Is the world getting worse?

holding-earth-1-1414853Frequent readers of this blog know a big chunk of time here is spent discussing the world’s great problems, as well as the moral and spiritual changes we need to make to meet those problems head on. Oftentimes this exercise gets to be a downer, mostly because it serves as a reminder of just how daunting those problems truly are.

What’s particularly difficult is to get a sense of whether or not things are getting better or getting worse. I found some new perspective on this recently in an unexpected place, when, while sorting through a box of old books, I found the comic book V For Vendetta and opened it up to its preface:

My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore. Goodnight England.

That was the author, Alan Moore, writing in 1988. In retrospect the level of hyperbole is almost laughable. But that’s only because it’s hard to look back nearly 30 years and try and understand the things people back then were preoccupied with, even though they were legitimate. Back in the 80s people barely understood how HIV worked — Eddie Murphy’s standup routine famously joked about a lonely housewife contracting AIDS by kissing a gay friend on the cheek — and imagined a world epidemic of potentially bubonic plague-like proportions. The Berlin Wall was still a thing, and though the US and USSR were in a process of detente, people still contemplated the possibility of mass extinction from nuclear war. Here in the US, crack cocaine was exploding, as was violent crime in US cities; New York had more than five times as many murders in 1988 than it had last year.

I bring all this up only to make the point that every generation finds it far too easy to say that the world is hopeless and getting worse. In many ways, in fact, things are getting better. Continue reading

When “get rich quick” goes mainstream

A friend of mine from college tries to get me to join his fantasy football league every year. For the past decade or so I’ve declined. I used to do it when I was younger, and enjoyed it when I did, but it was such a time suck that when I went to grad school (and later, got married and had kids) I wisely elected to sit on the sidelines.

This year, for whatever reason, I succumbed to the pressure and joined the league. (I named my team “McNally’s Revenge”, after the alleged ball deflation equipment guy from my beloved New England Patriots). But pretty soon, I realized that fantasy sports has changed a lot over the past decade since I’ve been out of the game. For one, I’m trying to do the whole thing on my iPhone, which I find dizzyingly confusing, which in turn makes me feel dumb and old. But more significantly, the element of money — always lurking in the shadows of fantasy sports, of course — seems to have been shoved to the forefront. Fantasy sports, apparently, is no longer about talking trash to your friends and ripping eachother off with shady player trades — you know, good wholesome fun. Apparently, It’s now about becoming a millionaire overnight.

How else can I make sense of the fact that Boston’s South Station is completely plastered with Draft Kings advertising? These days one-day fantasy sports ads are inescapable, not only in places — both real and virtual — where young, male sports fans congregate, but places as universal and banal as the city train station. The sudden ubiquity of these ads — seriously, I had never heard of this concept a few months ago — should tell you something about the outrageous profitability of the one-day fantasy sports business, and the rapid ascendancy of Fan Duel and Draft Kings in particular, companies that have rocketed to prominence in the past couple of years. Continue reading

Am I just another dumb consumer?

Sale mannequins

My wife recently passed along a clever Atlantic article entitled “The 11 ways that consumers are horrible at math”, focusing on some of the mental mistakes that we tend to make in our economic decisions and how vulnerable we are to the influence of marketing. In true Atlantic fashion, it introduces no real new insight, but does a good job summarizing and explaining some of the existing research. Here’s a snippet:

(5) We do what we’re told. Behavioral economists love experimenting in schools, where they’ve found that shining a light on fruit and placing a salad bar in the way of the candy makes kids eat more fruit and salad. But adults are equally susceptible to these simple games. Savvy restaurants, for example, design their menus to draw our eyes to the most profitable items by things as simple as pictures and boxes. Good rule of thumb: If you see a course on the menu that’s highlighted, boxed, illustrated, or paired with a really expensive item, it’s probably a high-margin product that the restaurant hopes you’ll see and consider.

As the paragraph above mentions, the influence of “framing” on individuals’ decisions can be powerful. That’s just one of many ways that we fail to even come close to performing rationally in our routine economic decisions (if we were perfectly rational, the framing effect would be nil), a point I’ve made on this blog many times in the past. Yet the passage above also contains another important point: framing and other strategies can be used for things we commonly think of as bad (like pushing restaurant goers towards higher-priced items), or for things we find good (like getting school kids to eat healthier foods).

