Saturday, December 24, 2011

The poor, the sleepless, the wet, and the cramped

1. A Thomas Bernhard story, "Two Tutors" -- as good a place to start reading Bernhard as any, though of course there is no excuse for not reading Wittgenstein's Nephew, which is short -- with some instantly recognizable Bernhard touches:
“If you can imagine,” he said,  “that already as a child I had to lie in bed awake for ten, twelve nights in a row, dead tired, without being able to sleep. An adult,” he said,  “can, thanks to his intelligence, control his sleeplessness, make it ridiculous. Not a child. A child is at the mercy of sleeplessness.” Above the New Gate, without as usual looking down vertically on the town, we turned, as every day, to the right, not to the left: he wants to turn right, turns right, so I also turn right, because at this point above the New Gate he has always turned right, he now no longer dares turn left, I think . . . It is up to me, one day to turn left, then he too will turn left, follow me, because he is the weaker of the two of us. . . For the same reason I have now for weeks been following him to the right . . . Why? The next time I’ll simply turn left, then he too will turn left . . . The time when I can be useful to him when as usual I allow him to turn right, follow him to the right, is over, I think, now I only harm him, when I let him turn right and follow him . . . He no longer has the strength all at once to turn left . . . Shortly after the fork he said:  “What I said to you regarding my sleeplessness is related to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment, in which, as you know, I was employed until the beginning of the holidays.” He said,  “All my life I have led only an awful life, and it is my right to lead an awful life, and this awful life is my sleeplessness . . . But now, the story which led to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment. Like all my stories it begins with my inability to sleep. I was unable to fall asleep. I take many drugs, but no drug helps me any more. I had,” he said,  “walked for hours along the north bank with my students. We were all tired. My eyes open, incapable of distracting myself by reading, at the mercy of my lifelong sleeplessness, I was gripped by the most despicable thoughts and said to myself again and again: they sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep . . . This boarding school silence, this dreadful silence emanating from the dormitories . . .
 2. A Christmas tree made of pencils; other things similarly constructed but merely rectangular:

3. Epic floods in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. (I'll put up a link to a relief/donations page when I can find one.)

4. Mike Konczal quotes T.M. Scanlon on the non-transferability of social obligations:
The strength of a stranger’s claim on us for aid in the fulfillment of some interest depends upon what that interest is and need not be proportional to the importance he attaches to it. The fact that someone would be willing to forgo a decent diet in order to build a monument to his god does not mean that his claim for aid in his project has the same strength as a claim for aid in obtaining enough to eat (even assuming that the sacrifices required on others would be the same). Perhaps a person does have some claim on others for assistance in a project to which he attaches such great importance. All I need maintain is that it does not have the weight of a claim to aid in the satisfaction of a truly urgent interest even if the person in question assigns these interests equal weight.
This makes sense at first glance but I am not sure I want to agree with it; as a descriptive statement it comes down to the observation that people are "paternalistic" towards other people (they're willing to "help" but only in matters in which they can imagine themselves wanting to be helped -- i.e., a typical limits-of-empathy problem). So the distinction most people would make between helping with the food and the monument is a moral failing in my book. Speaking of food, I recently came upon this Economist blog post:
as [Duflo and Banerjee] remark, “things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor”. They tell the story of meeting a Moroccan farmer, Oucha Mbarbk. They ask him what would he do if he had a bit more money. Buy some more food, came the reply. What would he do if he had even more money? Buy better, tastier food. “We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna and a DVD player.” Why had he bought all this if he didn’t have enough money for food? “He laughed and said ‘Oh, but television is more important than food.’”
As Sarah Duff recently said, Orwell has been here:
The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread…? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.  … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! ... Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman’s opium.
Scanlon would say, I suppose, that there's no obligation to let the poor buy the food they want. In a sense this is true: redistribution followed by frivolous use makes for bad politics; even non-fungible transfers to the poor are better than no transfers, and have the advantage of being politically (somewhat) safe. As a point of morality, however, I disagree, for reasons prev. discussed. (One could make a non-utilitarian argument for Scanlonian redistribution on the grounds that it reinforces civic participation or whatnot but I'm not interested in this line of thought.) The apparent broader lesson is that although redistribution and nannying are different issues in principle, they are largely the same issue in practice because people suck and are censorious/nosy. It is not clear what one can do about this: to the extent that morals are immutable, one either has to make pre-transfer outcomes much more equal (presumably by cleverly redefining the concept of transfers, or by intervening in economic activity) or give up on the issue.

(Perhaps because I have never attempted to run a business and have no interest in doing so, I'm not bothered by the idea of heavy economic regulations on corporations if the ultimate result is to give poor people more freedom to eat unhealthy food. I fear that this will always be a minority view.)

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