For people whose past cultural experiences have led them to associate mint smells with sweet tastes, pairing the scent of mint with a sip of sucrose solution makes them believe that the drink is more sugary than it really is. When mint scent is paired with a sip of mildly acidic water, the drink seems less sour than it really is.
This experiment didn’t assess people’s perception of alcoholic drinks, but people in the United States probably make the same mistake about the bourbon in a mint julep.
Our assumptions – particular to our own cultural experience of the world – can powerfully deceive us.
A mint julep mixed perfectly for someone from the United States would taste bitter to someone from Vietnam.
Viet Thanh Nguyen – author of The Sympathizer, which I’ve written about previously – strives to draw attention to our cultural blindness. The way our minds’ innate self-deceptions allow us to overlook or misinterpret the experiences of others.
My spouse and I have often felt grateful for Nguyen’s work. His essay about the sinking sensation he felt after teaching his child to read was particularly beautiful. (I linked to it in my own essay about teaching a child to read.)
Which is why we felt so dismayed by Nguyen’s most recent New York Times editorial.
Nguyen explains why he enjoys teaching over Zoom. He’s prompted with students’ names; he can see their reactions up close; student voices contribute to the lecture from the same up-front position of power as his own; typed remarks can overlap without distracting; lectures are recorded for students to review later.
All well and good. Nguyen is quite intelligent. If he thinks Zoom is good for lectures, I’m inclined to believe him.
But lectures aren’t the best way to learn.
For many subjects, project-based learning is a more effective way to educate students. Many of my spouse’s resources – designed primarily for teaching college-level biology and introductory Earth & space science with a social justice bent – are available on her website, here.
For the better part of a decade, I’ve hosted a poetry class in the county jail. We read poems and discuss how they make us feel. Our discussions touch upon contemporary scientific research, mythology, economics – all safe enough topics, for most folks – but also religion, addiction, trauma, violence, relationships, loss – which can be tough for anyone to talk about, let alone a room full of men who won’t get to see their families for months.
Because people cycle through the county jail, I never know who will be coming to class each week until I get there. For a few months, I might be with mostly the same group of men. Other weeks, I won’t have met any of the dozen or so people previously.
And there’s a huge difference between what we can accomplish – between what sorts of things feel safe to discuss – when the people in class haven’t met me before, and haven’t been in a class like that with each other. If we haven’t built the necessary emotional connection, we can do less. The class is worse for all of us.
Recently, the jail has allowed a small number of classes over Zoom. But Zoom doesn’t let you make the same emotional connection.
People sometimes complain about the supposed invasiveness of Zoom – the camera snatches up your personal surroundings, the pictures on your wall, the books on your shelves, your family in the background – but it’s by no means the intimacy of being there.
My spouse says, “Over Zoom you can’t tell who’s hungry.”
It would be nice if she meant this metaphorically – that it’s hard to tell who’s eager to learn. But, no. Many students aren’t eating enough. They are hungry.
Worse, we read Nguyen’s paean to Zoom on a snow day.
Streets near my spouse’s high school school were well-salted and plowed, but we live in a sprawling, semi-rural area – the school district serves families from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. There are hills and valleys – not everyone can get a satellite signal at home. And the for-profit cable companies certainly haven’t connected those families to the modern world with wires.
Still, the pandemic has made “e-learning days” seem like a reliable alternative. If it snows, kids learn from home.
“What’s Zoom supposed to do,” my spouse asked, “for my students with no heat?”
This isn’t (only) a concern for fluke events like the avarice-fueled power outages and heat losses in Texas. My spouse grew up in Albany, New York. Every winter was cold. The infrastructure to heat homes there was secure – for children whose families had money.
My spouse’s family didn’t. Her father failed to pay the electric bill. The power was shut off. And then the district called a snow day.
If my spouse and her sibling had gone to school, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Warm classrooms, a hot meal.
Instead they were stuck at home, shivering. Wanting so badly to go to a neighbor’s house. But then the neighbors would know.
In the United States, where poverty is often stigmatized as a moral failing, people hide the ache of want.
Which is why Zoom is so horrible. Zoom makes it easy. When you only have to disguise a small corner of your life, you can convey the illusion that things are okay.
I should preface these remarks by stating that my political views qualify as “extremely liberal” in the United States.
I’m a well-trained economist – I completed all but the residency requirement for a masters at Northwestern – but I don’t give two shits about the “damage we’re doing to our economy,” except insofar as financial insecurity causes psychological harm to people in poverty. Our economy should be slower, to combat climate change and inequality.
One of my big fears during this epidemic is that our current president will accidentally do something correctly and bolster his chances of reelection. The damage that his first term has already caused to our environment and our judiciary will take generations to undo – imagine the harm he could cause with two.
And yet, in arguing that our response to the Covid-19 epidemic is misguided, I seem to be in agreement with our nation’s far right.
As far as I can tell, the far right opposes the shutdown because they’re motivated by philosophies that increase inequality. Many of them adore Ayn Rand’s “Who will stop me?” breed of capitalism, as though they should be free to go outside and cough on whomever they want. They dislike the shutdown because they think our lives are less important than the stock market.
By way of contrast, I care about fairness. I care about the well-being of children. I care about our species’ future on this planet. It’s fine by me if the stock market tanks! But I’ve written previously about the lack of scientific justification for this shutdown, and I’m worried that this shutdown is, in and of itself, an unfair response.
Quarantine could have prevented this epidemic from spreading. If we had acted in December, this coronavirus could have been contained. But we did nothing until several months after the Covid-19 epidemic began in the United States.
Then schools were closed: first for two weeks, then a month, then the entire year.
Stay-at-home orders were issued: first for two weeks, then extended to a month. No data supports the efficacy of these orders – haphazard, partial attempts at social distancing, from which certain people, like my buddy doing construction for a new Amazon facility, have been exempted. And no metrics were announced that might trigger an end to the shutdown.
Currently, the stay-at-home orders last until the end of April. But, as we approach that date, what do people expect will be different? In the United States, we still can’t conduct enough PCR tests – and even these tests yield sketchy data, because they might have false negative rates as high as 30%, and they’re only effective during the brief window of time — perhaps as short as one week — before a healthy patient clears the virus and becomes invisible to testing.
Based on research with other coronaviruses, we expect that people will be immune to reinfection for about a year, but we don’t know how many will have detectable levels of antibody in their blood. As of this writing, there’s still no serum test.
The Italian government is considering the dystopian policy of drawing people’s blood to determine if they’ll be eligible for a permit to leave their homes. If you were worried about the injustice that the virus itself imposed on people who are elderly or immunocompromised, this is worse!
We know, clearly, that the shutdown has been causing grievous harm. Domestic violence is on the rise. This is particularly horrible for women and children in poverty, trapped in close quarters with abusers. The shutdown is creating conditions that increase the risk of drug addiction, suicide, and the murder of intimate partners.
We don’t know whether the shutdown is even helping us stop the Covid-19 epidemic. And we still don’t know whether Covid-19 is scary enough to merit this response. As of this writing, our data suggest that it isn’t.
Covid-19 is a rare breed, though: a communicable disease where increased wealth correlates with increased risk.
And so we’re taking extreme measures to benefit the most privileged generation to ever walk the face of this Earth, at the cost of great harm to vulnerable populations. This is why I feel dismayed.
Hopefully I can present some numbers simply enough to explain.
Many diseases are more likely to kill you if you’re poor.
Malaria kills between 400,000 and one million people every year. The vast majority are extremely poor, and many are children – the World Health Organization estimates that a child dies of malaria every thirty seconds.
Wealth protects against malaria in two ways. Wealthy people are less likely to live in parts of the world with a high prevalence of malaria (most of the deaths each year occur in Africa and India), and wealthy people can buy effective anti-malarial medications.
I took prophylactic Malarone when I visited Ecuador and India. Lo and behold, I did not get sick.
I believe Malarone costs about a dollar per day. I am very privileged.
HIV kills between 700,000 and one million people every year. Again, the vast majority are poor. HIV is primarily transmitted through intimate contact – exposure to blood, needle sharing, or sex – so this virus rarely spreads across social boundaries in stratified communities.
In the United States, HIV risk is concentrated among people living in our dying small towns, people without homes in inner cities, and people trapped inside the criminal justice system.
It seems that these people are all easy to ignore.
Wealth will protect you even if you do contract HIV. We’ve developed effective anti-retroviral therapies. If you (or your government) can pay for these pills, you can still have a long, full life while HIV positive. About 60% of the people dying of HIV happen to have been born in Africa, though, and cannot afford anti-retrovirals.
The second-highest cause of death among people in low-income countries is diarrhea. Diarrhea kills between one million and two million people each year, including about 500,000 children under five years old.
These deaths would be easy to treat and even easier to prevent.
Seriously, you can save these people’s lives with Gatorade! (Among medical doctors, this is known as “oral rehydration therapy.”) Or you could prevent them from getting sick in the first place by providing clean water to drink.
We could provide clean water to everyone – worldwide, every single person – for somewhere between ten billion and one hundred billion dollars. Which might sound like a lot of money, but that is only one percent of the amount we’re spending on the Covid-19 stimulus bill in the United States.
We could do it. We could save those millions of lives. But we’re choosing to let those people die.
Because, you see, wealthy people rarely die of diarrhea. Clean water is piped straight into our homes. And if we do get sick – I have, when I’ve traveled – we can afford a few bottles of Gatorade.
Instead, wealthy people die of heart disease. Stroke. Alzheimer’s. Cancer.
If you’re lucky enough to live past retirement age, your body will undergo immunosenescence. This is unfortunate but unavoidable. In old age, our immune systems stop protecting us from disease.
Age-related immunosenescence explains the high prevalence of cancer among elderly people. All of our bodies develop cancerous cells all the time. Usually, our immune systems kill these mutants before they have the chance to grow into tumors.
Age-related immunosenescence also explains why elderly people die from the adenoviruses and coronaviruses that cause common colds in children and pre-retirement-age adults. Somebody with a functional immune system will get the sniffles, but if these viruses are set loose in a nursing home, they can cause systemic organ failure and death.
I haven’t seen this data presented yet – due to HIPAA protections, it can’t easily be collected – but Covid-19, on average, seems to kill wealthier people than influenza.
But on a population level, wealth is correlated with increased risk.
Part of this wealth gap is due to age. Currently we don’t have enough data to know exactly where the risk curves for seasonal influenza and Covid-19 intersect, but it seems to be around retirement age. If you’re younger than retirement age, seasonal influenza is more deadly. If you’re older than retirement age, Covid-19 is more deadly.
And in the United States, if you’re older than retirement age, you’re more likely to be wealthy.
Because these people were receiving expensive medical care, they were able to survive despite their other diseases. Imagine what would have happened if these people had chanced to be born in low-income countries: they would already be dead.
This is a tragedy: all over the world, millions of people die from preventable causes, just because they had the bad luck of being born in a low-income country rather than a rich one.
We don’t have data on this yet, but it’s likely that Covid-19 will have a much smaller impact in Africa than in Europe or the United States.
When my father was doing rounds in a hospital in Malawi, his students would sometimes say, “We admitted an elderly patient with …” And then my father would go into the room. The patient would be 50 years old.
Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for people in their 80s and 90s. Great privilege has allowed so many people in Europe and the United States to live until they reached these high-risk ages.
Our efforts to “flatten the curve,” in addition to increasing many people’s risk of death (from domestic violence, suicide, and the lifelong health repercussions of even a few months of sedentary living), will save relatively few lives, even among our country’s at-risk population.
The benefit of this shutdown is simply the difference between how many people would die if we did nothing, compared to how many people will die if we “flatten the curve.”
Assuming that our efforts to flatten the curve succeed – and neglecting all the other risks of this strategy – we’ll be able to provide ventilation to everyone. But there will still be a lot of deaths. The shutdown will not have helped those people. The shutdown is only beneficial for the small number who would be treated in one scenario, would not be treated in another, and who actually benefit from the treatment.
Their lives matter, too. Many of us have a friend or relative whose life was cut short by this. But something that we have to accept is that we all die. Our world would be horrible if people could live forever. Due to immunosenescence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep people alive after they reach their late 70s and 80s.
And the priorities of elderly people are different from mine. I care deeply about the well-being of children and our planet’s future. That’s why I write a column for our local newspaper discussing ways to ameliorate our personal contribution to climate change. That’s why my family lives the way we do.
These priorities may be quite different from what’s in the short-term best interests of an 80-year-old.
Schools are closed. Children are suffering. Domestic violence is on the rise. All to protect people who have experienced such exceptional privilege that they are now at high risk of dying from Covid-19.
Our national response to Covid-19 is being directed by a 79-year-old doctor. I haven’t gotten to vote in the presidential primary yet, but if I get to vote at all, I’ll be allowed to choose whomever I prefer from a selection of a 77-year-old white man or a 78-year-old white man. Then comes the presidential election, where there’ll be an additional 73-year-old white man to choose from.
It makes me wonder, what would our national response be like if we were facing a crisis as risky as Covid-19, but where elderly people were safe and children were most at risk?
And then I stop wondering. Because we are facing a crisis like that.
As with most fictions, the story that we tell about money helps some people more than others.
Money, in and of itself, is useless. Gold, cowry shells, slips of paper with pictures of dead presidents. The story makes us want these things. We tell ourselves that these items can “hold value.” Instead of lumbering about with all the goods we want to barter, we can carry a small purse of coins. As long as everyone believes the same fiction, we can trade our apples for some coins, then later use those coins to pay someone to help us dig a well.
The story that money has value is most helpful for the people who already have money.
If everyone suddenly woke up from the story, and decided that coins were worthless, the people who grow apples would be okay. In some ways, it’s less practical to pay people with apples – coins don’t bruise or rot – but it can be done. Similarly, the people who dig wells would be okay.
