Saturday, August 18, 2012

Posner's Good Life

Incidentally, in regard to Judge Posner's criticisms of Oxford life in the post below, he just misunderstood local customs. The hall may have been drafty and the central heating feeble. That was because the students and faculty spent a lot of their time snug in the warmth of the back bar of the Kings Arms pub on Hollywell Street, just opposite.

Maybe he didn't notice on his way to the law library.


Posner: The Good Life as a Battery Chicken

Richard Posner, the well-known law-and-economics judge, reviews (in the NYT) the new book How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life. I discussed it the other week starting here. Posner is very "economistic" and Chicago-school, so much so he writes a blog with Gary Becker, the most reductionistic of all economists.

Not surprisingly, Posner is dismissive of the Skidelskys' book. He thinks it is a very English way of seeing the world, from a people who not so long ago couldn't even manage central heating (really). His evidence is the poor maintenance of Hertford College, Oxford, in the early 1980s, when he ate in hall there - seemingly ignoring the eight hundred years of wealth evident in the fabulous architecture, vast libraries and museums and labs all around him. Central heating apparently trumps all.

Americans would not go for more leisure, he says, because unless you lie in a hammock, leisure is expensive.

And what would we do with our newfound leisure? Most people would quickly get bored without the resources for varied and exciting leisure activities like foreign travel, movies and television, casinos, restaurants, watching sporting events, engaging in challenging athletic activities, playing video games, eating out, dieting, having cosmetic surgery, and improving health and longevity. But with everyone working just 20 hours a week (on the way down to 15 in 2030), few of these opportunities would materialize, because people who worked so little would be unable to afford them. Nor could leisure-activity services be staffed adequately.

This is just remarkably wrong. The main leisure activity in America is watching tv, for four or five hours a day, not yachting or going to Per Se. The basic channels are free to air, cable would still cost half a day's work on average wages a month, and services like Netflix are making things cheaper. You can play Angry Birds all day or free, or get the full version for the princely sum of a dollar. Leisure services like Facebook or Flickr are free. In fact, the Internet is a roaring whirlpool sucking things towards free.

Many leisure activities rely on public goods, of course, like parks or playing fields. But the entire budget of the National Park service last year was $2.6 billion, a rounding error in an overall budget.

And leisure is more than just consumption, in any case. It is spending time with loved ones, or the local voluntary organizations which commentators back to Toqueville have seen as the essential strength of America.

That is before we think about productivity. If it rises 3% a year, living standards double in about 23 years. So people would indeed be able to afford current services from half the paid hours, if productivity flows through to wages. And many leisure activities are falling in price.

Posner evades entirely the Skidelsky's methodological criticisms of mainstream economics, and so begs the question. Economics is built on the marshy ground of utility. The foundations are cracking.

Posner does inadvertently put his finger on something important in his concluding remark:

If you ask someone to work half as long for half the pay, you should have better answers to his question: What shall I do with my new leisure?

That points to the void around purpose in the culture, which I keep coming back to. That is indeed the problem. You might equally ask if you work twice as long for double the pay, what is it for? You pay much more in tax, of course. You might buy a bigger house, but the price would likely have been bid up proportionately by other people working longer hours, so the net gain is minimal.

We still have a veneration for work in the culture, of course, because it is a displacement or substitute for exercise of the virtues - excellence, judgment, responsibility, discipline, the whole notion of "earning" something. Posner actually leaches off those older associations.

It is just sad if we run society so people are stuck in cubicles because they can't think of anything better to do to pass the time. It is a life suitable for a battery chicken.

What would people do if they spent less time in the office or shop floor? Without working to pay for expensive products ... Nothing, he says.

If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late.

It represents a deeply impoverished and inadequate conception of the good life. He simply can't imagine anything better to do. Just think. Raising a family Is in the "brawl, steal, overeat" category, because it's not a consumer good. So is meeting friends. Or jogging in the park.

That is not to say that for many or most people, leisure would be spent sculpting marble or writing symphonies, as he rightly questions. But how to lead a good life is the central issue. Answering that, by default, with working forty hours a week at Payless Shoes for $10 an hour or ninety hours a week reading legal briefs on derivatives documentation to buy Bollinger or cocaine is not self-evidently good.

Posner simply fails to come to terms with how productivity potentially alters choices. The review has a sanctimonious sneering tone. But it is a little nervous.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Better coverage from Mars #nbcfail

Dear NBC, please wither away in shame and embarrassment.

Yours, America.


Some tweets (via guardian us)

Mars! Funny you should mention it. It's 14m miles away. NASA landed there last Monday and started broadcasting data. The transmission delay averaged 14 minutes.