This is the whole idea behind the recently conceived concept of “libertarian paternalism“, championed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and popularized by their book, Nudge. Thaler and Sunstein are keen to argue that while it’s wrong to force people into a particular decision that would benefit everyone, we can still “nudge” them with certain mental tricks. Organ donation is the classic example; most everyone agrees that the decision on whether or not to donate one’s organs should the individual’s own and never the government’s, yet the evidence suggests a country’s default setting — ie starting everyone out as donors and giving them the freedom to opt out rather than the other way around — has a huge impact on how frequently people actually participate. You can “nudge” people to be organ donors, that is, without forcing them or even providing any real incentives.

I’m a big supporter of libertarian paternalism, even though I think the term is a misnomer (it’s much more paternalistic than libertarian, if you ask me). I think it’s important to acknowledge its limits, though. Proponents of policy-led “nudges” or other public interventions are coming from the angle that since we humans do not behave consistently rationally and that markets are inherently imperfect, public policy can identify and fill in the gaps wherever markets fail.

That second part about the power of public policy is a fantasy. First, it’s technically tricky (figuring out exactly how much to spend on government-led efforts to encourage kids to eat vegetables, for instance). But secondly, government simply doesn’t have the firepower to offset all the purposeful “bad” nudging that private industry pumps out.

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When did we all get so sensitive?

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt recently wrote a stirring article in The Atlantic about the alleged culture of oversensitivity and emotional coddling at American universities. They write:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

The authors conclude that this environment could be contributing to higher rates of depression and other emotional disorders in young people. That seemed too big a leap for me to take at face value — really, I need someone with a psychiatry degree to weigh in on that one — but Lukianoff and Haidt’s other points are believable and powerful. The most frightening implication for me is that this cultural movement is at odds with what institutions of higher education are supposed to be: forums for free expression and the open search for truth in whatever form.

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This nation is built on trust and self-serve fountain beverages

A couple weekends ago I sat down with my laptop in a Panera where we live. I had a little bit of work to take care of, and Panera is my default choice to get stuff done. The wi-fi is free, the food is decent by casual dining/fast food standards, and you can get your tea or coffee in an actual mug rather than a paper cup (a rare treat). And the one I go to tends to have plenty of seats and never be overcrowded.

In any case, this particular visit got me thinking about something extremely important: fountain sodas. Usually when I visit places like this, I go for tap water instead of something sweet. I love soda and all, but for lunch I don’t really like paying the extra $2-3 for something I probably consume too much of anyway. At Panera, the way this works is that they give you an annoyingly small clear plastic cup that is completely different looking from the cup you get when you buy a fountain drink, and then allow you to fill this cup with water on your own at the fountain soda area.

I find that a lot of these casual chain do this now; that is, they give you a water-specific cup rather than one usually intended for a fountain drink. I suppose part of the reason is to encourage people to buy drinks rather than asking for free water with their meals, given that you can only fit what seems like 0.8 ounces of liquid inside one of those tiny cups.

But another reason, I guess, is the idea that having different-looking cups would make it harder for the soda free loader types, the ones who ask for a free cup only to fill it up with something they were supposed to have paid for, simply because it would be more obvious when someone’s dumping Cherry Coke into a cup that’s clearly intended for water. That seems to be the thought process at Chipotle, which gives the same size cup for water as it does for soda, but slaps an mistakable label on their water cups to make it perfectly clear what’s what.

chipotle_cup2

The Chipotle water cup: yup, pretty clearly for water

The whole point of this is that there’s a clear element of trust involved here. Even with those simple deterrences in place to prevent people from stealing soda from fast food joints, it’s not like doing so is hard. We’re not talking Ocean’s Eleven here. In fact, at that particular Panera that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the fountain drink area is way in the back, where no one at the front counter can see. Really, the only way to get busted is for some employee to pass by your table and spot you, and then of course to decide that, despite being exhausted and probably making just above minimum wage, it’s worth publicly shaming a customer into what cost the Panera shareholders about ten cents. In other words: not gonna happen.

