Wiki Guilt Tripped Me

In the important quest to uncover exactly how many albums Bad Company had ever sold (It was important because of “Girls,” Lena Dunham, Katie Heaney (who also has a periodically hilarious twitter and about as many followers as is necessary for you not to feel like a huge creep), this, and the question ‘Ok, does the drummer of bad company really have the clout necessary to pull of anything remotely “nepotismy”?’), I wound up on the Bad Company discography Wikipedia page. The ad hoc standard I’d invented in the interim was something like “If they’ve sold enough albums that every currently alive American could own one and there would be some leftover, I’ll count them as ‘nepotismy.'”

I didn’t find what I was looking for, so, because I’m a consumer and I rule, I thought I’d let Wikipedia know via the ratings system.

These are the ratings I submitted for the discography page (I left the Bad Company general page unscathed):

Ratings

I can justify each of those numbers of stars if necessary, but I don’t think it is.

I pressed submit, and the confirmation message read “You know, you could edit this page.”* What do I look like, the American Red Cross? A neighborhood association? Someone else who cares enough about the free rider problem to participate actively in alleviating it? Needless to say, I clicked “maybe later.” Right, Wikipedia, maybe I’ll edit your page about the Bad Company discography later.

Free rider problem? What free rider problem? What happened to the days when I could sneak into an out of Wikipedia articles without being reminded of how awful a Wikipedian I am? This new regime in which feedback has a guilt cost associated with it is going to weigh heavily on me.

In other news, I think I’ve lost any moral high ground I ever might have had about maybe everything, and also I’m more in awe than ever that Wikipedia continues to exist.

*Tragically, it appears that after you press “Maybe later,” Wikipedia decides not to bother you about editing for a bit. I mean tragically in the “I can’t screenshot that now” sense, rather than the “Man, if only they’d go back to making me feel guilty about how I use Wikipedia” sense.

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A Cautionary Tale About What Can Happen When You Think You’re Acting Strategically, but Actually Aren’t

Dixit and Skeath set up their basic coordination game this way:

“Picture two undergraduates, Harry and Sally, who meet in their college library. They are attracted to each other and would like to continue the conversation but have to go off to their separate classes. They arrange to meet for coffee after the classes are over at 4:30. Sitting separately in class, each realizes that in the excitement they forgot to fix the place to meet. There are two possible choices, Starbucks and Local Latte. Unfortunately, these locations are on opposite sides of the large campus; so it is not possible to try both. And Harry and Sally have not exchanged pager numbers; so they can’t send messages. What should each do?” (105)

Ha, pagers, right? Good thing we live in the future and don’t have to deal with that problem anymore!

Except it turns out I am the worst at packing. I spent the weekend in Boston without a phone charger and with plans to meet at Jillian’s, which I guess is a place people go in large numbers (otherwise, why would they have three floors and four bouncers?). I had to choose between trying to meet inside or outside.

I picked outside. I reasoned that if I waited inside, my friend would have to guess which floor correctly. I didn’t know how many stairwells there were, so I didn’t know if this would be an issue, and, since there was only one entrance, I thought staying outside would force him to walk by me in order to get inside. With my phone dead at this point, to communicate I had to leave to find a place with wifi. After waiting for maybe twenty minutes, I did that.

It turned out he’d beaten me to the bar and had been inside the whole time. He was on the second floor, which is entirely devoted to pool, and, considering various free pool nights at The Spoke in Amherst or at the U Pub, was an obvious focal point (explained as a “coordination device” in Skeath and Dixit). An hour later and a $6 fruit smoothie I didn’t actually want but had to purchase to buy off my guilt about just wanting to borrow wifi from a frozen yogurt place, we successfully communicated our respective locations.

I think there are two lessons here:

1) Always know which tire before you stop communicating,

and,

2) Remember your damn phone charger, dummy.

Shock me, shock me, shock me with that deviant behavior

I’m officially joining the stand against Elsevier by vowing not to contribute any math essays to their journals. I’m not qualified to contribute math essays to any journals, but my unqualified abstention will start with them.

Tim Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge, started something by accident which turned into general internet outrage (see the comments on the previous link) which turned into a petition (because those work) which turned into a response letter from Elsevier which turned, I don’t know, back into a pumpkin at midnight.

Gowers is frustrated that Elsevier charges a lot of money for access to journals, specifically journals like Chaos, Solitons and Fractals that he and other mathematicians laugh about. While the usual answer to someone complaining about expensive things they don’t want would be “don’t buy it, stupid,” Gowers alleges that, due to Elsevier’s all or nothing journal bundles, libraries and institutions don’t have a choice. That sounds pretty awful.

Elsevier contends that they have “actively and progressively promoted a wide range of access options, which are important since no one model will ever be the only solution for every type of journal” and that when institutions do bundle, “they get substantial volume discounts that offer more titles at a lower cost. And the additional titles they subscribe to are used by their researchers. In fact, on average approximately 40% of researchers’ usage is of journal titles that the library previously had not subscribed to.”

So, you know, this is nice. The little guy, this poor Cambridge mathematician, is miffed that someone would use institutional power prestige to restrict access to academia. They price out other publishers and decrease options for libraries with their bundling, while he prefers a more open, broader discourse where libraries don’t have to purchase Chaos, Solitons, and Fractals if they don’t want to.

I was ready to feel righteously indignant when I started reading Gowers’s post, but at this point I feel like a lot of his rage is rooted in libraries having to purchase journals he thinks are stupid. C, S, and F did have a problem where one of its editors was using the journal to publish hundreds of his own papers without proper review, but that point, which is completely fair as a reason not to respect the journal, somehow evades mention in Gowers’s comment that the journal “is regarded as a joke.”

The big question here years ago would have been whether research should be anarchic or should have standards. The anarchic model, at the time Feyerabend wrote, would have been nearly impossible. Journals were an important way for academics to keep up with the general trends of their fields without having to receive forty-three heavy-duty envelopes every month from far-flung places and incur thousands in postage costs. Now, though, we have the internet and blogs. We can and should move as much of academic discourse as possible to openly accessible fora.

We already, by the way, have a peer review process in the blog/comment/counter-blog discourse model. When Paul Krugman blogs, that anyone who reads his posts can comment on them doesn’t cheapen the dialogue because Krugman isn’t obligated to reply to every comment. Instead, when one particularly piques his interest (or, more likely, presents an opportunity for him to tell the rest of the world how poor was the commenter’s understanding of economics), he writes a new blog post taking on the assertions made in the comments.

Krugman also dives into debates with other bloggers; this CNBC piece covers the MMT Blog War pretty well. The open framework of the internet didn’t lead to Paul Krugman’s being so overwhelmed with nutjobs that he couldn’t have a serious academic discussion. Instead, the two sides shot back and forth with an immediacy that is impossible in refereed journals.

Feyerabend suggests that “Confusionists and superficial intellectuals move ahead while the ‘deep’ thinkers descend into the darker regions of the status quo or, to express it in a different way, they remain stuck in the mud.” Truly open discourse in which “confusionists and superficial intellectuals” have the opportunity to approach mainstream academic problems from odd angles and expect replies when they get something… not “right,” but interesting should keep the deep thinkers from remaining stuck in the mud; the deep thinkers’ replies, meanwhile, should alleviate some confusionism and superficiality.

We should reimagine accessibility in academia. At least eighty percent of the world can read; let’s give them access to something better than The Hunger Games and The Kite Runner.

I am a secret villain, but not the good kind

When I posted J. Edgar, Mary Jessup put this comment on the facebook status with the link:

‎[ ] At least two (named) women in it
[ ] Who talk to each other
[ ] About something besides a man.

Admittedly, without meeting the first criterion, I could not have met the second, and without meeting the second, I could not have met the third, so I actively failed only once, but I still feel like the worst person.

I think of myself as someone who cares about women. I’m opposed to slut shaming, I think the income/political gap is alarming, and I don’t understand why access to contraceptives is something anyone is opposed to, so to discover that I’d accidentally written something that excluded women in a pretty serious way was concerning. Naturally the next thing to do was to rationalize.

The first argument that came to mind was that the events in J. Edgar occur in the 1950s, but Mad Men manages to work in at least two (named) women who talk to each other about something besides a man, so that defense fell apart quickly. I fled briefly to the idea that this was a political group, but if Mad Men can meet the criteria Mary listed in the advertising world even after writing all kinds of overt misogyny into the script, I should be able to do the same with politics. Both of these arguments were rooted in “given the time and place of the action, women weren’t supposed to be there,” which made me ashamed.

The second broad category of defense was “That’s not how I imagined it.” I’m relying on some kind of writing-as-craft interpretation, rather than writing-as-manufacture. That I failed Mary’s three criteria was only a problem in a universe of interpretation in which “parts missing” is something that can apply to writing. I wasn’t assembling a story, my subconscious indignantly countered. And besides, what creative people have ever accomplished anything following a restrictive set of rules? I mean aside from Homer, every poet ever until the moderns, and the entire rap community.

My third response was the most immature. J. Edgar Hoover is obviously queer in this! I wrote in a non-hetero character! Respect and disrespect are of course not compensating.

I had to accept the truth: I am an accidental misogynist.

What’s going on here is what Paul Feyerabend calls covert classification, covert because they are “sensed rather than comprehended — awareness of [them] has an intuitive quality.” The example Feyerabend relies on comes from Benjamin Lee Whorff, who looks like kind of a creepy dude in his Wikipedia picture. Whorff discussed how thousands of given names have maleness or femaleness embedded in them, even though there isn’t anything inherently “male” about Aloysius or “female” about Esther. Still, we are somehow able to tell, generally speaking, by looking at a name, what gender person “should” own it.

While it may be prematurely precise to focus feminist efforts on the linguistic exclusion of women from the category of Aloysiuses, what I’d done was much worse; I’d excluded women from history.

This isn’t my only sneaky prejudice though. I also apparently have a “strong automatic preference for straight people.” There was nothing malicious in the responses I entered; I was moving as quickly as I could to respect the directions given in the test.

I don’t want to make an if-I’m-secretly-regressive-then-you-are-too argument, but I do think (hope — not because I want more regressive people in the world, but because I still feel pretty bad) I am not alone, even among my progressive friends. I feel responsible for each of these prejudices.

As bad as I feel though, I don’t think it makes sense to be ashamed. I know these prejudices aren’t acceptable to act on and I conscientiously avoid acting on them. With enough work, my I may be able to shift “automatic preferences” manually.

Mastodons and Capitalism

At a Five College transfer student meet and greet event in January, we played a bingo/scavenger hunt game in which we had to find students from the other schools who met certain criteria. One of the boxes was “A student who knows where to find the mastodon at Amherst College.” I found someone, checked the box, wound up checking the others, and handed in my sheet, expecting to be done thinking about the mastodon at Amherst College for longer than several months. Then, on Saturday, while visiting the Beneski Museum, I found out that the mastodon was not actually one mastodon, but two mastodons and some casts made of other bones. In that mastodon, I found an allegory for detailed division of labor in capitalist systems.

There’s an implicit lie in “this is a mastodon.” The assembly of two non-identical mastodons into a single mastodon fossil is the denial that there was any meaningful difference between the two to begin with. Instead, “has appropriately sized bones and is the same species” become the only important characteristics that mastodon #2 shares with mastodon #1. The process by which two different mastodons become a fully assembled (and this is an assembly process, not a discovery process; discovery was when we found out mastodons existed. The next step was to build one) single mastodon requires the alienation of any individual difference either mastodon may have had before being recombined into the fossil of a creature that never lived. We can describe the mastodon in the Beneski Museum as a mastodon-shaped object, but it is not a mastodon fossil.

We can think of this in Platonic terms. There are basically three types of mastodons. There are ideal mastodons, in-the-world mastodons, and really-existing mastodons. Ideal mastodons have never existed but instead correspond to a perfect and abstract concept of what a mastodon is; in-the-world mastodons died out millennia ago, but were whole, living creatures who existed at a certain time. Really-existing mastodons are all we have left; they are the incomplete fossils that teach us, collectively, what in-the-world mastodons may have looked like but that individually instruct us only about leg shape and shoulder shape and tusks. The problem we have, though, is that we want to force the really-existing mastodons we’ve discovered into the category of in-the-world mastodons, which we then want to believe correspond in some sense to the ideal mastodons (otherwise, of course, they wouldn’t be mastodons at all). The epistemic stakes are massive: if in-the-world mastodons are only the image (illusion) of the ideal mastodon and really-existing mastodons are the image (illusion) of in-the-world mastodons, then our knowledge of the Form of mastodons is no more compelling than the illusion of an illusion. We must either do violence to the distinct identities of the individual mastodons or give up the idea of knowledge of the Form of mastodons.

Naturally, we chose the first. We accomplish the transformation of really-existing mastodons into in-the-world mastodons by asking each bone/fossil to serve the function of its corresponding bone in an identity-less ideal mastodon, when what we actually have is a bone from an imperfect and dead mastodon. The invention of the brontosaurus should be a cautionary tale about the potential for confusion we create with this method, but instead, “this is a mastodon” and “we have a mastodon” are too important to let “we have a piecemeal reassembly of a mastodon made partially of non-fossil material” become the dominant description.

The analogy to capitalist production with division of labor is not challenging. The first step is to establish the alienation of identity. In corporate production especially but factory production in general, the tasks assigned each worker become small enough over time that any worker’s individual contribution to the final product is negligible. With miniscule contributions, workers become interchangeable, and when workers become interchangeable (read: “when workers can be as readily exchanged as the mass-produced parts of the machines they use”), attempts to maintain their identities must fail.

In the Platonic sense, we start with a description of the Form of manufacture as “making things.” In-the-world manufacture, prior to the excessive specialization of capitalist production, still involved division of labor, but without sacrificing the ability to produce other parts of the end product. In guilds in England in the nineteenth century, for instance, it was not uncommon for artisans to rotate through specific tasks involved in production. Though on any given day an artisan might only be making one part of a glove, textile, etc., the social project of manufacture required him to be able to make the entire item. This form of production, like mastodons, is available to us only in the fossil record. Really-existing manufacture now requires the alienation discussed above. However, given the political mileage and visceral satisfaction manufacturing still offers (for evidence, see the contemporary discussion of the auto industry bailout or Pietra Rivoli’s description of Auggie Tantillo’s work), we still try to think of manufacture as a noble productive process despite having stripped away the nobility and craft that used to be inherent in it.

In Which J. Edgar Hoover Hosts a Dinner Party, Scene I

[A knock at the door. J. Edgar Hoover, played by Stephen Fry or at least someone who looks and acts
like Stephen Fry setting the table. It’s also allowable that someone whose mannerisms and appearance
are in no way similar to Stephen Fry’s could play this role. Whatever he looks like, J. Edgar is dressed
in a green jumpsuit with the hammer and sickle on the left breast. Everyone else, with the exception of
Jackie Kennedy and the chef, will be dressed similarly. Jackie gets to wear a dress. The chef should
meet the description he is given on his entrance The table setting is ORNATE, of course. J. Edgar keeps
switching two place settings back and forth until Dwight D. Eisenhower runs around the table. The two
he is switching are his own and Joseph McCarthy’s. The place settings for Jackie and John Kennedy
face away from the audience.]

J. Edgar: Come in!

Dwight D. Eisenhower [from behind the door]: How do you know who it is?

J. Edgar: The same way I know everything, just come in!

[Eisenhower enters]

Eisenhower: Sorry I’m early, you know how I am about these things.

J. Edgar [looking frustrated with the two place settings]: Preemptive attendance, first strike capabilities,
yes, I’ve heard all about it.

Eisenhower: What’s the matter with that plate?

J. Edgar: The plate?

Eisenhower: Yes, the plate.

J. Edgar: Which?

Eisenhower: The one you keep fiddling with!

