On fire and ash.

On fire and ash.

The phoenix falls into fire, burns, and dies. Then rises again, reborn.

The phoenix triumphs over adversity. Life gets hard, excruciatingly hard. Everything falls to shit. But the phoenix rises again.

Or so we hope.

Sometimes, the fire burns too hot. And then the phoenix dies and stays dead. Sometimes ash isn’t a phoenix egg.

Sometimes ash is only ash.

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Here’s a poem by my friend Satish:

COULD I BE

Satish Brown

a peacock, so vibrant

& bright, but vulnerable

for lack of flight, a

turkey that flutters

searching for height.

A dove that flies so

high, so pure & clean.

I’m none of these.

Just searching for a

balance – in between.

Maybe a phoenix, mystical,

reborn from fire &

ashes.

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Satish wrote this poem while he was living inside the dormitory on the ground floor of the Monroe County Jail. This is an awful little space. It’s about the size of my living room. Twelve men lived there. They slept on bunk beds. The fluorescent lights were turned off only from midnight until four a.m. The single window, a tiny rectangle of wire-reinforced glass inside the steel door, faced the subterranean booking desk – no glimpse of the outdoors. There were two steel tables bolted to the floor, and each table had six steel stools curving out from beneath it, like a pair of silver-skinned twice-amputated octopuses where the men could sit to eat their meals.

The jail dorm shared a wall with soft booking – “the drunk tank.” Much of the time, someone with mental health issues would be in there, hollering. If someone in the tank decides to stand there rhythmically kicking the steel door, the noise resounds through your skull like the repeated cocking of a shotgun inside your brain. All thoughts disappear but hate. At least, that was my experience, and I never spent more than two hours at a time inside that space.

Satish was there for months.

But he stayed chipper. It was always a pleasure to go in there with a stack of poems and have the chance to talk with him. On his good days, his enthusiasm was infectious, leaning in close to ask questions or banter about religion, his huge eyes gleaming like polished fishbowls.

The saddest poem he wrote was about cheating on his girlfriend with an old man – “old man” is slang for heroin.

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The other men in the dorm loved having him around. In such a small space, where people are going through the worst time of their lives and yet are expected to endure the constant presence of a roomful of other men who’re also going through the worst time of their lives, emotions fray easily. Twice when I came in there, my buddy Max had ugly blue bruises covering his face.

“We had a little disagreement,” Max would tell me. And he’d mention the name of somebody who’d been in the dorm the week before, but had since been moved to a different block.

But nobody had trouble with Satish.

Nobody except the judge.

Max told me, “Judge ______ gave him this deal, Satish was on this drug court thing, and she was going to pretend to care. She said, ‘write me a letter, write me a letter and convince me why I should go easy on you.’ But if she’s going to go easy, why would she need that letter? So Satish wrote this letter, he basically wrote to her, ‘Fuck you, just do what you’re going to do.’ “

The thing is, we all thought he would walk. The case, as far as I knew it, was pretty weak. He had come home, he’d lost his keys, and he was high. He thought he could sleep it off, go look for his keys in the morning, and so he tried to get in through the window.

Except he picked the wrong window. He was climbing in the neighbors’, and they freaked and called the police. The cops came. By then they figured out who he was, everybody was confused, but mistakes happen. Mistakes happen more when people are on drugs, but, regardless, mistakes happen.

The neighbors didn’t want to press charges. They weren’t going to cooperate with a case.

In the United States, prosecutors have a lot of leeway, though. Doesn’t matter what the police report says, doesn’t matter what the witnesses say, the prosecutor gets to decide what charges to file. They get to pile charges on as leverage for plea bargaining. They don’t have to justify which people get dog piled and which people walk free.

The prosecutor’s decisions are yet another place in our criminal justice system where racial injustice creeps in. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, in the eyes of the state, Satish was Black.

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So, a phoenix. Maybe they’d send him away. But he could overcome adversity.

Well.

We thought he would walk. We expected that he’d go to court, then get sent home for time served.

Instead, they gave him seven years.

He was shipped off to the “Reception & Diagnostics Center.” This is where they do psychological evaluations, figure out which prison you’ll be sent to. While at reception & diagnostics, nobody can get a hold of you.

He’d been there two days when his girlfriend – mother of his two children, pregnant with their third – overdosed and died. She’d been clean a while. But after something like that – you think he’s coming out, instead they give him seven years – it’s easy to relapse.

Heroin killed her. But the courts killed her too.

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He took it hard.

We volleyed letters for a while – he’d send me folded bundles, six or seven sheets that he’d written over the course of a week, and he stamped the envelopes low to dodge the postmark – but he always said that it was hard to find time to write. He was doing as many programs as he could, trying to get level-headed, trying to get out. Most programs will give you a time cut.

They’d given him seven years, but he was out after another two. Lots of guys have tried to explain the math of criminal justice time to me; I have never understood.

Max said, “He was in a pretty good place, at first. I mean, he had a handle on it, what’d happened with Chelsea, everything that happened. But when he started using …”

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He was trying to rise. Twenty-nine, and rebuilding his life.

But sometimes the fire burns too hot. Sometimes it burns and burns and the ash stops being an egg. Sometimes ash is only ash.

Rest in peace, Satish.

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Header image from Badeeh Abla on flickr.

On fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

On fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

Life isn’t fair.

Why would it be?  It’s not as though the universe is a fair place.  Some stars get to chug along for years, placidly spewing forth radiation in a fiery inferno of nuclear fission… other stars explode, collapse, or die.

fittestAnd then, among the living?  There’s “survival of the fittest,” which may or may not be fair, exactly, but “survival of the fittest” doesn’t even apply most of the time.  This form of natural selection only works when there’s a large population of individuals bearing a new mutation.  If a new gene is beneficial, the carriers probably survive a little longer or raise a few extra children, and over many generations the gene spreads through the population.

That’s the ideal.  More often, mutations arise in one individual at a time.  Even if a mutation is very beneficial, like a squirrel gene that helps the little critter find and cache 20% more food for winter, there’s a good chance that with one chomp of a roving wolf’s jaws the beneficial mutation disappears.  Evolution relies on a hefty dollop of dumb luck before “survival of the fittest” kicks in.

And yet, most humans are interested in fairness.  Despite being born into a blatantly unfair universe, we strive for better.

defend_equality_poster_croppedBut it’s hard, not least because we have no examples showing us what fairness is.  Moral philosophers… and economists… and warlords, kings, peasants, and voters… have bickered for ages.  Would “fair” mean providing everyone with equal wealth?  Or equal opportunity?  Or equal treatment?

It’s quite clear that we’re not born equal.  We carry different genes.  Our mothers ate differently during pregnancy.  Would it be “fair” to recognize those inherent differences and provide more to those with the “best” genes, that they might flourish?  Or to provide more to those with the least biological advantages, that outcomes could be more equal?

Worse… it’s not clear, when we talk about making the world fair, who even counts.  Should we strive for fairness within our own families?  Our towns?  Our countries?  For all people who speak our language?  Or across the whole planet?

Not even species boundaries are definite things.  Biologists have no foolproof test for whether two creatures belong to the same species – you can’t be quite certain based on appearances, or genetic sequences, or the possibility of producing fertile offspring.  The latter (producing fertile offspring) is often taught in high school biology classes, but there are many instances of animals that biologists declare to be separate species mating and producing fertile offspring.

littleneck_clams_usda96c1862Sometimes you can be pretty confident.  If I walked into a room and saw you, dear reader, sitting beside a clam, I’d assume that you are more similar to me than the clam is.  But the boundaries are fuzzy.  Who is more similar to me, Barack Obama or 45?  Does the answer matter in terms of how each should be treated in a “fair” world?

Is a chimpanzee similar enough to me to deserve a little slice of fairness?  A macaque?  A cat?  A caterpillar?

The answer isn’t out there in the universe, waiting for us.  We have to decide for ourselves.

In economics – especially the conservative Milton-Friedman-esque strains – the goal is to make the world “Pareto optimal.”  This means no one could be made better off without making someone else worse off.  Of course, Pareto optimal distributions of wealth can be blatantly unfair – I’m not keen on the ideas of Milton Friedman.

481px-portrait_of_milton_friedman(One of my professors for graduate macroeconomics loved telling Friedman anecdotes, including a story about Friedman being asked his opinion on tax policy and simply rattling off the theorem “CE is PO.”  Where “CE” means “competitive equilibrium,” i.e. no tax policy at all.  He was joking, but barely.  Whereas all competent economists agree that people behave in wildly undesirable ways unless tax policy is used to balance the costs of negative externalities, i.e. you charge people for dumping pollution into the river.)

If a society has ten dollars and ten citizens, giving each citizen one dollar is Pareto optimal… but giving one person ten dollars and everyone else zero is also Pareto optimal.  The only distributions that aren’t Pareto optimal and the ones in which you forget to hand out all ten dollar bills.  If one person has nine dollars and no one else has any, that is not Pareto optimal.  Toss the last dollar bill at someone – anyone – and the distribution is.

