Sunday, June 21, 2015

Let Them Eat Smartphones!

Lately I've noticed a new trend among the economics priesthood. When trying to explain the extreme income inequality, stagnation in living standards, social disintegration, and general immiseration of the population of the past few decades under Neoliberal capitalism, economists have a new favorite argument:

They argue that it isn't true at all--people are, in fact, much better off! Look, people have the internet! Smartphones! Flat Screen TV's! Netflix! None of those things existed in the 1980's. They argue that the "utility" of these things is not captured in the "official statistics," therefore the longer hours, falling wages, debt servitude and precariousness of work is all cancelled out.

I'm not joking. I've seen this argument more times than I can count (especially on libertarian Web sites and podcasts - Marginal Revolution and Econtalk drop this one on an almost daily basis). This article in the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos) sums it up:
But even if we have less money, you know what we do have that we didn't 15 years ago? Smartphones and social networks, Netflix and HD TVs, apps and whatever other technology you prefer to waste time on. Now, it's true, you can't eat an iPad, but it's also true that these things make our lives better in ways that are hard to measure...If you paid $400 for an HD TV today, for example, and $400 for a regular TV 10 years ago, did you really pay the same price? Technically, yes. But the fact remains that you got something better for the same amount of money than you would have before. And that's even trickier when you're talking about things that didn't even exist back then, like smartphones, that are really every electronic device from the 1990s rolled into one pocket-sized piece...
Try this thought experiment. Adjusted for inflation, would you rather make $50,000 in today's world or $100,000 in 1980's? In other words, is an extra $50,000 enough to get you to give up the internet and TV and computer that you have now? The answer isn't obvious. And if $100,000 isn't enough, what would be? $200,000? More? This might be the best way to get a sense of how much better technology has made our lives—not to mention the fact that people are living longer—the past 35 years, but the problem is it's particular to you and your tastes. It's not easy to generalize.
Why your middle-class salary is better than you might think (Washington Post)

Believe it or not, this is a a very common argument. In fact, I would argue that it is the most common argument I see deployed by economists of late to justify the failure of the current status quo. Their argument is basically this: If Reagan hadn't drastically lowered taxes on the rich, we would still be looking at picture tubes, talking on land lines and using maps to find our way around in what would surely be a miserable hell beyond human imagination. Here's Dean Baker summarizing the same argument:
A survey of elite economists (you know, the type of people that couldn't see an $8 trillion housing bubble) found that the vast majority said that the official income data understated the increase in the standard of living for the middle class over the last 35 years. 
The explanation for this view is that new goods like cell phones and the Internet have vastly improved our standard of living in ways that are not picked up in the data. O'Brien suggests a thought experiment that has been put forward by this elite group. Would you be willing to trade an income of $50,000 in 2015 for an inflation adjusted $100,000 income in 1980, knowing that you can only buy the goods and services available in 1980? The implication is that most of us would say no, since it would mean giving up our cell phones, Ipads and Ipods, smartphone cameras, wifi, and all sorts of other neat things.
And Martin Wolf:
Those whom [Robert] Gordon calls “techno-optimists”—Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example—respond that the GDP statistics omit the enormous unmeasured value provided by the free entertainment and information available on the Internet. They emphasize the plethora of cheap or free services (Skype, Wikipedia), the scale of do-it-yourself entertainment (Facebook), and the failure to account fully for all the new products and services. Techno-optimists point out that before June 2007, an iPhone was out of reach for even the richest man on earth. Its price was infinite. The fall from an infinite to a definite price is not reflected in the price indexes. Moreover, say the techno-optimists, the “consumer surplus” in digital products and services—the difference between the price and the value to consumers—is huge. Finally, they argue, measures of GDP underestimate investment in intangible assets.
It's price was infinite? That's a bizarre argument. Theoretically, there are in indefinite number of goods whose price is infinite right now. Moreover, this was the case in 1990, 1980, 1880, 1776, and 1440 BC. If people couldn't buy them, then why did they care?

Who cares that you need to make six figures to afford the rent in many American cities? Who cares about the housing bubble or people being priced out of New York and San Francisco? Who cares about the 1 trillion dollars in college debt? Who cares that the 99 percent are getting poorer every year? Who cares that the fastest-growing occupations in America pay terrible wages? Who cares that we're commuting farther than ever to get to our jobs? Who cares that children never go outside anymore? Who cares about how many people we're incarcerating? Who cares about cities where the water is being shut off or the municipal bankruptcies? Who cares that getting sick will lead to being in debt for a lifetime in America? Who cares that three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, or have not been able to save enough money for retirement? Who cares that we are working one entire month more per year than in 1970, despite all our "labor saving" technology? Who cares about mass surveillance? Who cares about austerity in Europe? Who cares about climate change and species extinction?

