Prediction fail

Blame it on Star Trek?


My love/hate relationship with the environmental movement

I have a love/hate relationship with the environmental movement. Well, 'hate' is a bit strong - it's more of a love/less love relationship.

Love, because I agree with their ends. Less love, because I object to their means: The environmental movement tends to be regressive rather than progressive. By 'regressive', I mean that both public and private environmental organizations focus excessively on conservation as a way to stave off disaster. The unquestioned premise is that saving the planet requires hard sacrifice: Our showers should be shorter, our homes should be colder and our driving should be rarer. But are our options really so constrained?

One problem with framing the debate as a choice between creature comforts and a healthy planet is that it misallocates resources. Time and money that could have been spent on innovation is instead spent on conservation awareness. The assumption is that today’s technologies will be tomorrow’s technologies, so the best way to protect the environment is to use less. But technological progress is difficult to predict, as the personal computer and Internet revolution have shown. It’s this unpredictability that should make us question the assumption that the Western lifestyle is unsustainable, now and forever. What is not possible with today’s technologies may be possible with tomorrow’s innovations.

The environmental movement doesn’t entirely ignore progressive fixes. Some organizations lobby in support of R&D to try to discover new technologies. But the effort often falls short of what is needed. The same tired fixes are advocated (or at least, focused on in media campaigns): Replacing coal and oil fuels with expensive solar and wind power or replacing incandescent lighting with toxic CFL bulbs, to give two of the most popular examples. The serious shortcomings of these technologies are often attributed to if-onlys: If only we devoted more time, money and attention to these technologies, they would be superior alternatives. I don't disagree that these technologies could revolutionize sustainability; I just think we should be hesitant about placing all our bets on a few currently-unpromising technologies.

Framing the debate as a choice between comfort and sustainability also tunes people out. Life is more enjoyable for those who can enjoy our modern creature comforts such as cars, hot showers and air conditioners. Someone who uses these conveniences receives a direct benefit in terms of quality of life. By contrast, a person who sacrifices these amenities may enjoy an attenuated benefit years from now, if at all: Your neighbors may free-ride on your efforts or the measures may not go far enough. The result is that pleas for voluntary sacrifice fall on deaf ears: The short-term view wins out because the long-term benefit is unclear. Consequently, it's unsurprising that environmental groups have tried to make conservation measures mandatory.

Environmental organizations lobby the government to force people to use less. Unfortunately, these mandatory measures often disproportionately affect the poor. One example is support for a tax on driving. The problem with a driving tax is that the cost is most heavily borne by the less-affluent. Driving taxes punish people with little disposable income for whom driving is not a luxury but a prerequisite for work. Another example is support for Green building standards. The issue with such standards is that they raise the upfront costs of homes. Even if these costs are recouped in the long-term, the house is out of reach for families who can’t pay the upfront premium. Other conservation measures that fall hard on the poor are requirements for paperless offices, biofuels, utility renewable-energy minima, etc.

In short, I question whether conservation is the best way to achieve environmental protection. A better solution may be to mobilize resources to discover eco-friendly technologies that will allow us to enjoy our creature comforts.


Money can buy happiness... right?

If you follow legal news, you may have heard of Snyder v. Phelps, a recent Supreme Court case evaluating the extent to which the First Amendment protects anti-gay protesting at a soldier’s funeral. The solider was Matthew Snyder, a homosexual and enlisted Marine who died in combat in Iraq. Several members of a church decided to picket at his funeral, holding placards with homophobic messages such as “God Hates F--gs”. The Snyder family sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and was awarded $10.9 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: Money damages for emotional harm. The Snyder family was awarded millions of dollars for their emotional harm though it’s unlikely any amount of money could completely alleviate their suffering. Which makes me wonder, if money is such an imperfect remedy for emotional injuries, why do courts award it? Economic losses are easily compensated with dollars: If you break my $300 window, it makes sense that you should pay me $300. But emotional harm is subjective and intangible, so what purpose do money damages serve?

As a preliminary matter, it may help to consider what courts are trying to achieve by awarding money damages for economic injuries.

If you break my window and are forced to pay me $300, you will probably avoid whatever activity got you into the mess to begin with. So one purpose of money damages is deterrence. In the Snyder case, the millions the church had to pay out would almost certainly deter them from future funeral-crashing. But deterrence probably isn’t the sole purpose of money damages. If the goal was simply to deter, the victim doesn’t have to receive anything – the money paid out could go to the government and still discourage the wrongdoer. So why would most of us balk at the idea of leaving the victim with nothing?

Going back to the window example, your actions made me worse off by $300 – the value of the window – so it seemed fair that I should receive $300 to ‘undo’ the harm. The damages ‘seemed fair’ because, whether born or bred, many of us believe that the person who creates a mess should clean it up. Is such quid pro quo justice at work in the Snyder case? It seems likely. The family suffered a tremendous emotional injury and perhaps money damages were an attempt to use an economic boost to offset those emotional losses. At first thought, this seems strange. I can exchange an economic good – money – to compensate for an economic harm – a broken window – but how can an economic good compensate for an emotional harm? Can money really buy happiness, or at least mend a broken spirit?

While there’s no Happiness Boutique selling doses of glee (besides Steam, of course), money still provides a tremendous boost of opportunity to those who have it. A new iPad or a Disney vacation package won’t give you everlasting joy, but you’ll likely experience at least a momentary boost of happiness. So by awarding the Snyder family money damages, we may implicitly be thinking “we don’t know what to buy to restore your peace of mind, but maybe you do”. The hope is that the victim is better suited to know what goods or services can mitigate their suffering. Perhaps the Snyder family will use their millions to fund gay rights organizations, healing themselves by helping other families avoid such emotional harm. Whatever they spend the money on, they’re more likely to know what works.

Another purpose of money damages could be punishment. Rather than trying to undo the harm to the victim, we could try to “level the playing field” by injuring the wrongdoer. An eye for an eye. Paying me $300 after you’ve broken my window ensures that you suffer the same economic loss I suffered. And if money can buy happiness, making the church pay in the Snyder case is a way of making the church members worse off. Justifying money damages as a form of punishment is still problematic, however. We’re back to the deterrence problem: If you just want to punish the wrongdoer, the victim doesn’t have to receive anything – the money could go to the government. In addition, punishment isn’t a great way of leveling the playing field because it only deals with the victim and the wrongdoer: what about their positions relative to the rest of the world? So it’s unlikely punishment is the sole motivation behind money damages.

It’s likely that all three of these purposes of money damages – deterrence, punishment and compensation – are present to different degrees in all emotional injury cases. But from what I’ve discussed, it seems that compensation is the easiest to justify – both to the courts and to ourselves.


Organic food and the Garden of Eden

An organic food craze has swept North America, and New York City has been especially hard hit.

Competing with the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue and Louis Vuitton for pricey Manhattan real-estate are dozens of organic grocers. And it's not just rich students who shop at Whole Foods, Amish Market or Lifethyme organic markets - my (unscientific) observation is that New Yorkers from all walks of life buy organic.

I can understand why organic food is especially popular in NYC. New Yorkers know their lifestyle isn't very conducive to healthy living, but there's not much they can control. If you want to live here, it's hard to avoid the smog-filled air, congested commutes, stressful workplaces or crime-ridden streets. One thing that you can control, however, is what you eat, so you're willing to pay more for food you perceive as healthier. In NYC, this means buying organic.

What does 'organic' mean anyway? I used to think organic meant a return to nature and traditional farming techniques and a repudiation of factory farms, pesticides and artificial growth hormones.

But the organic I see at the grocery store is at odds with this image. Since when does letting nature work its magic lead to perfectly spherical blemish-free juicy oranges? Do free-range hens routinely produce twelve perfectly white identically-sized Omega-3 fortified eggs? Yet this is what consumers demand when they buy organic: Perfection. Organic doesn't include misshapen, malformed or discoloured food. Organic means sanitized, clean and orderly products.

So what is the organic fad about? It's not about a return to nature - It's about a reinvention of nature. We think that if only we worked with nature, we would have perfect food, effortlessly. But we're forgetting that food production is a history of fighting against nature, a battle against insects, fungi, drought, disease and frost. Perfect oranges and perfect eggs didn't just appear - they required generations of industrious labor. Perhaps the organic food craze is really the result of believing that we can return to a past that never existed: A world where growing healthy, bountiful food was easy .

The more news you read (earthquakes, and recessions, and wars, oh my!), the more you can understand why it is so appealing to imagine that there was a time when life wasn't so difficult. It's comforting to believe that the Garden of Eden did exist, and it's only a matter of time before we recreate Utopia. And it's frightening to think otherwise: That despite all our blood, sweat and tears, we may never rise above hell on Earth.


Study view

My temporary reprieve from studying.


Critically-acclaimed acting: Born or bred?

If you follow entertainment news, you might have heard about a fancy little awards ceremony called the Oscars. This year, one of the Best Actress nominees was Gabourey Sidibe for her performance in Precious.

What makes Sidibe's nomination interesting is that Precious was her acting debut; Sidibe had no prior formal acting training or experience. In addition, Sidibe is not an isolated case when it comes to actors acclaimed for debut roles. In the Best Actress category, four performers won and ten performers were nominated for "their first (substantial) screen roles or during the first year of their film career". These statistics are even more pronounced in the Supporting Actress categories.

It's surprising that actors can attain the height of prestige
for debut roles; in many technical fields, there's little hope of renown without years of formal training and research.

Perhaps this 'fast-track to success' is peculiar to the humanities. For example, consider the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, a prestigious award granted to the "very best book of the year". In the 40 year history of the prize, four debut novels have won a Booker and many more were nominated.

It makes sense to me that debut novels can achieve critical acclaim. We practice writing skills from our first days in school, English and literature courses are frequently compulsory and many people maintain a blog or journal. In effect, we receive writing training all our lives. By contrast, acting isn't as commonly trained (at least formally). Few school programs have compulsory drama classes and most people do not participate in performance groups.

My thinking is that the issue goes deeper than simply acting being 'easy'.

One explanation might be that performance prowess is simply a matter of fitting the right person to the right role. Who needs formal training if the character you're playing is indistinguishable from your everyday persona? Perhaps Gabourey Sidibe didn't need to act so much as portray her own quirks and nuances.

Alternatively, maybe acting training comes from our day-to-day interactions with others. In a way, aren't we are all actors performing in the drama of our lives? If acting is the art of deception, we might get plenty of practice from years of putting on our game-face or telling little white lies. Sidibe might simply be better at "becoming the other" than most of us.

At the end of the day perhaps "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."


Healthcare reform: A complex issue, dumbified

As many of you know, Massachusetts recently hosted a heavily contested Senate race. Throughout the campaigning, national healthcare reform was a hot-topic, as one would expect given the razor-thin Congressional margins on reform proposals. What I found unsettling about the debate on healthcare reform was how simplistic and politicized the discussions were about arguably the most pressing issue of the next decade.

The healthcare reform debate raised by the Coakley/Brown teams never seemed to develop beyond cursory exclamations of “Yay/Nay for Obamacare” . The question became not what type of reform proposal would best serve America?, but are you for or against Obamacare?, as though there were only one way to go about healthcare reform.

In the current American political landscape, supporting healthcare reform has become synonymous with supporting Obamacare and by extension, the Democrats, whereas supporting the status-quo (and being anti-Obamacare) is a marker of a true Republican. Just as with the issue of global warming, healthcare reform has become a litmus test for your political values. If you tell people you support healthcare reform, you won't be asked about specific plan you are vouching for; you will simply be labelled as a flag-burning, Soviet-worshipping, tree-hugging liberal (at worst).

The only winners when it comes to the polarized reform debate are the interest groups that support these definitions. When the Republicans or the Democrats paint reform as a case of two extremes, they've cornered their moderate constituencies into supporting the mockery of a reform they espouse. The moderates are bullied into believing that if they don't support THE definition of what healthcare reform should be, they're not true Democrats/Republicans.

What has been lost in the process are the innovative opinions about how healthcare can be structured to satisfy the demands of the American citizenry. When the public discourse is narrowed to a simplistic and politicized discussion of whether you are for or against Obamacare, viable alternatives and civic debate are stifled. Is it any wonder that people are increasingly tuning out the reform debate?

Few people believe in either a fully laissez-faire (pay your way) system or total government control of medical care. Moderation is the rule, but the binary discourse has made moderation a dirty word. As a result, the more palatable solutions to a pressing problem are lost in favor of two unsavory extremes. My hope is that as the reform debate rages on, moderates will succeed in redefining the issues to better reflect the values of ordinary Americans.