Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, August 22, 2016

Knowledge About Knowledge

There is a way of thinking about innocence, in which it is a kind of ignorance.  To lose your innocence is to know something about the world that changes your relation to it.  This happens when you have sex, or go to war.

So certain kinds of knowledge have an eerie capacity to change us, and it feels like a violation of natural laws.  Information shouldn't have so much power, being unreal and insubstantial.  If all that has changed is your awareness of something, and the knowledge has made you worse off, then surely you can just forget it?  It is a matter of rearranging a few molecules.  But of course it isn't possible, and so we have aphorisms about rung bells and scrambled eggs, to express the irreversibility of things such as knowledge.

There are the germs of many good novels here (and a pretty good movie), but anyway what I want to say now is that the 2016 presidential election is perhaps dangerous as much for what it is teaching us about our country and our fellow countrymen as it is for its results (which, as I write, seem likely to be non-disastrous).  We have always known a certain number of people to be cretinous, and others to be racist, and we are aware that the territory of overlap is especially well-populated.  But the sheer volume of new evidence is disarming, and I have the feeling that bells are being rung all over that can never be unrung even when all the dust has settled.  We don't only know that we are surrounded by these people, but that everyone knows, that we know it and they know it and they know that we know it, and so we are establishing common facts that will be very uncomfortable for a long time to come.  The Republicans are desperately trying to retain as much ambiguity as possible, but the party's choices are out there for everyone to see.

I append a discussion that may be of interest to some of my readers.

There is a well-known thought experiment in game theory to illustrate the importance of common knowledge.  Three people (who are all commonly known to be completely rational) sit facing each other, all of their faces visibly dirty, but each of them unable to see his own face.  At the stroke of each hour, if a person stands up and states the number of people with dirty faces, he will either receive a reward (if he is correct) or a punishment (if he is wrong).  Lacking a credible way to communicate information to each other, the three find themselves in a deadlock.

A fourth person enters the room, announces (with complete credibility) that at least one of the three has a dirty face, and exits.  At this point, you may wish to predict what will happen before you read further.

To use up space between the puzzle and the answer, I will observe that these highly stylized puzzles are sometimes taken too literally.  The point is not to be clever but to establish a conceptual possibility, and it is that conceptual possibility that should be the focus of the student's attention.  To that end, I'll add a somewhat realistic example (in fairness to my own educators, I believe it is an example we discussed in the game theory class that I took).

And now the answer:  As the clock strikes the hour for the third time after the announcement, all three stand up and declare that there are three dirty faces.

The logic is this:  initially, each player must be agnostic about the status of his own face.  Each player doesn't stand up initially because he is uncertain whether there are two dirty faces or three.  But once everyone has learned that there is at least one dirty face, things proceed as follows.  If only one player had a dirty face, he would stand up at the stroke of the first hour.  This would be an easy win, because he would possess two pieces of information that, together, compel the conclusion that there is one dirty face:  (1) there is at least one dirty face (as per the announcement), and (2) there are at least two clean faces (as per the evidence of his own eyes).

But no one stands up at the stroke of the first hour, because everyone can see two dirty faces.  So after the first hour, everyone knows that everyone knows that there are at least two dirty faces.  If a player could see one dirty face and one clean face, at the next opportunity he could stand up and confidently announce that there were two dirty faces.  But no one can, because no one sees a clean face, and so no one can tell whether there are two dirty faces or three.

But since no one stands up, everyone knows that there are three dirty faces, and so at the third hour they all stand up.

The punchline here is that the fourth person announced a fact that was already known to all of the players.  After all, each of them could see two dirty faces, so no one was surprised by the revelation.  And in fact, not only did each player know that there was at least one dirty face, each player knew that every other player knew of at least one dirty face.  (Again, this is a consequence of the fact that each player could see two dirty faces, and so at most any other player would see one clean face.)

You have to push back one more level before any new information was revealed.  Let's call the players A, B, and C.  A knew that there was at least one dirty face.  A knew that B knew that there was at least one dirty face.  But A didn't know that B knew that C knew that there was at least one dirty face.  (From A's perspective, A might have a clean face.  And if so, then from B's perspective, both A and B might have clean faces.  And so A had no way of knowing that B knew that C knew that there was at least one dirty face.)  Once the announcement was made, then of course every player knew that every other player knew, to any number of degrees you like.