You've got the Facebook!!! 

It's basically the "Let them eat smartphones" argument.

This is the new argument that the economics profession is rolling out and testing in their latest desperate attempt to convince people that, no, capitalism really is working for everyone. As I've often said, economics is mainly used to persuade people that what they know is so just ain't so.

It also shows the built-in materialistic and hedonistic bias of economic "science." Who cares about the extreme levels of inequality, the increasing competitiveness of the job market, the precariousness of work, the alienation, the longer hours, the debt serfdom, the economic Balkinazation of society, the corruption of politics, the despoiling of nature, and the coarsening of culture generally. There's more stuff to buy! Therefore life is better for everyone full stop.

I'm not joking, this is seriously what economists like to argue. For example, in books and papers about the Industrial Revolution, economists like to tell us how much better off people were because of all the new goods on offer and the rising wages, even though the people buying them went from working for themselves on farms with their families in line with the rhythms of nature to working sixteen hour days in smoke-filled factories for a sociopathic boss. But hey, look at all the stuff they could buy! After all, thanks to rising wages, you could afford to be buried in a new linen  suit and mahogany coffin when you died of black lung at age thirty. This is economic logic.

Now, of course, they don't even have rising wages anymore. Time for plan B. I love how economists discount anything they can't measure. But when they try to justify the status quo, suddenly all the benefits to our lives are "unmeasurable" and not captured in the statistics. New inventions justify everything.

It's doubly ironic, since one of the favorite arguments from political conservatives when you point out increasing poverty is "poor people buying things they can't afford," like - you guessed it - cell phones and flat-screen TV's! The implication is that if they just didn't buy these things then there would be no poverty problem. But where does that leave the above argument? Wouldn't poor people be better off if those things had not been invented, since they can't afford them anyway?

Also, what I don't understand about these arguments is that you can just as easily easily make the case that all these digital distractions have actually made us worse off, viz:

Thanks to digital technology, a significant portion of Americans are never off from work. Laptop on the beach syndrome means you are never on vacation either. I've gotten plenty of emails timed from 8:00-10:00 at night and on weekends. I've had plenty of people tell me that they've got their cell phone and laptop to be contacted when they leave at 5:00 or go on vacation (I don't, of course, one reason my career is DOA). And then of course, there is the whole digital Taylorism phenomenon where every movement and every keystroke is tracked, monitored and analyzed to increase "efficiency."

That didn't exist in 1980.

Are we really better off with all the "smart phone zombies" walking around everywhere mesmerized by their digital screens? Not talking or interacting with other people. Not able to spend more than three seconds idle without some sort of digital distraction. Texting and driving is now a thing.

I've lost track of all the destructive effect on teenagers due to all the novel pressures put on them because of "social media. " This includes everything from "cyberbullying" (which did not exist in 1980), to sexting, to cyberstalking, to distributing nude photos, leading in some cases to suicides which might not have happened otherwise. Now kids have yet another outlet to dispense social pressure and obligations, and all of us have yet more media designed to manipulate us, criticize us, sell to us, and make us feel miserable and inadequate. You "need" to be on social media like LinkedIn now just to get a job. That didn't exist in 1980, and neither did the algorithms that are picking who gets hired or not. If Facebook went away tomorrow, would anyone even care?

Not to mention the effect of these screens on our health has been terrible. They've been linked to disrupted sleep cycles and other health effects. Now we have to spend all day staring at a screen in a sedentary position.

Back in the 1980's if you wanted to listen to people's phone calls you had to bug their phone. If you wanted to record the conversation you had to tape it. Just like with nuclear weapons, we now have entirely new fields of warfare - "cyberwarfare," to worry about since we have made everyone dependent upon the Internet.

Are we really saying we're so much better off because we have bigger and flatter televisions and more ways to distract ourselves from life?

Of course I'm well aware of the hypocrisy of a blogger saying all of this. Sure there are some benefits, but in the cost/benefit analysis, is it all worth it? I've got to tell you, I'm not at all sure.
As for the scenario above of having twice as much money in 1980 than now, I think it's a no-brainer - of course you would want that!

