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Deconstructing Over-Consumption 5 August 2010

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As a college-educated twenty-something it is your duty to hate consumerism, corporations and the hard-working American way of life that engineered the $.99 hamburger. It’s a hatred that evidently grows out of a critical blend of sociology courses and casual screenings of Supersize Me and Food Inc. Just as moderately bright high school students discover (and then hopefully ditch) Ayn Rand, wantonly idealistic college grads latch on to the notion that if only Americans could tear apart Western acquisitiveness, they’d find true happiness–empiricism be damned.

The whole of human history says otherwise: money has allowed us to satisfy preferences and to demonstrate status. Not perfectly, of course, and even very very badly at times, but overall it’s performed better than anything else we’ve imagined. The anti-consumerist sentiment on the other hand has found success only in religion where it accompanies a promise of Heaven. It’s nearly impossible to argue against a guarantee of infinite bliss, but undermining idea that going Thoreau forever will ensure worldly satisfaction requires substantially less effort. And it’s more fun.

Anymore, American “over-consumption” has become axiomatic in this sort of conversation, yet because of that, the term rarely receives definition. What constitutes over-consumption? Following the meme far enough seems to indicate that Americans have been over-consuming since about the beginning of the twentieth century—when this country began to speed ahead (imagine ahead in scare quotes if you like) of its peers. Recognize the sliding scale: if Americans consumed at 1940 levels now, it would no longer count as over-consumption. But the world economy is growing. With that in mind, over-consumption appears to mean “to consume more than most everyone else.”

Just defining the term reveals the argument’s core. All this turning American consumerism on its head stuff distills to a desire for a more egalitarian society. It’s about baselines. The average world citizen consumes at, say, C, a level most I imagine most anti-consumption apologists will say is okay. After all, at issue is over-consumption not consumption itself. But American s consume at XC where X is some multiplier. Ignoring the fact that relationship between the two is more technical than that, the point of contention remains: Americans consume more than the average world citizen.

That seems to raise another problem, however, namely that only a small percentage of the world’s population can consume at an American level–the Earth’s resources will stretch only so far. On the surface, that concern appears trickier, but in reality it’s the same Malthusian bunkum as always. When humans deplete the Earth’s resources, well, there’s a whole universe out there. And that will continue until the species destroys itself or runs out of universe to mine. (Downside: as I wrote a while back, we’ll be forced to kill every non essential living thing on the planet first. Sorry, giant pandas.)

The key point, then, is that it doesn’t matter what Americans consume, just how much they consume relative to everyone else. No one would be in a tizzy if everyone on earth lived in a Malibu mansion. In fact, if consumption is simply the satisfaction of preferences through purchases, then it seems even the anti-consumerist crowd would support spending at any level so long as it remained equal.

Money doesn’t buy happiness, though. Okay. If that’s then case, then consider two scenarios with the assumption that watching the sun set over the beach makes a person happy. In scenario A, he has the money to purchase a plane ticket to the beach. In scenario B, he’s broke and stuck in Decatur. Logic dictates that he’s less happy in Decatur. Funny how, if money doesn’t buy happiness, nearly everything folks enjoy doing requires it. And, please, don’t argue that socialization produces all of that. Skiing is fun. Cycling is fun. Watching a movie is fun. Given the choice between any of those things and picking berries for survival, I’ll go for bike ride, thanks.

To get around that point, you might argue that if we simply didn’t know about iPods and motorcycles and what have you, then we we’d never know what were missing. True, but not a case for anti-consumerism. If you can’t even conceive of the alternative to your present situation, you’re not in a position to state a preference either way.

If you liked listening to music on the go in the 80s, you would probably say you were happy. But you didn’t even know that you could be happier with an iPod. Ethically, this gets a bit complex, but if we know that American-style consumption drives innovation, and that innovation leads to products that create new forms of happiness, then we are denying ourselves potential happiness if we stamp out consumer culture.

If you tired of theory, try this:

Here’s global happiness.

Here’s purchasing-power-adjusted per-capita GDP.

I’d written another 350 words on status, but this is all that’s getting published for now. If you were looking for the smackdown finale, come back later and maybe I’ll have have an appropriately witty conclusion.

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The statistical value of your life 21 April 2010

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I tend to forget that not everyone went through economics courses in college and that of those who did, a scant few came away actually liking the subject. So on Monday when I asked you whether the death and suffering in Haiti hurt the world economy more than did the enormous and widespread annoyance following the unpronounceable volcano’s eruption, I assumed an economic response. And failing that, I assumed a utilitarian response based on the total amount of good/bad brought into the world. I am bad at assumptions, evidently. Only an economist would place a value on human life, right?

Well, no.  Everyone does every day. If you’re alive, it comes with the territory, so let’s take a moment to explore the value you place on your own life. The concepts involved are relatively simple ones, and they’re more broadly applicable, too, so in addition to learning about the value of a human life, it should become clear why gambling is such a tremendously bad idea as well. Tremendously bad. Hooray for teachable moments.

The concept is expected value, an outgrowth of probability. Multiply each possible outcome for an event by its probability and sum the products. Voila: expected value. But maybe that’s too abstract. Examples typically help. Consider the outcomes from a coin flip: heads or tails. Now, say I give you $1 if when you flip the coin it lands on heads. If it lands on tails, however, I give you nothing. What’s the value of the coin toss? The probability of heads is 1/2 (or .5) so you can multiply .5 * $1.00. So, $0.50.  Now take the other outcome, tails. This time you’ll get nothing, so the equation (the probability’s the same of course) is .5 * $0.00. So, $0.00. Add $0.00 to $0.50, and the expected value of the coin toss is $0.50.

Admittedly, it grows more difficult when the the number of outcomes grows. You’ll find it harder to, say, judge the expected value of a dating situation when the possibilities include 1)Acceptance, 2)Rejection or 3)Rejection and gossip to all her friends that you’re sketchy. Or you can pick a happier example. Regardless, that’s about it for the textbook talk. Let’s get on with life.

Consider a crazy world in which your commute to work is an expected value scenario consisting of two possible outcomes (like a coin toss). Outcome one: you drive to work on the highway, arrive safely, make $600 for the day, and drive home to your wife/concubine/television and cats. Outcome two: you die in a fiery wreck on the interstate. Boom goes the dynamite. On any given day, the probability breaks down to a .99991 chance of outcome one and a .00009 chance of option two.

You can see where this is going: if you believe life cannot be valued or has infinite value you will not go to work. If you believe the former, then you’ll flop to the garage floor in a paroxysm of indecision, and if you believe the latter, you’ll stay at home because the result of your calculations will be infinitely negative. In fact, unless you consider your life worth less than about $6.7 million, you’ll ask for a raise or become a perpetual shut-in. Best to stay with the mistress.

Now, granted, most folks aren’t the rational calculators that my example assumes, but plenty of careers in the real world test the same idea. Why else would the show Deadliest Catch exist? Commercial fishing is the most dangerous industry in the US. It involves a very real risk of dying. And because of that, it necessarily commands higher wages. Is the work that much more difficult than that of any other physically strenuous position? Probably not. But you aren’t likely to die while splitting rocks or digging a ditch.

Interestingly enough, it’s that kind of trade-off the government uses to determine the statistical value of a life. Its auditors look at the premiums workers in dangerous industries request to compensate for higher risks of death or injury. And then policymakers (not politicians) use that information to determine whether the number of lives saved by a new measure or construction project will make up for the costs. It’s cold, but then again, Americans like to drive 70mph even if it costs scads of lives.

Moab: Weird and Wonderful 27 February 2010

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I apologize for the delay. Life intervened. Now, on to Moab.

The sun has finally dipped below the horizon on the high desert, washing violet over the white sheet and I lament that I won’t see much of the drive into Moab. Nighttime highways tend to look the same more or less anywhere. An Escalade passes me. The road bends. And there below, I see the lights of Moab stretching down the valley, bringing one of the strangest sensations common to the west: that feeling of looking down from a plane while still on the ground. In the distance, tiny street lamps glow and and brake lights wink in and out of existence. To see them from above is always a bit disconcerting.

Pulling into the nondescript strip of motels and breakfast spots, I realize that I’ve expected too much and that no city so well known as a travel destination can escape the onslaught of Econo Lodges and authentic gift shops. I bet they sell coffee mugs with that southwestern dude playing the whateveritis. The, um, kokopelli.

My hostel sits behind a long term storage building and I think backs up to a trailer park whose children get free use of the common room’s TV on Saturday mornings. This is the tao of the American hostel, I gather, and is probably unremarkable in a poor southwestern town, even if the town does see hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. But it is still so poor, like so many of the placed Michael and I passed in New Mexico. Behind the glitz of the main street Moab lies another a world of rusting Fords and improbably-erect houses. Americans still live with dirt lawns and corrugated roofs, and they do so out back of the Ramada and the Burger King.

I’m once again tripping over the heartbreak of rural America, though, and it strikes me that given the number of times that same theme has popped up, I might well need to retroactively create a “heartbreak of rural America” tag for these entries.

Anyway.

The Lazy Lizard International Hostel appears to cater to two types: visitors like me looking to stay the night in Moab for less than the cost of an entree at Applebee’s, and locals living and working on wages that make $270 a month for a bunk bed an attractive option. Better than vagrancy, I suppose.

My common room companions, the lisping Ken Thorton and a Danish couple spend the evening discussing spirituality, the inevitability of suffering, and Mr. Thorton’s experiences as a budding New Age cinematographer. (You can view “Heyoka Shaman” Thornton’s work here. To see him shake a maraca for a while, skip to 1:15. To see him in a bath tub, skip ahead to 2:30.) After 23 vision quests, a ceremonial dance with the Hopi people and a brief interlude as the companion of a Buddhist aficionado, Mr. Thornton has become a spiritual conduit of sorts, speaking of clairvoyants and his ability to suck the negative energy from strangers.

But his philosophy drives me bonkers. How can he mesh Buddhism with tribal spiritualism? How does his system determine right and wrong? How does it account for the existence of other competing (and contradictory) beliefs? I don’t know, and I suspect Heyoka Shaman Thornton doesn’t either.

The next morning, I leave for Canyonlands. And after another night in the hostel, I head to Arches. Together these comprise all that is weird and wonderful about Moab. The rest… it is there, supported by the rocks which have aged in curious ways, and which, when the light hits them just right, radiate.

Back at the hostel, I slip past the neighbor kids on the way out to my car.

“Dude, come here!” one of the yells at his friend on the couch. “This cat is bleeding out its head!”

“No way!”

“Yeah, come here and check it out. This is pretty bad.”

“Duude! It’s bleeding out its ear. We should tell the guy.”

They go to find the unenthused 19 year-old who occasionally staffs the front desk.

“That cat outside is bleeding out its head. ”

Nothing.

“Hey, the bus is coming! We can go into town!”

“Yeah, let’s go! Bye, dude.”

That discussion you’d rather avoid… 17 January 2010

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Reading through the Times’s “Week in Review” this afternoon, I came across an article by Denise Grady I’d missed on Monday, an exploration of doctors’ end-of-life discussions with patients. You get to the heart of the issue fairly quickly:

Guidelines for doctors say the discussion should begin when a patient has a year or less to live. That way, patients and their families can plan whether they want to do everything possible to stay alive, or to avoid respirators, resuscitation, additional chemotherapy and the web of tubes, needles, pumps and other machines that often accompany death in the hospital.

Grady goes on to point out, however, that most MDs eschew these guidelines and the hard questions they require in favor of mollifying patients with tangential information (“your treatment regime involves x, y, z”) or avoiding the subject all together until it appears that death is imminent.

Over the course of my father’s own, unsuccessful, battle with cancer, I don’t recall that we ever got around to chatting about these sorts of things, and instead found ourselves at a loss for what do when he died unexpectedly in the hospital — without a will. Yes, he and my mother had planned on laying out everything in advance, but the exigencies of his illness intervened in that last month, leaving those hard questions unanswered.

In fact, in the six-month interim between Dad’s terminal diagnosis and his death, death itself never came up. Euphemism obscured the inevitability of it. We were going to “circle the wagons” or “dot the i’s and cross the t’s,” as if the family were closing on a house. Never once did anyone in an official capacity say and ask, “You are going to die. How would you like to spend your remaining time on Earth?”

The chemo regimes were a given, and every time my father arrived home from a visit to oncologist, he’d carry with him a new tome on the various cocktails which, according to the 5-year morbidity charts I’d been reading, might prolong his life another month. But it was on the government’s dime, so why not spend $20,000 a treatment? When Avastin and company failed, the questions still lay buried, this time under a mound of new information on Erbitux and its side effects that, frankly, seemed worse than the cancer itself.

I’m not angry that the oncologist never forced the issue of Dad’s terminal illness–I had already come to terms with mortality on my own–but rather that the culture surrounding cancer makes such discussions taboo. So much of the self-help literature, of which I’ve admittedly read very little, assumes that every cancer patient can win the fight, that indeed there is a fight to be won at all. And I think it’s just that assumption that makes it so difficult for a doctor to sit down with a patient like my father and say, “You will lose. This is not a question of whether but of when.” As Americans, we reassure ourselves with the presumption of individual agency. But by extension, that means terminal diseases represent just another obstacle to overcome: if the victim were stronger or more determined, she’d win.

If that’s what we believe, then, can we really expect our doctors quash any hope we may have, right from the get go? I think not, and that’s ashame. We’d do well to acknowledge that mortality is not simply a matter of willpower. To accept death is not to deny a love of life.

Vail’s Underground Instructors 12 January 2010

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No Sunday post. Or Monday post. Our chili cook-off intervened, both on the night of and the morning after, but you should have expected that, right? At any rate, I’d put off discussing Vail’s response to underground instructors for too long, and now I’m probably the last one to the party that started almost a week ago when the Denver Post reported on Vail’s crackdown on “coaches” and “guides” who were accepting pay in return for something that looked like instruction.

But not only did Vail get involved, issuing a lifetime ban to the violators, the Forest Service jumped into the mix as well, smoking out the fake instructors in a wild west sting operation. Really. Whether they rounded up the offenders and dumped them at the feet of the local sheriff, I’m not sure, but what’s certain is that the whole affair has much of the ski-news reading public up in arms about something or other. Probably this quote from Forest Service range Don Dressler:

Our big message that we try to get across is that this is for public safety. We permit people who are licensed and insured and properly trained. I can understand the economics of the situation, and we sympathize, but we need to protect the public.

No one believes that. Protect the public from what? These “coaches” aren’t out wearing orange or blue jackets purporting to be fully-certified instructors, and I doubt that anyone purchases their services with that misconception. Clients see an alternative to the $575 they might otherwise pay for a private lesson, and while they may not realize that certified instructors come with the insurance backing of Vail, the very fact that Vail is now taking on these coaches and guides indicates that enough customers have seen them as a more attractive option.

In any event, licensing (as in “fully-certified and licensed”) seems more a barrier to entry than a true protection for the public. Instruction is instruction, valued on its quality, not the process that produced it. Slapping on certifications and saying they’re about public safety glosses over the anti-competitiveness of the system.

On the other hand, Vail’s swift response makes sense. The company alone holds the permit to operate (and to make money) on on those 5000+ acres of national forest, and in debates online, the freeriding instructors have variously been likened to solicitors in Wal-Mart and rogue hot-dog salesmen in a ballpark. In both cases, the impostor attempts to sell his merchandise on someone else’s property. But this is Vail’s house. It is the Vail name that lends their efforts credence, the Vail mountain operations that move skiers around the resort, and it is precisely Vail’s enormous draw that offers this black market for instruction the chance to exist. Try imagining a similar problem at any ski bump in the Midwest.

And as for the Forest Service’s involvement… well, yes, it was necessary. The government owns the land after all, and any monetary gain made off it, as poor Ranger Dressler pointed out, must occur with a permit from the Forest Service. Vail’s own agreement with the government relays a non-trivial percentage of its income over to Uncle Sam, and operating outside those agreements stiffs a notoriously stingy government.

So while it’s tempting to point the finger at Vail for cracking down on folks just out there to make a buck… erm, actually, I’d guess that adequately describes the situation. But the larger issues at stake: rule of law, protection of property rights, and the integrity of licensure (fwiw), don’t hold to the corporate-titan-vs-everyman narrative either. In the end, I suppose it’s just not as comforting to know that when The Man got his way, he could at least make a pretty good argument for it as well.