I'm sorry if I've lost you.  Here is a more concrete example.  A man has cheated on his wife.  She knows it (either because he confessed or because she found other evidence).  The community also knows it.  Moreover, the community knows that the wife knows.  (Let us assume it is a traditional, backward, sex-negative society in which adultery is considered morally wrong.  Moreover, it is considered humiliating for both spouses, including the wronged spouse.)  Also, the wife knows that the community knows.  So basically everyone knows everything, right?

Well, no.  Let's walk through it.  You are an acquaintance of the wife.  You don't know whether she knows that you know about the adultery, and so you must pretend not to know.  If in fact the wife doesn't know that you know, then maybe she won't feel ashamed.  In fact, even if you know that she knows that you know about the adultery, you should pretend not to know unless you know that she knows that you know that she knows about the adultery.  But anyway, the point is that outwardly everyone can pretend that nothing has happened, and her pain can remain a private affair.

This may explain the phenomenon in which a woman who has long known about her husband's adultery suddenly must divorce him when it becomes public, even if it was already widely known.  Suddenly, something that was already known by everyone has become known to be known, and while it can still technically be ignored in public (as can almost anything), there is no avoiding the mutual awareness of the falseness of this stance.

Mandatory Maximums

By far the strangest trend I've seen in the West's approach to Islam is the idea that it should be illegal for Muslim women to wear modest clothing (recall the French teacher who sent a student home for wearing a skirt that didn't reveal enough of her legs), or that if they do wear modest clothing, they are under a special obligation to confront misogyny in their societies.  Under no circumstances are they to be permitted to live their lives as they see fit.

This is basically a parody of Islamophobia, a reductio that is too absurd to be plausible in a novel.  In New York, toplessness is considered to be legally protected (unless it is commercial in nature), and so women cannot be arrested for taking their shirts off.  How long, though, until women can be arrested for not taking their shirts off?

Irish Evil

I sometimes wonder if American drinks were designed to piss off the Irish.  "Irish car bombs" are the most obvious example (Guinness with a shot of whiskey and Irish cream—never order one of these).  But another example is the "black and tan," Guinness and Bass.  (Other stouts and ales can be substituted.)  Never order one of these either, not because it is a bad drink, but because the black and tans were vicious paramilitaries from Britain (it is always paramilitaries who are the most vicious, isn't it?) who fought in the Irish War of Independence and whose brutality has lived on in Irish memory.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Wedge Candidate

The classic definition of a wedge issue in politics is an issue that divides the other party but unites yours.  You hammer that issue in order to tear the opposing party apart.  Of course, the concept also encompasses similar situations—maybe there is an issue that splits both parties, but that has far higher salience to the other party, so it functions like a wedge issue (even though technically your party is also divided).

Anyway it occurs to me that Donald Trump is a wedge candidate.  Democrats almost universally despise him.  Many Republicans like him, but a significant minority also hate him.  This is what is making life so difficult for people like Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte.  They are in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, because they cannot afford to alienate Trump's supporters and they cannot afford to be closely associated with him.  They are at the tip of the wedge.

This is the salience of the suggestion that you sometimes hear that down-ballot Republicans should repudiate Trump and run on the proposition that Clinton must be checked by a Republican Congress.  The point there would be to commit to one side of the wedge and make the best case for the anti-Trump Republican vote.  Of course, the cost is that it hamstrings the Trump campaign.  (It also might not work, but that is a "cost" of every strategy.)

Of course, the down-ballot Republicans could also embrace Trump.  This would unify the party and essentially turn the entire race into a referendum on the parties and their presidential candidates.  It might maximize the overall chances of Republican victory, but it would so strongly correlate the Republican victories that it would risk a scenario in which the Democrats mop up.

