it’s hard to compromise on stuff for you, kid. Hopefully, lifetime income means we won’t have to.

I heard today that the War in Iraq has cost more than any other war except WWII. That’s a heck of a cost to incur with no perceivable benefit. I wish everyone still hated war. That doesn’t feel like a political view. It feels like hating famine or plague. Who the hell wouldn’t hate war?

It’s been a rough decade: hurricanes, droughts, drugs in baseball, 9/11, the War in Iraq, Virginia Tech, the Bush presidency and Guantanamo Bay, xenophobia, boy bands, rising income inequality. Scientology. The War on Drugs rolls on. There are reasons to hope: the first woman president, maybe, and gay marriage isn’t proving to be a very big deal after all.

I’m feeling stronger about it all. I don’t just want the world to be better, I want it to be better for you, and better to you. I want people to signal before changing lanes and not to tailgate because I’VE GOT A F**KING BABY IN THE CAR. A ball of potential, a life actually worth living. I want you to have to work for it, but having worked for it, I want you to be able to get it. I have faith that you will, and that ten, twenty years from now, the world will be on the upswing, or at least your part of it will be.

Sexism was offensive before, and now it’s personal. Trust me kid; I’ve just met you and already I know: anything they can do, you can do better.

Pickle, my apologies. I have friends who’ve promised me that they’ll lead you astray so that you don’t inherit my vitriol. You’ll probably hear me vent about this stuff occasionally, but I really only want everyone to get along, to behave like we can all be civil, to talk about this stuff with love in our hearts, humility, and a shared goal of making the best life for everyone and believing what we should.

EDIT:

I had a post here earlier, about my atheism and about the ability of animals to reason. They’re all good thoughts, just not ones that I feel the need to share. It’s all just too contentious, and there’s no real point, as far as I can tell, because I’m railing against a silent wall. As a result, I’m cutting it. If anyone is interested, let me know and I’ll re-post it at some point.

I’d rather take a deep breath and say that I care deeply about goodness and I don’t care if you have religion or don’t: I want for you what you want for yourself. I mean that to you, Pickle, but I mean that to everyone else, too. May we all make it home safely.

So. It would appear that people get unhappier around my age and then get happier when they get to retire. More interestingly, Americans seem to be unhappier now than “ever before” defined very loosely. Check it:

The midlife happiness crisis. – By Joel Waldfogel – Slate Magazine

Why are we less happy now than we used to be? Do we know how to be happy?

My hypothesis: Increased opportunity leads to greater chances for failure. Past generations have outstripped any dream they could have had for themselves–explosive economic growth has meant that lives their parents couldn’t have imagined, lives they, as children, couldn’t have imagined, became suddenly possible.

Anecdotal evidence: my grandfather was the oldest of eleven, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Worked three jobs, owned a house and saved enough money to put all five of his kids through college, despite the fact that he died at 55. In a world where life used to mean the same fate as your parents and theirs before them, for a brief period, a lot of people in each generation (5 in my dad’s family alone, not counting my grandfather, who didn’t have 11 kids) outstripped the previous generation.

My dad had a lot of opportunity. He went to Cornell, got a degree in Chemical Engineering. If he and my mom weren’t living in Shanghai, though, their life would be very similar to that of the previous generation. Owning a big house is not that qualitatively different from owning a small house, really–not for two people. All the entertainment in the world can’t provide the same overriding sense of significance and accomplishment, real, deep-seated utility and subjective well-being measurements as expanding your family’s capacity.

So economic pioneers feel really good; that’s my theory. It feels good to cross particular lines, to go from not quite having enough to having enough. There’s a huge utility jump from being unsure you’ll be able to grant your kids the freedom to live as they want to being sure you will.

For a lot of people, those lines are still there, but as a society, we no longer feel ourselves crossing that boundary. The birth of the middle class was a social welfare windfall. If we want to be happy now, we have to work for it.

Religion probably has something to do with it; it’s similar to the opportunity thing. With no opportunity, no one feels like a failure. With opportunity, lots of people do. With religion as a fundamental force in life, people can let things go, acknowledge that there’s not much they can do to change the order of things–God’s will be done. But in the falling-off of religion as an institution and the adoption of religion as life philosophy, people take responsibility for the things they shouldn’t, for the error terms in life. People feel like they are responsible for their outcomes, good or ill.

I don’t think it’s true. I’m not sure that what I’m positing is actually happening, although I think it is. I think people have turned economics into religion, but have ignored the uncertainty. This is the whole point behind “it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game” in my view. If outcomes are y, and effort is x and characteristics are z, we can model outcomes like this: y = a + bx + cz + e. All you can control is your x. A is determined by society at large, z is nature and nurture, and e is sheer random chance. You can’t take credit or blame for y. You can only take credit or blame for x. And that’s not something anyone else can observe, really. Some of it, they can, but only you really know if you did what you could.

And if you do what you can, then for some people, society screws  you. For other, society gives you a leg up. For some people, your genetics screw you; for others, it’s a boon. The error term screws everybody sometimes. For other people, it’s the only reason they’re hanging on. You don’t have to believe in God to “give it up to God.” You just have to admit you’re powerless. I think it makes everybody happier to explicitly acknowledge the existence of the error term.

A problem arises because y is positively correlated with x, and all we get to see is y, and so if we need to hold people responsible for their actions, all we can really hold them responsible for is their outcomes.

Additionally, a problem arises if we’re relying on other people to let us know whether our level of x is sufficient or not. That kind of external measurement is not going to give us a very good estimate of the effectiveness of our level of x. The error term is probably correlated with our level of z and our level of a. So those with preternatural talent or beauty are often congratulated as though they’d expended a lot of effort, while those who try hard and fail are soundly dismissed.

In truth, x and z are probably codetermined, and so we might not be able to assume the two are even separable. This has serious implications for our approach to moral and ethical responsibility in a metaphysical sense, but I think a good justice system should be invariant to metaphysical changes in responsibility–founded on a consequentialist rather than an intentionalist structure. Only you and God know your intentions, and I don’t believe in God, and so I’d support measures to be taken based on what we observe and what we expect, rather than what we think we know.

Happiness is having a good metric of one’s own worth, and a good metric for the extent to which things are out of our control.

Any ideas on experiments or data sets that would help me look at this stuff more is greatly appreciated.

Okay, at this point, it may be oft-quoted, but here goes. Kurt Vonnegut wrote:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you have about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of–

God damn it, babies, you’ve got to be kind. ”

And for that, if for nothing else, I argue the man ought to be revered.

I got to thinking: what do I know? Not a lot, perhaps. What do I think? Well, there’s more of that. And so, in the interest of capturing all my bias and all my wonder and all my world, and in the interest of not having to do any more research than I have to, I’d like to write a little bit discursively, claim it’s fact, be wrong where I may and right where I may, and thus and so the cookie crumbles.

So we are people, kiddo, human beings, which is to say that as far as anyone is able to tell, we are descended from the apes, and we are the only creatures on Earth, at least, that have developed paper airplanes and fake vomit and nuclear weapons and knock-knock jokes. Whether all of this has been for good or ill is a point of some contention, although my contention is that it doesn’t matter all that much, because it is what it is, and, as they say life goes on, and so all our determinations of whether it all comes out in the wash or whether we should take a stand has little effect except to maybe guide the torrential flow, incredibly inertial by Earth standards at least (although probably relatively insignificant on a cosmic scale (which is itself the point of much more contention)), and to make marginal improvements here and there. Mostly such commentary only has an impact on whether you’re enjoying the ride, as far as I’m concerned.

And so, I guess, as far as delusions of grandeur are concerned, my advice would be to steer clear. So much has already happened and so much will that if you really want to leverage your impact, your best bet is to try to maximize your enjoyment. A lot of people are likely to misinterpret that, but there are myriad qualifications and caveats: a good rule of thumb is to look kindly on the classical philosophers who said “in all things, moderation,” not because it’s necessarily the best way to live, but because it’s a good way to ensure that your living is not miserable, or short in supply. That way at least you’ll be able to hang around long enough to figure out what might be better. Just an opinion, really, but it seems to have worked out better than the alternative for most people who try it (just ignore the selection effects, please).

So yes, it’s hot and cold, although that varies longitudinally, and it is round and wet and crowded. But most of that you won’t have to deal with terribly, which is to say, true but unhelpful. The roundness is a point of interest; it’s more than academic interest, because given the laws of physics we’ve been able to discern so far, if it were flat, we might not be here, but as far as like say your existential experience, the roundness of it will only really come into play when looking at maps or flying overseas, and even then, it’s kind of a bulge-y roundness, not just a sphericality. It’s interesting, and its interestingness makes it essential, to me at least, in the enjoyment and understanding part of life, but it’s not clearly essential to like your day-to-day life.

The wetness, likewise, unless you’re ever trapped adrift at sea, which is possible but unlikely, is a fortunate detail, because we require a lot of water, we people. Nonetheless, if you live in a city, which most people do, the wetness of the earth is indirectly related to your actual observed regional wetness. Because it’s mostly in the ice caps and oceans, I think. Living in the U.S. is handy for this, because we have a very high amount of fresh water per capita, comparatively speaking.

It is increasingly crowded. This will be experiential for you. At some points it may be quite unpleasant; at other times, it can be reassuring. It leads to scarcity, which in turn leads to economics, which gets your father paid, so to some degree it’s a good thing. Plus more people means more people to enjoy things with, to learn from and to share with. It also means more people to fight, to take your stuff, to bid down wages and bid up prices, and so the direction of the marginal utility change of population increase is indeterminate. It’s quite a debate. [Edit – it seems clear that the population change is good news for you, being one of the new people. That said, once you’re here, you may (and not entirely irrationally, the sanity or lack thereof of the forthcoming example notwithstanding) pull a Tom Tancredo and say “I know I wasn’t here first, but I’m here now, and you can’t come in, you other new people.”]

All that stuff is external to you, though, the hotness, wetness, coldness, crowdedness, and roundness. I mean, you’re a minor cause of some of the crowdedness and you depend on some of the stuff, but the part of me that I think of as being me is less corporeal than that. I don’t believe in a soul; a lot of people do. I think Douglas Hofstadter has some crazy-sounding and interesting ideas about being a “strange loop,” but you can get there yourself or ask me about it later if you want. Mostly the stuff that I think will maximize your lifetime enjoyment are mechanics of being. So, how to be, well.

It’s important to know that life is mostly boring, mostly out of your control, especially in the early days. You also can’t do very much. It’s like the beginning of Dragon Warrior, especially the first one, where you can only fight slimes and you can’t even really afford to buy anything other than the crappiest sword and shield, and you basically march back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and *fight a slime* and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and *fight a slime* and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and *run from a Drakee* and back and forth and back and forth and fight a slime and now you can afford to go to the inn and heal yourself.

Which you repeat for 2 hours and then you can go somewhere else and do more or less the same thing, only now you don’t have to run from Drakees, just Wyverns. Which your uncle Luke and I really enjoyed, which I argue makes us really well-suited for life. I’m hoping a combination of genetics and upbringing similarly blesses you with a capacity to endure and even enjoy monotony.

The sooner you can cope with being bored and incapacitated, the sooner life will start to gel for you. It really is sort of a ride, in many senses. I think free will is kind of an illusion, and is often best treated like it both is and isn’t an illusion. I guess the best way to articulate it would be that I think you choose a lot of actions, most of which don’t have much influence on the outcome of things. A few times in your life they will really matter, but most of those times, you don’t know it. And so it wasn’t through purely random chance that I was fortunate enough to meet and marry your mother but I certainly can’t really take any credit. That said, I’m glad I was the sort of person that I was when I did meet her, and that I had some control over.

So that’s probably lesson number two. The one thing you really can hope to have some real impact over in your life is your choices about who you are, internally and, to a lesser degree, externally. This is not to say you can become whatever you want; you just have some say here. People who are open to the things life offers them are usually happier than people who aren’t. People who feel entitled are often disappointed, while people with more moderate expectations are more likely to be pleasantly surprised. There are a lot of different ways to be, and I think the best shots at happiness in life come from trying to be an active participant in who you want to become.

That’s one of the real perks of being a person, I think. When you’re a kid, you’ll feel like the world is really vast, so vast it’s approximable by an infinite area in your internal model. You feel like history has gone on forever and the whole shebang is just really chaotic and incomprehensible, and if you’re lucky, the daunting sense that comes from that won’t be enough to deter you from trying to understand at least a little part of it better. Once you do that, and you follow the string of connections you come to for a while, I think you’ll be surprised (I was), by how much of that seemingly infinite content is meaningless, and how truly finite are the bounds of both human history and the current world. There are only around 200 countries in the world. There are only so many fundamental laws of physics. Most of mathematics is really just implications of a few basic axioms.

Aggregate similar things: this is something people do naturally and do well. It can be dangerous, and there’s a strong bias in favor of acknowledging and celebrating diversity in today’s world; it’s a good bias, don’t get me wrong. For understanding the world, though, the fastest way to make sense of it is to multiply the power of what little insight you may have to make the most use of it. If a bunch of countries are like a bunch of seeds in an apple, then what you know about seeds in an apple might apply to countries. It might not, but with the appropriate humility, you can get a lot out of life this way.

Which brings us to the biggest ones of all for today. There’s more where all this came from, but the mother of all lessons you’ll hear me complain about and drill into you is this: humility is essential, doubt is your friend, confidence comes from being able to admit you’re wrong.

You can’t afford to make big claims if you can’t admit those claims are mistaken. You want to make big claims. It’s how we make sense of the world. It’s one of the few really big and fun games of human existence that gets bigger and more fun as life goes on. It’s good to have been wrong. It’s not as good to be wrong as to have been wrong, but in most of your life you’re going to have to make decisions and garner insights in less-than-ideal circumstances. Getting in the habit of understanding where your intuitions come from, making inferences based on them, and then adjusting them as you find out some were wrong, some were right–that habit will pay off like nobody’s business.

It’s okay not to be certain; you can never actually be certain, so acknowledging that you’re not is basically admitting the obvious. It makes your beliefs more credible, it makes you more capable of dealing with the unknown, it keeps you fresh and it drives other people nuts. It means you can differentiate between things you sense and things you feel and things you’re pretty sure of and things you’d like to believe and things you’d stake money on and things you’d stake a lot of money on. Doubt is your friend; it’s where you come up with better ideas than the ones already out there. It irritates a certain part of your brain that can become the Magic Eye.

You gain confidence when you can shed a bad idea and grasp a new, good one. You become the upper envelope of all ideas you’ve considered. It makes you a better person, a more attractive person, a more likeable person, a more insightful and knowledgeable person. It is a good thing. It’s like giving up headbands when they go out of style, or picking up on a new band if it’s actually really very good, or upgrading to a new version of Firefox. You get rid of the bugs, you add some new features, you’re a faster, stronger version of yourself. A freakin ninja pirate robot.

And so with that ends a brief precis on some tips for life. There’s a lot to know that’s fun, too, so I’ll try to clue you in on some of it. Hasta pronto Pickle!

It was a while ago now, but I just heard “Son of Sam” and felt compelled to write. Elliott Smith was really great, a bringer of beauty to the world. It breaks my heart, really. There’s a part of me that knows that sometimes, people just hurt a lot and feel the need to bow out. Another part of me wonders whether or not tragedy could be averted if we could find a way to prevent people from feeling like square pegs.

I feel like there are strong social norms toward integrity and consistency, strong intrinsic (or potentially learned) desires to feel like the world is an essentially good place, and strong social messages to people to be skeptical and critical.

There isn’t a widely accepted framework, though, that allows all three. As a result, I think most people that seem well-adjusted are either inconsistent, cynical, or naive.

That, in itself, might sound cynical, but it’s not. I think people are essentially good. I think people generally possess integrity, good will, and insight in vast reserves. I feel like the ones who are really serious about it, though–those who are diligent in their search for two of them–almost invariably end up violating the third.

It reminds me of Arrow’s impossibility theorem in some ways. Arrow’s impossibility theorem says, basically, that if you want to take a look at all possible policies, you want to ignore irrelevant policies, and you want to be able to rank policies consistently (a>b, b>c => a>c), and you want to allow no individual in the society to be a dictator, then you can’t do it. Somebody has to be the dictator in order to be complete, consistent and rational. I’m fudging the terms to translate it from math into English, but I think you get the point.

One of the things I love about music is its ability to satisfy consistency, beauty, and insight. The reason art can accomplish what reason so often fails to is, I think, the fact that art strives to be generally universal in its themes but particular in its subject matter. It doesn’t look at all possible policies.

(This is all false analogy, by the way, so it’s not a proof, but hopefully it’s pretty.)

Religion and grand philosophy have often failed to take advantage of this property. I think that’s one of the penetrating powers of science. In theory, at least, science is incredibly humble. As a result, it is incredibly powerful.