But the people who owned coins would be worse off – previously, the things they owned could be traded for other, inherently useful goods. And people who had made loans would be much worse off – they would have given away money at a time when it could be used to buy things, and when they receive the coins back, they’ll be worthless. No recompense for past sacrifice – only loss.
So people with current wealth benefit most from the fiction that money has value.
This is, as far as I can tell, the only real virtue of Bitcoins. This form of currency is not anonymous – indeed, it works through the use of “blockchains,” a permanent ledger that records everyone who has ever owned a particular piece of money. Bitcoins are a little like dollar bills where you have to sign your name on it in order to spend it. And they’re excruciatingly bad for the environment – it takes energy to mint a real-world, metal coin, but nothing like the amount of energy that’s constantly wasted in order to verify the ledgers of who owns which Bitcoin. Ownership is determined by vote, and the system was designed to be intentionally inefficient so that it’s difficult for one person to overwhelm the system and claim ownership of everybody’s coins. And it’s unstable – it’s difficult for someone to outvote the system and take control, but not impossible.
Those all seem like bad features. But Bitcoins are now incredibly valuable – in the years since I explained all these flaws to a high school runner who’d begun investing in Bitcoins, his $500 investment has burgeoned to be worth $24,000.
The only “good” feature of Bitcoins is that the system is designed to reward past wealth. The total money supply approaches an asymptote – new Bitcoins are added to the system more slowly over time. If the currency is successful, this will impose a deflationary pressure on prices. Today, a certain amount of heroin might cost 0.1 Bitcoin – in the future, that same amount of heroin might cost 0.01 Bitcoin.
This deflationary pressure would cause the value of current holdings to increase. By simply buying Bitcoins and hoarding them, you’d gain wealth!
But this only works for as long as people keep believing the fiction that Bitcoins have value. And the more people who buy and hold Bitcoins, as opposed to actively using them as currency, the less believable the story will be. Anyone who “invests” in Bitcoins is wagering that other people will behave in a way that maintains the fiction, even though the person who is making the wager is actively undermining the story.
When we immerse ourselves in stories, we often need to temporarily suspend our disbelieve, but that particular set of mental gymnastics is too twisty for my mind.
Modern money barely exists. Before, we spun stories about the value of coins – now, the fiction lends value to certain strings of numbers. In addition to the Federal Reserve, any bank can create money by making a loan and claiming that a certain amount of currency has been added to one account or another.
This has allowed our fictions to become more intricate. In 2008, the banking crisis threatened to make wealthy people much less wealthy – they had purchased certain financial assets that seemed valuable, and then these assets turned out to be worthless.
It’s as though there was a certain new Magic card that everyone assumed was great, and a few rich kids bought all the copies of it, but then people finally read the card and realized it was terrible. Now these rich kids are holding hundreds of copies of a worthless piece of cardboard.
This would be sad for those rich kids. But, lo and behold, it was fixable! If everyone can be forced to believe, again, that the item has value, then it will. The story needs to be chanted more loudly. If I paid $50 for this card last week, then it’s still worth at least $50!
That’s what “quantitative easing” was – governments around the world agreed to buy worthless items in order to convince everyone that these items had value. This way, the wealthy people who had initially bought them wouldn’t have to suffer.
In the years since I’ve been teaching in our local county jail, I’ve struggled to comprehend the disparities between the way we treat poor people and wealthy people who made mistakes.
For instance, stock traders stole $60 billion from state governments across Europe – the trick was to have two people both temporarily own the stock around tax time, then they lie to the government and claim that they both had to pay taxes on it. Only one set of taxes were actually paid, but they lie and claim two rebates. Money from nothing!
From David Segal’s New York Times article:
A lawyer who worked at the firm Dr. Berger founded in 2010, and who under German law can’t be identified by the news media, described for the Bonn court a memorable meeting at the office.
Sensitive types, Dr. Berger told his underlings that day, should find other jobs.
“Whoever has a problem with the fact that because of our work there are fewer kindergartens being built,” Dr. Berger reportedly said, “here’s the door.”
They stole billions of dollars, and the question at stake isn’t whether they will be punished, but whether they can be forced to return any of the money.
By way of contrast, many of the guys in jail are there for stealing $10 or so. A guy did five months for attempting to use my HSA card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes. Another violated probation when he stole a lemonade – “In my defense,” he told me, “I didn’t even mean to steal it, I was just really fucking high at the time.”
Two weeks ago, a dentist visited the jail during my class. I go in from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 – at about 4:15, a guard came to the door and barked somebody’s name.
“Med call?” somebody asked.
“Shakedown?” asked another.
The guard looked at the sheet of paper in his hand, then said “Dentist.” And suddenly six guys started clamoring, “You got time for extras? I gotta get on that list!”
The man whose name had been called jumped out of his chair and sauntered to the door.
After he’d left, the guys explained the system. “You can get dental, like real dental, but you have to put your name on the list and they only come like every five, six months. So there’s no hope unless you’re gonna be here for a while. And it’s kinda expensive, you pay like fifty for the visit and another ten for each tooth they pull.”
Apparently that’s the only service – pulling teeth.
“They do good work,” said the older man next to me, “I got these bottom two done here.” And he tilted his head back and opened his mouth. But I grew up wealthy – it’s hard for me to assess quality by eyeballing the blank gap between somebody’s teeth.
About twenty minutes later, the guy came back.
“Which ones you have them do?” somebody asked him.
“I had ‘em get these bottom three,” he said, although his voice was slurry because they’d loaded his mouth with novacaine.
“You idiot! You didn’t have them get the top one?”
“No, man, that’s my smile! Gonna find a way to save that tooth.”
“Man, see, how come I couldn’t be on that list? I would’ve had ‘em pull a whole bunch of ‘em out. Wouldn’t give ‘em no that’s my smile bullshit.”
As it happens, I’d gone in for a cleaning at my dentist just the day before. And I’ve had braces. Invisalign. I suddenly felt rather self-conscious about my own perfectly clean, perfectly straight, perfectly intact teeth.
“So who was it, that lady doctor?”
“Naw, was the Black guy.”
“What? Fuck’s it matter that he’s Black?”
“Nobody said it matters, it’s just, there’s three dentists, there’s the lady doctor, the Black guy, and then that other guy. There’s just three, is all.”
Our man was out eighty dollars after the visit. Could’ve spent ninety, but he was holding out hope for that last one. And they didn’t let him keep the teeth.
I’m not sure the tooth fairy ever visits the county jail, anyway.
recently played the board game Fists of Dragonstone. It was fun – the premise is that each turn a
spell is revealed and players will make a simultaneous, secret bid to acquire
its effect. The spells might earn
victory points, increase your future income, or help you thwart other players’
Each turn felt tense because Fists of Dragonstone uses “all pay” auctions. If you bid two dollars, you’ll lose this money whether or not you get the prize you wanted. This type of auction is a slippery beast – inherently stressful in the real world, but psychologically compelling within the safe confines of a game.
most people think of auctions, they imagine the type that eBay uses – only the
winner pays, and the amount paid is equal to the second-highest bid. In this type of auction, you ought to state
your intentions honestly. If you would
get $15 worth of joy from owning an item, you should bid $15 – you’ll either
get to have it for that amount of money (or less), or else learn that someone
else values the item more.
didn’t have such rampant wealth & income inequality, this type of auction
would arguably improve the world.
Objects would wind up in the hands of whomever valued them most,
boosting overall happiness.
In practice, of course, things don’t work out so well. Some people have access to far more money than others. Even if a wealthy person estimates that a blanket would provide $60 of happiness, and a poor person estimates that the same blanket would provide $10 of happiness, it might be that the poor person would actually get more happiness from the blanket. Inequality means that there’s no universal way to convert between money and joy, but the marketplace treats all our dollars the same.
In a board game, you can address inequality by doling out the same set of initial resources to each player. But the standard auction type – which rewards honest valuation – wouldn’t be much fun. Everyone should value each item equivalently, and so the game is reduced to a puzzle. It might be fun to solve once, but there wouldn’t be a reason to play again.
In an “all pay” auction, though, you benefit by being unpredictable. Because you lose your bid whether or not you win the auction, you should often bid zero even if there’s an item you’d like. You’re throwing away money if you make a non-zero bid but someone else bids higher.
You could still attempt to “solve” this sort of game, but the optimal solution invokes random behavior. You should make a bid somewhere between zero and your true valuation, with a certain probability assigned to each. That’s what a robot would do.
Most humans are pretty terrible at doing things that are actually random, though. When we try to create a fake list of outcomes from a set of coin flips, for instance, we usually hew to an alternating pattern of heads and tails.
we’re bad at making random choices – and we know that other players are bad at
it too – we fall back on misguided psychological reasoning. She bid nothing the last two rounds, so
maybe I can sneakily win this next auction with a $1 bid! We get to feel clever when our stratagems
succeed. We get to curse when they
fail. All much more fun than the honest
appraisal encouraged by auctions in which only the winner pays!
real world, though, an “all pay” auction is a recipe for waste.
This type of auction is a good proxy for many types of adversarial encounters. Political contests, computer security, sporting events. Even restaurant management, if people have a discrete budget set aside for eating out and are simply choosing which establishment to frequent.
of these situations, every player has to pay – to run for political office, you
invest years of your life and spend a whole bunch of money on
advertisements. It’s not as though you
get that time or money back when you lose.
All players spend their total bids, but only one gets the prize of
Contemporary political campaigns are incredibly expensive. So many people have already devoted years of their lives to the 2020 presidential campaign. The efforts of the losing side will have been wasted. Because major platforms are willing to air totally fraudulent advertisements, candidates have little chance of victory if they spend much less than their opponents.
Sure, sometimes people will console themselves with the thought that “We may not have won the election, but we changed the tenor of political discourse!” In our country, this is a fantasy. U.S. politics is sufficiently polarized that the winners rarely concern themselves with the expressed desires of the losing side. Two of our past three presidents lost the popular vote and still proceeded with their agendas as though they’d received an overwhelming mandate.
Security is another form of “all pay” auction. This is an asymmetrical game – your initial resources and victory conditions are clearly different if you happen to be playing as a homeowner or a thief – but the basic principle remains the same. One player bids an amount on security; the other player bids time and money to undermine it; depending on who bids more, a break-in succeeds or it doesn’t.
As in Fists of Dragonstone, players have an incentive to randomize their behavior. Sometimes a homeowner should display signs for a security system that hasn’t actually been installed. Sometimes a thief should pass by a house even if it looks like a juicy target. If players are too predictable, they can be narrowly outbid.
encryption is an auction like this. Equifax bid less than the people trying to
hack its servers; a huge amount of personal data was stolen. Mine too.
As an apology for low-balling their security bid, Equifax will send me a
settlement check for some amount between $125 and $0.03, depending on how many
of the other victims they choose to compensate.
could I do with three pennies?
I glued pennies together to make little legs for my laptop computer – three cents for the back legs, two for the front – hoping to improve air flow for the exhaust fan. When a computer overheats, programs malfunction. The operating system might freeze, the same way I do when I’m typing and somebody says “Hi” to me. My brain stutters – processing, processing – unable to determine whether I know this person, and, if so, from where.
Anyway, building these laptop stilts out of pennies seemed cheaper than any other materials. I’ve already built them, though. I don’t really need another $0.03 check from Equifax.
But this situation must feel frustrating for the people at Equifax, too. Improved encryption isn’t valuable in and of itself. This is an adversarial contest that produces only waste. A world in which companies spent little or nothing on computer security and other people simply chose not to breach their nonexistent defenses would be better than our world, in which data needs to be scrupulously guarded.
in which politicians didn’t advertise, trusting voters to learn about their
platforms from impartial sources, would be better than our world.
That’s not where we live, though. Instead, scientists are working to create quantum computers. These are marvels of engineering. In contrast to the behavior of macroscopic objects, certain properties of a quantum transistor can remain undefined during a calculation, collapsing into a discrete binary value only at the end. To accomplish this, the transistor must be guarded from its environs – you may have heard that “measurement” collapses wavefunctions, but measurement doesn’t mean that a human is looking at something. Measurement simply means that the state of an object becomes coupled with the state of its environment.
photon approaches, the state of the object becomes linked with the state of the
photon. They might’ve collided or not,
which narrows the range of space in which the object might exist, which narrows
the set of wavefunctions that could be summed to give its momentum. A collision-less encounter restricts us to a
different set of futures than if the photon hit the thing.
In practice, that means a quantum computer needs to be kept dark, and atmosphere-less, and very, very cold. For a long time – the transistors have to stay unmolested for the entire duration of a calculation.
these devices are very expensive to build and run.
might we want them? Well, they’d be
better than conventional computers at … um … at factoring the large numbers
that are used for computer encryption!
Quantum computers are fascinating. Our attempts to build them have helped us learn more about the workings of our world. But the actual existence of quantum computers – at least until we think of an application other than cracking computer security – will make the world worse.
Worried that people might copy data and then use quantum computers to decode it later — you know, after these computers have been invented — security experts say that we need to start spending more money on encryption now.
While playing Fists of Dragonstone, my friends would curse and shout after making an exorbitantly high bid and then seeing that every other player bid zero. I could have won with $1!
That’s basically what security experts are encouraging us to do. Not curse — overbid. They say that we should make extremely high bids on encryption now, to protect ourselves from a technology that might never exist. Otherwise, undesirables might gain access to the password-protected folder of risqué photographs that you and your partner(s) took. Or break into your bank account.
Occasionally, adversarial work improves the world. When restaurants compete, service might get better. The food, tastier.
But most adversarial contests are engines for waste. High-speed stock trading makes the market more fluid – you can log on and purchase a few dozen shares of whatever you’d like since AI algorithms are ready to facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers.
