Capitalism and Transience

What economists call “time preference” is an underappreciated factor in the moral decay of society.

A stubborn paradox puzzled me when I was a kid: I wondered whether one could legitimately call Big Macs “good”. On one hand, I had been told again and again that they were unhealthy, designed to be addictive and environmentally suspect. Nevertheless, they tasted delicious and people flocked to buy them. At least according to the market, I concluded, Big Macs had to be “good”. But was that the whole story? After the issues shown in movies like “Super Size Me”, was it not best to see them as more ambiguous, a kind of “guilty indulgence”?

I gradually realized that a vast variety of similar products existed on the market, and the list grew to include everything from cigarettes to Facebook. In college, it became clear that the paradox had much to do with what economists call “time preference”.

It is a truism that people smoke cigarettes despite knowing that they cause a considerable decrease in life expectancy. At first consideration, this behavior seems illogical. But if you care much more about the “now you” versus the “you in twenty years”, then the behavior actually starts to make sense. Even more striking is if you don’t know what the cost of consuming a service will be in the future, for that ignorance will have you discount the future threat even more radically, leading to short-sighted decisions (just think of Facebook, where for now it’s fun, tomorrow you may realize what the cost of having been “the product” was).

The problem is that McDonald’s hamburgers, Facebook and cigarettes aren’t some strange anomaly. Instead, products exploiting our “temporal ignorance” are the norm, a “low-hanging fruit” for any business, a type of economic “externality” that they can have us, the consumers, pay for.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg; it becomes more ominous when you dig deeper. Ultimately, capitalism provides an ideal vehicle for selling off your future in exchange for the present. Consumption instead of education, entertainment instead of news and insight, the superficial instead of the difficult and profound, gradual resource depletion instead of conservation — seen through this lens, we recognize many of the issues plaguing contemporary society. Companies are selling us an “easy way out”, namely what we want in the “hedonistic”, “dopamine rush” short term, and we are addicted to buying.

What is the price of this Faustian bargain? Environmental degradation, unhealthy lifestyles, a decline in education and a worship of questionable idols (people who deliver our “fixes”: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, programmers of socially problematic, but addictive apps) are just a few. The greatest cost, however, is a personal one, in the form of an “unexplored life”. We are born, we are entertained, we die. This, in my opinion, is the ultimate cost of the nearsightedness of our current system: by buying our cheap, prepackaged thrills while failing to grow as people, we become hedonistic, sick and powerless and we may not even realize why.

So what could be done to help this situation? The answer is not, in my opinion, to jump on the bandwagon and call for “the end of capitalism”. But regulation certainly helped with cigarettes, and it should be considered for Facebook as well. Pleading for government regulation may sound ominous to the libertarian in us, but really , it’s just finding consensus on what we as a society believe is an acceptable degree of control over our data by a corporation, and unfortunately, such decisions cannot be made on a solely individual level, because of the network effects (i.e. in some contexts, we cannot avoid using Facebook, if all our friends are using it to communicate and organize). Ultimately, however, government can’t solve the entire issue. Indeed, it is up to each of us to be aware of the transience and “cheap high” of many of the products on offer, and to get better at passing what psychologists call the “marshmallow test”, or “delayed gratification”.

Understanding the concept of “time preference” and building a resilience against dependency on short-sighted goods and services is a more profoundly moral exercise than it may first seem. In many ways, it is akin to the disciplining force of some religions, with a hell or heaven, informing our actions today through the threat of damnation, or promise of redemption, in a not-too-distant future.

Compromise is the Only Way Out of the Fake News Conondrum

Due in part to the democratization of opinion through the internet, the recent back-and-forth on “fake news” has predictably led to the term being weaponized by groups of all political stripes against one another. This has led to a  significant erosion of the term’s potency when used by any one side, caused an erosion of any shared truths, and most importantly, further hampered true dialogue between warring ideologies.

It is difficult to have a debate on the term without wading into the difficult waters of relativism, absolute truth and so forth; allow me to do so in a most careful, ginger fashion, dipping my toes into those treacherous waters with the hope of not being swept away.
As my last blog entry has pointed out, perhaps the left/right dichotomy should be seen less from the angle of truth, but rather through the lens of individual preference; continuing on this vain, I would like to further elaborate on the problematic aspects of accepting the existence of an “absolute truth”, and therefore “fake news”, in some contexts.
Though there is a rich history of philosophers and radical skeptics drawing it into question, I would venture that there are some topics in which an “absolute truth” can be ascertained, as long as some very basic conventions are accepted. For instance, if Jane and Mark are taking a hike in a snowy forest in the winter, and they find tracks, they may disagree on the animal that left them: for instance, Jane may say it was a bear, and Mark that it was a dog. If they follow said tracks, however, they may spot the creature, and at that point, the “truth” will be revealed, with one side usually conceding defeat. In the same way, if a “fake news” article claims that Michael Moore endorsed Trump in a certain interview, and the user finds the interview on Youtube and listens to it, barring any manipulation, it will be revealed whether the news was “real” or “fake”. However, this type of “obvious truth” forms really only a small subset of “fake news” accusations — even propagandists know that, at least in early stages of convincing the unconvinced, easily check-able false claims have questionable merit.