In the 1980's most major cities were affordable and you could take an airline flight without being crammed in like a sardine and paying through the nose for the privilege.

Durable goods were also much higher quality. Plastic and cheap laminated particle board shit from China is nowhere near the quality of stuff you could buy in the past. When I was a kid (I'm 41) we had metal lunchboxes and snow shovels. Any trip to a house built before 1950 and any trip to a rummage sale selling stuff made before 1985 will confirm this fact. Look at the stuff owned by your grandparents - the tools, the furniture, the silverware, the clothes, even things like watches and sewing machines.

When I was a kid we bought things from local stores owned by local people and made in America - WalMart had not taken over the country with its low wages and shoddy crap from China, and neither had the associated poverty culture. Middle class people routinely shopped at stores like Sears and Gimbels and "dime stores" like Ben Franklin.

And the above argument that people are living longer? Is he really arguing that people are healthier now than in 1980? Are you fucking kidding me??? Look at any photo before 1980 and you know what you won't see? The ridiculous levels of obesity. Bloated and distended bodies form a steady diet of corn syrup. People living on fast food. Forty-year-olds riding around on scooters. Thirteen-year -olds with Type 2 diabetes. Children with asthma and food allergies. Drug ads on TV. Children zonked out on pharmaceuticals. Strip malls being converted into dialysis clinics. Hospital complexes as the largest employers in most small cities. Some of this is due to population aging, of course, but as we've seen before, 90 percent of young people are rejected from militarily service due to health problems. I doubt this was true in 1980.

Here's Matt Breunig on the "Would you prefer 1980?" thought experiment:
...We actually have people who are alive right now who were in their adulthoods in 1980. These people know what the technology was like then and now. And, at present, they have some degree of control over which set of technologies they use. 
Using smartphone adoption as a proxy for these people's technological preferences, it's clear that the people who actually lived as adults through both technological periods overwhelmingly prefer older technologies.The super-majority of people over the age of 55 do not have a smartphone. Additionally, a good chunk of those over that age that do have a smartphone don't really use it like a smartphone (instead they treat it more like an older phone). 
Judging from these people's preferences, you'd have to conclude that, in fact, older technologies are preferable to newer technologies. You don't need a hypothetical to determine whether living in the past was better: these are people who lived in the past and the present and clearly prefer the way they lived in the past, at least when it comes to the technologies that are supposed to have made life dramatically better (as incomes stagnated).
In saying all of this, I realize there is a semi-obvious rebuttal: older people only prefer older technologies because they grew up with them, were habituated to them, and feel familiar to them. This is a very compelling rebuttal, but it ends up swallowing the entire argument that people are better off than income trends show. Old people prefer older technologies because they are habituated to them, but the same is also true for younger people and newer technologies.
People Aren't Better Off Than Income Trends Show (Demos)

Dean Baker:
The first point is a narrow one. These folks are upset that our price indexes don't have a way of picking up the benefits of new goods like television, refrigerators, and the polio vaccine. (Sorry, guess those are pretty old now. But the point is that important new goods are not new.) But good economists know that price indexes also don't pick up the cost of these new goods. To be specific, we can complain that the consumer price index doesn't pick up the gain from the wonders of a cell phone. That's true. But it also doesn't pick up the cost of buying the phone and paying for monthly service. (It picks up the change in these costs once they are included in the price basket, but not the initial cost.) With an important qualification that we will get to momentarily, we can assume the benefits are greater than the cost since people opt to buy cell phones, but that gap is much less than just counting the benefits alone, which it seems is how our elite economists view the issue. 
The second point is that we adjust our society and living patterns around the technology we have. Ask someone who lived in the suburbs in the 1960s how they would feel living without a car. It would be pretty awful, but just 30 years earlier most middle class families did not have a car or think they needed one. To take a slightly more recent example, imagine living without air conditioning in the summer. Most middle class families did fifty years ago. 
We have constructed a society that is built around cell phones and the Internet. Asking people to go without these items would be a real hardship because they have become integrated into their lives. Does this mean that we are better off in a society with these things than without? It probably does, but asking how our Internet/cell phone addict would do in a world without the Internet or cell phones is a silly question. 
There is one more point worth mentioning. Our elite economist friends presumably don't want to believe that well-being is relative. This could be important because there is a much sharper gap between the living standards of the rich and famous in 2015 than in 1980. Some people may take this into account in their assessment of their well-being. In other words they may feel deprived to some extent because their living standards are so much lower relative to the rich than was the case in 1980. We know the elite economists don't want people to think like this, but some of the ignorant masses might anyhow. Maybe if they just took more economics ...
Is the Middle Class Better Off? Economists' Poor Logic on New Goods (Beat the Press)