This is why the polls have immediate significance.  They help determine how the players will orient themselves going into the fall.  Trump's disastrous convention and the even more disastrous couple of weeks that followed it have delayed and perhaps foreclosed the unification of the party.  Of course it is always going to vary by state.  But a lot of resource-allocation decisions are national, and Trump's total unconcern for anyone but himself must also be weighing on people's minds.

Anyway it is an interesting game to watch.  My hunch is that down-ballot Republicans are by and large going to be successful at detaching themselves from Trump in the voters' minds, but maybe the Democrats will stick it to them.  ("Will you vote to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland?  Why not, are you trying to hold the seat open so Donald Trump can make the appointment?  If so, what do you think about his judgment?"  Etc. etc.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

This Is Not a Poem

That day we argued about whether lightning causes thunder
Or vice versa.
The two phenomena always accompanying each other,
Inseparable. We cannot intervene in the causal chain
To tease them apart.

You said that the word lightning has two meanings.
The visual evidence of the thing (the flash of light),
And the thing itself,
Which rends the sky.

The flash of light does not cause the thunder,
It precedes it only because light is faster.
They are but outward manifestations
Of a thing that is by itself inscrutable,
Not susceptible to our direct observation.
(It is not a flash of light.)
Our minds held at bay by an impenetrable wall,
We know it only by its signs.

When we made love, we did what humans do,
And ignored for a moment the thin latex barrier that is always between us.
We confused the signs of love with the thing itself.
Our fast-beating hearts, the raindrops rolling down windowpanes,
The lightning and the thunder.

Monday, August 08, 2016


One interesting implication of my previous post, of course, is that Donald Trump is posing as the tribune of the (white) people who are "left behind" in our economy, when in fact he has spent his life profiting from the ignorance and poor self-control that I posit are the most salient dividing line between the "two tracks" of our economy.  From casinos to Trump University, his instinct has always been to rip these people off.  Of course his candidacy is no different.

Our Social Peace with Capitalism and the Role of Self-Control

Just a quick thought, which I will elaborate on by updated this post in the future.

Capitalism and free markets (I will use the terms interchangeably) are conceptually difficult, and to reach well-supported judgments everyone would have to specialize in economics.  To cut to the chase, the "case for free markets" that is taught to freshman college students is grossly incomplete and doesn't address the best opposing arguments.  You might say that it's a "straw man" argument, in the sense that it assumes the critics of capitalism are making a crude, almost incoherent argument against it.  (In fact, there is no scarcity of crude, incoherent arguments against capitalism, so in that sense it is not a "straw man."  But it would be nice to conduct the dialogue at a higher level.)

Anyway I won't get into that now.  I'll just observe that we have thoroughly absorbed capitalism into our social contract.  We expect that people who want to earn money will expose themselves to the labor market.  We have basic market norms about the products that we buy.  We would have no patience for an argument along the lines of, "The government should compel Grey Poupon to make their mustard spicier."

On the other hand, we (rightly) see the market as a means to an end, and we don't fear to bend it to our purposes.  The government has no business regulating the spiciness of mustard, but it has an extensive role to play in organizing the market, softening its sharp edges, and overruling it when other values are at stake.  College students often take a class in introductory economics and then are aghast at the existence of, say, national parks.  Most people intuitively understand that we are not about to abolish public parks to implement some demented vision of a purely capitalistic society.

All of this has been very vague, and intentionally so.  To the extent the free marketeers have a point, it is this:  there are many different ways to weave the market into society, and different approaches will produce different winners and losers.  The possibility of wasteful political arms races, fueled by the profits from government intervention in the economy, is very real.  This isn't really an argument against government intervention—there is no any feasible way to renounce regulation altogether, and nor is there such thing as a "neutral" or "objective" or "optimal" set of regulations—but it suggests that the political determination of economic outcomes should be limited in scope.  Basically we have to establish a higher-level set of rules that foreclose certain disputes before they arise.  It goes without saying that these higher-level rules also have distributional consequences, and are not handed down from above but rather must be hammered out politically, and so you can imagine an infinite regress toward a depressing conclusion.  However, many societies have established successful constitutional orders and shared norms that support widespread prosperity, happiness, and liberty.  So it is not impossible, though it may be more contingent and serendipitous than we like to think, and our self-congratulation may be somewhat unwarranted.  By the same token, our scorn for less successful social orders may be uncalled for.  Much of our success was accidental.

