You talkin’ to me?

Travis Bickle puts the big question

The drive for status is a powerful force that shouldn’t be ignored by urban policy-makers, not least those with an interest in cities. It explains much about the way people behave in urban areas, like why they might live in a McMansion or drive a Prius (I’ve written about status a number of times before – e.g. here, here, here and here).

Status can also throw light on other issues, like why some people brawl with complete strangers and why some couples split up. George Mason University academic, Robin Hanson, offers an interesting illustration of the connection between status and conflict in this piece, Status drives poverty?

The sometimes controversial economist starts by citing a passage from a new book, Promises I can keep: why poor women put motherhood before marriage, explaining why low income urban single mothers break up with their partners.

The authors, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, point to conflicts between partners over money. Fights and antagonism don’t erupt because the man doesn’t earn as much as someone with higher skills or because he can’t find a job. Rather:

Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

They say money is an important factor in why co-habiting couples break up, but it’s not the only one – so is status.

This brief comment by Professor Hanson makes a wider but insightful point:

I suspect much of what makes some cultures more successful than others is how they help folks to avoid seeing unpleasant interactions as direct challenges to their status.

Something that might be merely annoying or vexing in one culture can be profoundly challenging in another, demanding confrontation and even retribution. One of the commenters expands further on this idea with an example. He asks you to imagine you and your staff are in a meeting with another manager and his team. During the meeting the other manager says things that challenge your status.

In the United States after the meeting your group members might say. “Boy, that guy was a jerk.” The issue becomes the other manager’s problem. Read the rest of this entry »


9/11: Should America move on?

South Pool, 9/11 memorial, Ground Zero

It’s a very brave or very insensitive American who would publicly question his nation’s entire 9/11 memorial project on the day of the tenth anniversary. Yet just a few days ago, on the morning of 11 September, US economist Robin Hanson began his internationally popular blog, Overcoming Bias, by complaining that half the comics in his Sunday paper “are not-funny 9/11 memorials”.

I did my own mawkish 9/11 ‘memorialising’ last time (the video On the transmigration of souls), so I too was guilty of dishing out largely uninformative and non-analytical content on this occasion. But Professor Hanson has a much bigger message (the links are his):

In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration….

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

Just to really drive home his point, Professor Hanson updated his post with a link to news agency Aljazeera, which featured an article Let’s forget 9/11 by American Tom Engelhardt, author of  The American way of war: how Bush’s wars became Obama’s and The end of victory culture.

Not surprisingly, given this was 11 September, some comments from readers were pretty direct:

This will, sadly, be the last time I read your blog.

You, Mr. Hanson, are an idiot. You have no conception of mythos or national dignity. Good bye, sir.

Robin, you’re “fricking” out of your mind.

A co-worker used to have a little sign in her office: Most people know how to remain silent. Few people know when.

Some other comments took issue with his basic argument:

Insensitivity will not stop people from being affected by some tragedies more than others.

Human nature is to attach greater significance to things that are close to us and have evoked personal feelings, rather than basing it on magnitude alone. And there is nothing wrong with that. Your moralizing is no better than the ridiculous moralizing that has gone on in the past ten years in reaction to 9/11. Everyone has their story to tell; yours involves looking down on the natural human reaction to a dramatic event. That is all.

Defence against terrorists, not solidarity with victims, explains the “pissing away” of three trillion dollars.

You cannot reasonably expect this sort of brazen and demented contrarianism to induce readers in search of a new moral framework to think, “hrm, maybe I’ll give this utilitarianism thing a whirl and see where it takes me!”

Might as well forget about the Holocaust too. In the bigger scheme of things, what were only 6M Jews?

But quite a few comments were supportive of Professor Hanson’s view:

I think what Robin is saying is that the response to 9/11 didn’t do any of the things that the “leaders” who pushed those responses said those responses were going to do. What those responses did do was piss away $3 Trillion (and counting), kill a bunch of US soldiers, and squander the “good will” of the rest of the world while committing great evils; the killing of many Iraqi civilians, the strengthening of al Qaeda and the bankrupting of the US economy.

If only one 1/100 of the social capital spent on 9/11 remembrance was spent on organ markets… I would expect more than 100x as many lives would have been saved compared to any anti-terrorist measures implemented because of 9/11. Read the rest of this entry »