Martin Wolf:
These points are correct. But they are nothing new: all of this has repeatedly been true since the nineteenth century. Indeed, past innovations generated vastly greater unmeasured value than the relatively trivial innovations of today. Just consider the shift from a world without telephones to one with them, or from a world of oil lamps to one with electric light. Next to that, who cares about Facebook or the iPad? Indeed, who really cares about the Internet when one considers clean water and flushing toilets?
Rising wages and technological innovation did not used to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they used to be linked. Are economists actually contending that they are not anymore? Is this what they are having to resort to? And what does that mean for the economic system?

14 comments:

  1. By the time a child is 8 years old, they are staring at video screens 8 hours per day.
    2 million kids were killed in the Congo for these phones. 6 million adults.
    Thousands die every year in China for the minerals smartphones need.
    Social media has doubled emergency room visits by youth for mental health reasons.

    http://www.reddit.com/r/collapse/comments/3amn1p/why_the_ipcc_is_lying_to_us/

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  2. For fifty thousand a year I'd happily swear to not use anything with a CPU! Its ten times what I make now, and I could just work on my trumpet playing and do tons of volunteer playing for churches and stuff and teach people.

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  3. I was 20 in 1980, so I was an adult then. I am much happier now than then, but that is because I'm an economic winner now and I was poor then but with a bright future, plus most people get happier with age and I was a particularly trouble youth, so its an apples to oranges comparision in my case.

    The real difference I see between 2015 and 1980 is that an intelligent and healthy young white American male about to get a college degree in 1980 had a much brighter future ahead of him than now, mainly because the United States was so much richer than the rest of the world in 1980 than in 2015. Prosperity of white American males in 1980 was built on a rock-solid foundation of poverty elsewhere in the world, as well as relative poverty for women, blacks and hispanics at home, and all that has changed since then.

    What you call the failure of capitalism is actually the failure of to maintain American, and especially white colleged-educated American male, hegemony over everyone else. That is, the rest of the world has caught up to the United States, and so all Americans now have to compete in a vastly larger labor market than in 1980. Aside from the Europeans and Japanese, you have the former communist countries, India, south America. Nor is this process of leveling complete, because eventually the Africans will enter the market. Plus you have women at home taking over jobs that men used to hold, blacks and hispanics being given opportunities they didn't have in the past, etc.

    From the end of WWII to 1980, a college-educated white American male was pretty much guaranteed entrance to the global 1% (though obviously not to the domestic 1%), and even white American males without college degrees were doing well, plus women associated with those white males were doing well relative to the rest of the world. That is no longer true. But the loss in relative position for Americans is a gain for the rest of the world.

    In absolute terms, I would agree with the economists: $50K in 2015 dollars in 2015 buys more than $100K in 2015 dollars in 1980 (or $50K in 2015 dollar in 2015 is better than $50K in 1980 dollars in 1980). Where the economists go wrong is in neglecting position in the global hierarchy. A big fish in a small pond is normally happier than a small fish in a big pond, at least if fish represents humans, because human happiness is very dependent on social position. All Americans, and especially white American males with college degrees, were able to lord it over everyone else in 1980, and that in itself was a source of great happiness. Whereas in 2015, though Americans are still well off relative to the rest of the world, they are no longer head and shoulders above everyone else, plus they can expect their relative position to decline further in the future. The exception is the top 15%, mostly technocrats (economists tend to fall into this top 15% group), who are able to compete effectively at the global level.

    White American males have lost the most relative position, but white American women who depended on white American male supremacy for their own position in the world hierarchy are also big losers from globalization. The biggest losers in the 1980's and 1990's were factory workers. Now it is the college-educated Americans who are beginning to lose. Blacks and hispanics have lost in the world hierarchy but gained on the domestic front. The domestic gains for hispanics are especially notable, and I think most hispanics in the United States in 2015 have an optimistic view of the future an would say they are better off than hispancis were in 1980. As for blacks, I grew up in a southern city with a black underclass and the situation for blacks prior to 1970 was absolutely miserable. They made big gains by 1980 but then lost some since then (their own self-destructiveness largely to blame), so it's hard to say if the situation for blacks in 2015 is better or worse than in 1980, but it is clearly better in many ways than in 1965.