That’s a small service, though. High-speed trading firms shouldn’t be extracting as much wealth as they are in this country. Mostly they eavesdrop on others’ conversations, sneak in front of people who’re trying to buy something, then scalp it back at higher prices. Trading firms pay exorbitant rent on shelf space that’s close as possible to the stock exchange mainframes – if one scalper is microseconds faster than another, that’s the one who gets to shake you down.
board game, cooperation is generally less fun than adversarial play. For the former, players are trying to solve a
puzzle created by the designer. With
adversarial rules, players are using their intelligence to create puzzles for
each other in real time.
In a game, the waste is the entire point. Nothing tangible is produced, but the expended time leads to social camaraderie. The expended brainpower can give you a sense of satisfaction from having worked through intellectual puzzles. And, hopefully, you’ll have fun.
But – whoops – we’ve used the principles of good game design and mistakenly applied them to the real world. Fists of Dragonstone was fun; our political system shouldn’t be based on all-pay auctions. With major politicians poised to ravage the Amazon, cull the world’s few remaining old-growth forests, and dredge up Arctic oil fields, the people wealthy enough to make high bids on upcoming elections might well destroy us.
Featured image for this post: “Auction Today” by Dave McLean on Flickr.
The Matrix is an incredible film. The cinematography is gorgeous. The major themes – mind control, the nature of free will, and what it means to reject the system – are no less relevant today than when the Wachowski sisters first made their masterpiece.
Matrix also features many, many guns.
I recently read many of Grant Morrison’s comics. After The Invisibles, which was rumored to have a major impact on the visual style of The Matrix, I felt inspired to re-watch the film.
For the most part, I still loved it. But the action scenes were, for me, a person whose spouse is a school teacher, viscerally unpleasant.
spouse’s second day of student teaching in northern California, a child arrived
at her school with an assortment of lethal weapons that included a chain saw
and several pipe bombs. The child was
tackled; the bombs did not explode; nobody died. Media coverage was minimal, even in the local
On multiple occasions, classes at her schools have been canceled due to credible threats of violence. A few years ago, a student lingered after the bell, wanting to talk. “I have a friend who I’m a little worried about …” Later, after this kid had unspooled more details to a guidance counselor, police officers came. The troubled student was sent away for treatment. Once again, nobody died. Media coverage was, to the best of my knowledge, nonexistent, even in the local paper.
Crisis averted, right? No need to alarm everyone with a write-up, a terrifying enumeration of the arsenal retrieved from a student’s locker. Although, in a town this small (population: one hundred thousand), plenty of people heard rumors through the whisper network.
Students today are growing up with far more stress than I experienced. Among top students, more emphasis is placed on applying for college, and the process of getting accepted to the “best” schools is more arduous. There are more AP classes, more clubs to join, more service projects to undertake, plus the pressure of having some uniquely-honed skill that marks the possessor as somehow deserving of a spot at schools like Harvard, Stanford, or Yale.
subset of students are subject to those particular torments, though.
simply existing has grown more stressful for kids. For every single student inside the building.
Growing up in a house where the parents are seething with rage, slowly and arduously divorcing, is pretty hard on children. That is now a burden that all students have to bear. The political atmosphere of the United States is like a nation-wide divorce, with the two dominant political parties unwilling to agree on common norms, or even facts.
individual people argue, they often cloister their perceptions inside bubbles
of internally-consistent narration. It’s
quite common for each parent to sincerely believe that the other is doing less
than a fair share of the housework.
There obviously is an objective truth, and you could probably
figure out what it is – by installing security cameras throughout their home, a
couple could calculate exactly how many chores were being done by each
person. But in the moment, they just shout. “Well, I unloaded the dishwasher five times this
week, and I was cooking dinner!”
I have a pretty extreme political bias – I’m against regulating behaviors that don’t seem to hurt anyone else (which adult(s) a person marries, what drugs a person consumes), and I’m in favor of regulating behaviors that endanger a person’s neighbors (dumping pollutants, possessing weaponry). But I also talk to a lot of different folks, and I live in the Midwest. It’s pretty easy to see why a person with different religious beliefs than mine would find my political stance immoral, if not downright nonsensical.
Republican Party – which by and large espouses political beliefs that I
disagree with vehemently – is correct that the United States was originally
founded as a Christian nation. The
underlying philosophy of our constitution draws upon the Bible. And the Bible does not promote gendered or
racial equality. In the Old Testament,
the Bible tells the story of a people who were chosen by God for
greatness. In the New Testament, the
story is revised such that all people, by accepting Jesus as lord and savior,
can join the elect; still, the New Testament draws a stark contrast between us
Biblical point of view, it’s reasonable to subject outsiders to harm in order
to improve the circumstances of your own people. Indeed, it would be immoral to do
It’s like Alan Greenspan’s devotion to the concept of Pareto Optimality, in a way (“Pareto Optimality” is the idea that a distribution of goods and resources, no matter how unequal, is “optimal” if there is no way to improve anyone’s circumstances without making at least one other person worse off. Even a situation in which one person owns the world and no one else has anything is Pareto Optimal, because you can’t help the masses without taking something from that singular world owner).
Using an expensive jar of oil to anoint Jesus’s feet is fine: she was helping the elect. It was be worse to sell that oil and use the money to aid non-Christians, because then your actions only reduce the well-being of God’s people. (Within a New Testament worldview, the possibility for future conversion complicates things somewhat, but if you knew that someone would never embrace the Lord, then you’d be wrong to help that person at the expense of your fellow Christians.)
And so it’s perfectly reasonable that people who vote for the Republican Party support policies that I abhor. I wouldn’t want to be married to those people … but, by virtue of the social contract that we were born into, we are constitutionally bound together. And we’re bickering. Endlessly, maliciously, in ways that are damaging our children.
kids at school are subject to the constant fear that they’ll be murdered at
their desks. Horrific stories are
routinely broadcast on the national news … and, as I’ve realized from my
spouse’s teaching career, the stories we’ve all heard about are only a fraction
of the terrifying incidents that students live in dread of.
the fault of The Matrix. But this
film sculpted the initial style for school shootings. The Matrix was released on March 31st,
1999. Twenty days later, on the day
celebrated both by potheads (based on the police code for marijuana) and white
nationalists (because it’s Hitler’s birthday), a pair of students murdered many
classmates at Colombine High School.
In The Matrix, a character named Morpheus explains:
Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is
our enemy. But when you’re inside, you
look around, what do you see?
Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to
save. But until we do, these people are
still a part of that system and that makes them our enemies.
murderers saw their classmates as enemies.
to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly
dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.
Within the world of the film, this mutability is made explicit: any character who has not joined the heavily-armed heroes could blur and become an Agent. The beautiful woman in red, an unhoused alcoholic man bundled in blankets – either might suddenly mutate into a threat.
And so Neo kills. He and Trinity acquire military-grade weaponry; they stroll into a government building and murder everyone inside.
Anyone willing to complacently work there is, after all, the enemy.
I teach poetry classes inside a jail. Through Pages to Prisoners, I send free books to people throughout the country. I think that the criminal justice system in the United States is pretty abhorrent.
But that doesn’t mean the people who work within that system as corrections officers are bad. They have families to feed. And many are surely aware that if too few people worked as corrections officers, leading the facilities to be understaffed, the people incarcerated inside would be much less safe.
lets me appreciate nuance. I am an
ethical vegan; good people choose to become butchers. I don’t like our criminal justice system;
good people work inside.
was a teenager, though, I felt moral certitude.
I didn’t like school. And so, if
you were the sort of drone who could sit contentedly at your desk, I didn’t
like you. And, yes, I too had
notebooks where I’d written the sort of vitriolic short stories about leveling
the place with a Golden-Eye-(the N64 game, not the movie)-style grenade
launcher, an onscreen point counter tracking deaths. Yes, my friends and I made short films with
BB gun props full of senseless killings.
remember one of the films we made as being pretty good. But after Colombine, we destroyed the video
tapes. I threw my notebooks away.
And I was pissed to be called so often to the principal’s office. I understand now why they were worried. Moral certainty is dangerous; it lets you consider people who disagree as the enemy.
years later, my body stiffened and my heart sank when I watched The Matrix. I loved that movie; I’m not sure I’ll ever
see it again.
glory be, I am now blessed to live in a nation led by a president who feels
nothing if not moral certainty.
When our eldest child was two years
old, a friend of ours built a caterpillar home from some window screens we
found in the dumpster. Our neighbor gave
us milkweed, and we raised some monarchs.
In recent decades, increased use of
pesticides and the decreased abundance of milkweed along monarch migratory
routes have caused butterfly populations to plummet. And so many suburban homeowners began to
cultivate milkweek in their yards.
Exceptionally dedicated butterfly conservationists began to raise
caterpillars inside, keeping them safe from predation, and checking to make
sure that the butterflies were free of parasitic protozoans before release.
The hope is that, with enough concerned citizens pitching in to help, monarch populations might rebound. Within the span of a single lifetime, insect populations around the world have fallen precipitously, in many regions by 90% or more, a travesty described eloquently in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm:
It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else.
Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin,
but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my
lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and
merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the
national consciousness does not register it yet.
been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged
generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have
my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still
persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the
force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most
strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight
beams, which is no more.
Our kid loved watching the butterflies hatch. Metamorphosis is an incredible process, especially for a little human undergoing her own transition out of a helpless pupal stage. Ensuring that our yard is a safe stopover for the monarchs’ journey helps the species survive.
But the monarchs overwinter at a select few sites, such as the mountains of Michoacan. This state has been ravaged by the drug war. A huge percentage of the population is mired in poverty, which abets illegal foresting, including cutting down many of the evergreens that the visiting monarchs roost on. Worse, a large mining company hopes to begin extraction in the butterflies’ overwintering site. If this project is approved, the monarchs will die, no matter how much milkweed Midwestern homeowners plant in their backyards.
people of Michoacan should not be expected to cheerfully endure poverty so that
others can look at butterflies. A major
argument in favor of a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income
is that it would alleviate some of the incentive to destroy our shared
environment for private gains.
inhabit a single planet – as far as we’ve determined, the only habitable world
in the known universe. And, although our
world is very large, we’ve learned recently that individual decisions can have
a hugely destructive impact on us all.
In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells spends two hundred pages describing what life might be like for our children if we allow our planet to warm by two degrees.
emergent portrait of suffering is, I hope, horrifying. It is also, entirely, elective. If we allow global warming to proceed, and to
punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have
chosen that punishment – collectively walking down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have
chosen to walk a different path, and endure.
solution to our problems is obvious – but I am writing as a wealthy,
well-loved, well-educated individual. I
own a home where milkweed can be planted.
My days are happy enough that I don’t feel the need to buy as much stuff
as other people.
world has treated me pretty well.
should somebody who has been treated like garbage feel compelled to pitch
In Brazil, under-served people voted Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency. Bolsonaro hopes to extract value from the country now, which means destroying the Amazon rain forest. Which means – because this expanse of forest acts akin to a set of lungs for our whole planet – destroying the world.
An interesting comeuppance – as a citizen of the United States, usually it’s the autocratic decrees of my own president that send the world teetering toward destruction. Indeed, even though 45 has less influence over our planet’s climate than Bolsonaro, he too has been promoting environmental devastation for the sake of extractive industries.
economics of extraction are interesting.
Because the things we pull from the Earth are all limited resources,
their value will presumably rise over time.
People who have money now, like citizens of the U.S., should choose to
wait. Even if we wanted to burn every
last bit of the world’s oil and release all that carbon into the atmosphere, we
in the U.S. would be better off waiting to pull up our own oil, buying it cheaply
from other people now, and then selling ours at a massive profit later on once
it’s more scarce.
oil companies have been operating under an addiction model. They continue to increase production even
when prices are low, as though fearful that an unsteady supply would lead
people to kick the habit. Their future
revenue stream would dry up.
Renewable energy has been getting cheaper, so maybe they’re right. In the meantime, global consumption has been rising every year, even though we know it’s killing us. Both because our own homes will become less habitable, and because the world will descend into chaotic violence. From Molly Crabapple’s “Where Else Can They Go,”
world has come no closer to ensuring the rights of a human without a
country. Mostly, governments propose
quarantine. Internment camps grow in
Tornillo, Texas, in Lesbos, in Zaatari, and in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. It won’t work. Each year, the world grows warmer. The oceans rise. Wars are fought for ever-scarcer
resources. If the wealthy West worries
about one million Syrians, what will it do with millions of climate refugees?
Wealthy nations pillaged the world in the past. Huge amounts of capital were accrued in the meantime, because human productivity was supercharged by the stored fuel of hundreds of thousands of years of extra energy, all that sunlight captured by ancient plants and compressed into oil.
if other nations repeat that process, the world will be destroyed.
solutions aren’t so hard to come by. A
global wealth tax. Guaranteed basic
income. These would ameliorate a lot of
the world’s problems. But they require
the people who are in power now to willingly accept less. And the little voice whispering in our ears
has quite a bit of practice chanting more.
My family recently attended a preschool birthday party at which cupcakes were served. I watched in horror as the children ate. Some used grimy fingers to claw off the top layer of frosting. Others attempted to shove the entire frosted top into their gaping maws, as though they thought their jaws might distend snake-like. These kids failed, obviously, and mostly smashed the cupcakes against their faces.
And then, a mere two minutes later, the kids all slid from their chairs to run off and rampage elsewhere in the house. The table was a wreckage; no child had actually eaten a cupcake. They’d eaten frosting, sure, but left the remnants crumbled and half-masticated on their plates.
needed to clean up.
I was a better person, I would have offered to help. But I didn’t.
I just stood there with my mouth twisted into a grimace of disgust.
wonder why it’s so hard for our family to make friends. Surely my constant scowls seem charming! Right?
Even at our own house, where our compost bin ensures that uneaten food isn’t completely wasted … and where my own children are responsible for the entirety of any mangled remnants … I loathe scraping the plates clean.
I don’t like washing dishes.
we have a dishwasher. Slide dirty dishes
into the rack, push a button, and, voila, a robot will make them clean!
automation is making our world worse.
official unemployment in the United States is low, the economy is doing
poorly. The official statistics don’t
count people who’ve given up, and they don’t count people who are stuck with
worse jobs that they would’ve had in the past.
Low unemployment is supposed to drive up people’s salaries. When a company knows that there are few available job seekers, they’ll pay more to prevent you from leaving. But that’s not happening, currently. If a company knows that your life is sufficiently bleak, and also that no other company is planning to treat you better, then they can keep salaries low. Financial misery lets employers operate like a cartel.
Despite low unemployment,
most employees are quite replaceable. If
you won’t do the work, a robot could instead.
Just like my beleaguered dishwasher, filled with plates and bowls too
gross for me to want to touch, a robot won’t advocate for better
treatment. And a robot draws no
salary. If you have the wealth to invest
in a dishwasher – or a washing machine, or a donut maker, or a
legal-document-drafting algorithm – it’ll serve you tirelessly for years.
People often say that the
jobs of the future will be those that require a human touch. Those people are wrong. Your brain is a finite network of synapses,
your body an epidermis-swathed sack of gristle.
In the long run, everything you do could be replicated by a
machine. It could look like you, talk
like you, think like you – or better.
And – after its initial
development and manufacture – it wouldn’t cost its owners anything.
As our automation technologies improve, more and more of the world’s income will be shunted to the people who are wealthy enough to own robots. Right now, human delivery people are paid for dropping off the packages people buy from Amazon – but as soon as Jeff Bezos owns drones and self-driving cars, he’ll keep those drivers’ salaries for himself. As your labor becomes less valuable relative to the output of a machine, it’s inevitable that inequality will increase. Unless we implement intentional redistribution.
A recent editorial by Eduardo Porter for the New York Timesadvocates for a tax on automation. Perhaps this seems sensible, given what I’ve written above – if robots make the world worse, then perhaps robots should be made more expensive.
After all, the correct way to account for negative externalities in a capitalist economy is through taxation. That’s how capitalism solves the tragedy of the commons. If the cost of an action is paid by everyone collectively – like pollution, which causes us all to drink dirty water, or breathe asthma-inducing air, or face apocalyptic climate change – but the profit is garnered by individuals, then that person’s private cost-benefit analysis will call for too much pollution.
For every dollar the Koch
brothers earn, the world at large might need to spend $1,000 fighting climate
change. That dollar clearly isn’t worth
it. But if each dollar they earn
increases their personal suffering by only a nickel, then of course they
should keep going! That’s what
capitalism demands. Pollute more, and
keep your ninety-five cents!
But a person’s private
priorities can be made to mirror our society’s by charging a tax equal to the
total cost of pollution. Then that person’s
individual cost-benefit analysis will compare the total cost of an
action against its total benefit.
A pollution tax wouldn’t
tell people to stop being productive … it would simply nudge them toward forms
of production that either pollute less, or are more valuable per unit of
But automation isn’t
Yes, automation is making
the world worse. But automation itself
isn’t bad. I’m very happy with my
If we want to use tax policy to improve the world, we need to consider which features of our society have allowed automation to make the world worse. And it’s not the robots themselves, but rather the precipitous way that current wealth begets future wealth. So the best solution is not to tax robots, specifically, but rather to tax wealth (with owned robots being a form of wealth … just like my dishwasher. Nothing makes me feel rich like that lemony-fresh scent of plates I didn’t have to scrub myself.)
And, after taxing wealth,
we would need to find a way to provide money back to people.
World War II taught us
that unnecessary production – making goods whose only value was to be used up
and decrease the value of other goods, like bombs and tanks and guns – could
improve the economic situation of the world.
We ended the Great Depression by paying people to make weapons. And we could ameliorate the current economic
malaise with something similar.
But an actual war
seems misguided, what with all the killing and dying. There are better, kinder ways to increase
wasteful government spending.
If I were in charge of my own town, I’d convert the abandoned elevator factory into a bespoke sneaker and clothing factory. The local university offers a degree in fashion design, and it might be nice if there were a way for students to have batches of five or ten items produced to specification.
As a business, this wouldn’t be economically viable. That’s the point. It would be intentionally wasteful production, employing humans instead of robots. Everything would be monetarily inefficient, with the product sold below cost.
It’d be a terrible
business, but a reasonable charity.
With alarmingly high frequency, lawmakers try to impose work requirements on welfare payments. I obviously think this policy would be absurd. But it wouldn’t be so bad if there were government-provided work opportunities.
Robots can make shoes
cheaper. That’s true. But by taxing wealth and using it to
subsidize wasteful production, we could renew people’s sense of purpose in life
and combat inequality. No wars required!
And no need for a tax
targeting my dishwasher. Because,
seriously. I’ve got kids. I don’t want to clean up after them. Would you?
It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat. In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh. Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.
So, sure, Jesus loses his temper. Don’t we all? It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.
Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character. But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty. After all, Yahweh is omniscient. Omnipotent. He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.
In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat. The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.
In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:
Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world. In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters. And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose. Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison. Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir. Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other. Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.
The gods know this is going to happen. That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in. Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast.
The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.
Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained. Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will. But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides. Refusal to give in is what’s important. It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.
All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours. To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting. This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport. All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions. Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins. So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.
Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth. Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.
Vikings were wiser. They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair. Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck. That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’ To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up. And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset.
The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously. Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks. To them, the throwaway line was another artform. They had no sense of their own dignity. Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.
Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation. What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.
People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt. If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.
Viking humor. Their secret weapon. Part of their mindset. Take warning, though! There’s a mean streak running through it.
The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any. White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate. I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories. And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.
In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:
It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house
in a beautiful city.
Things have worked out nicely for you,
and you think everyone can agree
this is the greatest country on earth.
The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else. Their patriotism costs little. Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?
There’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now. After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile. He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.
A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat. Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of. Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in. That’s why the gods have to die as well. If they did not die, how could they show true courage? If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?
At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling. Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.
I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success. We should want that for everyone. People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?
But maybe these people will not win. Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews. Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.
That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.
Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too? And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension. What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?
George Patton said, quite accurately,
“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”
But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there. Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.
Investigators are searching for incontrovertible proof that our nation’s current president has conspired (or is conspiring) with an enemy nation to undermine the United States of America.
So far, there’s no public evidence that 45 is knowingly employed as a Russian saboteur, nor that he knowingly engaged the aid of other Russian agents to win the presidential election. His intentions are occluded from us.
But his actions are plain to see. 45 has obstructed investigations into the connections between his administration and the Russian government. The dictator of Russia wanted for him to be elected, and devoted significant resources toward either bolstering his chances or directly manipulating the vote. Numerous whimsical actions taken by 45 have caused strife among nations that were formerly allied in their opposition to Russia. As with his personal businesses, 45 is using kickbacks to bankrupt the United States – we won’t have the financial resources to fix future calamities.
And the punishment he’s being protected from? He’d lose his job. The Senate would step in to say “You’re fired.”
When the threatened punishment is 20 years in prison, however – somewhere between 25% and 40% of a poor person’s total lifespan – we don’t require proof. In those cases, if something looks like a rat, we call it a rat. Honestly, things don’t have to look all that rat-like – four legs, a tail, a too-pointy nose? We call it a rat.
We’ve passed laws outlawing various molecules in this country – it’s illegal to sell them, it’s illegal to possess them, it’s illegal to have them floating through your bloodstream. But we don’t stop there – it’s also illegal to possess objects that might be used to ingest those molecules.
Usually, hypodermic needles are legal. As are glass pipes. And soda straws.
But we’ve decided that it’s illegal for certain people to have soda straws. If a person looks suspicious, he can’t drink through a straw. If a suspicious-looking person foolishly does receive a straw along with his soda, he can be sent to Rikers, where he might receive permanent brain damage when actual criminals wail on him.
45 sowing discord among America’s allies isn’t enough – we need proof that he’s acting at Russia’s behest to undermine our position in the world. But possession of a soda straw? That’s sufficient evidence for us to ruin somebody’s life. Not even his accompanying soda could absolve the man of presumed guilt.
The punishment for possession of methamphetamine is far less severe than the punishment for possession with intent to sell. Again, we don’t require proof that somebody’s selling drugs. If you buy in bulk, you must be selling. Never mind how many people love shopping at Cosco (or my own propensity to purchase restaurant-sized jars of pickles because each would be a wee bit cheaper per).
Our criminal justice system routinely divines intent from a person’s actions. When people’s lives are on the line, our suspicions are enough to convict. Yet now, as our country plunges toward disaster (climate change, nuclear war, or economic collapse could do us in), we need proof.
A deep undercurrent of misogyny courses through much of the world’s mythology. In the Mahabharata (the Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita), the hero’s wife is gambled away by her husband as just another possession after he’d lost his jewels, money, and chariot. She is forced to strip in the middle of the casino; happily, divine intervention provides her with endless layers of garments.
In the Ramayana, the hero’s wife is banished by her husband because her misery in exile is preferable to the townsfolk’s malicious rumors. She’d been kidnapped, so the townsfolk assumed she’d been raped and was therefore tarnished.
In Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, a woman asks a visiting bard to sing something else when he launches into a description of the calamitous escapade that whisked away her husband. But the woman’s son intervenes:
There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it is a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere. More than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.
Belief in women’s inferiority is a long and disheartening part of each [Abrahamic] tradition’s story. For almost all of Jewish history, no woman could become a rabbi. For almost all of Christian history, no woman could become a priest. For almost all of Muslim history, no woman could become a prophet (though scores of men did) or an imam (thousands of men did).
Call in two men as witnesses. If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her. Let the witnesses not refuse when they are summoned.
Clearly, this is derogatory toward women. But the phrase “if one of the women should forget, the other can remind her” made me think about why disrespectful attitudes toward women were rampant in so many cultures.
I think that, in the society where the Qur’an was composed, women would be more likely to forget the details of a contract. But the problem isn’t biological – I would argue that attentive parents of young children are more forgetful than other people. The parent’s gender is irrelevant here. My own memory was always excellent – during college I was often enrolled in time and a half the standard number of courses, never took notes, and received almost all A’s – but when I’m taking care of my kids, it’s a miracle if I can hold a complex thought in mind for more than a few seconds.
People talk to me, I half-listen while also answering my kids’ questions, doling out snacks, saying no, no book now, wait till we get home, and then my conversation with the grown-up will end and I’ll realize that I have no idea what we just talked about.
Hopefully it wasn’t important.
Parenting obliterates my short-term memory, even though I have it easy. I rarely worry about other parents intentionally poisoning my children, for instance. In The Anthropology of Childhood, David Lancy discusses
… the prevalence of discord within families – especially those that practice polygyny. [Polygyny is one man marrying several women, as was practiced by the people who composed the Qur’an.] This atmosphere can be poisonous for children – literally.
It was widely assumed that co-wives often fatally poisoned each other’s children. I witnessed special dance rituals intended by husbands to deter this behavior. Co-wife aggression is documented in … court cases with confessions and convictions for poisoning … sorcery might have a measurable demographic impact – [given] the extraordinarily high mortality of males compared with females. Males are said to be the preferred targets because daughters marry out of patrilineage whereas sons remain to compete for land. Even if women do not poison each other’s children, widespread hostility of the mother’s co-wife must be a source of stress.
Even when we don’t have to ward off sorcery or murder, parents of young children have shorter attention spans than other people. A kid is often grabbing my leg, or tugging on my hand, or yelling fthhhaaaddda until I turn to look and watch him bellyflop onto a cardboard box.
Once my two children grow up, I should regain my memory. But during most of human evolution, mortality rates were so high that families always had small children. And, unfortunately, our species often established misogynistic patriarchies that believed women alone should do all the work of parenting.
There are a few species, like penguins, in which males and females contribute almost equally to the task of caring for young. But it’s more common for a single parent to get stuck doing most of the work. According to game theory, this makes sense – as soon as one party has put in a little bit more effort than the other, that party has more to lose, and so the other has an increased incentive to shirk. Drawn out over many generations, this can produce creatures like us primates, in which males are often shabby parents.
This is bad for children (in an aside, Lancy writes “I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.”), bad for women, and bad for men. Inequality hurts everyone – men in patriarchies get to skimp on parental contribution, but they have to live in a less happy, less productive world.
It’s reasonable for the Qur’an to imply that women are less attentive and less able to understand the intricacies of contracts, given that their husbands weren’t helping with the kids. Caring for young children can be like a straitjacket on the brain.
… if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern … [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind:
Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture. She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to. She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths).
She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her. And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so. Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.
It hurts to have talents that the world won’t let you use. What good is a massive brain when your kid is just yelling for more Cheerios?
Maybe I’m not doing a good job of selling the idea that “you should pitch in and help with the children” to any potential new fathers out there. It really does make a wreckage of your brain – but I’ve heard that this is temporary, and I’ve met plenty of parents of older children who seem perfectly un-addled.
And it doesn’t have to be fun to be worth doing.
Experiences during early development have ramifications for somebody’s wellbeing. As children grow, they’ll forget narrative details from almost everything that happened during their first few years – but this time establishes the emotional pallet that colors the rest of their life.
It’s strange. After all, most of the work of parenting is just doling out cereal, or answering questions about what life would be like if we stayed at the playground forever, or trying to guess how many different types of birds are chirping during the walk to school. And yet a parent’s attitudes while doing those small things help shape a person.
When most older people look back on their lives, they’ll tell you that their happiest and most rewarding moments were spent interacting with their families. By caring for your children when they’re young, you help determine the sort of person who’ll be in your family. If you’re lucky enough to be so wealthy that you’ll still have food and shelter, parenting decisions matter more for future happiness than a few years’ salary.
The costs are high. But equality, happiness, and establishing a culture of respect should matter to men as well as women.
The best way to show that you value something is to pitch in and do it.