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Status, Empathy, Dignity

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From Am Yisrael Chai/Israel Is Living by Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach:

Reb Zusia was a poor humble rebbe and on this particular day he looked it. He was taking a coach to the city and waited to board with a few other passengers.

One of the passengers was a rich man and he was looking at Zusia, thinking to himself ‘Ah ha, now here is a man I can make fun of; . . and that is what he did.

They arrived in the city and thousands of people gathered around the coach. Zusia stepped off and disappeared into the crowd. The rich man got off and asked someone what was going on. He said that Reb Zusia has come and we’ve gathered to greet him.

When the rich man found out the man he had been making fun of was Reb Zusia he went up and apologized.

Reb Zusia said, “It’s not me you should be apologizing to . . it’s all the poor people of the world you’re insulting. You have to ask every poor person for forgiveness.”

Memento mori

Written by Sister Y

April 29, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Posted in dignity, empathy, poverty, status

Why It’s Great News that Idaho Just Made Assisted Suicide a Felony

with 3 comments

A bill was just passed in the Idaho State Senate to make assisted suicide a felony:

BOISE – The Idaho Senate voted overwhelmingly Friday to make assisted suicide a felony, revoke the licenses of doctors who violate the law and allow people to get injunctions to block anyone they think might be planning an assisted suicide.

Why is this great news? Because Idaho is perhaps the lowest-status state in the country, and publicly associating itself with a cause like forbidding assisted suicide drops the cause’s status and makes it appear even more like the redneck bullshit it is. Hooray! I hope Mississippi is next.

Added: This post on Uncreated Thoughts, about how sometimes the status of a cause is dropped by well-meaning but low-status entities associating themselves with the cause, was the inspiration for the essence of this post – but I couldn’t find it to link to until just now.

Also, to be fair, this is the author as an adorable redneck child growing up in redneck Idaho, on her redneck horse, being led by her redneck hippie father (who has gun racks on his pick-up truck but voted for Obama):

Written by Sister Y

March 13, 2011 at 2:56 am

Imaginary Status and the Tendency to Externalize

with 11 comments

[A] remarkable fraction of female journalistic output, at least the most heartfelt stuff, consists of demands for society to change so that that particular female journalist would be considered hotter looking.

—Steve Sailer, in “Female Journalism

Humans all want high status, but we can’t all have it. Some portion of our happiness, likely large, is determined by status; therefore some people are structurally guaranteed to be unhappy. While non-status transactions may make everyone better off, status transactions must make someone worse off. Status, I argue, is zero-sum (at best).

Salem of Why I Am Not… argues that status need not be a zero-sum game. For one thing, status is “obscure” – it’s hard to measure, and we tend to overrate ourselves, resulting, presumably, in extra utility for everyone. However, even if we overrate ourselves, a large number of people still correctly rate themselves as being of low status, and suffer as a consequence. We are biased about status, but far from blind.

For another, says Salem, there are multiple statuses, not just one – multiple, overlapping groups among whom to achieve and display status, and multiple domains within which to achieve and display status. To some degree, these groups and domains even compete for status – which shows us that there is some kind of “background” status that exists outside of the group or domain within which status is sought. Status exists only in the minds of other humans, and in our own models of those minds. It is not merely context-dependent, but attempts to broaden itself over all contexts.

What I find to be the most fascinating objection to the “status is zero-sum” claim is that there may be imaginary status – i.e., status may be measured against others who aren’t really in the game, and can’t perceive their own relatively low status – non-playing characters in computer games, animals, those outside of and unaware of the existence of a given status domain, etc. As Salem puts it, “This also gives a different perspective on animal welfare. Perhaps little boys picking the wings off flies aren’t so bad after all.” As Chip Smith puts it, “If trivial inequalities that nevertheless satisfy discrete human desires for status welfare can be distinguished from consequential inequalities that satisfy the same end, then maybe there is a net benefit in the former. I’m sure market forces promote both.”

Imagine an unattractive female journalist. She has a few choices available to her:

  • Be sad about her low status in the mating domain (zero-sum)
  • Focus on her high status in other domains (scholarship, etc.) and forget about the mating domain (potentially not zero-sum)
  • Change relevant mating groups so that she may gain high status in the mating domain within some group, even if it’s not the wider group (potentially not zero-sum)

Indeed, she might, to some extent, engage in all three. However, there is a fourth option that is almost universally pursued by those of low status:

  • Try to persuade her group that she is more attractive, OR that the forms of status she possesses are more “real” or “important” than the forms of status she does not possess.

That is, humans desire high status, and attempt to externalize their conceptions of status. What it means to compete for status is not just that the agent must perceive himself as having high status, but that others must perceive the agent as having high status.

Imaginary status (“subjective” status) may be a substitute for others-perceived status (“objective” status) in the same way that pornography is a substitute for sex – an inferior substitute. We still try to get the real thing.

