The Rhetoric of Policy Levers

In the end, policymakers face a complicated calculus. How much of an increase in total smoking are they willing to accept in exchange for some of that smoking to come from lower-risk e-cigarettes? Regulation of e-cigarettes (i.e. restricting their use in the same way as is common for traditional cigarettes) is likely to mitigate any possible increase in demand, but it may also limit the number of smokers switching from traditional cigarettes. The health risks are murky, the demand effects are murky, and even if both were known, the right policy decisions would not be clear.

-Emily Oster, What Do We Really Know About the Safety of E-Cigarettes?

I draw your attention to this quote not to debate the merit of e-cigarette regulation, or to criticize the quality of Oster’s article. It’s well researched and well written. I quote the concluding paragraph because I was struck by how Oster decided to frame the question.

Some things to note:

  • She did not ask whether people ought to be allowed to assess these risks for themselves.
  • Her implied audience is not made up of people trying to decide whether or not they should start using e-cigarettes.
  • She does not imply that her audience ought to advise their loved ones and acquaintances for or against the use of e-cigarettes.

Oster instead addresses “policymakers”, though the way she addresses them implies to me that she does not believe most of her actual audience is constituted of such people.

And her framing of the risk analysis of e-cigarettes is entirely in terms of reducing things like overall smoking rates and bad health outcomes, regardless of whether smoking rates reflect personal preferences and health outcomes come about from reasonably informed personal choices. In fact, she talks specifically about attempting to “mitigate any possible increase in demand” should e-cigarettes reduce the cost of smoking, as if an “increase in demand” were something like the rotation of the planets, rather than the adding up of freely made individual human choices.

Of course, my analysis of her rhetoric is dripping in a rhetoric of my own. But I’d like to leave it at this for now; it really is her framing, more than any substantive point she made, that I wanted to draw attention to.

Huckleberry Finnsincerity

Nowhere in fiction is kayfabe more accessibly examined than in Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s jaunt down Heraclitus’ daydream starts with a sobering deception: slaughtering a pig so that everyone believes he is murdered. The entire story thus progresses as an exploration of the human need for show, for the show, for insincerity.

Huck dresses as a girl to extract information; he witnesses the justice of the peace shoot a drunk in cold blood, in full view of the townsfolk, who do nothing in response; the duke and the dauphin parlay a risque scam all the way down the river until they are caught, whence they are ridden out on a rail, tarred and feathered; the kayfabe of the professional gamblers on the shipwrecked steamboat (or is that in Life on the Mississippi? It’s a theme of Twain’s work that keeps popping up); Tom Sawyer’s arrival and choreographing of the release of Jim–

About Jim: that relationship is in and of itself an exploration of insincerity for the sake of survival, of intimacy revealing human truth, interpreting the kayfabe all up and down the shores of Mississippi’s America. The theme Mark Twain may be expressing and developing is that we desperately need insincerity in order to function as human beings. Many of us present ourselves to the world naked but for some threadbare loincloth self-woven, and we know that the same is true for many others. We are ashamed of ourselves, and, as an act of mercy, we allow our neighbors to obscure their own shame. It is a way of sheltering each other from righteous and self-righteous jeremiads.

Sincerity thrusts hard and true, and is necessary, in its time, but costly.

The human longing for insincerity fulfills a need to create a scapegoat, to burden someone of us with accumulated corporate shame in order to annihilate it. Once the deception has become great enough and harmful enough, the crowds unleash a kind of wrath which is out of proportion with respect to the crime. Compare and contrast the shooting of the drunk to the lynching of the duke and dauphin. One also recalls the story, somewhere in real life, of a murderer who was released from prison on a technicality (who told this story?): the townsfolk loved him because he was genial enough, and neighborly, but he had a nasty habit of parking illegally; thus, they tolerated him no longer, meting out justice against him. Once the slate is wiped clean of our collective shame, we can return to the kayfabe, enjoying and cataloging the outrages as they accumulate once again.

