Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Desirable Misery

I'm not a researcher, so I have no hard or even compelling evidence for this, but I'm willing to bet that it is within everyone's personal or anecdotal experience to have experienced the following process:

1. We like something bad for us.
2. Things get really bad.
3. We adopt a new thing that is good for us.
4. Things get better.
5. We are comfortable again so abandon the new thing in order to return to the old thing.

Maybe it's as simple as a diet, to an unhealthy or even abusive relationship, it might be a corporate strategy, or a pattern of political election outcomes. Whether in the general or specific, people tend to take x steps forward, then y steps back. The ratio of x:y would require hard research.

You may have heard the expression 'no good deed goes unpunished' and this description of Iceland's post GFC situation by Mark Blyth, is a good example of the above outlined narrative. A party steered them heavily into the global financial crisis, they get voted out, a new party comes in, the economy recovers and the voters vote back in the party that steered them into the financial crisis.

Politics is complicated though. But it often seems that history confronts us with a mind bending lack of momentum - a clear pattern of progress running from the Middle Ages to the Modern era, where science is embraced, people of all color and creeds are not just tolerated but embraced and legally recognized, our differences are broken down as social constructs and we pursue a more egalitarian and meritocratic way of life. And yet there still seems to be viable political parties and ideologies that fly in the face of the direction of history.

Good things just can't get their momentum going. At the end of every 4 week raw vegan challenge seems to be a bacon cheesecake. 

And with a diet, and perhaps even an adult relationship, we can understand that powerful compelling emotions are driving people back to their failed strategies rather than reason. But what about voting for economic policy? How can people get so emotional about something as boring as economics?

Body language. I'm a believer in it. And once again not because I've done the hard clinical research to know what facts I can point to, but because I've done sufficient self experimentation to be confident that gaming body-language is just too cerebral a task for somebody to do at the same time as speaking out loud.

Hence, you might expect that I'd expect that by reading body language a person could tell if another person was lying. I don't. I heard tell that when you ask people, even professionals you'd expect to be more proficient at detecting liars (cops, trial-judges, trial-lawyers) are no better than a coin toss at determining who is lying and who isn't. 

However I'm also told that if you change the question from the very cognitive 'tell me who is lying?' to 'who do you trust?' people jump significantly upwards in their accuracy. Because 'trust' is an emotional, instinctive evaluation, detecting lies invites us to pay too much attention.

Hence the power of asking the right question. In all my experience of economic instruction, my instructors have been openly critical about how unemployment is measured in official statistics. It's seemingly designed to be misleading - the pollster asks members of the population 'in the past four weeks have you or are you actively seeking employment?'

Think on that. A group of people in suits are tasked with finding out what relative unemployment rates are. 'How do we find out if somebody is unemployed?' they asked, and the answer they came up with is 'ask them if they've been actively looking for a job.' whereas I'd bet good money your intuition would be 'why don't we ask people if they have a job?'

Consider polls on the popularity of the government, on preferred party, on preferred leader etc. Now imagine you are sitting in a room with a bunch of people tasked with 'find out if the government is doing a good job or not.' One answer certainly would be along the lines of 'do you like the government, who do you prefer etc.' another could be along the lines of 'how satisfied are you with your quality of life?' and 'are you optimistic about the future?' line of questioning. Yet another line would/could be to dispense with asking people for their opinions and find objective data like changes in real wages, inflation, household debt.

And you'd notice that all these approaches are taken, but polls focus specifically on people's preference for one party over another. And these get far more attention than the latter group of objectively determinable economic measures, and both of those crowd out the non-partisan qualitative self-evaluation.

What does this have to do with anything?

 Imagine that you live in a spacious comfortable home on a large expanse of lush green land overlooking the ocean. The climate is temperate all year round and you manage to pull in a lavish wage working quite modest hours at something you love while affording you the time to have catered dinner parties with your friends, spend time with family and other loved ones and cook yourself new and exciting recipes for lunch while also taking twice annual vacations to exotic destinations around the world. You have it all and one average day in your good life a pollster calls you and asks 'how satisfied are you with your life?' how do you answer?  

Now imagine that you have somehow achieved this lifestyle while you are living under the rule of your ideological antithesis. Take a second to imagine who they may be. It might be some White Supremacist version of Colonel Sanders, or Kim Jong Un, or Isis or a Transgendered Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders composite.

You might think that that might change your answer, your moral outrage at the state of the government would blind you to your immediate quality of life. But I suspect that un-primed by the pollster to think about the political leadership, you'd actually just appraise how satisfied you are with your day-to-day life.

Thus if while living your dream life the pollster instead called to ask 'how satisfied are you with the leadership of [your worst nightmare]?' we would have jumped from a very positive answer about the reality of being you, to a very negative answer about the reality of being you.

Thus we enter the realm of desirable misery. Why you can observe that some political leaders draw most of their support from the very demographics their policies hurt the most. And that cuts both ways, there were a lot of people in the occupy wall street movement condemning the top 1% who themselves were in the top 20% and are themselves massive beneficiaries of the rigged game that they are opposing.

It's a kind of anti-Machiavellianism that I suspect, but haven't researched, is actually the prevailing instinct of most people on this planet. And I don't mean anti-Machiavellianism in terms of being opposed to glib self-serving amorality, but more a reversal of 'the ends justifies the means' to 'the means justifies the ends.' Or in much plainer speech: the 'how' is far more important than the 'what'.

And it's easy to come up with good examples of anti-Machiavellianism - 'not cheating is more important than winning the competition.' Hey hey, good stuff. 'being honest is more important than avoiding being in trouble.' I'm with you. 'Abstinence only sex education is more important than teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.' No, no, no can't you see the evidence? Abstinence only education has dismal results. 'Inflicting austerity budgets is more important than paying back the debts.' that doesn't seem right? Isn't the point of austerity to pay back the debts?

Empiricism is actually in my experience, incredibly rare. Few people approach being open minded. Most are anti-Machiavellian. Let's return to our pollster scenario and introduce another concept.

The second concept is called 'going upstream' taught to me, quite informally as a TQM principle. In its literal application you might notice that your drinking water is dirty, you walk upstream a bit and you find a heap of garbage in the river. You could immediately fish it out, or keep walking up stream, discovering that there's a group of campers generating the garbage going into the river that is generating your dirty drinking water. Had you just cleared out the garbage from the stream, the fix would only have been temporary. By murdering and eating the campers you have solved the dirty drinking water problem and filled your belly with delicious people.

Suppose a pollster, in fact, a fully fledged researcher called a person and asked them about their quality of life. And that person was all like 'I'm pretty miserable.' rather than bumming out the researcher, this bleak self-reported state excites them and the researcher 'goes upstream' to find out the root cause of this citizens misery.

They find the person, the citizen, doesn't like their job much. 'So quit it?' no good, can't quit it without finding a new job. 'So find a new job?' don't have time to do the job searching or conduct the interviews, besides I'm only qualified to do a job more or less like this one. 'So retrain, go back to study?' I don't have the time to job hunt, what makes you think I have time to study? Besides studying is expensive. 'So take out a loan?' I already have a loan. 'So refinance?' I could, but then I couldn't afford to lose the income to take the time to study to repay the debts I have. 'Okay... so studying is a dead end. What don't you like about your job?' the commute. 'You don't live near where you work?' I can't afford to live near where I work....

And so on and so forth. Until I would bet, dollars to donuts, that what is upstream is their house. And I can't imagine a more universal demonstration of the principle of desirable misery. Because it's hard for people to imagine that their home, their abode, their shelter, the place they can call their own, do their unwinding, get their rest, raise a family etc. as the presiding and ultimate cause of a person's misery. I would also bet my dollars against donuts, that if you ask a generally dissatisfied person the one thing they did right, the saving grace in their life their answer will most often be 'buying a house.'

And it isn't anything magical about the house itself, it's actually all the bad voodoo in the very magical process known as 'the financialization of housing' and technically a case could be made that it isn't buying a house that made people miserable, but all the fucking other players in the market that have eroded adequate housing as a human right into housing as poker chips. But your decision making ability stops at your individual decision to participate in it.

That's the most ubiquitous form of desirable misery, but really it's every. The home ownership that makes you miserable is useful though in term's of drawing people away from thinking that there's something crazy about the American rust belt population that keeps voting for a party that takes away their incomes, reduces their welfare and hands the savings over to rich people who are actively trying and celebrating the loss of their jobs. There is nothing crazy or abnormal about it, these people, like people everywhere are simply acting on their beliefs instead of evidence.

You do it to. If you were one of those rare empiricists that based your beliefs on the facts and acted on your beliefs, you wouldn't drink, wouldn't smoke, wouldn't drive a car, be renting your housing somewhere close to where you work and saving money to mitigate against future job insecurity. You wouldn't have a credit card, would prepare your own meals, wouldn't get married and on and on and on. 

I'm a freak and I don't do half that incomplete list. One of the paradoxes of life, I'm told, by a psychiatric professional is that 'pleasure causes pain' The 'original sin' of evolution if you will when we had far less mastery over our environment and couldn't expect to find a bag of Doritos in the wild every day.

Desirable misery is a recurring theme in the works of a lot of thinkers I love and respect, whether it's Alain de Botton talking on Why you'll probably marry the wrong person, or Gabor Mate explaining that addicts substitute 'pleasure' for 'happiness'. Dan Gilbert talking about how we are terrible at forecast what decisions will make us happy.

The most frustrating manifestation though, is that scenario, the 'no-good-deed-goes-unpunished' principle. Where when our desires drive us off track, forcing us to do the hard work to get on track - it appears all in the service of getting to a place where we can once again act on our desires. 

It might cause chagrin to the individual under a diet regime, but it causes severe mental anguish to a community changing from progressive to conservative political regimes.

But if you can understand your own ability to sit in your dream house, on a perfect summers evening and pay out some government that hasn't been able to take away your dream, then you can understand why people whose lives have been crushed by the economic policies of a party can turn out in force to their rally. 

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