Thursday, December 31, 2009


I think one of the reasons why Avatar has enjoyed such popular and critical success (top critics give it 94% at Rotten Tomatoes) is that it speaks to many of the major tensions and anxieties of our time. The story takes place on Pandora, an alien planet where a greedy corporation has sent up base to mine Unobtanium, which sells for $20 million a kilo on Earth. The problem is that one of the largest deposits of Unobtaium lies under a giant tree where the native Na'vi population lives. Jake Scully, our hero, is a crippled Marine who, through advanced future-age technology, is able to have his mind transfered to a Na'vi body grown in the lab (an Avatar). His assignment is to find a "diplomatic solution"—that is, convince the Na'vi population to leave their home before the corporation comes and razes it anyway.

Within this framework, Mr. Cameron weaves story lines that prove cathartic for our blood-stained and embarrassing history. A good chunk of the middle part of the movie functions as a dramatic reenactment of The Trail of Tears; the way the military and the company work as one unit in the film is reminiscent of the United Fruit Company's exploits in Latin America; and the military commander's callous contempt of and insensitivity towards the Na'vi has echoes of the US military's attitude towards the "gooks" in the Korean War. For those of us familiar with US history, the film forces us to confront our past, learn from our mistakes, and serves as a precautionary warning for the path we must not travel again in the future—an especially timely message as we continue the Iraq War and prepare to escalate in Afghanistan.

Alongside its political message, Avatar also voices what I think is a general anxiety of our society's spiritual decline. The Na'vi are a very spiritual society, in the way of the Native Americans or the Orient, and believe in the oneness of all living beings. The film yearns for a simpler life, connected with nature and other living beings, living in harmony instead of opposition. David Denby of The New Yorker calls this sentiment nothing "more than a whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture, by way of environmentalism and current antiwar sentiment" and ultimately dismisses it as "sentimentality," but I think he fails to realize the reality and legitimacy of this spiritual need.

And of course, the film is absolutely joyful to see, visually: a real treat for the eyes. What makes these effects worthwhile is that they're not effects for effect's sake, but rather a way of absorbing you into this rich and astounding fantasy world that Mr. Cameron creates. This film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, and for that to work the film has to tie you up emotionally with the good guys. By introducing us to the Na'vi's world, and by making us fall in love with it, Mr. Cameron succeeds in making the struggles of the Na'vi meaningful and close; in the end everyone in the theater was openly cheering for them.

Some critics complain that the characters are too simplistic or that the story line is too trite, but I think there is a place for war-of-good-and-evil tales and this movie does a fantastic job of representing the genre. The visuals are stunning; the plot is absorbing (for those who aren't too cynical at least); and after you walk out of the theater you have something to think about. Certainly worth seeing.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bah, Humbug!

University of Pennsylvania economist Joel Waldfogel has written a book called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. The book is apparently 186 pages long, and backed by a big name publisher (Princeton University Press), but really all it's about is what everyone knows anyway: gifts are often wasteful because the receiver hardly ever values the gift as much as the giver paid for it.

Though the rest of the world doesn't seem to care about all this waste, Mr. Waldfogel certainly does. As he puts it in his introduction to the book, "If you discovered a government program that was hemorrhaging money—say, spending $100 billion of taxpayer money per year to generate a benefit of only $85 billion—you would be outraged. You might even email your elected representatives to demand an end to the wasteful program." To wit, Mr. Waldfogel even offers a proposal to help us make the holiday season more efficient: instead of traditional gifts, he says, we should have "gift vouchers that are designed to expire after a set period of time, with unused balances going to a charity of the giver’s choice" (The Economist).

As an economics major, books like these dismay me to no end. They're the reason that economists are seen as nothing more than miserable little bean counters (and rightly so, it seems).

Mr. Waldfogel misses the point of gift-giving completely. It's not about the stuff, it's about people. People appreciate gifts not because it saves them the time of going out to buy it themselves, but rather because it shows that the other person values their relationship. This is what is meant by "It's the thought that counts." Thus, Mr. Waldfogel has ended up writing a whole book on the inefficiency of transactions that may not even been inefficient after all. It just requires a change in perspective to realize that although people may not have spent much money on the gift themselves, they can still value it as much as (or even more than) the purchase price simply by virtue of it being a cherished gift.

Books like these make me worry about how materialist we're becoming. If we (like Mr. Waldfogel) care primarily about getting the most bang for our buck out of gifts, then it seems we're forgetting where their true value is supposed to lie.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Yesterday I stumbled upon a book by Richard Sennett, an American sociologist, called The Culture of the New Capitalism. In it, Sennett looks at how our constantly evolving economy shapes the way we live—how we attempt to manage the constant uncertainty; how we try to adapt to a life of "migrating from job to job, task to task, place to place;" how we make efforts to live up to a new cultural outlook on talent and merit and ability; and how we fail at all these things.

One of Sennett's most engaging ideas is what he calls the "specter of uselessness." Depression-era photos still disturb us, Sennett argues, because the specter of uselessness still continues to haunt us, though it's character is different in the modern age. Now the uselessness we face takes the form of the jobs that are being shipped overseas; or the hyper-intelligent automation systems that are making human labor cost-ineffective; or the emphasis on fresh skills and new talent versus experience and seniority that threatens the job security of the ageing.

Stated after the fact, it almost seems like common sense. After all, our higher education system is built entirely around innovation and discovery; our politicians constantly talk about "remaining competitive" and "staying ahead;" our TV shows are all about finding the next star; our companies are always racing to outdo each other...and while everyone is marching ahead, how will there not be anxiety about being left behind?

But I think that this "specter of uselessness" is not just peculiar to modernity, but rather a part of the human condition. I think Adi Shankaracharya put it best (that is, starkly and plainly) in his Bhaja Govindham:

यावद्वित्तोपार्जनसक्त्तस्तावन्निजपरिवारो रक्त्त:
पश्चाज्जीवाति जर्जरदेहे वार्तां कोऽपिं पृच्छति गेहे।।
As long as there is the ability to earn and save so long are all your dependents attached to you. Later on, when you come to live with an old, infirm body, no one at home cares to speak even a word with you!

I don't read this verse as a lament, but rather as a sober recognition of the way relationships work. Humans relations involve give and take: we give our attention, our affection, our time, and our effort; and in return we expect money, affection, wisdom, love, intimacy, interesting conversation—something. There comes a time though when we no longer have anything to give, and at that point these relationships naturally dissolve.

In this spirit, I have heard that our job in life is to learn to enjoy our own company, to be at peace with ourselves, to figure out what to do with ourselves before the world has no more use for us. The specter of uselessness will always loom, but it becomes less scary when we confront it directly.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


If you think about it, marriage is a funny institution. Two young people decide they want to spend the rest of their lives together. This is a very momentous decision, of course, so they think long and hard about it. They consider all aspects of a person: their looks, their personality, their wit, their charm, their earning potential, their character, their goals and beliefs. Of course different people place emphasis on different things, but mostly the decision comes down to the fact that there is something about the other person's body, mind, or intellect that's appealing.

