Value Judgments
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What I Learned in School Today

After a long and incredibly boring and mentally challenged lecture, using badly done PowerPoint presentations as props with bad, loud, and obnoxious colours and sounds, I was feeling pretty good, as it was only an hour until the end of class, and I was in a good part of the book I was reading on my Jornada.  Happily, the professor doesnít know I read books through every one of his lectures because he canít see the screen to know whether Iím taking notes, playing solitaire (which I do) or reading a book.  He seems happy if I just press the keys occasionally, which is good, since his lectures are useless, and all almost verbatim from the book (which I read prior to the lecture - a good thing, as otherwise I would have absolutely no clue what the moron was talking about - especially since the book, and consequently his lecture, is flat wrong about a lot of stuff - I need the internet to make a sanity check).

As I was under the impression that weíd only had 5 pop quizzes, and there are only three days of class left, I expected the professor to stop talking early.  What did surprise me was the fact that he then said that in light of this being our last non-test day, he would like to get a class discussion going.  I discovered the next day that the reason we didnít have a quiz that day was because he counted filling out the student opinion report as a quiz.  Apparently, being there was a ten, and not being there was a zero.  He didnít tell anyone this, and I know only because I specifically asked him.

In light of my knowledge of the quiz situation, I wasnít happy that we werenít having one.  The unpleasant feeling was just compounded by the class discussion concept, as Iíve been harbouring a secret (from him) hatred of that particular professor for a long time, as you may have figured out.  Said strong dislike, unfortunately, causes me to be leery of disagreeing with the person who has sole power over my grade.  (Technically, should the professor give me a grade lower than I deserve I can complain.  In practice, one full letter grade isnít worth administrationís time.)  That said though, I decided to make the best of the situation and actually have a discussion.

Now, this was apparently a naÔve misconception of youth, but I was of the opinion that the entire idea of discussions was not simply to make noise and agree with everyone else, but to actually have a debate.  Apparently, no one else shared this particular idea, and so I stopped talking a few minutes into the discussion.  This is not to say that I necessarily disagreed with absolutely everything he said, or that my comments were met with hostility (though there was plenty of that).  No, my problem was that in light of the stupidity evidenced by the professor, I was certain to say something that my grade would suffer from if I talked any more.  The concepts addressed were shocking to even my low expectations, and the conclusions reached cause me to feel a kinship with Terry Jones.

For all that I was shocked and amazed by the professorís apparent lack of any sort of cerebral activity, I wasnít really surprised by it; indeed, I had come to expect as much from him.  What truly surprised and saddened me, was that the students actually agreed with the concepts the professor proposed, and even proposed some equally moronic concepts on their own.  As the conversation progressed, it suddenly struck me through the nausea, that I was at that time sitting in a college.  These were not high school kids - they were here because they had graduated from high school, and in theory were smart enough to progress to higher education.  I havenít been led to expect much from my classmates, but today was like spending all day grading what you assume are elementary school arithmetic tests and being disappointed in the scores, and then reading the course title and realizing that the disappointing papers youíd been grading were college-level advanced calculus tests.

The actual debate started out rather innocuously with a comment on the just-past lecture regarding the WTO.  (Which was almost worthy of a paragraph to itself.  Some of the stuff may have been true, but the genocide accusations were a bit much.)  This evolved into complaints about the horrible working conditions that the workers have to put up with in developing countries.  This, I happen to agree with.  Working on a production line 18 hours a day in a hot warehouse, or in a mine where thereís a good chance that you wonít live through the day is in a very fundamental way not fun.  For all that, however, the workers are not being forced to work in such conditions by the corporations.  Certainly the corporations could offer better working conditions, and in a perfect world, would.  But this is not a perfect world, and one must consider that the alternative is selling their daughters as prostitutes, or starving.  In North Korea, for instance, cannibalism is common, and the meat is only usually dead.  In that light, jobs in poorer countries are the best thing in the world.  Were I given a choice between watching my children die of malnutrition, only surviving myself by eating the flesh of fellow human beings, or going to work in an unsafe factory for 18 hours a day, I would definitely work in the factory.  Sure, I would prefer to be Bill Gates, but we are living in a world of finite resources and infinite wants and needs.

Apparently though, my classmates were not of the same opinion.  The general consensus reached was that those damn rich corporations should be just giving the money away to the poorer countries.  (A good quote is ďI canít believe that multi-billionaires donít give more to charity, thatís so selfish!  Of course, Iím not a multi millionaire so I donít donate, butÖĒ  Thatís really an actual quote.  It stuck in my brain.)  The class then went on to say that the poorer countries would be better off if the corporations didnít provide jobs.  The professor specifically told me that because I didnít at that time have hardcopy proof in my hand that corporations were improving standards of living in poor countries, I was wrong, and that the world would be a better place if jobs just stayed in the US, and furthermore, when slavery in the US was outlawed, since most slaves had to keep working on the plantations where they lived because at first they didnít have enough money to move anywhere else, it would have been better if slavery had stayed around.

This stupidity moved on to students complaining about the ďbogusĒ classes they had to take because they couldnít get a decent job without a degree.  Apparently, those damn lazy poor foreigners are stealing all the good jobs, and the corporations were just going along with it!  This unfortunately wasnít the end of it.  The various environmental principles addressed were not quite asÖ impressive as how the conversation started, but no more intelligent.  I wonít relate them, as I am trying to repress the memories.

Perhaps this was an extreme case - perhaps if I had taken a recording of the debate, and played it back to any given participant, they would have been appalled.  I donít know.  Regardless, it was truly disappointing to think that a discussion like that COULD take place.

In a fundamental way, I find it distressing beyond the stupidity though.  Arguments exactly like that are how the corporations justify them not paying their employees those fringe benefits, or why they donít donate - leave it to someone else.  But what can be done about it?  Considering the mob rule syndrome that the class demonstrated, a true democracy is a horrible thing.  A person is smart; people are dumb panicky dangerous animals.  So democracy is basically flawed.  Communism clearly doesnít work, monarchies have a tendency to get people just like my professor running things, and dictatorships get Hitlers and Saddams.  So what does that leave?  China tried a system where those what were sufficiently academically qualified were summarily given government positions.  Good in theory, but it led to the sole qualifying factor for the position of governor was how well you could write a poem about water lily blossoms in a two-hour period, and how pretty the handwriting of said poem was.  So thatís not it.  What else?  Suppression of emotion, and emphasis on logic?  Should we be trying to create something like the Helios AI?  Should we try and create an artificial god?  If we do that, what if he turns out to be like, say, Hitler?  Should we be working on telepathy, so that all minds can be fused into one, like a giant anthill?  Would that be any better than democracy?  Is humanity doomed to be a blight whose sole purpose is to consume?  Maybe the way things are right now is perfect, because no matter how many morons there are, there are always a few intelligent people, and maybe one day one of them will figure it all out.  Or maybe itís a good thing that the sun will go out in a million years.  With any luck, humanity wonít have made it off this miserable little planet.  Thank the cosmos for the second law of thermodynamics.

I guess the only thing to do is just to keep thinking about it in the hopes that one day an answer will be found, either by you or one of your descendants.

Here's a Blogger Who Ran into the Same Kind of Problem

Seth Stevenson of Slate urges us to become morally upstanding by undertaking a course of action that would worsen the misery of India's poor.  No, seriously, he does.  He writes:

Trying Really Hard To Like India

by Seth Stevenson

[T]ake our last night at Marari Beach.  We somehow end up drinking in the bar with a 30-something American woman ó let's call her "Debbie" ó who is six stiff drinks ahead of us.  Between sips of some tropical concoction, she delivers a slurry monologue explaining that she has come to India on business.  Her business: designing doormats.  No joke.  One of Kerala's big industries is coir ó a textile made from coconut husks.  On a bike ride we took around the village (yes, "the world beyond the hotel gates"), we could see into huts that had looms and people weaving coir into simple mats.  These mats get trimmed and finished (by some big export factory) to Debbie's design specs.  Then they get shipped to North America and end up in some middlebrow home-furnishings catalog where you can buy them for $26.99.

Debbie is drinking heavily because her job here is wicked depressing.  She buys in bulk from the big exporter, who pays a shady middleman, who (barely) pays the villagers here.  The villagers can make about three mats per week ó all of excellent quality ó and for this they get paid a few cents per mat.  The middleman of course takes all the profit.  Debbie, good-hearted human that she is, is on the verge of drunken tears as she describes all this.  She knows the whole thing is grossly unfair.  And that she perpetuates it.  But if she wants to keep her job with the American firm she works for, and still make deals with Indian exporters, there's not a damn thing she can do about it.

And unless you have carefully avoided buying any products made by Third World labour - and chances are you have not - you're really no better than Debbie.