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    1. That actually reminds me of another argument used to justify the status quo - that the world as a whole is getting more equal. Therefore, citizens of developed countries ought to keep their mouths shut, because to do otherwise would be advocating keeping people in Asia and Africa in poverty. Thus, through a clever twist of logic, they make compllaining about falling living standards in America and Europe not only incorrect, but immoral!!

      Of course, this is because capitalists are now exploiting the cheaper labor in those parts of the world. Under the current model, "development" can only occur by making your citizens into a vast pool of cheap labor to be exploited by Western companies and banks. This means that rising living standards are only possible if you're the cheapest kid on the block. It also means that anyplace with high living standards will necessarily fall until wealth and poverty is spread equally around the globe.

      This also assumes that the global economy is a zero-sum game - the rising living standards of the East and south must necessarily be accompanied by falling living standards of the West and North. But economics constantly tells us that capitalism is inherently *not* a zero sum game. How can this contradiction be justified? It can't - which is what I wrote in the previous post. Of course it's a zero-sum game!

      But if people actually realized that, they might realize that capitalism actually is, by design, a race to the bottom, and be less excited about globalization to the point of considering alternatives.

      The other thing to note is how much of our falling living standards are due to political decisions. Citizens of Germany and Japan, for example, are also exposed to international competition, but look at how the average person does in those countries compared to here.

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    2. I don't believe I read what I read above.

      "In absolute terms, I would agree with the economists: $50K in 2015 dollars in 2015 buys more than $100K in 2015 dollars in 1980 (or $50K in 2015 dollar in 2015 is better than $50K in 1980 dollars in 1980)."

      Has this guy considered the price people are paying for renting or buying and paying off a mortgage, at leas in NYC.

      I've been inquiring what rents are running for many places in NYC and Manhattan in particular. It's no wonder that bakeries like Sutters had to close their doors back in the 70s. How many croissants would they have to have sold to cover the increase in their rent and it's only gotten much, much worse today.

      I can't see how paying such a large amount of money for those iPads, iPhones, etc., etc., etc. is such a good deal.

      The price of eggs is skyrocketing as are the cherries, and other food that we need to sustain us. So could someone tell me how we're better off today? I think this guy is delusional or he's just one of the lucky few who are earning a really good salary and how is that salary generated.

      Guess this anonymous will be one of the few making it onto the ship to Mars from Branson or Musk. Only he ought to read some Bradbury and come to understand it's a one way journey and he won't be able to go outside to have a smoke. Those communities (if they ever come to pass) will implode as rapidly and with more violence than the test cases which participated in the Geodesic experiments decades ago.

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  4. Hahaha I remember the lunch boxes, I'm 52. I had an awesome Robin Hood one (the animated movie was a huge hit) and my younger sis had one made to look like a school bus, it even had "EMERGENCY DOORS OPEN ONLY IN CASE OF LUNCH" on it. So we go of to school, and I discover that in the 6th grade, a paper bag is what's cool, and my little sis had two years to enjoy having a lunch box which frankly was cooler than mine.

    And I can't think of a slower method of communicating than this goddamn tablet.

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  5. Anonymous, this depression we're in has been kicking black asses disproportionately. That plus the fact that tons of people are carrying around smart phones with good cameras so ongoing violence against blacks is now being documented and broadcast, are the two reasons for the increased dissent lately.

    Working class whites are also being socked hard, and almost all whites know the path ahead slopes downward, if less steeply than for our black friends. Many react with anger and resort to social Darwinist ideologies such as that held by that psychopathic bowl cut kid.

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  6. Personally I'm sort of rethinking the whole idea of progress which is very difficult for me because I've been a communist my entire adult life and communism is all about progress. The idea was always that we need to take over the means of production and, of course, state power and run them more efficiently for the benefit of all working people and presumably everyone would be a working person. Now days I'm not so sure the whole story of progress makes sense. Obviously if something is more efficient it matters who benefits most from the increased efficiency but then I also wonder where it would end? I work at a university and it is now being suggested that we add high level math, think calculus, to our humanities classes and GIS and computer mapping to all social sciences. The work entailed in doing that boggles the imagination, at least my imagination, but I also see that in many ways it makes sense assuming that efficiently training students for the most likely jobs is our job. I'm not sure whether I'm better off than I was in the 80s or not but I don't feel like I am. I'm sure race has something to do with it but I also doubt that other races are necessarily benefiting at my expense. If I was sure they were I might feel better about things. I do however own a treadle powered Singer sewing machine in perfect working order from my great grandmother.