Wisdom, Cynicism, Glamour, and Wit: Wouldn’t You Like a Bit of it?

Oh, Adam. How you wound me so.

Irony and cynicism are red herrings. As long as everyone’s in on the kayfabe, it’s a great big joshing joke. The trouble comes when we allow ourselves the duplicitous pleasure of believing our own (and others’) bullshit and start treating political kayfabe as if it were sincere talk.

Okay, so I admit that I may not have gotten straight to the point. Let me try to remedy that.

Consider three people. Art, Betty, and Carl (to pick three names at not-random). Art is the naif, Betty is the unreflective cynic, and Carl is the pomo age-of-irony post-introspection petit sage. In Postrel’s terms I categorize each as follows:

  1. Art is gormless. He believes what politicians say (or if not all politicians, at least the ones on his team). He is ensorcelled, perhaps unwillingly. He has yet to acquire the talent of second-guessing the elites, be they political, religious, commercial, what-have-you.
  2. Betty is Holden Caulfield, less naive than Art, but more naive than Carl. She’s recently recognized the insincerity that pervades and in Humean fashion has begun to catalog her observations and register her disgust. “The whole world is a lie” she cries.
  3. Carl rejoins: “no shit, Sherlock.” You see, Carl knows what Betty knows, and he’s reconciled it. He’s come not merely to passively, placidly accept the mere existence of mundane human hypocrisy, but to recognize that as in all human endeavors, it is strewn with trade-offs. A culture suffused with glimmering lies, ponderous kayfabe, and tightly-bound hypocrisy comes with costs, but it’s almost certainly better than an alternative world with nothing but pure brutal sincerity. Likewise, he recognizes the dire need for temperance, that a world full of rib-prodding insincerity is probably just as intolerable. He knows that navigating the world of half-truths we inhabit is challenging and that he’ll occasionally be wrong from time to time, but that his life and his society are enriched by the sweet little lies we whisper each other.

I implore you to believe me when I write that I wasn’t landing on Betty as the paradigm for maturity. I was pointing you at the dull-as-dishwater observation that one player won’t have any more than an infinitesimal influence over the general equilibrium, and that between the three rough options of a) naively believing everything everyone tells you b) sullenly rejecting any utterance as worthless insincerity and c) coming to grips with the duplicity of humans and using this secret knowledge to help you flourish (though not, of course, at the expense of others); the third option is quite clearly the best. Joyce’s Mulligan wasn’t a heretic—he was a placid apostate. 

I invite you, my dear friends, to untelescope your morality. You’ve no more hope of eliminating insincerity than an ant does of redirecting the Nile. The low-cost, high-margin project lies in learning how to best navigate a world where irony and insincerity are treated as exogenous.

To be sure, it’s difficult to precisely place where any of this fits into a serious project of eudaimonia. I think (though I admit that it’s only via introspection) that it’s eminently possible to be a good, useful, productive, moral member of society and to have also relinquished any pretext of sincere belief (I will say that I’m still occasionally taken aback by the sheer quantity of clergy I personally know who’ve confided in me their atheism). I have a suspicion, hard to test empirically, that the tripartite sincerity spectrum is orthogonal to good livin’, even if it correlates strongly with #phronesis. But I don’t think I want to go too far down this road, as yonder lies the realm of navel-fluff picking.

Glamour and the First Step to Wisdom

In the beginning, there were the nonreflective peoples. In this week’s Umlaut piece, I quote Oakeshott discussing this crowd:

The current situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives; conduct is as nearly as possible without reflection. And consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgment, or as problems requiring solutions; there is no weighing up of alternatives or reflection on consequences, no uncertainty, no battle of scruples. There is, on the occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been brought up.

For these people, the ways of their community seem as much a part of nature as the fact that apples fall from trees and predators eat prey. But then over time various communities have come to see these norms as mere convention, something more malleable than gravity or animal instinct. And, for many, something more artificial, a sham.

The Cynics in ancient Greece were given their name (“dog-like”) because they imitated animals in order to get closer to nature. Diogenes famously threw away his cup when he observed an animal drinking from a puddle. From their peculiar vantage point they denounced convention as a system made up of one part arbitrary rules and one part hypocrisy.

From the Cynics I would like to return to Sam, who believes something like cynicism is necessary for growing up:

Adam calls this “cynical”, but I’m not sure that captures the spirit of the thing. Cynicism is marked by a notable lack of faith. In this case, it’s a lack of faith in the deep nature of humanity. I claim that since human nature is indelibly stamped with the Marky Mark of Hypocrisy, the cynical position is to surrender to hopelessness, to descend into a gemebund lament where fantasies about catching kids running through fields of rye abound. It’s my impression that adult readers rightfully view the young Mr. Caulfield with generous dollops of pity and contempt.

Contrast the immature cries of “hypocrite” with the more placid reflections of Joyce’s Stately, Plump Buck Mulligan, who in the opening lines of Ulysses began his morning shave with a ritual roundly mocking the deep pomp of his patently ludicrous culture. Caulfield pines for sincerity, Mulligan is adult enough to know better.

Being an adult in this scenario means giving up on the aspiration for sincerity, or at least for expecting sincerity from the world.

But my question was precisely whether giving up either the aspiration for or the expectation of sincerity was a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the question was not posed with the intention of demonstrating the mechanism by which politics always arrives at systematic hypocrisy; no, the question was posed because I believe we need to aspire to and expect sincerity, or we will fester in hypocrisy.

On the same day that Sam wrote his post, Virginia Postrel’s response to my father’s take on her book on glamour went up on Cato Unbound. Reading it, it seemed to me that Postrel’s glamour was precisely was Sam seemed to be declaiming here.

Glamour is another sort of magic, a trick in which the audience knowingly suspends disbelief. It’s an illusion “known to be false but felt to be true.” Glamour presents an idealized picture, in which flaws, distractions, costs, and complications are hidden. Courtship and love are never as easy as a Fred and Ginger routine, a beach vacation never as unmarred by delays and difficulties as a travel brochure. Military comradeship is real, but the “glamour of battle” edits out the boredom and blood. Glamour, like legitimacy, survives only behind a “well-wrought veil” that reveals only partial truths.

This brings with it many benefits, but also many serious dangers:

Glamour’s greatest dangers, I’ve argued, lie in forgetting what is left out and demanding that the real world conform to the image. “Without a backstage, the quest for grace threatens to turn tyrannical, subordinating the complexities and flux of life to a unitary and artificial ideal,” I write in The Power of Glamour.

This is what I think: there’s a messy reality in which sacred sincerity and profane kayfabe are inextricably intertwined; sometimes you get one or the other but often they are hard to disentangle. Sometimes it’s simply that you get a truly sincere person in a situation where it seems preposterous that they would be. Sometimes it’s that someone is playing the part expected of them but in the sincere desire to do some good. But I do think that both sincerity and such part-playing exist in abundance.

I think Sam looks at the Holden Caulfields of the world outside of fiction and believes they are in the grip of a glamour that may be appreciated for its beauty but is ultimately childish. What I would like to suggest is that Cynicism is also a glamour; a glamour that promises a simple, hard, manly Realism, a Realism of grown-ups rather than the naiveté of children.

And I think that part of being an adult is not embracing Cynicism, but instead understanding that there is a natural tension here but not an all-or-nothing scenario where sincerity and play-acting are concerned. As Postrel puts it:

The nihilistic glamorization of revolt is indeed dangerous, and I certainly have no easy answer to it. But as I contemplate the parallels between Gurri’s political nihilists and the perpetually enraged readers of Jezebel it occurs to me that a widespread understanding of glamour might teach us to live more easily with the tension between aspirational ideals and real-world achievement—to recognize and accept what glamour conceals without losing the insights and inspiration it supplies.

Adulthood is lived in self-conscious awareness of that tension, not in seeking to replace the glamour of childhood with a glamour of adulthood.

Handle at Worst

Bump. Set.

