Meritocracy, Equality, and Responsibility

This is the dissertation* I wrote for the University of London’s International Programmes, supervised by Michael Garnett at Birkbeck College. It’s a 17-page elaboration of an essay I wrote a few years ago called “What’s So Great About Meritocracy”, so if you wanted more of that, here it is. I should warn you, if you’re not accustomed to reading contemporary philosophy papers, that it’s a bit on the dry side, so caveat lector:

Meritocracy, Equality, and Responsibility

*In the United States, your dissertation is the book you write at the end of your PhD and your thesis is the paper that comes at the end of your undergraduate degree — in England it’s more or less the other way around.

Why I don’t play video games

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If you’ve been outside of your house in the past ten days you’ve seen zombies shuffling through the streets and parks, chasing after Pokémon. At the park where I do most of my running they’re numerous enough and conspicuous enough that it’s not unusual to hear drivers loudly heckling the Pokémon players from the open windows of passing cars.

I admit that as I run past the Pokémon zombies, I do so with a smug sense of self-satisfaction. But not because running loops around a lake is necessarily any more respectable or productive. It’s because I quit playing video games during my twenties and never really looked back. Because it was time to put away childish things? No, because I simply can’t trust myself with that kind of temptation to distraction. (At least there’s a limit to how many hours a day I can run.)

Apparently I’m not alone. This is from the faculty profile of a University of Chicago economist:

Specifically, I’m interested in employment rates of young (in their twenties), non-college educated men.

In this strand of my research, I’m … asking if it is possible that technology can also affect labor supply. In our culture, where we are constantly connected to technology, activities like playing Xbox, browsing social media, and Snapchatting with friends raise the attractiveness of leisure time. And so it goes that if leisure time is more enjoyable, and as prices for these technologies continue to drop, people may be less willing to work at any given wage. This explanation may help us understand why we see steep declines in employment while wages remain steady — a trend that has been puzzling economists.

Right now, I’m gathering facts about the possible mechanisms at play, beginning with a hard look at time-use by young men with less than a four-year degree. In the 2000s, employment rates for this group dropped sharply — more than in any other group. We have determined that, in general, they are not going back to school or switching careers, so what are they doing with their time? The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one for one with leisure time. Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games. The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of 12, and sometimes upwards of 30 hours per week. This change marks a relatively major shift that makes me question its effect on their attachment to the labor market.

To answer that question, I researched what fraction of these unemployed gamers from 2000 were also idle the previous year. A staggering 22% — almost one quarter — of unemployed young men did not work the previous year either. These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, like they are miserable because they can’t find a job, is causing them to play video games. The obvious problem with this lifestyle occurs as they age and haven’t accumulated any skills or experience. As a 30- or 40-year old man getting married and needing to provide for a family, job options are extremely limited. This older group of lower-educated men seems to be much less happy than their cohorts.

“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? … What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?” — Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia

If the internet is Nozick’s experience machine, then I have to think he’d enjoy the fact that it’s not a programmed experience handed down by superduper neuropsychologists, but a voluntary delusion engaged in by individuals working independently to satisfy their own preferences….

Antisocial Unrealism

I won’t pile on the author of this piece about what’s gone wrong with Seattle — the Gawker commenters have already finished gnawing on his discarded bones — except to say that

San Francisco, with its square dimensions, functional transit, and high density, was well equipped to handle a population boom.

strikes me as such a bizarre thing to say that I wonder if I’m possibly hallucinating the whole thing, like my whole life is a Jacob’s Ladder–style delusion and I’m actually in a dentist’s chair somewhere waiting for the nitrous to wear off. San Francisco is rather famously a city that’s bounded by seawater on three sides and mountains on the fourth, a situation which presents certain practical obstacles to expanding the housing stock. “Functional transit” is just barely true, if you take “functional” in the sense of damning with the faintest possible praise. And while San Francisco is dense by American standards, many of its housing problems are directly traceable to its near-total refusal to get any denser.

Anyway my point in bringing this up is to mention that I seem to have developed a sort of paradoxical reaction to anti-growth screeds like this one. And this in spite of the fact that I should be squarely in their target demographic two times over: first as someone who’s committed to egalitarianism and believes trickle-down economics is a fairy tale; and second as someone who’s conservative by temperament and believes that there should be a stronger bias in favor of preserving what actually exists even when it might arguably be replaced by something that is in some ways better. In other words, I believe a rising economic tide might lift all boats, but most people don’t have boats, or even lifejackets; and I believe that while it’s a great thing that e.g. my Seattle neighborhood is getting denser, I would be genuinely sad to see the very last Craftsman house get replaced by a lot-split modern townhouse project.

But every time I read an article that singles out one group (tech CEOs, tech employees, city planners, bankers, government, drivers, cyclists, hipsters, yuppies, Whole Foods shoppers, organic farmers, etc.) for the fact that Seattle (or San Francisco, or Brooklyn, or Austin, etc., etc.) isn’t like it was, I inch a little bit closer to the Ayn Rand, libertarian, pox-on-everyone’s-houses, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” position. (Not so close that I am incapable of mis-typing ‘Ayn Rand’ as ‘Any Nard,’ but still.)

Which brings me to my point, if you can call it that. When I was in college, suffering from the delusions of capitalist grandeur that are common to economics students, I went through an accelerated but very intense Any Nard phase. I’ve always been a quick reader, so the time it took me to get from the heroic modernism phase of The Fountainhead to the droning manifesto phase of Atlas Shrugged was about three weeks.

What’s stuck with me from the whole conversion-apostasy experience is that Rand’s social and political philosophy, to the extent you can even call it that, is totally repugnant — that is to say the whole “virtue of selfishness,” eat-or-be-eaten thing is no way at all to run a decent society, and its philosophical underpinnings, at least as she herself describes them, are flimsy to nonexistent. But there’s something extremely seductive about the way this worldview is presented in The Fountainhead, all bound up with issues of self-actualization and living one’s life in accordance with humanity’s primal essence etc. etc. — something you can arguably find in Marx as well, as it happens, though now I’m truly digressing from a digression…

What’s to stop me from turning this into a running blog anyway?

I’ve been running in Discovery Park for five years now, and in that time I’ve had precisely four Significant Wildlife Encounters. Sure, you might remember the time I helped a baby mouse cross the trail by carrying him on a leaf, or the time I got my first-ever bee sting at the age of 40 and disappointingly failed to die of an allergic reaction, or the time I got run off the trail by a river otter who was absolutely flying down the stairs above the water treatment plant at what looked like about 6-minute-mile pace. But today was the first time I’ve ever been jumped by an owl. I don’t know if it’s hatchling season and I was behaving in a threatening manner, or if I’ve just been initiated into some kind of bird gang, but I do know that about an hour before this picture was taken an owl flew up behind me, swatted me on the head, and then glided away in an extremely sassy manner, coming to rest on a tree branch from which he (she?) proceeded to give me the evil eye until I turned the next corner. Am I banned from that part of the forest? Or do I have to start eating rodent meat? So many questions.

World In My Eyes

I am reliably informed by the aggregative intelligence of social media that Depeche Mode’s Violator album was released on this day twenty-five years ago.

Twenty-five years ago I was living in Denver, fifteen years old, shopping at a record store in the Tiffany Plaza mall whose name entirely escapes me. They had all the 12″ remixes and import-only releases, despite the fact that they were in a mall, next to the movie theatre that is still the Platonic theatre which I imagine when I think in an abstract way of the moviegoing experience. I used to browse, obsessively, the Cure, the Depeche Mode, the New Order sections, as the only way to find out about a new release in those primitive times was actually to see it in the bin.