J. Edgar: I just, oh it’s nothing, don’t worry about it.

Eisenhower: Whom did you invite this evening?

J. Edgar: Sacco and Vanzetti.

Eisenhower: [laughs] No, but really.

J. Edgar: Sacco and Vanzetti and John Wilkes Booth.

Eisenhower: Cut it out, you know I’m sensitive about that kind of thing.

J. Edgar: [laughs] Not at all. You can read though, the names are all on the place cards, can’t you tell?
Eisenhower: And if I switch these two?

J. Edgar: Don’t.

[Eisenhower picks them up and starts prancing around the table like a drum major]

J. Edgar: Dwight please, you’ll shake the microphones right out!

Eisenhower: Of course. I’m terribly sorry.

J. Edgar: It’s alright, just put them back where they were.

[Eisenhower replaces the place cards]

Eisenhower: John coming tonight?

J. Edgar: Yes, tragically.

Eisenhower: You ever worry he’s a commie?

J. Edgar: Dwight, I worry everyone is a commie.

[The phone rings. J. Edgar picks it up]

J. Edgar: Hello this is J. Edgar, may I say who’s calling?

Eisenhower: I’ll just run to the little boys’ room. [Exits opposite where he entered]

J. Edgar: Oh Jackie it’s just too droll that you should call right now.

Jackie: [from offstage] Oh really? Why’s that?

J. Edgar: Well wouldn’t you know, I just got the surveillance set up on your house moments ago, and
the feed’s coming through great.

Jackie: Oh J. Edgar, you didn’t!

J. Edgar: I did!

Jackie: Well, J. Edgar, you’re always up to those tricks of yours. Anyway John and I are on our way.
He’s out in the limousine now. Says we should leave early so that if anyone knew where we
were going they’d get there too late. I just don’t know where he gets these ideas about bad things
happening to people in limos!

J. Edgar: I know, dear. He really is just so concerned all the time about these ideas of his, and civil
rights, and I just don’t know how you put up with it.

Jackie: Well he has a kind soul.

[Eisenhower returns, again from the opposite side]

Eisenhower: Would you believe, I went to the little boys’ room and there was actually a little boy in
there!

Jackie: What was that?

J. Edgar: Nothing dear.

Jackie: Was that Dwight D.? You didn’t tell us you invited him! He’s such a dear. We’ll be right there.

[She hangs up]

J. Edgar: What’s that you said? A little boy in the bathroom?

Eisenhower: Well yes. It was very odd. What’s he doing there?

J. Edgar: I certainly have no idea. You know if it’s not the communists, it’s the queers. I’m sure one of
those groups must be to blame.

[A knock on the door again]

J. Edgar: Come in!

McCarthy: Well hello, J. Edgar. Nice of you to invite me.

J. Edgar: Joseph, Joseph, you always sound so surprised to have been invited to social events.

McCarthy: [ignoring him] Dwight, good to see you.

Eisenhower: Joseph.

J. Edgar: Would either of you like to hear the schedule for the evening?

Eisenhower: Say that’d be swell.

McCarthy: Sure, J.

J. Edgar: Well, we’re still waiting on the Kennedys, but once they arrive I thought we’d start with
appetizers. I made sure that all of the food was from non-Communist countries, Joseph, so we
won’t have another incident like that other time.

McCarthy: Thanks, J. That was thoughtful of you.

J. Edgar: Anyway then I thought to fill the time between appetizers and dinner we could interrogate
another suspected communist I found.

McCarthy: Who’s this one?

J. Edgar: He was a grocery boy with whom Julius and Ethel Rosenberg occasionally communicated. I
think some of their notes may have been a code.

McCarthy: Can I see ’em?

J. Edgar: Yeah, sure. [He pulls some sheets of paper out of his pocket and hands them to McCarthy]

McCarthy: These are dated even! Look, several weeks in a row: “Leeks, onions, celery” in all of ’em.
You think that means something?

Eisenhower: It is not by deciding whether it means something that we stay prepared, but by staying
prepared that we decide whether it means something.

McCarthy: By Jingo, Dwight, that’s a mouthful.