For the spike:

Adam’s question contains what I mean when I employ the ugly phrase “political kayfabe”, that grotesque shared lie bloated rather than withered by constant exposure to the light of day.

What if believing true sincerity is too rare to expect actually acts like a tax on the truly sincere? What if believing that the institutional destiny of politicians and civil servants is to become scumbags and parasites regardless of who they are to begin with actually acts as an “honor tax” on those professions, ensuring that we only get scumbags and parasites?

I say Adam has not gone far enough with this question. In my OP, I implored you, my dearest sweet reader, to get all recursive with that junk: assume perfect (or as near-to-perfect as you can manage) information, or at least meta-information. Assume that the median voter knows that the political elite knows that the median voter knows that… politicians are venal, corrupt liars. Even with perfect information, the doctrine of revealed preferences tells us that constituents want, perhaps desperately so, a cabal of liars, cheats, and thieves in positions of political power. It’s not a matter of an adverse equilibrium, it’s more like Machiavelli’s loathsome Prince dwells in the breast of the democratic sovereign.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Adam calls this “cynical”, but I’m not sure that captures the spirit of the thing. Cynicism is marked by a notable lack of faith. In this case, it’s a lack of faith in the deep nature of humanity. I claim that since human nature is indelibly stamped with the Marky Mark of Hypocrisy, the cynical position is to surrender to hopelessness, to descend into a gemebund lament where fantasies about catching kids running through fields of rye abound. It’s my impression that adult readers rightfully view the young Mr. Caulfield with generous dollops of pity and contempt.

Contrast the immature cries of “hypocrite” with the more placid reflections of Joyce’s Stately, Plump Buck Mulligan, who in the opening lines of Ulysses began his morning shave with a ritual roundly mocking the deep pomp of his patently ludicrous culture. Caulfield pines for sincerity, Mulligan is adult enough to know better.

Even Hemingway’s terse characters were mature enough to tussle with the conflicted, conflicting nature of man. It was The Old Man and the Sea, not the Old Man and the Parking Lot.

The question isn’t so much whether or not we have scumbags and parasites, but how shall we constrain the scumbags and the parasites from destabilizing the host.

Well, at least that’s what I thought the question was. I’m not so sure anymore these days. The ultimate goal of social arrangements should (forgive the explicit normative claim) be mutually beneficial peaceful production and exchange. Everything else is at best window-dressing. Any political arrangement that fails to serve this purpose is a chancre on society, and I strain to imagine how responsible citizens should tolerate great, shaggy, festering chancres sprouting all o’er the tubby corpus of the land. The point of constitutional political economy is to prod the patient, find out why infections blossom where they do, figure out how to keep shambling despite both venal and institutional corruption, and excise tumors when appropriate. But always always always to keep the eyes on the prize: human flourishing, easing them thar natural and artificial barriers keeping folks from mutually felicitous production and euvoluntary exchange.

Irony and cynicism are red herrings. As long as everyone’s in on the kayfabe, it’s a great big joshing joke. The trouble comes when we allow ourselves the duplicitous pleasure of believing our own (and others’) bullshit and start treating political kayfabe as if it were sincere talk.

There’s a reason I included that FNM video in my last post: garbage pop music got the wind taken out of its sails with the release of that album. It’s well about time we had a Mike Patton of politics. It’s the pomposity, Captain; she can’t take much more of it.

Mistaken Moral Logic

Scott Sumner is a committed utilitarian. In a recent post, he quotes at length an argument by Cass Sunstein that goes something like this:

Moral intuitions can lead us astray in just the same way that the biases literature tells us we can be led astray in making financial decisions.

On this view, Foot, Thomson, and Edmonds go wrong by treating our moral intuitions about exotic dilemmas not as questionable byproducts of a generally desirable moral rule, but as carrying independent authority and as worthy of independent respect. And on this view, the enterprise of doing philosophy by reference to such dilemmas is inadvertently replicating the early work of Kahneman and Tversky, by uncovering unfamiliar situations in which our intuitions, normally quite sensible, turn out to misfire. The irony is that where Kahneman and Tversky meant to devise problems that would demonstrate the misfiring, some philosophers have developed their cases with the conviction that the intuitions are entitled to a great deal of weight, and should inform our judgments about what morality requires.

Oh, the irony! Except for the fact that other researchers in Kahneman and Tversky’s own field have a position that roughly mirrors that of the philosophers who “go wrong” in Sunstein’s estimation.

This all makes utilitarianism seem oh-so-scientific, but of course, there is an obvious problem: why should we accept that maximizing welfare or happiness (by some agreed upon specification of either) is the telos of moral philosophy (or moral science, if Sunstein is to be taken literally)?

Perhaps it rests on intuitions such as “happiness (or welfare) are good, and happiness (or welfare) for more people is better than happiness (or welfare) for fewer people.”

It’s hard to understand why (scientifically speaking) this should be treated as somehow more special or more objective than the moral intuitions emphasized by the virtue ethicists and others.

Of course Sunstein admits that we’re in murky waters here, so I don’t want to put words in his mouth. But it seems to me that implying that violating consequentialist logic is similar to the logical errors found by Kahneman seems to me to be rather…reaching.

Is Cynicism Corrosive?

Sam W makes some cogent points about actual or feigned sincerity, but lately I wonder whether it is possible that cynicism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To be fair to Sam, upon rereading his piece I notice that this possibility is actually allowed for in his framing:

What if your behavior in this round influences the probability that others will either be sincere or act as if there were sincere in the next round? Go ahead and get all recursive with that. Take a moment and see if you can’t land on an equilibrium where every player is privately insincere but publicly sincere. If you were a naive observer, would you be able to distinguish between that world and one where everyone was actually legit sincere?

Here are the rungs that my brain keeps stubbornly stringing together:

  1. Deirdre McCloskey’s argument that removing the “honor tax” on bourgeois activity resulting in mass flourishing.
  2. The nurse example Sam H discusses.
  3. What if believing true sincerity is too rare to expect actually acts like a tax on the truly sincere? What if believing that the institutional destiny of politicians and civil servants is to become scumbags and parasites regardless of who they are to begin with actually acts as an “honor tax” on those professions, ensuring that we only get scumbags and parasites?

No further thoughts to offer at this moment. Just wanted to kick this out here for anyone who might want to discuss it, as #3 has been nagging me quite a lot lately.

twss

Flattery will get you everywhere, my dear. Besides, I think I’ve spilled quite enough ink this week kvetching about the embarrassing politics of wayward children.

I still recall the moment it happened, my charming darlings. No, not the time when the America of my youth hucked aside its pretentious dalliance with painful sincerity, but the moment I finally grasped that it was never there to begin with. There has never in the history of civilization as I hazily understand it been a period characterized by anything even remotely approaching genuine sincerity. Quite the opposite, since even primates exhibit evidence of strategic deception.

For me, the eye-opening event was the 1989 release of Faith No More’s album The Real Thing. The music video for their still-occasionally-played radio hit Epic was making the rounds. Here, give it a listen:


See what I mean? Patton takes great pains to growl out lyrics of great portent, howling as only he can do, challenging your flippant notions of your own masculinity with a guttural sneer. But the contents of the lyrics? Perfectly vapid. He’s taking the piss out of pretentious hair metal bands a few years before Kurt Cobain achieved international acclaim by doing the exact same thing, only with a bit more Pacific Northwestern melancholy (and those unforgettable anarchy cheerleaders). For me, that was the day sincerity died. Not with a bang, but with a fish flopping around as Roddy Bottum played a wee tinkling dirge to its demise.

Is that any different from Kurosawa and Mifune’s Yojimbo taking the piss out of the preposterous bowdlerization of the WWII-era Samurai aesthetic? Or to Mozart’s impish antics deflating self-important Italian opera? Irony suffuses human history, and many of the best works that have survived the ages (seriously you guys, re-read the Iliad and tell me it’s not 99.9% tongue-in-cheek) tends very heavily to the side of pricking the vanity of the self-indulgent psychopomp.

But as in all else, temperance is a virtue. I think what Peej wants from me is a steely eye gazing an an unseemly excess of not just irony, but the Hieronymous Bosch-flavoured animatronic grotesquery of recursive meta-irony. She fancies herself a 140-character Helen and I her pied Paris to cross deadly waters.

Challenge accepted.

Using game theory, it’s pretty easy to model a sincerity dilemma. With probability p, your interlocutor is being sincere (therefore, with probability 1-p, she is being insincere). Since you know the payoffs to the actions you can take, you have all the parameters you need to guide your response. As you vary p, your behavior should change. Easy peasy chicken sneezy.

Or is it? Not so fast, because what if p isn’t a parameter, but a variable? What if your behavior in this round influences the probability that others will either be sincere or act as if there were sincere in the next round? Go ahead and get all recursive with that. Take a moment and see if you can’t land on an equilibrium where every player is privately insincere but publicly sincere. If you were a naive observer, would you be able to distinguish between that world and one where everyone was actually legit sincere?

Take your time thinking carefully about that question before pondering this one:

What if foreign cultures have this same equilibrium? What if part of the cognitive dissonance expats experience a few months living abroad is the uncomfortable realization that their cozy adopted culture is just another gaggle of brooding hypocrites not all that different from the ones left behind?

The Age of Irony may as well be named The Age of Always. Adjust or perish as you see fit.

And the best way to slay the beast of tiresome meta-irony is to starve the damnable thing. Irony appeals to many of our ugliest human instincts. The virtuous wanderer acknowledges that these nasty urges exist, accepts them, and strives for excellence regardless. #Arete, young lady. #Phronesis.

 

It’s hard, but satisfying.

 

Heraclitus, My Old Friend

When I first shook hands with Heraclitus, I was bewildered at his ability to ponder and to obscure. I was a wee lad of nineteen tender years, indeed, twenty-two years ago, delighting in my first summer away from home on a small college campus in Chicago, taking an introductory course in the Classical Era, when my doddering old professor introduced me to Heraclitus, a towering figure who winked his eye at you, inviting you into the sweet talk of impermanence from beneath affected furrowed brow. I didn’t get it.

One matriculates to small colleges, I suppose, to reinforce hardcore fundamentalistic objectivism. I just wanted the truth, not the journey. Why should I go to all that trouble when someone can just serve the truth to me in one of those expensive textbooks? Yes, yes, we get it, “One can never step into the same river twice.” Now can we get away from this aging hippie and on to the real philosophers?

Indeed, he is no aging hippie nor is he a philosopher. He belongs to that class of ancient professional thinker known as the Wise Man. Fragment I from his work On Nature indicates as much, saying, “It is wise for those who hear, not me, but the Logos, to confess all things are one.” I think he fits right in here at Sweet Talk, and–who knows?–if he hadn’t tried to treat his dropsy with a liniment of cow manure and baking himself in the sun, he might have been able to join our crew this day.

Pronounced "HeraCLETUS."
Pronounced “HeraCLETUS.”

After twenty-two years I was embarrassed that I hadn’t stopped in to say hello to the old codger, and when I did, I learned that I had learned a few things, and that his invitation into the sweet talk of impermanence is actually something I get, after a few years of my trying to step into that ever-moving river. Well, I may not understand it all as well as he does, but I get it. Take a second look at Fragment I.

Continue reading “Heraclitus, My Old Friend”

Disconnected Jokes.

Why did Jacob marry Leah instead of Rachel?
She was behind the veil of ignorance.

“Functionalism explains conscious beings. ”
“what is a function?”
“A function is a description of causal relations”
“What is a description?”
“A description is a system of representations of some object”
“What is a representation?”
“A system of abstraction that is constructed relative to the intentions of some agent”
“What is an intending agent?”
“A conscious being”

“What is mind? No Matter”

“What is matter? Never Mind”

And Decartes was born upon the earth.