Suppose that all of us who would otherwise buy coir doormats for $26.99 at Cost Plus World Market read Seth Stevenson's article in Slate, obey his injunction to become 'better than Debbie" by not buying our coir doormats - or "any other products made by Third World labour."  What happens then?  Demand for coir doormats drops through the floor.  Cost Plus World Market stops selling them.  Debbie's company transfers her to another job, managing a maquiladora in El Paso.  Mr Big Exporter goes bankrupt, and has to return to his ancestral village in Oudh.  Mr Shady Middleman loses his job too, and has to become a lower-paid janitor at the Luxury Beach Hotel where Seth Stevenson says.  "Ha, ha!  Serves them right!" you say.  "Disgusting exploiters!  They got what's coming to them."  And you kick back and feel morally virtuous.

And next year, what do the tourists who leave Big Luxury Hotel and take a ride around Desperately Poor Village see?  They look into huts.  The huts are empty.  The looms stand idle.  Nobody is making coir mats anymore - Mr Shady Middleman is no longer buying.  What are the people who used to sit in their huts and make coir mats doing instead?  We don't know.  But we do know one thing: Whatever they are doing, they would rather be making coir mats.  Those who took up the option of making coir mats did so because it seemed to them to be the best available option.  And we - by trying to preserve our moral purity by not becoming polluted by physical contact with the products of Third World labour - have stolen that option from them.

Seth Stevenson thinks that those who do not buy the coir mats are morally superior to Debbie and the rest of us: they are not complicit in the exploitation of Third World labour.  But there is another way of looking at it - a way that makes those who do not buy the coir mats (and Seth Stevenson) into moral monsters.  Suppose that Seth Stevenson, on his bicycle ride, were to stop by a couple of empty huts, run into them, steel the looms, and then smash their looms to pieces on the beach and dance in front of the resulting bonfire.  Then the villagers could no longer make coir mats.  They would have to find something else to do - something else that is worse than making mats.  Such a theft-and-bonfire would have the same effect on the people of Desperately Poor Village as... as... drying up demand for their products by urging First World consumers to adopt a higher standard of morality and eschew the products of Third World labour, no?

So shouldn't we evaluate Seth Stevenson's plea for us not to buy coir mats as having the same moral value as loom-smashing, since it has the same effect on the people in Desperately Poor Village?  By this way of thinking, Seth Stevenson is a thief.  No, he is worse than your common-variety thief: a common-thief steals from the rich, while Stevenson steals their livelihood from the poor.  Stevenson is a thief who steals the poor's livelihod.  No, he is even worse - for he incites others to steal the poor's livelihood as well.  And he is even worse than that: a thief - even the master of a gang of thieves - makes use of what he steals, while Stevenson simply destroys the looms (or, rather, urges us to destroy the looms' market value as a capital good.)

There is no reason.  He's a thief - no, worse, the organiser of a large gang of thieves - no, worse, the organiaer of a large gang of vandals who prey on the world's poor.  By my lights, Stevenson is on a moral plane far, far lower than that of Debbie.  Debbie may be reborn as a Brahman.  But the karmic wages of Stevenson's internet virtual loom-smashing ensure that he will, at best, be reborn as a dung-fly.  What would Seth Stevenson do - instead of urging all of us to help him virtually smash the looms of Desperately Poor Village - if he wanted to improve his chances of being reborn as something higher than an insect (a mangy dog, say; or a lesser marmoset)?  The odds are low: some people will read his piece, and not buy the coir doormat, and India's exports will drop, and some looms will stand idle, and some people in Desperately Poor Village will lose their livelihood and be forced into some worse situation because of his actions.  The karmic burden can only be lightened, not removed.

Here are some possibilities:

bulletPraise coir doormats extravagantly, to boost demand in America for them.  With higher demand, Mr Shady Middleman will have to go further, work harder, and pay more.  More families will have the option of making a livelihood by weaving coir doormats - and those families that take up that option are pretty likely to be made better off as a result.
bulletAgitate for the expiration-on-time of the Multi Fibre Agreement, which restricts textile exports from the Third World to the United States - and so virtually smashes more looms in a minute than Seth Stevenson on his bike could smash in a year.
bulletFigure out a way to generate alternatives to Mr Shady Middleman.  If there were two or three such bidding for Debbie's business, each would be a lot less shady - and each would pay the mat-makers more.  The fact that Mr Shady Middleman has his local monopoly is a sign that this is going to be hard.  Either Mr Shady Middleman himself is barely getting by, and nobody else with the organisational skills to successfully do his job wants it; or bad things happen to competitors at the hands either of the local police or the local notables.  Kerala is the province of India in which the local government does the best job of protecting the poor against the rich, but it is extremely rare in historical perspective for the government to be anything other than a committee for managing (and advancing) the affairs of the local landlord class and the local bourgeoisie.
bulletTake more vacations at Big Luxury Hotel, so that it will have to hire more people from Desperately Poor Village, and so give them even better options.
bulletBand together with the other guests at Big Luxury Hotel, collect a pool of $10,000 or so, and give it to a committee of senior women in Desperately Poor Village to lend out in small amounts to those in the village who need capital for projects.
bulletBuy the villagers some goats (or whatever other piece of agricultural capital seems useful).
bulletGive money to the Kerala Ministry of Education (which is a reasonably clean and uncorrupt institution).
bulletAgitate for the United States to increase its foreign aid budget.