But think to yourself: When was the last time you pulled off this sneaky trick, despite how easy it would be? Continue reading

America has a race problem. What am I going to do about it?

A couple Saturdays ago, my wife and I hosted a prayer gathering and discussion in our home on the subject of “race, society, and spirituality”. We read some sacred writings together and prayed, watched a short video, and had a discussion over some good food. People shared their personal anecdotes and experiences along with their heartache, their joy, and their concern about where we are going as a nation and as a human race. A friend whose dad is Kenyan, mom is white, and step dad is Persian told of a childhood of conflicted identity growing up in Upstate New York. A Polish immigrant shared her experiences of living in America for the past decade. A black neighbor told us about raising a daughter in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood in Greenwich, CT after growing up in Harlem. A Jew from Brooklyn shared his sadness over the needless suffering currently being felt in Israel and Palestine.

The two of us have hosted these prayer gatherings/discussions sporadically in our home for the past few years, but more recently we’d been contemplating dedicating an evening to the topic of race in particular. One reason is that unity is perhaps the single most important theme in the Baha’i Faith — Baha’u’llah once declared that “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole earth” — and thus opposing racism and prejudice naturally becomes an important component of being Baha’is in America. But this wasn’t the only reason. The other was that the two of us have become tired of listening to friends and colleagues decry racism without an eye towards an actual solution, and in tones that seemed to accomplish nothing more than to fan the flames of suspicion and distrust.

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The problem with freedom

Gender and society satire from the 1890s

A satirical cartoon on gender roles in society from the 1890s

In the 1920s, tobacco companies sought to increase the number of women smokers. So for the Easter Sunday parade of 1929, a group of public relations and marketing experts hatched a brilliant plan on their behalf. They paid a group of young, attractive, fashionably-dressed women to march in the parade and, in unison, light up cigarettes. The women proudly exclaimed to the parade goers that they were smoking “torches of freedom“. Photos and stories of the women circulated wildly. Almost overnight, smoking had become a symbol of female independence and liberty.

I learned about this historical event years ago when I was in grad school. But it recently came to mind once again, amid the debate about freedom of expression following the attack on a French satirical newspaper earlier this month.

Rightfully, following that event there has been an outpouring of sentiment in favor of free speech and in defiance of terror and intimidation. I won’t get into my own thoughts on the specifics of this event, or some or the more controversial details — namely, the arrest by French authorities of dozens of individuals for hate speech following the free speech demonstrations, or the allegedly hypocritical policies of some of the demonstrating world leaders — subjects which have been covered ad nauseum already. (A good approximation of how I feel on these subjects is here.)

On the other hand, what I haven’t seen to this point, and what I personally am yearning for, is an intelligent discussion about not only our legal rights as citizens, but what it truly means to be “free” as a human being. And I think this is a discourse that religion, and especially the Baha’i Faith, can help move forward in a big way.

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Is kindness economically efficient?

When I was a sophomore in college my microeconomics professor talked about gift giving as an example of an economically inefficient cultural practice. The lesson of the day was on how human beings efficiently allocate their resources. When we have the freedom to choose exactly how to spend our money, economic theory tells us, then we can maximize our own personal well-being. But when given a gift, some of this freedom is removed; in efficiency terms, it would be much better just to give cash and let the recipient figure out on his or her own how to spend it.

There was one important caveat: As my professor put it, when two people exchange a gift there are some “warm fuzzies” involved, a benefit that we can’t easily quantify. It’s one thing to go out and get what you want, but it’s particularly special and heartwarming when a loved one is thoughtful enough to get it for you. On a related note, let me digress for a moment and offer some free advice to all men reading this: Don’t ever give your wife or girlfriend cash as a gift, no matter how big an econ nerd you think you are. You run the risk of injury, death, or worse.

For whatever reason, recently I’ve been hyper-sensitive to all the subtle ways that economic efficiency and basic humanity butt heads, just as is the case when it comes to gift giving. And when it comes to this subject, the example that keeps smacking me in the face is my morning commute to work.

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What is my problem with poor people?