The insight is greater than science, though. It’s negative capability. Drop the completeness aspect and you can paint your way back out of the corner. There’s no shame in saying, “I don’t know.” It’s an empirical question, I guess, but I like to think that if we could say, it’s okay to bow out of life if it’s really not your thing–if we could say that, maybe less people would feel the need to bow out. Maybe if loss, poverty, sorrow weren’t so anathema, they wouldn’t compound. In complete sets of philosophy, though, in religion, in particular, there’s no room for random sadness and loss, no room for the inexplicable. All of it has to be God’s will, or none of it can be. I think we can work our way up to a consistent, beautiful, critical world-view that doesn’t need to be universal in order to have its force.

It’s striking to me, the prospect of bringing Pickle up without religion, without belief in God. It’s a different life from mine. I know it’s hard for P’s grandparents. I hope it makes sense to everyone, eventually, although I know it might not. I have faith, though, that the results will speak for themselves. I hope we can help make sense of sorrow as well as joy, though, in a way that integrates it into the beauty of the world, a beauty derived from transience, from the very randomness that makes godlessness seem scary to pretty much everyone, and in a way that looks at sorrow and joy in the complexity with which we actually experience them.

I think we can make sense of joy and sorrow (and love and death and beauty and sex and the origin of everything) by saying that, to be honest, we don’t really know. We’re just living through it like everybody else, and the joy thing is pretty great, and the sorrow thing, not so much, sometimes, but it’s all life, and I think life is good. Let’s talk about it some more and see what we come up with. It’s all about reducing it to a human scale. What we lose in breadth of stroke we gain in explanatory power and internal consistency. To get Integrity, Wonder, and Honesty requires Humility. Descriptive life.

Heavens. I’ve been meaning to post again since Tuesday. Some weeks are busy weeks. I have a presentation I’m delivering next Wednesday–the first presentation of my own work I’ve ever done, and so I’ve been busy as hell. Which I guess is how it’s supposed to work, the week before the first presentation of one’s work one has ever given, now that I type it out, but still, it feels busier than it has a right to be.

The reason I’ve been meaning to post is because we got to see Pickle again. I could watch that ultrasound monitor all day, I tell you. Which is odd and striking, because it’s not like a sense of elation, the way the words sound. It’s more just a sense of fascination and curiosity. Check the pictures of Pickle:

Pickle at 12weeks

Doesn’t s/he look like Baby Skeletor? Hopefully, s/he has ambitions of world domination and superpowers to boot. We got to watch the action for about a half hour, I guess, and seriously, I don’t think I would ever believe that something that monotonous (which it is, let’s face it, fetuses don’t get up to much) could be that compelling.

In the meantime, Pickle’s parents are getting nerdier. Cheryl started playing Neverwinter Nights with Rick and Jeff and I last night and already she has a level 6 elf ranger named Febriethe-something. She acquitted herself quite well, I think. Today, during Experimental Econ, Dr. Cox said something like “time is, after all, the ultimate constraint,” which is nerd-core enough in itself, only then I thought “Ti is less than or equal to T-bar for all i” which just cranks it to the proverbial eleven. So Pickle should pretty much with certainty have blue eyes and the awesomest collection of science fiction and fantasy trading cards in history.

They moved the due date up again. Now it’s August 29. We get to see Pickle again in 7 weeks. I’ll have two midterms, a presentation, and most of my four papers under my belt by then, if all goes according to plan. I’d better. There’ll be 3 weeks left of classes then.

In the meantime, I’m rereading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is really good. I’ve got the beginning of an idea for modeling people’s preferences for other people as preferences over others’ preferences, or over others’ ordering of preference orderings. I wonder if it has implications for voting, like choosing based on “types” or something.

I’m also trying to keep up with four courses, which it occurred to me to say to Paul, “I don’t know what I was thinking, taking four courses,” until I remembered that I asked him for advice and he said to take four courses. I’ll be glad I did it when I’ve done it. When I finish, I want to go camping. I’m not sure that’s likely. A trip to a cabin would probably suffice. I want quietude, though, and I want to get out of this vault and breathe some fresh air.

I’m looking forward to the summer. One class, a baby on the way, some research to actually focus on, short sleeves and sneakers on the pavement, a relatively empty campus, basketball on Fridays, maybe some revisions for publication, maybe some headway on a dissertation, Luke and Rach visiting, trips to the dog park, an excuse to listen to loud music with a nice breeze flowing through the house.

As ever, a man of eternal spring,
Jason