So, okay, economists haven’t solved the fairness game.  Have moral philosophers done better?

One of the stronger (those still irreparably flawed) contenders for a “fair” way to run the world is “utilitarianism.”  This philosophy claims that we should act in a way that maximizes “utility,” i.e. happiness, for the population as a whole.  Which sounds good – who wouldn’t want to make everybody happy?

But… well, we can start simple.  Who should we include in our calculation?  All the presumed Homo sapiens currently living within a country?  Or do we include people living across the entire globe?  Or do we include people who have not yet been born (which makes a huge difference – should we churn through all our non-renewable resources to make everyone alive today as happy as can be, or do we save some happiness for the future)?  Or do we include other species?  Does the happiness of cows matter?  Or the happiness of people who feel sad when they see sad cows?

cow-farmsanctuary

To even get started on utilitarianism, you have to answer all those questions.

And then the real headache begins.  Because… how exactly do you calculate how happy someone is?  If I have one small cookie and two children, I can feel pretty confident that either child would be happy to eat it… at which point utilitarianism dictates that I give the cookie to the child who would enjoy it most.

Our capacity to experience joy, after all, is not equal.

This is the logic used for my favorite rebuttal of utilitarianism: the “utility monster” argument.

Utilitarianism imagines we should redistribute goods to make everyone as happy as possible.  Most people experience diminishing returns – a second bowl of ice cream does not make us as happy as the first – but it’s quite possible that my second cookie would bring me 9 units of utility, and your first cookie would bring only 6 units of utility (maybe you’re not fond of chocolate chips, or are diabetic), in which case, if we had two to share, I should get both.

monsterThe hypothetical Utility Monster is a creature so good at feeling happy that we should all sacrifice everything to satiate its desires, enslaving ourselves to its wants.  I might experience a “disutility” of 1,000 from being enslaved (actually, that seems low – would I really trade my freedom for a hundred cookies?), but if the Utility Monster gets a utility of 3,000 from having another slave, utilitarianism would chain me up.

(Worse, if the founding Americans knew that their slaves experienced a disutility of 1,000 from being enslaved, and a bigoted white “owner” gained only 300 from that ownership, utilitarianism would still say to do it if the founders felt that black emotions and experiences were only one fourth as meaningful as their own.  Or, in contemporary times: if a chicken receives a disutility of 1,000 from being treated as a food-production machine, and I receive a utility of only 30 from having eggs, utilitarianism says we should do it if the chicken is only one hundredth as important as a human being.  The weighted sum of utilities becomes my + 30 times 100 balanced by the chicken’s -1,000.  The world as a whole is better off!)

The Utility Monster is clearly an imaginary creature.  But there are people who are better at experiencing pleasure than others.  A human gene variant for nicotine receptors seems to make cigarettes more pleasurable, and the bearers have more trouble than average quitting smoking.  Several human gene variants seem correlated with enjoying food more, and the bearers are more likely to struggle with weight.

I don’t enjoy the taste of common desserts as much as my daughter.  If I had access to a cake and a bowl of hummus, I’d choose mostly chick peas.  Not out of any moral virtue – that’s simply the taste I enjoy more.  Whereas N would eat cake.

vicodinSimilarly, painkillers do not bring all humans the same pleasure.  Most people have been prescribed painkillers at one time or another; most college students have probably swallowed a few Vicodins recreationally.  Personally, I never enjoyed opiates much.  They made my mind feel slow, my skin cold, my movements underwater.  It was peaceful, but some people, like David Foster Wallace wigging out while pampered on a cruise ship, don’t enjoy that sense of peace as much as others.

The Utility Monster, however – a creature so good at feeling pleasure that we should all sacrifice ourselves to make it happy – would get hooked at the first taste.  My own failure to enjoy painkillers protected me from addiction.

In a society when most people try painkillers at one time or another – after wisdom teeth, or a broken arm, or a work-related back injury – those citizens who most resemble the mythical Utility Monster will wind up addicted.  After tasting that pleasure, they’ll do what they can to seek it out again.  Yes, there are costs.  Drugs are illegal.  Habitual drug use wrecks our minds and bodies.  We can’t properly communicate with our friends or families while blinkered on opiates.  But, if the pleasure is great enough (or the withdrawal pain of not using sufficiently severe), people will choose the drugs.

And so we can see what our society thinks of utilitarianism.  This philosophy advocates we sacrifice everything for those most capable of feeling pleasure.  In our world, we lock them in a box.

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