Let us return to the case of Jane and Mark, however. Let’s suppose both agree that the tracks were made by a bear and the question instead is whether they should break off their walk, in other words, whether a “dangerous” creature is around, or not. This time, Jane may be of the “more prudent” opinion that they should leave, whereas Mark may want to investigate. The difference to the last scenario is obvious: the answer to the question whether the tracks should be followed is uncertain, as hinges on contingencies that are very difficult to predict (is the bear hungry? is it alone, or with cubs?), as well as individual skills and preferences: how fast can Jane run? Is Mark a zoologist with experience in dealing with wild animals? Generally, are Mark and Jane curious enough about wildlife that they are willing to take risks? There is no “right or wrong” answer to this question. Instead, there is an answer to the question of whether, based on Mark’s and Jane’s preferences, and a probabilistic weighting of likely outcomes, it makes sense for Mark or Jane to pursue the bear. Indeed, the “correct” answer hinges, to no small part, on Mark and Jane’s character and how they weigh their joy of seeing a bear versus the probability of being mauled.

What makes the “fake news” topic such a bugbear is that most of the discord concerns the second type of scenario, or, more realistically, some difficult-to-dissect mix of the two scenarios. Does striving for rapprochement with Russia endanger US interests? Should we favor gun owner’s rights to shoot their guns, or other’s rights not to potentially get shot? Will rescinding the residency permits of unemployed immigrants cause more or less well-being? The answer, of course, depends on whose interests and well-being is being prioritized, and which “risk model” is chosen to view the world. It is a messy function of future contingency, personal preference and societal prioritization.

Ultimately, we arrive at a scenario where there is an “objective truth”, however, part of that “objective truth” is that everyone would like to see his or her particular interests and projections on the future taken into account. We therefore face the problem that for these questions, we need to asses whose well-being certain actions are going to impact, how, and what the underlying risk models are; furthermore, what the compromise solution will have to look like for a common, good society where diverse people can live in relative harmony (if that is our goal).
Such discourse and compromise, of course, seems impossible in today’s climate of commercially-driven media polarization, simplified, 140 character messaging and most importantly, extreme focus on one’s own interests (and that of one’s own narrowly defined ‘peer group’). But maybe the first step would be to keep in mind that a “right-and-wrong” way of framing sticky issues is counter-productive; instead, the conversation must be re-framed from groups defending a perceived objective truth to them representing and promoting a (legitimate) social preference.

Of Wishes and Walls

What Can a Debate on Building Walls Teach Us About Rebooting Today’s Political Discourse?

Whether you consider Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border, or the debate raging in EU countries on limiting migratory flows, building walls has become the rallying cry of the right on both sides of the Atlantic. That borders have taken center stage in the left-right divide is no accident. Indeed, it is possible to interpret traditional positions of the right and left as a preference for boundaries, or their overcoming.

Conservative preferences align tightly with a wish for boundaries: just consider the right’s insistence on traditional gender boundaries and a preference for individual responsibility and family units versus the collective. Conservative politicians are more willing to divide between “us” and “them”, as can be witnessed in Trump’s rhetoric. This contrasts sharply with the position of left-leaning groups, which put less emphasis on questions of origin and more on inclusion and eliminating boundaries between individuals, groups and peoples; witness the more welcoming approach to migrants and refugees. Notable, as well, is the right’s preference for clear physical and psychological boundaries, a preference for “law and order”.

When considering the left-right paradigm from this perspective, we see the nucleus of the dilemmas plaguing both the left and the right. As a force calling for the dissolution of boundaries, the left’s dilemma becomes clear: a completely borderless, porous world is a utopia: consider, for instance, how unrealistic it is to expect parents not to treat their own children preferentially compared with individuals they do not know. This preference for those physically and psychologically “closer” is seeded in the nature of humans as creatures bounded by space and time, normally living in one family and one country. This is the left’s quandary.

At the same time, the human spirit, especially in times of plenty, strives to overcome itself. Logically, it understands the subjectivity of its position (that “the other” is a person like oneself). It sees justice in wanting to be more inclusive. This is the right’s dilemma: whoever votes conservative, or far-right, will arguably grasp that she is not necessarily engaging her most idealistic, generous side; witness the heightened level of social pessimism inherent in Trump’s rallies. Whoever builds a wall will have a hard time reaching out beyond it; if she is fair, she will realize that at least to some extent, it is arbitrary that she lives on the “right” side of the wall.