There are lots more constructive things that Seth Stevenson could do.  But urge his First World readers to join him in boycotting the products of Third World labour, and so virtually smash the looms that are the best current option of the inhabitants of Desperately Poor Village?  No.  No!  No!!  No!!!!  No!!!!!!!!  Think analytically, people.  Think hard about opportunity cost - what people's options are - and how to expand those options, not narrow them.  Think not about the first-round effects of actions, but their implications for equilibrium.  Only thus do you have a hope of attaining Enlightenment.  Seth Stevenson will never achieve the blessed state of being reborn as a Boddhisatva - or even a Neoliberal Economist - at this rate.

Posted by DeLong at 28 September 2004



29 September 2004
From the desk of Jane Galt:

To do or not to do

Matthew Yglesias has a very smart post about our intuitions on outsourcing:

Brad Delong calls an intellectual foul on those who would have us buy fewer coir doormats made with third world labour.  He seems to believe that a failure to "think analytically" and understand economics is the problem.  That's certainly part of the story, but I think the bigger issue here is the powerful grip an unsound version of the doing/allowing distinction has on our intuitions.  If I buy product X and the workers who produce it labour under bad conditions, then I am to blame.  If I abstain from participating in the Indian economy, then I am not to blame for whatever may happen in India.  And the intuition is a powerful one.  No one can bring themselves to believe that subscribing to Direct TV with the NFL Sunday Ticket and buying a Tivo instead of donating the money to save the lives of famine victims is really just as bad as taking out a gun and shooting a homeless man you might find in a park somewhere.  But these same intuitive principles, well-suited though they may be for life among small groups of people, can have disastrous consequences when applied to an interconnected 21st century world.

A while back, I witnessed a discussion that included a liberal English professor, and a libertarian professor of Economics.  The liberal English professor was making the case that it was not fair for those with genetic disease predispositions (such as the breast-cancer-causing BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 mutations) to have to pay higher insurance rates; after all, it was not their fault.  "But wait," said the economics professor.  "Let's look at other cases of people being born with problems that are not their fault.  Being born in Africa makes you much, much worse off than being born in America with the BRCA-1 mutation.  Your expected lifespan is shorter, and your quality of life is much lower.  By your logic, why shouldn't we take all the money everyone in America spends on health care and send it to Africa, where conditions are much more unfair, and the health care dollars there will produce much larger reductions in relative unfairness?"

The English professor sputtered.  She fumed.  Belatedly, as the discussion was almost ready to move on, she shouted "because I pay taxes!"  But of course, this argument makes no sense in the context of her earlier assertion.  The earlier conversation was about fairness; now she had shifted 180ļ  to transactional rights.  But by definition, discussions about national health insurance, or laws forcing insurers to cover everyone, are not about transactional rights, because the beneficiaries are people who cannot get others to voluntarily transact for what they want.  No government system can survive if paying a small amount of taxes entitles everyone to an even larger amount of benefits.  Of course, she wasn't thinking logically.  She had an intuitive boundary for discussions of certain kinds of fairness, such as the distribution of medical services: the United States.  Setting up those sorts of boundaries is necessary if you're in a hunter-gatherer tribe, but it's not logical.

Which is probably one of the most frustrating battles for the policy-making elite of academics, journalists, and so forth.  The language of policy-making is rational.  But it takes place within a framework of emotion-laden value judgements and intuitive boundaries that confound any true attempt at rationally reasoning out a policy from first principles.  And selling those policies to the public is generally entirely dependant on our politicians' abilities to push certain buttons located deep in the reptilian sectors of our brains, rather than on the policy's objective worth.  This is why journalists (and academics) spend so much time sputtering about how debased the whole process is.

But it's not going away any time soon.  Until we've had some time to evolve in a math class instead of the savannah, politicians are the only thing standing between policymakers and everyone's worst instincts.

Posted by Jane Galt 29 September 2004


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