The irony here is that these people are making supposedly permanent decisions based on entirely temporary things. When they make their decision they're at the prime of their lives. They're young and fit and sharp and as attractive as they're ever going to be. From there they have some years of youth left and then, for most people, it's all downhill. The body sags, potbellies form, the intellect dulls, the mind gets set in annoying habits, moods become more irritable—in other words, their spouse no longer become the person they married. If they were to reevaluate their spouse 10 years later, they probably wouldn't marry them.

This may sound like a sad thing, but I think it gets at the essential beauty of marriage. They say a true friend is one who knows your faults and sticks around anyway. I think that's the point of marriage. When you grow old and no one else is willing to put up with your bodily noises and forgetfulness and all the other problems of aging, at least you can have your spouse; and, likewise, they have you.

Wisdom for the Ages

This is a copy of David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. It changed the way I look at the world, and in the off chance that others find it meaningful too, I'm posting it here.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

If at this moment, you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude—but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real—you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues." This is not a matter of virtue—it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being "well adjusted," which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what's going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what's going on inside me. As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about "the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master." This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in, day out" really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home—you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job—and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth...

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do—except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am—it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line—maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible—it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default-setting—then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship...

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already—it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race"—the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Fascination of the Abomination

"In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate."

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The horror, the horror:

The cast of MTV's new reality show, "Jersey Shore."

I'm not joking; here's a review of the first episode.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Paradox of the Middle Class

From the New York Times, an article whose subject seems to get at the essence of growing up in the middle class—Tips for the Admissions Test...To Kindergarten:
Test preparation has long been a big business catering to students taking SATs and admissions exams for law, medical and other graduate schools. But the new clientele is quite a bit younger: 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents hope that a little assistance — costing upward of $1,000 for several sessions — will help them win coveted spots in the city’s gifted and talented public kindergarten classes.
The article goes on to describe how the kindergarten tutoring business is taking off (the Bright Kids program featured here is just one of many) and why (many parents figure a couple thousand for tutoring is cheaper than private schools).

Although the whole affair seems outrageous and ridiculous at face value, it's difficult to resolve the issues here. If you ask people how we should distribute scarce rewards in a society fairly, most of them will say that they should go to the people who work the hardest (there is, in fact, research to back this up: q.v. Chapter 11, "Distributive Justice," in Homans, G.C., Social Behavior. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Janovich, 1974; and also work by Guillermina Jasso). But you put that principle into practice and you end up with situations like these, which seem, frankly, dehumanizing.

There are a number of other issues entangled here (like what it even means to be "gifted"; whether such ability is innate or acquired; whether differentiating education is worthwhile/necessary/inevitable; what it means to provide equal opportunity; the extent to which education figures into the American Dream, etc., etc.), but what makes the article jump out at me is that it shows how hard we, the middle class, are competing. It's like we're fighting tooth and nail for our very survival, even though fighting for survival seems unnecessary in modern society. Desperation amidst plenty: this, I believe, is the paradox of the middle class.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

One Good Thought for Sunday

Once Buddha was walking from house to house begging for alms with his disciples. The disciples were young and inexperienced, but full of enthusiasm and reverence for their teacher. Buddha told them that as monks their duty was to be content with whatever the householders offered them, so they did as he said.

Sometimes they were fed generously, other times they received little, but they were always treated with respect, or at worst indifference. One time, however, the man who opened the door lashed out in insults. He called Buddha a useless leech, a fraud, a cheat, a despicable bastard, a whole host of other terrible things, lambasted the entire monk profession, spat on the ground, and slammed the door. Unfazed, Buddha merely turned around to leave for the next house, and, as always, the disciples followed suit.

But for the rest of the day the disciples could not get that incident out of their mind. Their minds were ablaze with rage. How dare he treat our master with such contempt! What a great insult! What arrogance! On and on and on it went, but they did not say a word to their teacher. In this way the whole day passed.

At nightfall they stopped at a spot to rest. It was a long and tiring day so one of the disciples got some water and started to wash and massage Buddha's feet. The rest sat nearby and ate their food. Buddha looked around and noticed that they were eating their food a little more violently than usual. What's wrong?, he asked.

Then it all came gushing out. That man who insulted you, they said, he is such a scoundrel, such a fiend, such a...

Once they were done, Buddha looked around and smiled. He only said: If someone gives you a cow, and you refuse to take it, to whom does it belong?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ego Slayer

[Here I have, finally, a new poem. Constructive feedback is greatly appreciated, as it is always on this blog.]

Ego Slayer

the grandeur and vanity that
come from small victories
rare though they be
and recognize your best
as merely the not worse of a certain geographical vicinity
a coincidence in spacetime
circumscribed by a certain set of minds that laud
and applaud out of ignorance
no more
of a larger more infinite more grand reality.

Johnny, who made the apple tree,
the apple farmer or the apple seed?
Remember that all the sweat and toil in the world
do no good for barren land.

The Pharisees
delight in knowing that they know
and showing that they know and
cloak the worship of their ego
as the worship of Their God true knowledge
and intellectual progress and truth and whatever
—but of course the false idols of today
will fall in the dustbin with those of yesterday
as all cheap useless rubbish goes.

Watch the Pharisees
as they relegate themselves to the small history
of vain struggles, forgotten strife, and petty men
not knowing—or fathoming—true devotion
the ascetic life of
confronting constant falsification
whittling down the possibilities
and growing confident in one’s ignorance.

Knowledge is an almighty God,
but it requires ego as its constant sacrifice.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Castillos de Arena

[As a stopgap way of breaking the hiatus, here's another one of my old Spanish poems. Please post comments, positive or negative.]

Castillos de arena

Vivimos nosotros a la orilla del mar
cuyo vaivén inexorable va destruyendo
nuestros castillos de arena.

Aunque sea un castillo más grande que el Alcázar,
él también, un día, caerá.

Pero esto no es una lástima;
la única lástima es llorar por castillos de arena.

Sand Castles

We live at the edge of the sea
whose inexorable tide keeps destroying
our sand castles.

Even if it is a castle bigger than the Alcázar
it too, one day, will fall.

But this is not a sad thing;
the only sad thing is to cry over sand castles.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Stag Hunt

Last week I was at the local grocery co-op buying some avocadoes and tomatoes. At the checkout line, the cashier, a Jamaican man with dreads, started making some small talk. What do you major in, he asked. Oh, economics? Hey, what do you think of the Fed?

I don't know much about the Fed, really, so I said I didn't wade much in political debates (which I don't) and that I thought they employed decent enough people. I prefer going through life assuming the best in people, assuming that the world isn't rigged against me, I said. The Jamaican man turned serious: But sometimes things are rigged. Sometimes things are rigged, and you have to fix them.

Hm. In my conversation with the Jamaican man, I got the sense that he believed things (the economy, the state of the world, etc.) were messed up only because someone was there to mess it up; that he felt that if only people were cooperative (i.e. "give peace a chance"), the world would be a great place. And this seems a really natural position to take, since, after all, our problems are human-made. But it turns out that our society doesn't work like that. The startling and fascinating conclusion of game theory is that we can end up in sub-optimal outcomes even if everyone would like to cooperate.

How is this possible?

The story behind the game goes back to Rousseau. Imagine, he said, a group of primitive people who had a choice between hunting stag and hunting hare. Hunting stag would, of course, be the best option because it would yield lots of rich meat, but the problem is that it requires everyone to work together to take the stag down. On the other hand, they could hunt hare individually, but the reward wouldn't be as great. In game form the story looks like this:

The numbers in the boxes represent how the players (in this case, an individual vs. the rest of society) value the outcome. Thus everyone hunting stag is the best outcome (3), both hunting hare is second (2), and getting screwed is the worst (1), because you not only waste your time running after the stag, but you don't even get any food.

In other words, these people are as cooperative as you're going to get: They would like to work together and they don't like to take advantage of each other. And yet it's still possible for these primitive people (and us possibly less primitive people) to get stuck in a Hunt Hare/Hunt Hare equilibrium!

The catch here is that it matters not just what players want to do, but what they think others will do. Everyone would like to hunt stag, but only when everyone else hunts stag. So if people think others are inclined to cooperate, they'll cooperate too; but, on the flipside, if everyone is scared of getting screwed over, then they're likely to not cooperate.

Notice that the basic fact that all these people are cooperative hasn't changed. It's just that they don't know that they're all cooperators. And this uncertainty causes all the problems: cooperation is risky, it leaves you vulnerable, and people aren't willing to gamble too much. [Indeed, this game is also called an Assurance Game, because if players were assured that the other was a cooperator, then they would cooperate too.]

This is my long comment to the Jamaican man's remark. Yes, Jamaican man, sometimes things are rigged. But sometimes we can end up in all sorts of social problems even when no one is at fault.

For more information on the Stag Hunt and cooperation and such, see Brian Skyrms' book: The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Capitalism, In Essence

1. Consumers use money to get what they want.
2. Sellers are rewarded with money for giving consumers what they want.
3. Money in hand, sellers turn into consumers and get what they want./To get more money, consumers turn into sellers and give people what they want.
4. Repeat—ad nauseum.

Meanwhile, everyone knows of course that people shouldn't always have what they want.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Vino con vino

[Updating content regularly is more difficult than I thought. While I'm working on my next post, here's an old Spanish poem of mine for those who haven't seen it yet.]

Vino con vino

Vino con vino.
Vino vino y se bebió todo.
¡Todos borrachos!
Vino vino y venía tristeza
Sigilosamente a esta fiesta

Mas no importó.
Nada nada sino lo divertido.
¡Vino más vino!
Debajo del techo, jaleo alegre,
Mientras venía la calma Muerte.

Vino con vino.
Vino vino ya se fueron los padres.
¡Casa de mozos!
Vomitó uno y vomitó dos,
Se echaron a reír, locos locos.

Trepaba al techo,
Alto alto subía el joven.
¡Tantos los gritos!
De la tierra volaron distante
Incitaciones –¡Adelante! ¡Adelante!

Vino con vino.
Vino vino derramado al suelo.
¡Choque penoso!
Césped rojo y voces temblando,
Trajo el vino ¿Para que? ¡Para nada!

Monday, October 19, 2009


Here we have commodity fetishism at its worst:

When people care more about things than their relations (and not even distant relations, but really really close relations!), the world is pretty much doomed. Don't tell Marx about this ad or he'll die a second death.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rumbo a Argentina

Next semester I’ll be in Buenos Aires, studying at the Universidad Católica de Argentina (UCA).

I'm going mostly for two reasons. The first is Spanish. I've been working on learning the language for a long time (almost 7 years to be exact), and I feel that in order to make it worth all that while, I should try to become as fluent as I can. Here in the United States and at the University I've tried everything I could (reading books, listening to the radio, conversation partner programs, and the like), and it's all worked well so far. But now I'm at that point where I need to finally immerse myself. My hope is that I can solidfy my Spanish as much as possibly while I'm there. At the same time, though, I not only want to learn Spanish, but also use it as well: I've been in "practice mode" for the past seven years, and I'm ready to finally put it to work in real life. In Argentina I'll have to rely on my Spanish to get around and get things done, and that, in my mind, is a wonderful way of culminating all these years of study.

The second reason for studying abroad dovetails somewhat with the first. You see, the reason I'm so eager to learn Spanish in the first place is that I think it opens up worlds. In not knowing Spanish, I felt blocked off from millions of people; their culture, ideas, hopes, and fears seemed off-limits. But now those barriers have fallen, and I can interact meaningfully with a whole new group of people.

As a student of economics, I find this “opening of worlds” terribly exciting. Each country has its own way of organizing itself, is own goals and priorities, and its own way of tackling social problems. Here in the U.S. we naturally focus on our own approach—but of course ours is not the only one. In my economics classes at UCA, I am curious to see whether Argentinean economists understand their field in a different way than Americans (and a cursory perusal of their journal articles suggests they do), or whether they have a different perspective on world affairs. More broadly, I think living in Argentina will help broaden my understanding of my field, especially by providing me with real-life examples of how different social norms, customs, and institutions influence economic activity.

In the long run I hope to become a professor, if not of economics then in some field related to the social sciences. Part of being a professor, it seems, is thinking critically about one’s field, and international exposure is one way I can force myself to consider and reconsider my assumptions. Indeed, that's the only way we grow.

NB: I don't mean for my blog to be autobiographical, but I'm making an exception here because I find explaining myself like this helpful in clarifying my own thoughts. This trip is a big move on my part, and it's important that I think through what I'm getting myself into.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: Tagore's Short Stories

I recently finished reading a collection of Tagore's short stories. Knowing my affinity for literature, some family member of mine gifted it to me after returning from a trip to India, almost as a way of introducing me to the literature of the subcontinent. It turns out that was a really appropriate move: If you were to single out the single literary giant of India's modern history, you would pick the Nobel-prize-winning, early 20th century, Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tagore, a quick biography: Rabindranath, the youngest of 14 children, was born to Debendranath Tagore, a zamindar1 and prominent figure in Bengali politics and elite society.2 Naturally, then, Rabindranath's education consisted of private tutoring, multiple trips to Europe, and close interaction with the leading intellectuals of the day. The stories contained in the anthology I read were all written during the 1890s, when Rabindranath was called away from his home in the Bengali capital of Calcutta to manage the family estate in the countryside. This experience—though somewhat lonely and isolating for him, as he confesses in his letters—proves a fertile source of inspiration for his stories, which often focus on rural life, both for the common folk and for the zamindars.

Although Tagore's stories take place so long ago, they still feel relevant and familiar to contemporary Indian society. Of course, some social mores have changed drastically since then (making, for example, awkward reading during many of Tagore's stories about child marriage), but others haven't. Child marriage may be outdated, but marriage itself is still central in Indian culture. Like many contemporary Indians, all of Tagore's characters seem to regard marriage as the most important event in life and the most important social institution. In fact, Tagore himself seems to believe this as well, for he often places a marriage scene at the most critical point of the story.

Nowhere does he do this more prominently than in his story "Kabuliwallah." In it, he describes the affectionate relationship that forms between a traveling salesman (a kabuliwallah)3 and a little girl named Mini. Rahamat and Mini shared an amusing, inside joke where he would ask her if she was going away to her father-in-law's house, and she would roundly reply, "Are you going to your father-in-law's house?" Rahamat visits her frequently and thus they develop a strong bond, until one day Rahamat is sent to jail for committing assault and the two don't see each other again for many years. The day after he is let out of prison, Rahamat goes to visit Mini. This day, it turns out, happends to be Mini's wedding day, so when he arrives at the house, he finds it all decorated for the occasion. Rahamat asks Mini's father for permission to meet Mini, but he, hesitant and afraid, tries to turn him away, saying that there is some event in the house and everyone is too busy. Crestfallen, Rahamat then walks up to Mini's father and says, "I have brought this box of grapes and nuts and raisins for the little one. Please give them to her." Mini's father is about to pay him for the box, but Rahamat stops his hand and tells him:
"Please, don't give me any money—I shall always be grateful, Babu. Just as you have a daughter, so do I have one, in my own country. It is with her in mind that I came with a few raisins for your daughter: I didn't come to trade with you."
With that, Mini's father instantly connects with this fellow father's longing, and ignoring all objections, all worry that this murderer would tarnish this most auspicious day, all concern for propriety and social class (since he was, after all, a Babu), he brings Mini, decked in her full bridal sari, out to see him. At first Rahamat is shocked to see Mini all grown up, but then he smiles and asks, "Little one, are you going to your father-in-law's house?"

Though the narrative is simple, and the events are simple, the emotions in this story are suprisingly powerful. The poignancy of Rahamat's final question and the suprising boldness of Mini's father make your heart both ache and rejoice at the same time. Often, you don't know what to feel, or you feel a strange mix of both at the same time. Many of Tagore's stories are like this. They put you through complex emotional situations, where you find yourself stuck between multiple characters and perspectives.

The "Kabuliwallah" story also highlights another salient feature of Tagore's stories: they always have something to teach us. In "Kabuliwallah," Tagore brings out a moment when we're at our best, holding both Rahamat and Mini's father as an example of both generosity and simple love. Alternatively, Tagore also shows us when we're at our worst—lusting for wealth, valuing social custom over people, forgetting our duties. In both these cases, we find teachable moments, and not because Tagore moralizes, but because he shows us what we are capable of—both for good and for ill. After that, we're free to make conclusions as we will.

I have come to view Tagore's stories as a sort of guide to life. They do not pretend to offer any advice, of course, and supply no moral strictures; but I feel I always come away more humble, more appreciative of the complexities of life. That, for me, is guidance enough.

1. A zamindar is essentially an aristocratic landlord, an Indian squire of sorts.
2. His name, Tagore, is itself is an Anglicization of the Bengali/Hindi word Thakur [ठाकुर], meaning "lord."
3. Traveling traders in those days were known as kabuliwallahs (the ones from Kabul) because they often came from Afghanistan.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Economics in Film

For some reason it's film season for economics.

For example: The Informant!, which came out about a week ago, stars Matt Damon in a true story about how the vice-president of agri-business giant worked undercover with the FBI to reveal that his company was engaged in an unprecedented global price fixing scheme. Now price fixing may not sound like much—and I thought as much myself until I heard this week's podcast of This American Life.

This week on the This American Life radio program, Ira Glass (the host) replayed a clip from c. 2000, which, it turns out, was essentially responsible for getting this story onto the big screen. Apparently a screenwriter was listening to the program, thought the story would make a good movie, and, well, here we are.

So, what did this screenwriter see in story about price fixing?

Ira Glass explained it something like this: We rarely, if ever, get a chance to find incontrovertible proof of a conspiracy. We may be able to tell that something's amiss, we may have hunches, but in the end we can only speculate, grope in the dark, and collect circumstantial evidence. There's never proof, never closure. Except now. This story represents that one rare opportunity we have to truly truly know what's going...which in this case turns out to mean that evil men are hatching to take over the world.

Ira Glass makes it clear that world domination is by no means a stretch from price fixing. He played some of the FBI's clips of these business executives carving up the markets of the world amongst themselves at some Marriott hotel. [Carving up—as in carving ham, or roast: they argue over the best parts, but in the end they make sure that everyone has a decent meal.] They laugh, chat, and work out complex sums; crumpled wrappers litter the room and stale coffee sits; and, really, in all respects the meeting seems perfectly normal. The only catch is that they're in the process of puppeteering the world food market—food that almost every person on this planet depends on—and, in doing so, ruining small businesses and exploiting the rest of us (and especially the poor). Which is why price fixing is so egregiously criminal and all, but you wouldn't know it from their casual demeanor and guiltless expressions.

I think what makes this storyline so gripping is its dark undercurrent. Nothing is more scary than the idea of men manipulating our lives with such ease. Gods we can live with, but self-appointed gods are too much.* These agri-business crooks get caught, sure enough, justice is served (at least nominally), but the story still doesn't leave you with a happy ending, because all the time you can't help but think: How many more of these guys are there?

Uncannily enough, that's where Michael Moore seems to pick up in his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story. I don't know much about the movie, but from the previews it seems he's trying to show how big corporations (like the ones from The Informant!) are engaging in unfair practices to con over the rest of us.

Michael Moore is rather radical, of course, and I realize he trucks primarily in publicity stunts, but looking at his track record I'm still really curious about what he has to say. After all, he got the two big-picture ideas of his last two films mostly right: the Iraq War was, after all, misguided and misplanned; and health care is, after all, a national problem. Let's see if Mr. Moore can go 3 for 0 (speaking big-picture, of course).

*This line comes from one of Tagore's short stories, "Housewife":
But clearly no god can be more malevolent than a man-god. The immortal gods cause nowhere near so much trouble. If we pick a flower and offer it to them, they are pleased; but they don't harass us if we don't offer it. Human gods demand far more; if we fall the slightest bit short, they swoop, red-eyed with fury, not at all godlike to look at.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Moving Towards Murky Waters

From an old David Brooks article:
"It turns out that it's hard to change the destinies of nations and individuals just by pulling economic levers."

For the most part, economists—and macroeconomists in particular—used to think of the economy as a machine. They looked at the various inputs of the system (interest rates, capital levels, investment expenditures, etc.), related them with the outputs (chiefly GDP), and derived neat mathematical formulas to express these relationships. From there it seemed obvious that if you set public policy consistent with the theory, you'd have a prosperous society: if all the cogs were whirring along harmoniously, then a nation had no choice but to get richer.

We now know, of course, that reality is much more complicated. Prosperity, it seems, is not just about what the central bank does; fiscal and monetary policy do not fully contain the "destiny of nations." Instead, as we're slowly realizing—and as Mr. Brooks points out—it's the "murky" socio-anthropological stuff—like social norms, historical trajectories, culture, and institutions—that really counts.

In the 21st century, then, I think we're seeing the discipline move into increasingly murky waters. The old "economist-as-engineer" paradigm is giving way to "economist-as-anthropologist/sociologist"—which, I think, can only be a good thing. Although the latter approach is messier, it's the only natural next step; it's the only honest thing to do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Narrative Is Not Necessary

Last week I came to a small realization about literature.