Now having set the table, I want to discuss a particular issue in an advanced capitalist society like ours.  Who are the big losers in our system of capitalism?  The ones getting the attention lately have been the disaffected white blue collar workers who allegedly form the core of Donald Trump's support.  And it is true that globalization and technological change have together led to massive disemployment in the manufacturing sector.

However, while conceding that life is hard in the declining industrial areas of the country, I think more attention should be paid to a different (overlapping) category of people who suffer under our system:  people with poor self-control.  It seems to me that, more than anything else, we are turning into a society that is built by and for two-marshmallow people at the expense of the one-marshmallowers.

Imagine someone who does not struggle with addiction, who finds it easy to resist the temptation to eat unhealthy food or to make impulsive purchases, who doesn't gamble.  Who exercises regularly, who is diligent at school, who always uses birth control (except when trying to conceive), who saves a prudent fraction of his or her income.  Of course there are no guarantees, and this person could still end up impoverished or in poor health.  But I think that even in relatively poor parts of the country, such a person has a decent shot at a good life.

Now I'm cheating, of course.  I've described someone who is hyper-disciplined, more so than I am, more so than most people I know.  On the other hand, I haven't given this person any special intelligence or talent beyond self-control.  What I think is remarkable is how decisive self-control is by itself.  (To be fair, I am merely asserting that the individual I've described would do well.  You can disagree, and certainly it's not hard to think of categories of people who are doomed no matter what, or who labor under severe externally-imposed burdens.  But I think it's fair to say that many people's lives are derailed specifically by poor self-control, and that someone who is impervious to that sort of failing possesses an important protection against some of the biggest threats to living a good life in this country.)

To put it another way, our social order is hugely punitive for people with limited self-control.  We have decided to allow the wolves to lie in wait for anyone who stumbles.  You may say that this isn't a policy issue, that people with poor self control inherently do worse in any society, and there is nothing we can do about it.  I don't think that's true.  Fifty years ago, where could you legally gamble other than Las Vegas?  (I am talking about casino gambling, not horse racing.  I admit horse racing may have been a big problem.)  Even then, plenty of people lost their life savings in Vegas, of course, but going to Vegas was a discrete, planned-out action (unless you already lived there).  On a daily basis, someone who lived anywhere else in the country didn't have to exercise very much self-control not to gamble.  Today, I bet the vast majority of the population lives within 50 miles of a casino.

An important aspect of these kinds of political decisions is that the one-marshmallowers are less likely to be politically active and they suffer from distinct rhetorical disadvantages.  This is because (for complicated reasons that may be justified in non-political contexts) we generally favor personal choice and expect people to exercise that choice responsibly.  We have little patience for arguments along the lines of, "If you offer me a 64-ounce cup of sugary soda I won't be able to help myself."  Since we don't grant any legitimacy to some of the most genuine arguments against the status quo, people are deflected into dubious economics or reprehensible white nationalism.  (Of course many people are eager to embrace these ideas in the first place—I don't mean to suggest that Trump voters were trying to frame their arguments in terms of marshmallows until Trump came along.  My point is that the truth about our system is inconvenient for almost everyone, and so we spend a lot of time talking about things that are, in my view, tangential.)

The big exception to this trend is smoking, which has been subject to a large degree of paternalism and punitive taxes (as well as social stigma).  But I can think of no other area where similar pressure has been brought to bear in support of people's self-control.  Instead, self-control is now constantly under assault.  We seem to be moving inexorably into a two-track world where the two-marshmallow elites profit from, and scorn, the one-marshmallow masses.  (Hence the ubiquity of "stupidity taxes" such as state-run lotteries.)  One-marshmallow people can do okay when they operate within a supportive social group—a family, a church, caring friends—but when left to the predations of modern capitalism and a largely uncaring government, they are pigs to the slaughter.  This is the society we have built, and the costs (and shame) that we pile onto the "losers" are enormous.