Shaun J@ShaunJay

NBC has a 6 hour delay for events 3000 miles away. NASA has a 14 minute delay for an event 150,000,000 miles away... #nbcfail

6 Aug 12 ReplyRetweetFavorite

London is 3,500 miles from New York. NBC's tape delay for the Olympics was six hours at least, often more.


Closing Ceremony

The Olympic closing ceremony in London was much better than the opening ceremony, which we just detested in our house. Last night had an underlying tone of good-natured exuberance and joyfulness, instead of the stale sociology seminar of the opening. It was glamorous instead of earnest - the Spice Girls on their London taxis were particularly fun. The Eric Idle set was wonderful. There was more quirky individualism than dark satanic mills.

I'm still puzzled about why so many people think the opening ceremony was good. I think for many Brits the high point was the Queen's leap from the helicopter. There may have been much more of an impact and shocked surprise if you saw it live. We already knew about it because we had to wait for hours to see the ceremony on NBC, so it was already old news. And the Brits would get an extra thrill from the subversion of royal decorum.

But I still don't get the talk of "creative risk-taking" in Boyle's production. I think it's the old avant-garde "epater les bourgeois", in part, circa with "the artist" imagining they are being terribly daring but in reality bland and conventional and unimaginative. Boyle might as well have walked a giant lobster around the stadium for part of the show, and delighted the media in-crowd.

His vision of a "new Britishness" was just sad, a sort of slumdog hip-hop anomie, a last gasp of rewarmed Blairite Cool Britannia thinking. Actual Britishness turned out to be much better, in the enthusiasm of the crowds and triumphs of the Team GB athletes in the following two weeks.

NBC hit a new low last night, though. At 11pm, instead of showing the last act of the ceremony, they deferred it and showed an episode of a new show about vetinarians called Animal Practice.

Words fail me. Worst. Network. Ever. They may have got high viewing numbers from a captive audience but they should never be allowed to cover a major event again.


Time Wars: Finite lives frittered away

Cory Doctorow, who writes one of the most read blogs, boing boing, says:

the only resource that is truly non-renewable -- the time of our lives -- is frittered away in "work" that we do because we must, because of adherence to doctrine about how money should flow.

He points to a leftist essay by Mark Fisher which argues that time is the fundamental conflict now.

Given all of this, it is clear that most political struggles at the moment amount to a war over time. The generalised debt crisis that hangs over all areas of capitalist life and culture – from banks to housing and student funding – is ultimately about time. Averting the alleged catastrophe (of the end of capitalism) will heighten the apocalyptic temporality of everyday life, as the anticipation of catastrophe gives way to a sense that we are already living through the catastrophe and it, like work, will never end. The increase of debt justifies the extending of working hours and working life, with retirement age being pushed ever further back. We are in a state of harrassed busyness from which – we are now promised – there will never be any relief.

The state of reactive panic in which most of us find ourselves is not an accidental side-effect of post-Fordist labour. It is highly functional for capital that our time is not only quantitatively short but qualitatively fragmented, bitty. We are required to live in the condition that Linda Stone has called “continous partial attention”, where our attention is habitually distributed across multiple communication platforms.

You don't necessarily have to buy all the assumptions about "late capitalism" to see something here. Fisher argues that real innovation requires time, and there has been less genuine innovation in the culture in the last twenty years because frenetic busyness leaves no time for genuine innovation.

The delirious rise in property prices over the last twenty years is probably the single most important cause of cultural conservatism in the UK and the US.

Why bronze medallists are happier than silver

A lot has to do with counterfactuals, says Scientific American:

The most obvious counterfactual thought for the silver medalist might be to focus on almost winning gold. She would focus on the difference between coming in first place, and any other outcome. The bronze medalist, however, might focus their counterfactual thoughts downward towards fourth place. She would focus on almost not winning a medal at all. The categorical difference, between being a medalist and not winning a medal, does not exist for the comparison between first and second place.

It is because of this incongruous comparison that the bronze medalist, who is objectively worse off, would be more pleased with herself, and happier with her achievement, than the silver medalist.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Trust and the Internet

How technology is confounding our intuitions about trust, in an NYT book review:

Trust, Mr. Schneier writes, is the glue that binds our societies. Over centuries we have invented various means of ensuring it: moral codes, reputation within a certain community, laws and of course security tools, from embankments, the most primitive kind of defense, to facial-recognition technology.

The liars he worries about most these days are not cyberwarriors or even cybercriminals but private companies and government agencies advancing their own interests, whether for surveillance or commerce. Apple controls the memory on our iPhones. Google keeps tabs on what we search for, and whom we write to, when we use Gmail. We unknowingly pledge allegiance to the companies we do business with.