We were reading two of Nabokov's short stories—"Sounds" and "Gods"—and at first I was really annoyed because they didn't have strong narrative structures. OK, technically "Sounds" did have a narrative structure, but the plot was so...banal: a man watches a woman play the piano, they go to a friend's house, have an uninteresting conversation, leave, the man runs back to pick up a forgotten item, he comes back, the woman proposes to leave her husband for him, he rejects her, and they go their separate ways.

My friends, however, were enraptured. They talked about the beauty of the language, its flow and rhyme and rhythm, but for me that wasn't enough to make me like the story. It had to have a strong narrative; it had to be eventful and "worth telling."

Not true, I came to realize, and for several reasons. First: For me, one of literature's charms (and, arguably, one of its essential features) is its ability to take ordinary events and makes them extraordinary. Most often writers use plot to effect this transformation (e.g. having a mistreated orphan discover he's a wizard [Harry Potter]); but it can also be done through language—and Nabokov does so extremely effectively. Alliteration and assonance abound; sentences ebb and flow without hitch; and, in the end, if you read carefully, you find yourself transferring the beauty of the language to the beauty of the events. A seemingly insipid afternoon turns into a colorful, evocative event.

Another reason: Although the events of the story seem trivial, they're really not. In fact, it is these small, everyday acts that contain all the deep meaning and significance of extraordinary acts, just in more subtle ways. Heartbreak, determination, victory—these are all contained in glances and gestures. It's all there, if you only take a close look.

Lastly: The line between poetry and fiction is less strict than I thought it was. "Sounds" is better understood as poetic fiction rather than pure short story; and poetry is, after all, not just about what happens but about how we "see" what happens.

Now, after having this change of heart, I can actually benefit from reading "Sounds": it seems more pleasurable, more relevant and provides me with a richer way of seeing the world. I know, then, that the discussion was worthwhile, for anything that makes reality richer and more beautiful always is.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Means of Production

We're pretty much all familiar now with Marx's main critique of capitalism: capitalism, he said, concentrates or keeps the means of production in the hands of a powerful minority, who abuse this privilege to exploit the masses.

Given Marx's 19th century vantage point, it seems he was right on. But now that we've allowed capitalism to develop continuously for two centuries it seems these criticisms are becoming more and more irrelevant.

Case in point: I was flipping through Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat the other day, and I found an entire chapter devoted to examples of how diffused and easily accessible the means of productions have become. With free online software, off-sourcing, and social networking, Friedman argues, entrepreneurs can now create websites, find contacts, and develop their brand at little to no cost. All that's left is to have an idea for the business.

If we take Friedman's word that the world really is "flattening," then free trade (the global epitomization of capitalism) may be the most Marxist system out there (in that it diffuses the means of production the most). I really hope this is so, for it would prove to be at least one ray of sunlight in this stormy world of ours.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Washed Up?

I knew from the beginning that writing a blog would require discipline. What I didn't foresee, though, was the creativity I would need to have to come up with something worthwhile to write about every single day.

I think my experience is similar to most beginning blog writers: At first it's easy to come up with posts because you have a bunch of old ideas swimming in your head that you've been waiting to let free. They come out all in a splash. But then when you realize you have nothing left to say, you end up all washed up.

That's about where I'm at right now: NOT that I couldn't make a post if I wanted to, but that I think my posts are getting to the point of talking for the sake of least I think.

These next few weeks, then, will be a sort of test to see whether or not I have the necessary creativity to come up with interesting topics everyday. Let's see (myself included) if I really am up to the task.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Not My Problem

Ever since I can remember I've been taught not to be racist, particularly against blacks. We would learn about MLK Jr., Frederick Douglass, and tolerance; and we'd learn the flipside: slavery, Jim Crow, the ugly bleeding stain of American history.

Before, I didn't think much of blacks: they were there just like the rest of us, just another part of society. But now I can't meet a black person without thinking of Harriet Tubman and affirmative action debates and studies claiming we're all entrenched with subtle, "symbolic" racism.

Ironically, I think all this education is making me a racist—in that I have ended up committing the cardinal sin of looking at individuals in terms of categories. I don't see John; I only see a living, walking struggle for equality.

All this education has also changed how I see myself. I used to think that Civil Rights, racism, and all that jazz were things that Whites and Blacks needed to sort out, that it was their problem. But the more I learn about it, the more I'm drawn in, and the more white guilt and black anxiety become mine.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tuesday Night Rides

Picture a stock scene from The Fast and the Furious: a crowd milling in an open lot; rows and rows of tricked out cars rev their engines and flash neon lights; new entries gracefully skid up, and their drivers gracefully step out; buzz in the air; anticipation. Now take that scene and swap bikes for cars and that's pretty much how Tuesday Night Rides begins.

At TNR the entire biking world converges for a joyous celebration of biking. There are the Lance Armstrong bikes, regular Target mountain bikes, BMX bikes, beach cruisers, and unicycles. There's a bike with two wheels in the back, which makes it look like a chariot; and there are low-rider gangster bikes, with super long handlebars and an extra curvy South-Side frame.

With a couple whoops and shouts, the ride gets going. Even from the inside I knew the sight was something to behold, like watching a flock of Canadian geese embark. You know there's a leader out front, as does everyone else, but as you turn through streets and lanes, striking amazement in drivers and pedestrians, you feel as if you yourself know where you're going, and that the path is intuitive, natural, and right, guided by natural forces like magnetic poles.

Even though we ride as a pack, everyone does their own thing. Some face the road ahead, not saying anything. Others catch up on conversation. Others share cigarettes as they ride.

It's on Tuesday nights that bikers gather to claim back the streets. No longer confined to falling off the edge of the road, we stream through empty parking lots and take up both sides of empty lanes of quiet, dark neighborhoods. Sometimes dogs bark--and when we run through red lights cars honk—but we don't care. For once we don't yield.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Gravity of Goals

Newton formulated a theory of gravity where the attraction between two objects depends on their masses and the distance between them. Normally this theory is only applied to matter, but I think it is also relevant to the way we choose between goals.

The "Gravity of Goals" equation would reformulate Newton's model like this: my "attraction" to a goal depends on the amount I value the goal (mass) and the amount of time it will take to satisfy it (distance). The longer it takes to satisfy the goal, the less likely I will pursue it. The more I value a goal, the more likely I will pursue it. Faced with multiple goals, the goal I pursue will be the one with the highest payoff (measured by subjective calculations of combined "mass" and "distance").

Imagine an asteroid hurtling through space, irresistibly pulled by a number of planets, some larger than others. That's pretty much what we are, just in a more subjective way.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


I was thinking about hippies today and realized that really they're just Americans who have adopted elements of Indian culture. I started going down the list of things I think make a hippie a hippie, and I came up with:
  1. Practicing yoga rigorously (not that stuff at the gym)
  2. Sympathy or explicit belief in an Eastern Religion (Hinduism, Buddhism)
  3. Belief in relative morality
  4. Pacifistic or non-violent bent
  5. Tendency to prefer natural remedies and cures over chemicals (exemplified in, e.g., ayurveda)
  6. A tendency to renounce the world (derived from the concept of sannyasa)
Notice how all of these ideas have roots in, or are affiliated with, India and Indian culture! Of course, there are fundamental differences, and [full disclosure: I'm Indian] I think hippies understand these ideas in more naive ways than Indians (epitomized by the hippie saying "Why can't we just all get along?"). But still I'm fascinated by the connection.

From my personal experience, I always thought Indian culture was confined to the Indian culture, mostly because no one around me knew anything about it at all. But now that seems not to be the case—and it makes sense. Although Indians and Americans have begun to interact only recently (beginning, chiefly, with Swami Vivekananda), the effects of this interaction cannot just vanish into thin air. I think today I found at least one of the effects.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The In Crowd

All through grade school I believed in the social hierarchy. I believed that it was more prestigious to hang out with some groups of kids rather than others, or that there was something intrinsically better about being in certain company. To hang out with the cool kids, then, was success, and not to do so was to fail—not only fail, but also have to hang out with them.

So of course I worked as hard as I could for "success," and in so doing I treated other kids based on which group they belonged to. If they were part of the "upper" group, then I tried my hardest to be congenial and friendly and impressive; but if they were part of the "riffraff," the kids with faces covered in pimples who sat in the corner discussing anime, then I made sure to end the conversation quickly, lest a cool kid catch me and implicate me by association.

But I never made it into the in crowd. I spent most of my school days alone, confused, not realizing that in pursuing the people who "should" have been my friends, I ended up alienating the people who would have been my friends.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Humility in the Classroom

When my political philosophy professor mentioned how he invites debate, pushback, and skepticism, I think he made a mistake...and sure enough, within an hour a kid took advantage of the invitation to make a complete ass of himself in front of the entire class.

In relation to game theory, and specifically The Prisoner's Dilemma, the professor was talking about how some societies are more cooperative are more cooperative than others, and was using his experiences in Minnesota and New Orleans as examples. He said people in Minnesota are extremely cooperative, whereas, as he put it, people in New Orleans wouldn't cooperate even if you shot them. He then went on to cite research that shows that whether we cooperate or not depends on what everyone else is doing; if everyone's cooperating, then we tend to cooperate too, and vice versa.

Then the ass raised his hand. I think you're wrong about this, he said, and I think I understand why you are wrong too. He then proposed some theory of geographical determinism, claiming that people in colder climates need to be more cooperative in order to survive the winter, and that this explains the discrepancy between Minnesota and New Orleans. Uh-huh, said the professor; that would also explain perfectly why the Russians are such cooperative people...

Of course there's nothing wrong with honest intellectual inquiry. If you see things another way, go ahead and share it. But do it in a respectful way: the classroom is no place for picking fights and trying to show how "smart" you are.

Afraid of discouraging students, professors have taken to letting this kind of arrogance go unchecked, happy that students are at least speaking. But this is dangerous. I think students may get the misconception that the rest of the world will be just as patient, leading them to an inflated ego, an argumentative personality, and a head full of empty ideas. No, students need to understand that the classroom has no room for intellectual pageantry and that there is a reason they are not lecturing themselves; the quicker they do this, the better off everyone will be.

But let's not go to the other extreme either. I am not talking about complete deference to authority and seniority. Like most things in life, being a good student requires striking a balance--in this case between independent thinking and deference. It's a difficult balance to attain, but humility (which is appallingly scant in university classrooms) makes it possible.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fairness in Economics

One of the first things you learn in a social science class is the difference between positive and normative analysis. The two are considered kind of like opposites: positive analysis seeks to understand how things are, whereas normative analysis seeks to figure out how things should be. Another way of putting it is that positive analysis is value based, whereas normative analysis is not. Positive analysis can inform normative analysis, but the two are kept decidedly separate.

Recently in my political philosophy class, the professor was discussing how economists view fairness. He cited surveys of economists about fairness where the economists did not understand how to answer the question; they could not understand what "fairness" meant, or what it was (and those with a background in Pareto-efficiency will have an inkling for why that is). He also talked about a book that goes on for pages and pages only to conclude that fairness is a preference--like your taste for wine or where you buy your furniture. Somehow, said my professor, it seems they're missing the point.

These economists seem to have come to understand the H. economicus model so well that they actually are starting to think it, to incorporate its values, to live it. Remember that H. economicus was meant to be a strictly positive model. Whether we like it or not, people are result-oriented (which is part of what the model says)--but that by no means implies that we should be that way. The model should fit you, not the other way around.

These economists, however, are going the other way around, converting themselves from H. sapiens to H. economicus; or, in other words, they are understanding their positive model in a normative way.

There are, broadly, two possible explanations for why this is occurring. First, it could be that H. economicus-type people self-select themselves into the economics discipline, so the study itself has no effect on them. Second, perhaps economists have trained themselves to think in the H. economicus direction for so long that it has in fact rubbed off on them, so that is all they see.

If so, that mindset needs to end. Fairness should be central to economics. What's the point of having wealth if various factions are going to waste it all fighting over it?

Update: I spoke too soon: it turns out that theories of rationality must necessarily contain normative notions--and H. economicus is a model of rational action. However, I stand by my broader point that fairness matters in economics, and it seems economists don't take it seriously enough. Intuitively, it seems that fairness is not only something people do care about, but should care about.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Vanishing Bats

Today on NPR I heard a story about how the most common species of bat in North America seems to be on the path to extinction due a fungal disease called White Nose Syndrome. As hundreds of thousands of bats die, bat scientists are calling "crisis!" and starting to mount efforts to prevent extinction.

Part of the story also noted how bats perform a tremendous service to farmers as insecticides, and hinted that extinction would be a catastrophe for the ecosystem. For now, the report said, conservation biologists are carefully monitoring the situation.

Now if White Nose Syndrome is caused by humans (and that's a big if), then I would understand the cause for alarm. But that's not what was being talked about; instead, the report focused on how the decline of bats is a calamity in and of itself.

As someone with minimal experience in ecology, I may be wrong on this, but I feel this approach is misguided. It seems that if an event (including extinction) happens automatically in nature, then it is helpful rather than harmful, and ultimately works for the benefit of the system. After all the Earth has been sustaining life for hundreds of millions of years and has been doing just fine without our help. Just because we are now marginally aware of the complex ecology around us does not mean that we need to correct for perceived "imbalances," especially when these corrections can lead to real imbalances of their own.

Of course, this entire argument is contingent on whether White Nose Syndrome is caused by humans or not. And there very well may be other facts to bear in mind. Nonetheless, I sense that we environmentalists have a knee-jerk reaction for preserving species diversity—and I want to suggest that this may not be a good thing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Helping Hand in the Bowels of Bureacracy

It can be quite depressing to work in the Division for Substance Abuse Policy at the Governor's Office because you have to constantly consider social problems most people don't have to worry about. Our work is all about things like kids binge-drinking at age 13 and meth ravaging entire communities, which make you realize how desperate some problems have become. I've asked several people at the office how they cope with this. Their reply: "It helps knowing that I'm doing something to help."

Through the thickets of reports, paperwork, and legalese, though, it's hard to see how my work contributes to anything. It's all so far removed from the people and their problems.