Written by Sister Y

February 22, 2011 at 10:35 pm

What Portion of Human Welfare is Comparative Welfare?

with 9 comments

Some portion of human welfare is independent of the welfare of other humans. A person can enjoy food, touch, music, and intoxicating substances regardless of the well-being of anyone else; similarly, a person can suffer from physical pain, hunger, or nausea no matter what other humans are up to—even if no other humans exist.

However, some other portion of human welfare (of unknown magnitude) is directly dependent on the welfare of others. This “comparative welfare” may come in two forms:

  • Empathetic welfare: that portion of human welfare that has a positive or direct correlation with the welfare of others. (Example: I feel bad when I see a homeless person who looks unhappy; I feel happy when I see a puppy wag its tail.)
  • Status welfare: that portion of human welfare that has a negative or inverse relationship with the welfare of others. (Example: I feel happy when I win a contest; I feel sad when I have to wear less expensive clothes than my peers.)

The nice thing about non-comparative welfare (welfare independent of the welfare of others) and empathetic welfare is that they may be positive-sum. Consensual transactions may be possible to make all parties better off in terms of non-comparative and empathetic welfare.

The problem with status welfare is that it is zero-sum. No transaction involving status welfare can possibly make all parties better off.

A great deal of evidence exists to support the unfortunate proposition that status welfare accounts for a large proportion of human welfare. Further, the effects of status on welfare are likely themselves a function of status – marginal status changes may have more of an effect on welfare for those of low status than for those of high status.

Status Welfare is Large

Several bodies of research support the proposition that status welfare is a large part of human welfare. (Many of these are cited in the paper “The Economics of Happiness” by Paul Graham at the Brookings Institution. In addition, Richard Wilkinson’s 2006 book The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier is a book-length treatment of the problem; I have not yet read it.)

  • Easterlin paradox” – happiness and income have a much stronger relationship within-country than between countries, at least beyond the level of abject poverty. Status welfare would be expected to come more from within-country differences (directly perceptible) than between-country differences (less immediately perceptible).
  • Homicide rates are highly correlated with income inequality. As income inequality and absolute poverty tend to go together, it has been difficult to establish whether income inequality or mere poverty is the driving force behind such negative competitive outcomes as homicide. However, a 2001 study found that income inequality is a better predictor of homicide rates than mere poverty.
  • Studies directly measuring the effect of income and/or wealth inequality find that inequality has a negative effect on well-being. The effect is larger for Europe than for the United States, and higher for Latin America than for either of these. These studies capture only within-country status, not status within smaller groups, and therefore must be seen as only part of the picture in terms of status welfare.
  • Welfare is affected more by unemployment than by inflation, dollar for dollar. Unemployment tracks inequality, whereas inflation applies to all equally.
  • Many animals change reproductive strategies depending on relative status. Status, therefore, must have strong effects on fitness.
  • In male humans, winning or losing a competition – even vicariously – is associated with hormonal changes, specifically an increase or decrease in testosterone levels, respectively.
  • Blacks and Hispanics spend a much larger share of income on visible consumption (clothing, jewelry, cars) than do comparable Whites.
  • Health effects of inequality are large, and less than a third of the difference is explained by risky behaviors of the poor.

The key point here is that there is a large component of human suffering that free markets and free choice have no hope of mediating. Merely being in a socially stratified market economy imposes a cost on those of lowest status.

The happy trample on the backs of the unhappy. This is not merely an observed fact of our world that can be changed, but an underlying truth of any human system. The unhappy cannot all be made happy. Human existence necessarily implies a high degree of misery for some part of the population. How does the happiness of the lucky justify the suffering of the unlucky?

Comparative Welfare and the Rational Decision Maker

A further problem is that lumping both types of comparative welfare, as well as non-comparative welfare, together as “utility” complicates the classical economic model of individuals as rational actors maximizing their utility.

In a classical economic transaction, two parties consent to an exchange, and are both made better off. All individuals must do in order to achieve higher and higher society-wide happiness is to pursue their own ends rationally. The simplicity and optimism of this model are challenged by the sad fact that an individual’s welfare correlates (in a complicated manner) with the welfare of various others.

Contract law recognizes this problem, especially with regard to transactions that do NOT take place “at arm’s length”—that is, transactions where the participants explicitly care about the welfare of the other participants. This can be traced back to its origins in Gemora, with its different rules for transactions with different groups (e.g., loyalty/no interest on loans for in-group, charging interest okay for out-group).

Most humans (sociopaths and saints excluded) have some component of welfare that is empathetic welfare, and some component that is status welfare. These components are likely large—and vary within populations. These complicate in a rather extreme manner the computational tasks of economic man; transactional partners must be modeled not just as self-interest-maximizers, but as (a) self-interest maximizers, (b) maximizers of the interests of certain others, and (c) maximizers of the difference between one’s own well-being and the well-being of certain others. That is, humans are—to some unknown degree—inquality maximizers.

Update: An interesting response on Why I Am Not.

Written by Sister Y

February 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm