Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nothing to blame but blame itself

I got some engaging feedback yesterday from a mysterious commenter who goes only by MZ*. One thing MZ said that caught my attention was "I'm not sure it's the electorate to blame."

I feel like I need to explain a little bit where I'm coming from.

I am a lazy, selfish man. Like most men, I suspect. And I think the adjectives apply equally well to women and people of whatever other gendered noun they choose to identify with. People are, by-and-large, lazy and selfish. Now, there's something a little tricky in there: I think that most people associate the word "selfish" with words like "greedy," "inconsiderate" and "thoughtless." I think of it more as seeking to improve my own happiness to the greatest extent possible. And by "lazy" I don't mean "not willing to do work." I mean "not willing to do more work than necessary."

I am optimising for most personal happiness for least personal work. Think of it like value. Imagine you want to buy a refrigerator. You're standing in the appliance store looking at two nearly identical models: they're they same size, the same power rating, the same colour. The difference is that they're made at different factories to different quality standards and you know from reading the internet reviews that, while they both will do an exactly equal job of keeping your food cool, keeping your electricity bill low and looking good in your kitchen, one has a motor that will crap out after 3 years while the other lasts 12. So fridge A costs $600 and lasts for 3 years while fridge B costs $1200 but lasts for 12 years. It seems painfully obvious to me that you should buy the $1200 fridge because, assuming that you want a fridge for at least the next 12 years, fridge B costs you $100/yr while fridge A (and its 3 additional replacements over the 12 years) wind up costing you twice that much, $200/yr.

I'm spelling this out painstakingly not because I think you, dear reader, are an idiot, but because I feel there is a lot of evidence that while fridge B seems like the obvious choice, many, many people will opt, metaphorically, for fridge A when given a similar situation to the above proposition. And there are lots of reasons for that -- maybe you simply don't have access to $1200 and need a fridge now. Or, perhaps, you have somehow been tricked into thinking that $600 is a more reasonable price for a fridge. And we're none of us immune to this kind of behaviour economic thinking. Although I talk a big rational talk in the privacy of my own blog, I've certainly bought fridge A in many situations over the years.

But I like to think and talk about these kinds of things, because I am lazy and selfish. If I allowed myself to get tricked into buying fridge A then I am not on my optimal happiness-for-work curve: either I've worked $100/yr too hard to pay for the refrigeration I need or I have lost out on $100/yr I could have spent on something in addition to fulfilling my refrigeration needs.

I think that there is quite a lot of evidence that we, as a society, are not living on the optimum happiness-for-work curve. That doesn't mean that everyone is miserable, or that everyone is working too hard. Just that the overall level of happiness is lower than it could be for the amount of work people are doing. Could we all be a lot worse off? Certainly. But, as I am fond of saying, "things could be worse," is not generally meant as a challenge.

Which brings us back to the original point.

Blame. I am not, in general, all that interested in blame. I think that blame is useful only insofar as it helps point to the source of a problem and suggest a solution. When I say "the problem is", I'm not trying to point the finger at someone and shame them (which is I think what blame evolved for) because that's not really a meaningful punishment in modern society.

What I have figured out, over the years, is that I am happiest when surrounded by other happy people. And there tends to be an amplifying effect: if I put a little work into making someone else a little happier, they can put some more work into making still others happier and eventually this will all return to me in happiness dividends. Admittedly, I have only ever tried this on fairly small groups, but I have no good reason to believe that it doesn't extend to the much larger communities of which I am a member in the modern, global world°.

And so, again, when I say "the problem is" what I am really saying is "I think I am working harder than I have to for the level of happiness that I am experiencing and I think the reason for that is." What I want is for you to be happy. Because when you are happy, it is easier for me to be happy.

* This reminds me of the time someone donated to a friends' marathon run under the anonymous name mz-197 and to this day, nobody seems to know who it was.
"mz" is the mass-to-charge ratio. The marathon guy worked on mass-spec data.
Why is there no "d" in "refrigeration"? It feels wrong to spell it that way...
° There is, of course, always the problem of freeloaders. But this entry is far too long already, so I'm not going to talk about it here.

No comments: