Saturday, October 1, 2011

Twitter reveals how universally upsetting work is

An interesting little piece in the Atlantic which says that people wake up feeling good. But their mood declines during the working day only to turn around again in the evening.

Monday, September 26, 2011

How it used to be

I'm reading Hilary Spurling's brilliant biography of Matisse, The Unknown Matisse
after hearing her speak in New York last week.

She talks about the world of Matisse's childhood in a small industrial village in Northern France in the 1880s:

Men, women and children in the textile mills worked up to twelve hours a day with a single fifteen-minute break...Matisse's brutal metaphors went back to the remorseless, mind-numbing, unending drudgery he had seen on all sides as a child. Weavers had feverish eyes, pale faces and gaunt, etiolated bodies from spending all the hours of daylight shut up in cramped and often humid spaces.(p24)

He became the painter of open windows and vivid Mediterranean light.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Change of Pace Photo

This building by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan needs no introduction. Most societies, including India, have a wider spectrum of moral intuitions than western liberals do, as I argue in the post below.

Five senses of morality, not two

Let's take this further. I am arguing that societies need some way to restrain free-riding or deviant behavior in order to progress. If you don't have that, you both encounter serious problems and risk delegitimizing collective effort altogether. You get precisely the kind of anti-government, anti-elite, anti-tax backlash we see in many Western countries.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has a fascinating research-based perspective on this. He is a leader of the positive psychology movement and a Democrat by inclination. But he discovered in research abroad just how different the moral intuitions of other cultures like India are. It sensitized him to the different moral intuitions back home in the US as well, as he explains in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.

It turns out, he says in an article here , that conservatives in the US respond to a broader range of moral intuitions than liberals do. This explains why liberals so often have difficulty putting their point across to the electorate.

A scientific consensus is emerging that human moral psychology was shaped by multiple evolutionary forces and that our minds therefore detect many—sometimes conflicting—properties of social situations. The two best studied moral senses pertain to harm (including our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness (including anger at injustice). You can travel the world but you won’t find a human culture that doesn’t notice and care about harm and fairness.

Political conservatives in the US, Britain and many other nations value three additional sets of moral concerns. Like liberals, they care about harm and fairness, but they care more than liberals about loyalty to the in-group (which political party cares most about flags and borders?), authority (which side demands respect for parents and teachers?) and spiritual purity (which side most wants to restrict homosexuality and drug use?). It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.

In particular, liberals have difficulty understanding intuitions about limiting free-riding. Haidt says

Here's my alternative definition: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. It turns out that human societies have found several radically different approaches to suppressing selfishness, two of which are most relevant for understanding what Democrats don't understand about morality.

Haidt also talks here about how this perspective helps explain the rise of the Tea Party.

One of the biggest disagreements between the political left and right is their conflicting notions of fairness. Across many surveys and experiments, we find that liberals think about fairness in terms of equality, whereas conservatives think of it in terms of karma.

Karma is, for him, what people deserve.

The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for "deed" or "action," and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it's just a law of the universe, like gravity...For the tea partiers, federal activism has become a moral insult. They believe that, over time, the government has made a concerted effort to subvert the law of karma.

This has a number of implications. First, liberals simply don't respond to the other three moral senses - or even realize they are there. This means that continual appeals to "fairness" simply won't convince the majority of the population who do not see morality primarily or only in terms of fairness. (Liberals are roughly 20% of the US population, conservatives are 40%). And the liberal point of view is very rare in most other major cultures and regions around the world.

Secondly, the other three intuitions largely bind societies together and work to restrain selfish behavior and free-riding - even if it comes at some cost to the first two intuitions. If liberals don't hear these octaves on the moral key, it means that well-intentioned liberal programs are more likely to fall apart because people DO free-ride or take advantage of them.

As Haidt points out, if liberals want to win elections, they need to be more sensitive to these other octaves, even if they don't agree with them. There needs to be less books like What's the Matter with Kansas and silly arguments about "framing."

What does this mean to me? The animating thing for me in this blog is to look at ways to change the economy for the better. That cannot be done if we weaken the immune system too much. And liberals are often blind to the existence of an immune system in the first place.

Change needs an immune system

I was arguing in the last post that there needs to be ways to restrain free-riders and malign behavior in order to give people confidence in the system.

Everyone can see that we need a deeper rethink about the way we organize the economy. We stumble from one crisis to the next.

But that will go nowhere if the average citizen does not believe it will benefit them.

Positve change will shudder to a halt if people develop a widespread sense that there are so many vested interests in transferring existing wealth at the cost of the productive sector that a sort of reverse rentier society comes into being. That means increasingly large groups who expect a stream of income from the state without doing anything to earn it, in much the same way as the bond coupon-clippers of the 19th century lived off the accummulated earnings of previous generations. (Aristocracies seem very prone to turning into absentee landlord coupon-clippers over time).

It isn't so much income which is at issue here, as behavior.

I talked earlier about the problem of evolution. Parasites are endlessly adaptable and ingenious. Much of the spur of evolution has been a "red queen" race - running faster and faster to stay still against pathogens.

Of course, one has to be careful about evolutionary analogies, which have had a bad history when it comes to social issues. However, we can go this far: society and the economy has to have an immune system. Bad, maladaptive or exploitative behavior is likely to reoccur all the time, as people look for the ways way out or freeload or just simply would prefer to exploit others.

Any kind of new economy has to have an effective immune system. Any kind of economic change has to keep an effective immune system.

Our current one can be brutal - firms go bust, often through no fault of their own, people get laid off, contractual disputes abound. But it is much better than most historical alternatives, like Stakhanovite exhortation in the USSR or maoist work groups. So much, so obvious.

The left just hasn't thought enough about the immune system. I've often thought that the difference between the American and French revolutions is one of the most enlightening illustrations of different kinds of change.

In the US - most especially in the constitution of 1787 - separation of powers means that the system is designed to cope despite political malfeasance. The system is supposed to offset, balance and check different powers. It assumes that people will not always behave well. It has an immune system built in from the start. And it has lasted in substantially the original form for over two centuries.

In contrast, the French revolution, was full of idealistic visions of the rights of man and revolutionary transformation. It turned Notre Dame into a "Temple of Reason" and tried to wipe the slate clean. It turned into sanguinary destruction, violent expansionary imperialism and five different republics up to our own time.

The left talks of change, but often undermines it. Revolutions go terrifyingly wrong as all the previous restraints of society are ripped away. The result is not some Rousseauian idyll but millions of deaths, economic collapse and tyranny.

Many institutional structures need to change, in order to adapt to the new age of overabundance of goods and services. It is likely a rethinking of the economy will need, at least in part, a rethinking of some property rights, including rights to streams of income and common wealth. Current rights are already problematic, as the sorry state of patent and copyright law shows. Silicon Valley companies spend as much time litigating over patents, it seems, as actually inventing new ones.

But nothing can happen if people feel it means disorder and illegitimate theft of what they have worked hard to produce. There needs to be some sense of discipline in the system, or it will not be seen to have a moral foundation. Anything goes.

Much of the immune system is cultural, in the form of social institutions or norms or tradition. In that sense the usual conservative caution about overthrowing tradition has some validity. (The evolutionary common law has also tended to work better over time than grand legal codes).

Change is essential, and natural. That is where conservatives are wrong. But it needs to be smart change, and conscious that pathogens are constantly likely to undermine positive developments if there is no immune system to contain them. The model of 1787 works better than 1789 - let alone 1917.

The fundamental problem of who deserves help

I've been thinking more about some of the issues surrounding "fairness", partly because it has become so controversial in the last few weeks again. President Obama is arguing for tax rises on "millionaires and billionaires" and the tea party is resisting as much as ever. In Europe the German public fiercely resents being expected to bail out a broke Greece.

I think there is a basic underlying issue with many of these arguments. People resent being asked to contribute when those who have not worked hard or acted responsibly benefit.

How do you prevent people misbehaving, or taking advantage of the system? The left typically thinks this is not a problem in practice. The right typically thinks that some people will take advantage of opportunities to behave badly.

It stretches back to arguments in the 19th century over whether there was such a thing as the deserving and underserving poor. Are people poor through no fault of their own - misfortune, lack of talent, lack of advantage or education or connections? Or are they poor because they are feckless, lazy, venal or lack of ability? The left instinctively resists the latter.

Clearly, there are some people in each category. But where does the balance lie? The welfare state is sold as a safety net, for those who accidentally fall. But it runs into trouble where the average citizen feels they are paying taxes not to help unfortunate fellow citizens, but the lazy and work shy.

Liberals work hard to increase take-up rates and remove the stigma from claiming benefits. And they argue for economic rights. Conservatives feel that making welfare or state support a "right" means that making support unconditional undermines personal discipline and honesty and independence. So they want time limits on aid and means tests and other conditionality.

If you want to see what the backlash against helping the irresponsible can look like in practice, take the famous Rick Santelli rant on CNBC which many see as marking the beginning of the Tea Party movement. It was motivated by resentment at bailing out irresponsible mortgage holders.

The fact that this feeling went viral and ended up upending one of the two major political parties just shows how powerful this intuition can be.

People will never be happy about making sacrifices for those who are playing the system, or just being lazy or underserving. At the heart of this is what economists call the "free rider" problem. Public goods are undermined by those who fail to pay their share.

I think the social democratic left would be much more successful if it understood these reactions. It does believe some similar things, after all. Ordinary taxpayers should not have to bail out plutocratic bankers.

But it also means you cannot support the "rights" of every member of the poor if you want to help the poor. There only likely to be durable public support for assistance to those who are poor through no fault of their own. If you try to break the link between assistance and behavior you cross some cultural tripwires. And you get massive tax revolt and delegitimization of the entire social democratic project.

You cannot look at people's situation as a single snapshot of a moment in time. How they got to that situation, their actions, their behavior, their story, their motivations all matter too. "Fairness" actually entails some orderliness, some substantive historical reason for who gets what and why.

If you ignore this you also kill much of the chances of any alternative economic improvement or new economy, which is what I care about. People will suspect it is a charter for freeloaders.

If we reduce the emphasis on working in the formal economy for exchange value, then many people will see that as a scheme to transfer rewards from those who have worked hard to those who have not.

Contemporary liberalism has created many of its own problems with the talk of "fairness", which I discuss in connection with Rawls and Sen here. They see "fairness" as largely being unbiased and impartial in judgments - procedural fairness. But much of the force behind the word fairness - and justice - is people get what they deserve. Most liberals stop at the idea of equality, or at best a general meritocratic view that those who have good education and credentials should take precedence.

That just leaves the field wide open to the more venal parts of the conservative coalition to argue that the only criteria for desert is market earnings - fair and voluntary exchange in a free market, for the libertarians.

But if we are running out of road for the economy on labor market exchange value, this is no answer either. If most goods and services are becoming so abundant that people cannot earn a living providing more of them, we need alternative ideas. We need different ways to decide who gets what.

For any society or economy to work, there has to be some confidence among the majority that the deviants and exploiters and the corrupt will not be allowed to game the system. Democrats fail that test with their undifferentiated, rights-enabled, generic member of the "poor" who has no history and no record of effort or achievement. Republicans fail the test by being too narrow and unimaginative about who deserves what.

One of the primary advantages of the money system is it does provide incentives and hard outcomes and personal discipline and reward for effort, as a rule. Any alternative has to do the same.