Today, however, that gap was bridged—if only temporarily—when I inexplicably got a call from a distraught woman in San Diego who told me that she was desperately seeking help for her brother-in-law, a meth addict in Tucson. I have no idea how her call ended up reaching my cubicle, but once it did I seized the opportunity to do right. I told her I'd figure out what to do, and, flushed, I ran to the director of the division, who nonchalantly said she had some contacts in Tucson and called her back in 15 minutes...

That's it. I didn't even really help her directly. But it was enough for me: knowing that I was part of a process that brought some peace and consolation to a fellow human being is more than enough.

Monday, August 17, 2009

From Rights to Duties

Recently there has been a lot of brouhaha over the belligerency and unruliness at health care town hall meetings. Often these disruptive people yell slogans about their rights, which they take to mean "entitlements to do whatever you want"—including bringing automatic weapons. This sentiment has surfaced in a really garish way right now, but it's always been there, if only latently. David Sedaris, for example, has a funny story in Me Talk Pretty One Day where he mentions a man at a Chicago movie theater who refused to turn off his transistor radio. When the usher was called, he started arguing about how we live in a free country.

I think these anecdotes signal a general sentiment that confuses rights with complete license; freedom with impunity. Scholars will no doubt point out that these people are completely misunderstanding the concepts, but even still I think these misunderstandings arise out of the very language of rights themselves:

Rights are essentially an egocentric concept: with rights, you take for granted the entitlements society extends to you while ignoring the work everyone else is constantly doing to uphold those rights.

In other words, the problem with rights is that they obscure the fact that one man's right is everyone else's duty. If I have the right to free speech, it is only because everyone else in the community takes it upon themselves to refrain from silencing me, especially when they do not like what they hear. If we are a freer people, it is only because everyone is working harder at fulfilling their duties to themselves, their family, and their neighbors.

The concept of duty presents a better way of understanding how we should structure our social relations. However, this switch in thinking is not as radical as one might think. Rights and duties ultimately both represent the same values, like two sides of the same coin: if everyone is fulfilling their duties, then everyone’s rights are being respected. The difference between the two is that rights focus on how the individual receives respect from everyone else, whereas duties focus on how the individual gives respect to everyone around him. 

It's a small switch in thinking that makes a number of key differences. First off, it makes us more concerned about other people. In this new paradigm, instead of asserting rights (and thus focusing on my needs over everyone else's), my mind will turn to fulfilling duties (considering what I need to do help others satisfy their needs).

To be sure, I’m not talking about subordinating the needs of an individual for the sake of the collective. Rather, I’m speaking to the fact that a person can control only whether or not he fulfills his duties towards others, not whether others fulfill their duties towards him. An individual, on his own, has no power to defend his own right; he can only try to persuade others to respect his right. And if these former right-violators decide to change their right-violating ways, then what they are really doing is sacrificing their personal interests for the sake of maintaining society’s broader moral ideals—a principle commonly known as duty. Thus, even rights (a very individual-centric concept) contain within them notions of duty, making it difficult to say that a duty paradigm does not respect the individual.

The second benefit of the duty paradigm is that it makes more explicit the idea that social balance is only the result of work, and is fragilely maintained. Unlike rights, which seem to exist automatically until violated, duties are left undone until they are fulfilled. The Declaration of Independence can say what it wants about inalienability and God-guarantees, but history shows that it is only humans who protect the rights of others, and humans can as easily trample rights as they can uphold them.

What this shift to duties will not do, however, is make our moral problems any easier. Just as we try to understand what rights apply to what situations, we'll have to try to understand what duties apply to what situations. But I do think we will be working with a more socially responsible system of struggling through moral problems.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

District 9

Today I saw "District 9," a grisly film about life twenty years after aliens land. Although the plot was rather cliche (i.e. outcast hero sacrifices himself to save his newly found friends), I appreciated the film for the two main takeaways that it gave me:

1. For me, the film acted as a case study of how badly humans react to abrupt change, new social problems, and, most importantly, major profit opportunities. In this film, the "profit opportunity" is the ability to access the power of alien weapon technology, which for some reason only works with their DNA. Corporations, governments, and warlords are all hungry for this technology, and are willing to use violence, double-dealing, or any other means necessary to get it. It's not that I see people as fundamentally evil, but I think humans are very susceptible to corruption when the stakes are that high.

2. The film reminded me that fulfillment can be found even in the most wretched conditions through self-sacrifice—and conditions don't get any worse than for Wikus van der Merwe, our hero, who finds himself a fugitive from human society after an accident causes him to begin transforming into an alien. While Wikus finds this transformation painful and miserable, vested interests around the world are exuberant, since Wikus can now access alien weapons technology. This makes him the "world's most valuable corporate artifact"; no longer human, but a prize, a resource; and to be degraded to this state is, it seems, as low as one can possibly go. Yet whether the world recognizes it or not, Wikus is able to demonstrate and assert his humanity by sacrificing himself. Even as he lays dying he is victorious knowing that he is what he thinks he is, regardless of what the world around him thinks.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Private Schools

Recently I've been finding out that quite a few people I know go to private preparatory elementary and secondary schools. This, to me, is quite a perplexing discovery, since it seems that as long as you don't live in a bad area (and these kids don't) the public schools are quite good. I naturally started to wonder what made these schools special, what made them worth the extra commute, extra money, and extra hassle, but I didn't get around to finding out.

Today, however, my curiosity got the better of me. My only research method involved browsing the schools' websites (which, out of courtesy, I'm withholding), but that was enough for my purposes.

For the most part, I saw what I expected to see: small classroom sizes, a "personal commitment to your child," various high-flung language classes, and robust drama and arts programs. The websites seemed like they could do with some Mozart in the background (after all, research proves his music enhances learning!), but the general aura was of class and refinement.

As I said, this was all expected. But I was completely floored when I saw the price: Tuition alone costs at least as much as my total cost to attend university! And that's for the cheaper school. The more expensive one costs twice as much, and fees, textbooks, and food are extra.

Now, I get the idea that education is the most valuable thing that you can give to your child, and that this is about their future and everything. But I don't understand how that much money can make a worthwhile difference in the way a kid learns his ABCs, or long division, or even middle-school algebra. At the college level you can talk about spending on the "university brand," but that's only for when you get there.

In college, no one gives a damn where you went to high school, let alone before that. In the end, it really all washes out. The private-school kids sit next to the public-school kids, and any stamp of distinction is immediately worn away.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Rhetoric of Proselytization

As a non-Christian, I've seen evangelicals make a fair number of attempts to proselytize me. With their Bible in their hands and a worn smile on their face, they patiently try to make me understand that Jesus Christ is my only salvation, that I've been living my life wrong all this time (even though they have no idea what it means to live a Hindu life).

Although I oppose proselytism on principle, I sympathize with the intention. The idea, it seems, is that it feels miserly and selfish to have found something that has been such a positive and transformational force in one's own life and not share it with others. One wants to spread the "good news," so to speak.

But in spite of my sympathies, even well-meaning and clean-hearted evangelicals come off as annoying and intrusive—and it's not an accident.

The problem is that evangelicals forget one of the most fundamental rhetorical dictums: know thy audience. For some reason, evangelicals seem to believe that the best way to talk to people who do not believe in the validity of the Bible is to endlessly quote the Bible. They like to start with John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world..."), take a tour through Matthew and Mark, and then make a powerful close with John 14:6 ("I am the way and the truth and the life..."), the clincher that unequivocally proves the necessity of conversion. They look at you with eyes (and sometimes mouths) that say, if it's written in the Bible how can you contradict? And if you do contradict, you only get another Bible quote.

This is surely an exercise in futility. So, evangelicals, if you are to undertake the very difficult task of proving that only your way of worship is legitimate, please read up on some rhetoric first.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Adulthood Doesn't Happen On Its Own

I always assumed that when kids grow up, they naturally become more responsible, socially-aware, and self-directed. These values were just supposed to grow on you, like facial hair. Not true.

The background story for how this realization came about is rather long and unnecessary, but the point is that it doesn't seem like adulthood happens on its own anymore. Of course, the body will age and grow and the facial hair will come without asking. But those qualities that make adults adults don't.

I'm talking about that kind of adulthood which drives my mother to cook for us every day, even though she doesn't want to. I'm talking about the kind of adulthood that pushed my dad to work harder when I was born, because he realized that my health and well-being were in his hands. I'm talking about that kind of adulthood that makes people understand they need to confess to their mistakes, even if it hurts their ego. I'm talking about the kind of adulthood where people know in their bones that their needs are not the only ones that matter.

These values are the true hallmarks of adults, and they don't come automatically—or easily. Every day we must make an effort to inculcate these ideals, to improve ourselves, so that we can inspire the coming generation as we strive to live up to the promise of the previous one.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Not All Kinds of Consumer Confidence Are Equal

With the worst of the financial crisis seemingly over, economists and talking heads are now looking at the path to recovery--a path they say depends on so-called "consumer confidence." The title of Fareed Zakaria's recent article basically sums up the spirit: "Get out the wallets: The world needs America to shop."

As someone who has studied a little economics, I understand where they are coming from. Consumption spending comprises roughly 2/3 of GDP, and the American market is one of the biggest in the world. As businesses see higher volumes of sales, they are able to higher more workers, make investments, and circulate the money back into the economy, which keeps us all afloat. On paper, the numbers present a convincing argument.

The problem, though, is that the numbers do not translate into sustained, long-term, healthy prosperity. For example, having scores of people buy houses they cannot afford would certainly count as consumer confidence, but no one would say that is healthy or desirable. The same goes if everyone maxed out their credit cards and buried themselves in debts. Instead, these are the very problems that the financial crisis so starkly exposed, and, if anything, the severity of the panic should teach us not to make those mistakes again. Rather than reading headlines about negative savings rates and massive foreclosures, I think most of us would like to see households stay in/move into good financial well-being, make prudent investments, and take other steps to ensure long-term financial security. National prosperity, after all, begins with personal prosperity, and personal prosperity depends in large part on sound spending habits.

The key, as always, is moderation. Households do need to enter the marketplace, but they should do so in a level-headed way. The numbers from this level-headed approach may not look as good as those generated by "irrational exuberance," but, lest we forget, 5 years later that's not what we'll be caring about.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Cash for Clunkers"

Talk of the town: "Cash for Clunkers" (a government program that gives rebates to people who trade in their old cars for more fuel-efficient models) has run through $1 billion in about a week, which is quite something considering that that $1 billion was supposed to last until November at least.

The current angle: The national conversation has been focusing on what this running out of money means. The left calls it a success. The right calls it a failure.

What really matters: What makes "Cash for Clunkers" different from a pure subsidy is its environmental component. This is crucial because it is this difference that makes it a public-interest program--the public-interest of course being that greener cars lead to cleaner air and solve some foreign policy problems. Now, some people have suggested that the process of junking the clunkers greatly dampens the environmental benefit of greener cars. This claim may be bogus, but these are the kinds of questions people should be asking and answering. The focus of the conversation should really be on whether the program is achieving its purported objectives, and achieving them efficiently; not on the program's popularity.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12 Verse 16

Today I was reminded of one of my favorite lines from the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12 Verse 16:

सर्वारम्भपरित्यागी यो मद्भक्त: स मे प्रिय:
sarvarambha parityagi yo mad-bhaktah sa me priyah

To paraphrase, it means that one should renounce the idea that one is the beginning or end of anything. Thus, to think, for example, that I discovered the cure, I came up with the design, I am the one that made this happen is nothing but sheer ignorance.

Isaac Newton, who probably has one of the biggest claims to bragging rights in the history of mankind, also probably has one of the best explanations for why he doesn't make his claim: "If I have seen far," he said, "it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." Trite, yes, but only because it is true. And it deserves more repetition. Quotes like these make the researcher who boasts of curing a disease think twice about skipping over all the foundational work that scores of people did to make that discovery possible.

However, this verse doesn't just apply to major acts of creation and discovery. The subtle and more day-to-day meaning is that behind all of our undertakings lies a motivating and influencing force. Parents, teachers, books, and media all shape our actions, and part of having a healthy outlook is recognizing this fact.

On paper this all seems so obvious, of course, but it's surprising how often we forget. We like to think of ourselves as intelligent, but we forget about the people who refined that intelligence and directed it into constructive channels. We like to think of ourselves as good people, but we forget about the people that have helped instill those values in us.

After internalizing the principle of this verse, sincere and matter-of-fact humility should come on its own. After all, when one goes through the list of people one's indebted to, how can one feel anything but humility?

Saturday, August 8, 2009


When I was in the 7th grade, I learned that exponents do not distribute inside parentheses. That is:
(a + b)2 ≠ a2 + b2
My teacher hadn't mentioned the FOIL method for performing distributive multiplication (that was for 8th grade, I came to find out), so I just assumed that it hadn't been discovered yet. How nice and clean would it be, though, if there were a way to distribute that exponent! So I worked on coming up with a rule.

Ambitious as I was, however, I didn't have any mathematical chops. I couldn't simplify it, or manipulate it, or modify it to come up with an elegant solution, so I tried the only other strategy I knew: guess-and check. a2 + b2 + a + b (no); a2 + b2 + 4a - b (no); a2 + b2 + 3a / b (no)...

For the next week this became my obsession. I thought about it during class (ignoring whatever else was going on), while eating, before sleeping. Guess-and-check is, after all, not a very quick or reliable method, so it took a lot of computing. But finally, I came up with something that seemed like it would work:
(a + b)2 = a2 + b2 + 2ab.
I double checked it and tripled checked; I tested it with fractions, decimals, irrational numbers, whatever math I knew at the time; and when I was absolutely sure it worked, I showed it to my parents.

It was meant to be one of those conversations that starts off casually enough at first, but then quickly escalates to life-changing proportions. I imagined my parents would jump out of their seats when they realized they had been raising a genius all along. There would be a press conference the next day of course, so I had already started planning how I'd strike that delicate balance between humility and healthy pride. And I had good reason to be proud. I had just solved one of the most perplexing mathematical problems of our time. Mathematicians would rejoice. Scientists would cheer. It would be a new world...