Saturday, October 18, 2008

Politics and Modality

Is Anybody Happy? - Op-Ed -

Joe the Plumber! Joe is, of course, the conservative guy from northwestern Ohio who told Obama: “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more” because he planned to buy a business that he hoped would reel in more than $250,000 a year in profits. The proper answer, as Obama should have known, was: “No, it won’t.”...Joe the Plumber, it turns out, is actually named Samuel and is not a licensed plumber. He has a lien on his house for unpaid taxes. While his professional life is still a little hazy, there is not much evidence he’s ever going to become a small business owner. And he would be a beneficiary of the Barack Obama tax plan.

So why is Joe/Sam not a rational self-interested chooser?

It depends on what you mean by "self." Sam, a grunt who works for a local handyman outfit, is interested in the well-being of a possible self, Joe the Plumber--his counterpart at another possible world. Lost in logical space, he imagines that he is Joe, a hard working plumber at that possible world, who is about to buy a business that will bring in $250,000 a year. So Sam supports actual world policies that will benefit Joe who is, in a latitudinarian sense, a "self."

This is no more or less rational than Diana-Worship. During Princess Di's brief, inconsequential life millions of fat, working class housewives adored her. It is hard to understand way they didn't resent her. Here was a woman who had everything anyone could possibly want, including immense wealth and the prospect of being Queen of England but was still whining. But instead, lost in logical space, they empathized with her vapors and her silly romantic notions. They had princess-counterparts at other possible worlds and a "self"-interested concern for their well-being.

Maybe that's one of the differences between economic liberals and conservatives. Conservatives are modal optimists. They imagine themselves at possible worlds where they are better off, where their counterparts are rich plumbers or even richer princesses and, out of modal "self"-interest, support policies that would benefit their privileged counterparts even at their own expense. Liberals, like me, are modal pessimists. We obsess over the plight of our unlucky counterparts and promote policies that would benefit them--usually at our own expense.

I never did like Princess Di or have any lively sense of what my taller, slimmer, richer counterparts are up to at their respective possible worlds. But I have a very vivid sense of my unlucky counterparts' lives and constantly spin out their stories in great detail.

I have never gone through a check-out line without imagining what it would be like to be a supermarket checker, trapped in a 2 x 2 space for 8 hours a day, doing endless, boring, repetitive tasks, with no product to show, no possibility of achievement and no way out. When I order stuff on the phone, I imagine being a "customer service representative" locked into a cubicle in a room full of women in cubicles taking phone orders, thinking about ways out. I could go to beauty school at night or take a course to be a medical records clerk, but how much better would that be? Besides, after a day at this job I'm knackered. I go home and cook, clean up, and then all I'm good for is vegging out in front of the TV. I can also easily imagine myself as a data entry operator, trapped in a cubicle inputting meaningless figures. I'm under constant supervision and every keystroke is monitored. There's no way out. The only other jobs I could get are equally bad.

I imagine myself a working class housewife pushed out of the house by my husband, Joe the plumber. "Get your fat ass down to Walmart and get a job, bitch." What can I do? If I leave this jerk I'll be working at Walmart anyway and be poor to boot. I once had options, when I was too young to appreciate them, but I don't any more. I could have gotten better grades in high school, gone to college and got a more interesting job. But I didn't. So now I'm stuck in a life of soul-sucking, mind-killing drudgery and there's no way out--at least not in this possible world: I can still read romance novels, follow the lives of the rich and famous on TV and imagine being Princess Di.

Whose fantasies are more rational? Harsanyi pumps our intuitious about fairness by asking us to imagine ourselves living everyone's life in turn. This is, now that I think of it, a restricted possible worlds fantasy and one that poses some metaphysical difficulties. We are to imagine a range of possible worlds, one for each member of the current population, which are qualitatively exactly similar to the actual world but where we ourselves are different people. Alternatively, we are to imagine ourselves as modal super-persons, transworld merelogical sums of persons at these possible worlds, and ask how the world should be in qualitative terms to make the modal super-person of which we are world-bound parts better off.

This pumps liberal intuitions very effectively because there are ever so many more miserable lives than good ones.

We could imagine it using that the clock metaphor pop science shows use to help us understand geological time: "At 11:30 pm the dinosaurs emerge; at 5 seconds to midnight we have the Industrial Revolution." Imagine: for 12 hours you are an illiterate peasant farmer working to eat and eating to work; for another hour or so you're a member of a hunting and gathering tribe, trudging endlessly through the jungle looking for edible berries and hoping for a large mammal kill so that you can get a little protein and take a rest; for another 3 or 4 hours you're a beggar, prostitute or hustler in an urban slum; for most of the time left you're scanning groceries, inputting data, flipping burgers or working in a call center; for half a minute you're successively a college professor, a lawyer, a dentist and a plumber with a $250,000 a year business; for a nanosecond you're a movie star, a professional athlete, a best-selling author and Princess Di.

For perhaps 5 or 6 hours you're sick and in pain. For most of the day you're physically exhausted. For all but two or three minutes you're engaged in mind-killing drudgery--trapped, constrained, in an agony of boredom.

Harsanyi got it right: this is the version of the Golden Rule that bites. The problem with political conservatives and other Romantics is not a lack of sympathy but a lack of imagination.

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