Considering these aspects, it becomes clear that both viewpoints have their validity; indeed, it is part of the human challenge to find the right compromise between what in essence are two contradictory, but valid, motivations. The “ideal place” on this right-left, “boundary versus overcoming” continuum depends not only on a society’s relative wealth and maturity, but, on a more individual level, on personal preference; witness individual’s varying comfort levels with constancy versus change, safety versus adventure.

Considering society’s choice in the right-left, open-closed continuum is based on factors like maturity and individual preference, it is short-sighted to reflexively drag the debate into the moral realm of “right” and “wrong”. In today’s world, where moralizing often seems more a tactic than conviction, voters have become weary of it. While some undecided voters may still be swayed, attempts to moralize the debate has poisoned discourse between ideological fault lines.

Instead of moralizing, the debate should be re-framed in terms of maturity, preference and reciprocity, to enable a determination of society’s preferences through the democratic process, including defining a societally acceptable speed, magnitude and direction of change. The primary implication would be the avoidance of an absurd debate with absolutist positions, where at least half the population, if not more, will find itself the loser. Today’s polarization is arguably to a large extent a result of insufficient consensus-building before the implementation of large-scale changes.

This is unfortunately a big failing of our current leaders and media, who relish portraying our options in absolutist terms, accelerated by a catering to the own base typical of our “Twitter era”. Both sides can rationally agree that a shift between a bordered and border-less society should be gradual enough that it does not overstrain society. Ultimately, a non-moralizing debate bent on finding the point of social compromise in the context of boundaries, both physical and symbolic, will result in an arrangement that a vast majority of society, whether left-or right-leaning, will more readily agree to.

By the Lakeside

The trees there in the distance
spring into the sky
like bursts of ink on paper
that fall and quickly dry

The lakeside is as silent
as music when it stops
(though there will soon be clamor
as when the curtain drops)

Clouds on the lake reflecting
are breath’s trace on glass
twitches of your belly
are ripples as they pass

Your hips, the smooth horizon
as slumbering you lie
your dark hair is reed rustling
as carefully I sigh

I gaze at you for minutes
weaving on your sleep
like the lake majestic,
wonderful and deep

The sun’s presence draws nearer
as silently we dream
a single spark his crown casts
forms the first sunbeam

It’s as if you were dressing
cloaked in the limelight
the restless clouds throw motion
riling quiet night

The wind itself turns harsh now
feet roam the wooden floor
hallway light spills over
through the open door

Your words, they are so hasty
as if they yearned to go
the hallway bursts its bruising
harsh neonlit glow

I want to say so much now
but exposed here to the light
I watch your figure lonely
slipping out of sight

The rising sun throws piercing,
angry glares at me
leaving our lake draining
into memory

His stare is not forgiving
for creatures of the night –
those longing for the beauty
of a deep lake’s sight.

06.07.09

Schreiben will mein Herz

Schreiben will mein Herz –
über die Seiten bluten
bis mein Rot das Blatt verdeckt

Blut spritzend
will ich glücklich sein

in dieser Fremde

alle Wahrheit war nur Name
und jede Hoffnung weiss, hell, leer

nichtwissend
klatscht mein Herz auf

blutend hellrot
wunderschön einsam

– April 2005

Must the deepest truths in life remain covert ?

After I finished the Silver Glow, I felt that I had reached a sort of core with its writing. That is why I am so much more fond of the piece than many of my other scribblings.

Nevertheless, I never understood what I exactly meant with the piece; over time, I have had various theories on what the story meant to me and why the protagonist acted the way he did. However, these theories changed with my moods and with time and thus had only superficial validity.

Perhaps the piece is precisely about this inability to explain the incident. To me, this “inexplicability” is something mysterious yet deeply inherent in life itself. I try to approach this inexplicability through the portrayal of an act which we cannot fully comprehend, even though we might emphasize with the protagonist and partly understand his motives, like perceiving “through translucent glass”…

Morning Comes

So I am again a chieftain
wrapped in lion skin gowns
as ceremony commences
& barefoot dancers pound the dusty ground
and spirits seep forth from the Earth

Feathered women join
with breasts rolling
& drums beat heavy rhythm
w/ bouncing fingers
pounding skin membrane
& razor spiked teeth flashing thru the dust

screams pierce forth – screeching
as feathers swirl and are lost to earth
the beat-soaked mass mingling
rings for air
shoulders spray sweat & eyes bounce bulging
as desert earth bursts dancing
and white light explodes –

an image of old Eden

then
only dust
settling on earth
& the chieftain’s throne
standing empty in the silence

– 2004, 2007

Our Song

A shadow – a tear
a sigh caught on glass
the flutter of wings.
Be still – for I heard something
that reminded me
and must have been –
our song.

Evening. Night. Whispers on the terrace
over the glowing tip
of a cigarette
I can’t see the wind
but I can hear the leaves rustle –
and there –
it must be!
They’re playing our song

Ssh… don’t cry –
because it had to be

long ago – the moon was shining
our song being played far away.