Homeless man and dog

Recently, I decided to try out a Greek food truck for lunch that’s down the street from the office. The line was long, but I didn’t mind. It was nice outside so I was happy just to wait patiently and surf with my phone in the meantime.

While waiting, a lady approached those of us who were in line and asked for money for something to eat. Her speech was irregular and she smelled of booze. The other people in line ignored her. As I’ve tried to do in the past in similar situations I decided to at least acknowledge her; that’s the minimum degree of respect you can show a person asking for money out on the street, I’ve always figured. She asked if I would buy her some food, and I said yes. I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket (as usual I’d left my wallet at my desk at work), so I had enough for two sandwiches. Plus, I’ve always tended to feel more comfortable giving food, rather than money, to those asking for help.

After that point it was chaos. I asked her what she wanted to eat, and she told me she wanted a chicken platter, which was $7. I told her I didn’t have enough money for that plus my own lunch, but I could buy her a sandwich instead. She agreed, but only after some awkward back and forth that drew curious glances from the other customers (it wasn’t that she was stubborn, but rather that she didn’t seem in the right frame of mind to understand the logic).

When I got the counter, I ordered one sausage sandwich for myself and one chicken sandwich for my friend. While the staff were putting these together (assuming they were both for me, I guess), they saw the lady, who it seemed was familiar to them. “What can I get you, honey?”, one of the cooks called to her, as she was standing off to the side. I opened my mouth to speak, about to explain the situation to him, when I heard her exclaim over my shoulder, “A cheeseburger!” I shut up. I paid for both sandwiches, gave one to the lady (who thanked me), and I was on my way.

It’s experiences like this one that complicate matters for me — and, I assume, many of those reading this — when it comes to giving money, food, or whatever to the poor, and especially to beggars. There is no way to write about these things risking sounding arrogant, paternalistic, or just plain dumb. But not discussing them is a worse alternative. This blog entry is more meditation than manifesto; I have no definitive answers, only personal experiences and scattered thoughts.

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What’s missing from the conversation on income inequality?

Income inequality is a hot topic these days here in the US, and for good reason: over the past generation or so, real gains in income for those at the bottom and middle of the spectrum have been practically nil, while those at the top (especially the very top) have risen rapidly. As a consequence, income inequality by some measures is at its highest levels since the 1920s.

cbo-inequality-after-tax-income

If income inequality has been rising for so long, why is it only recently getting so much attention? I think the main reason for the recent attention was the housing bust and financial crisis in 2008 (duh), which provided a shocking contrast between widespread home foreclosures and mass layoffs on the one hand, and generous bank bailouts on the other. But since then, we’ve had plenty of other things to keep our attention on the subject. I’m thinking the Occupy Wall Street/99% movement; the 2012 Presidential election, which forced a national dialogue on the subject; and the near-celebrity status of economist Emmanuel Saez, whose recent book has attracted huge media attention.

Within that debate, economists continue to fuss over a longstanding question: Sure, inequality is rising, but what does that mean for economic growth? Do societies in which the rich take a bigger and bigger slice find it more difficult to grow the whole pie over time?

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth has a new paper summarizing the research, both old and new, on exactly this topic. It’s a good read even if you’re not into economics, especially the overview section, which gives some nice context for this question. Among the report’s conclusions are:

Most research shows that, in the long term, inequality is negatively related to economic growth and that countries with less disparity and a larger middle class boast stronger and more stable growth. Some studies do suggest that in the short run, inequality may spur growth before hindering it over the longer term, but overall there is growing evidence that, in the long run, more equitable societies are associated with higher rates of growth.

It’s always important to differentiate between positive and normative questions in economics, and this subject is no exception. The former asks something about how the world is; the latter, how the world should be. Economists like to focus most of their time on positive issues: Does inequality constrain growth? That is an important question, and researchers and organizations which focus purely on answering it objectively and honestly are doing very important work. Nonetheless, what seems to be missing from today’s debate about inequality is a second, more normative question: If the economy continues to grow while remaining very unequal (or becoming more unequal), is that ok?

For two reasons, I’d say the answer is No (surprise!). The first reason has to do with economic theory. The second has to do with the very purpose of our lives as human beings. Continue reading