It always felt like there were only a few of us listening to that music, me and a few friends, and (presumably) our misfit counterparts at other schools. But the shops stocked it all without fail. And by the time I got to college I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t grown up a “waver,” so if we were a minority, we were a large one. All the same I think I got my need to be part of one cult or another from that musical experience. My classmates liked Tom Petty and AC/DC, and the Cure felt much more mysterious and substantial.

I remember feeling actually aggrieved when one of the pretty, popular girls showed up to our English class in a Depeche Mode t-shirt. I never doubted the sincerity of her fandom, but it felt like an invasion in some way. Surely, I thought, this meant she would be kicked down to the level of the fringe art geeks who listened to “gay” european music. Or better yet, it might even get us kicked up into her social echelon, invited to keggers or boat races or whatever it was I thought the popular kids were up to in those days.

But no, nothing happened. I didn’t know this at the time, but if you are outgoing and friendly and socially fluent you can be friends with just about anyone, Depeche Mode or no Depeche Mode. Likewise, if you’re a ¾ scale model of an awkward introvert who’s so hypersensitive to every nuance of every social interaction that walking to the dining hall for lunch feels as intense as a whole Wagner opera cycle condensed into seven minutes, you’re going to have a pretty rough go of high school, no matter what music you listen to.

I remember buying Violator on CD at that very same record store. I remember the first time I saw the cover art, which is demonstrably, scientifically perfect. And I remember getting home, putting it on, and the sonic space of my room was filled with those syncopated synth notes, so richly textured you wanted to grab them out of the air and chew on them. Go on, listen to World In My Eyes and tell me you wouldn’t eat that riff.

If you’d asked me ten or fifteen years ago I’d have said Violator changed my life. It definitely changed something in me the first time I heard it. The world was bigger and darker and grander than it had been before, the universe’s backdrop a warm matte black instead of a glossy cold black, if that makes any sense. Seeing Depeche Mode at Red Rocks changed me again, watching Depeche Mode 101 yet again, meeting D.A. Pennebaker in our documentary film class and asking him not about Don’t Look Back or Ziggy Stardust but about 101.

I’d like to say that I knew, upon hearing those notes, that I was being set on a path I’m still on today. It certainly felt that way. Of course the way I think about melody and harmony was shaped by those minimal arrangements, those intersecting geometric lines. Not for Depeche Mode the simple strummed chord progression, with its redundant voicings and smothering rhythms.

But what path? I spent years in a band that was not very much like Depeche Mode at all, by any metric of comparison. But I don’t play music anymore, except once in a while to exercise my hands, or to try to take apart a song I like and see how its pieces function. (I don’t wear watches anymore, I just like repairing them.) 

There’s another version of me out there in the multiverse who took Violator as a call to arms and never looked back. He took it in, all at once, and spent the rest of his life reflecting it back out.

Here in this timeline I guess I’m still taking it in.

This has been another episode of “blogging with Ambien.” I’d like to thank my sponsors, Sanofi-Aventis, whose hypnotic sleep aid, now sold in generic form, provides the same disinhibitory effect as a shot or two of whiskey but without the unfortunate side effects of sloppy typing and maudlin sentimentality*.

*all maudlin sentimentality supplied by the author

I will tell you a philosophical joke. Once upon a time, a visiting scholar presented a lecture on the topic: ‘How many philosophical positions are there in principle?’ ‘In principle,’ he began, ‘there are exactly 12 philosophical positions.’ A voice called from the audience: ‘Thirteen.’ ‘There are,’ the lecturer repeated, ‘exactly 12 possible philosophical positions; not one less and not one more.’ ‘Thirteen,’ the voice from the audience called again. ‘Very well, then,’ said the lecturer, now perceptibly irked, ‘I shall proceed to enumerate the 12 possible philosophical positions. The first is sometimes called “naive realism”. It is the view according to which things are, by and large, very much the way that they seem to be.’ ‘Oh,’ said the voice from the audience. ‘Fourteen!’

Jerry Fodor