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  7. Anon, the ruling class would love to keep us thinking about race, and the neonazis have the same worldview as old Adolf and his followers did, that the different races are in competition like different species in nature. This is how you and up with kids shooting grannies they'd just spent an hour with in church.

    In reality its about class, and I am new to this socialism thing but I like it so far. The socialism subreddit in Reddit is very helpful to us noobs.

    Classical Marxism came about in a time of amazing material progress. I doubt many at that time thought about the overpopulation, pollution, decreasing energy base, and global warming we have now. Obviously, Communism has to be about more than consumption. Note above where I said if I had what amounts to a basic income, I would do things that make a pretty light footprint on the earth.

    Communism ought to be about freedom from want for everyone, freedom to read and study and explore and create, not necessarily things like racing power boats or having huge car collections. Social norms should change, like they have for smoking and marrying very young, to esteem a balanced, low consumption life.

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  8. Re: Communism, funny enough, I just finished reding "Why Marx Was Right" by Terry Eagleton, and I highly recommend it. I really learned a lot and it's a short book - each chapter takes on a common criticism of Marx's writings and hows how they have been distorted.

    According to the book, the state taking over industries and running them for the workers was not Marx's concept at all - he felt that the workers themselves should take over industries and run them, and the state would eventually "wither away," because much of its function was subsidizing capitalist class relations and ensuring capitalist domination over the working classes anyway (legal systems, police, military, infrastructure, corporate subsidies, public schools, banking, social safety net. etc.). His ideal model was the Paris Commune - not Stalin's Russia or Mao's China.

    As Eagleton points out, because the Communists were taking Russia from an agricultural backwater to a major industrialized country with no built-in institutions or infrastructure and under the worst possible conditions (after a revolution and surrounded by hostile countries), this is why it was so repressive - something which would not be true in the West. In fact, Marx himself considered the transition to Communism only possible in advanced capitalist countries (like Germany, England, or the United States). Yet the communist revolutions we had were all in poor agrarian countries (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc.)

    Most of the "oppressiveness" of Communism came from that, and much of its failure can laid at the feet of Stalin and his idea of "Socialism in one country," (which Marx did not believe in), as well as his inherent sociopathy and the lack of any tradtion of democratic institutions in places like Russia and China. Eagleton also points out that capitalism's body count over centuries of development is conveniently ignored in criticisms of Communism because it occured much earlier - everything from slavery to the Luddite revolts.

    The reason Marxists call Communism state capitalism is because it was yoked to growth, overproduction, expansionism, etc. (hence the terrible environmental record). Workers producing for use instead of the expansion of capitalist profits would be much more respectful of environmental limits, since there would be less imperative for greater and greater profits every year. It would also lead to more leisure time. And as for innovation - most genuine innovations are funded collectively by government and then turned over to capitalists to sell at a profit anyway. That's true of the entire PC/Computer industry.

    I see this on Resilience today:
    http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-06-20/marxism-ecological-civilization-and-china

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  9. I should try to find that book.

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  10. I think some people misunderstood the thought experiment. They compared where they are now in life to where they were in 1980. That's a different question. Put another way, would you want to be a young person just starting your life now, or that same young person in the same circumstances in 1980?

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  11. The thought experiment is ridiculous because one's intuitions are always going to be subject to the endowment effect. It's been pretty well shown that if you're asked to value something after you already have it in your possession, you place a much greater value on it than you would if it were not yours. It seems to me that this is going to play a role here. Without having some clever experimental design, anyone thinking through this is going to think 'How much do I have to be paid to give up what I now have?' rather than the more neutral (but much more difficult to do in practice) 'Which of these situations would I prefer?' These are different questions and an answer to the first is not an answer to the seond.

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  12. George BellariousJune 30, 2015 at 8:12 PM

    Excellently written. Some things get better, other things get worse. I think the issue is are we happy with the things that have gotten better *at the expense* of other things getting worse? This isn't a silly pessimist/optimist perspective. As a society, we should be asking questions like "is this smart phone worth a ruined environment and ruined lives?" Then making a choice. I think we're too morally weak to do that any more. Just typing that, I felt like a "greenie/tree hugger/bleeding heart liberal/luddite/communist" etc.

    Then there's a question of whether we even have a choice.

    About the internet, John Michael Greer has an interesting take. He claims the internet doesn't really allow us to do anything new. Before it, we shopped, sent letters, talked to friends, looked at naked people, and shared cat pictures.

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