Eisenhower: And we, Joseph, are prepared.

McCarthy: Ok, so we’re prepared, so does it mean something?

Eisenhower: I don’t honestly know.

J. Edgar: I haven’t told you the best part.

McCarthy and Eisenhower, more or less in unison: Yeah? What is it? [and improvise as many other
enthusiastic or otherwise intrigued expressions they can invent on the spot]

J. Edgar: Would you like to guess how long I’ve held him here?

McCarthy: A year.

Eisenhower: Three years.

J. Edgar: He was born March 22, 1939.

McCarthy: No.

Eisenhower: I can’t believe it.

J. Edgar: and I detained him on March 22, 1938.

McCarthy: No but I really can’t believe that.

Eisenhower: That has to break some kind of physical law.

J. Edgar: Joseph can tell you all about how laws change with interpretation.

McCarthy: Or, really, if you haven’t read them.

[J. Edgar cracks up]

McCarthy: What?

J. Edgar: I just had the funniest image of a coyote running through the air over a canyon, held up only
by his ignorance of gravity.

Eisenhower: What could he have done before he was born though?

J. Edgar: The coyote? Probably nothing.

Eisenhower: The detainee.

J. Edgar: Right. Well I had it on good authority that he would have been a Communist, had he been
born into freedom, so I detained him to celebrate my fourth anniversary in office.

Eisenhower: But you detained him on your third –

McCarthy: He wasn’t even born on your third anniversary in office.

J. Edgar: Gentlemen, I do not take the duties and privileges of my position lightly.

McCarthy: I’ve never been so impressed with you.

Eisenhower: What’s for dinner though?

J. Edgar: I’m sorry?

Eisenhower: You said we’d interrogate him between the appetizers and dinner. What’s for dinner?

J. Edgar: Oh right. Well my chef [he gestures toward the door into which Eisenhower disappeared to
use the restroom and a shirtless, bronzed, and ripped man emerges and walks across the stage
smiling and waving, exiting on the opposite side. While he is still on the stage, no one else
moves] is making his specialty.

Eisenhower: Which is?

J. Edgar: It’s a state secret! [All laugh] No really it’s some Chinese chicken dish.

Eisenhower: Oh good, I simply cannot stomach beef after a good interrogation.

J. Edgar: From before all of this Mao Zedong bullshit, too.

McCarthy: I was worried.

J. Edgar: I assure you, the recipe dates from the opium days.

McCarthy: I loved the opium days.

[The Kennedys enter without knocking. John takes a moment to beam at the audience before following
Jackie upstage]

Jackie: [teasingly] Did I just hear Joseph McCarthy say he loves opium?

McCarthy: Now Jackie, I know you won’t let that leave this room!

Jackie: Because you scare the shit out of me! Really Joe, how are you?

McCarthy: Good, good. John? How are you?

Eisenhower: Rested I hope. As long as you two took to get here, we thought someone had been
assassinated!

Jackie: You would not believe the traffic on the highway. Whose idea was this highway system if we
can’t get anywhere on it anyway?

John: Jackie, come on now, shouldn’t we be more diplomatic? He’s the president, after all, he has
to make a lot of hard choices.

Eisenhower: It’s true, John. You know, if you play your cards right, you could be president someday
too.

John: You sound like my father.

McCarthy: Anyway, now that we’re all here, should we start with the appetizers?

J. Edgar: I should tell you all, one of the plates has a camera in it, but I won’t tell you which one.

McCarthy: Only one?

Eisenhower: J. Edgar, how are we supposed to feel safe if you’re only monitoring the room with one
plate?

J. Edgar: Oh it’s not so bad as all that. There are also the other cameras there, there, and there [he points
to each as he says them. He doesn’t need to point anywhere specific.] I also have an armed
security detail in the audience. There is one sitting in every seat whose number can be expressed
as the product of three and a prime number.

Jackie: Oh well that’s alright then.

Eisenhower: In every seat like that?

J. Edgar: Well, no, not every seat, just some of them, so [to the audience now] there’s no reason to be too
suspicious of your neighbor.

[They all grab seats at random, except John. No one ends up in front of his or her place card. The
empty seat is directly across from J. Edgar Hoover]

Jackie: What’s the matter John?

John: Well, J. Edgar didn’t take the only remaining seat.

J. Edgar: That’s true, I took the one I’m in.

John: So I know he’s not concerned about his seat having the camera.

Eisenhower: Right, so?

John: So doesn’t that make it more likely that the remaining seat has the camera?

Jackie: J. Edgar probably didn’t choose his seat sinister…ly. He probably just grabbed the closest seat.

John: But why is the open seat the furthest from him?

McCarthy: Come on, John, I’ll trade with you if you like.

J. Edgar: No!

[Pause, confusion]

J. Edgar: I just mean that we can’t let these paranoias get the best of us. John, let’s be realistic. Even if
that plate is the one with the camera, it’s not like you’ll be much more under surveillance than
you already are. It’s important, I think, when overreacting to stupid civil liberties concerns, to
remember that if it’s a battle you think you can fight, you’ve probably already lost.

McCarthy: That’s true, John. Surveillance is the price we pay for safety from the Soviet machine.

Jackie: Yeah, John! Even if that is the plate with the camera in it, it’s not like you’re being duped. You’re
being a patriot!

McCarthy: For America and dinner then, won’t you sit down?

John: It’s just so suspicious that all of you would dash instinctively for the chairs not directly opposite
J. Edgar.

Jackie: Nobody dashed, John. Sometimes people end up places, and that’s what we did.

John: Oh I suppose that’s alright, I just wish I weren’t so conscious of being monitored.

J. Edgar: John, that’s why I hid the camera in a plate.

[John sits down]

Eisenhower: Now that that’s settled, you two will not believe the surprise J. Edgar has for us as an
amuse bouche.

Overqualified

Three interesting items from the top of my Twitter feed this morning:

  1. Jose Hernandez’s ability/inability/ability to list “astronaut as his job title on a ballot in CA and this Youtube video (via Tim Harford)
  2. Microjob sites like this and this (via Tim Harford or maybe more accurately Umair Haque)
  3. The U.S.’s $10 million bounty on Hafiz Saeed (via Time Magazine) (is it appropriate to refer to internet instances of publications as magazines?)

In the first, the GOP in California had attempted to block Hernandez from listing “astronaut” as his vocation on a Congressional ballot. Hernandez is challenging Rep. Jeff Denham, whose previous year’s employment is obviously “Congressperson.” Between sixteen years in the US Air Force and the beginning of his political career, Denham worked as an almond rancher. If ever there has been a single, fairly insignificant campaign that reflected everything Republicans and Democrats believe about themselves and each other, the astronaut versus the almond rancher might be it.

Still, the GOP is worried that, what, Hernandez’s time fulfilling the childhood dreams of California voters will carry the ballot? That a broad consensus exists among California voters that astronauts are uniquely well-suited for fulfilling the duties of a representative to Congress? This gulf between the GOP’s concerns and reality seems huge. Denham’s earth-bound career hasn’t hampered him in the past, and Hernandez’s scientific and astronautical past required substantially more ability and responsibility than will be required of him as a freshman member of the House of Representatives, especially considering that California already has 34 other Democratic reps. If Californians reelect even half of those, Hernandez will be the eighteenth most senior member of California’s House delegation. The gap between what Hernandez can do and what he’ll be asked to do is about as large as the GOP worry/reality gap.

The second and third items are related. I signed up for Zaarly, one of the sites mentioned, to see how the interface worked, and as far as I can tell, it answers the question “What if we took Craigslist posts and put them on a map?” The categories are similar, if a little trendier (“Yoga Instructor” and “Handyman” aren’t relegated to “General Labor” or “ETC.” categories, for instance), but other than that, there doesn’t appear to be a significant difference.

The more interesting point is that the site and others like it exist. The trend toward micro-labor has a huge pro-business bias. As a new employee, there’s usually some kind of adjustment period in which not being quite up-to-speed on local practices is excusable, but since the recession has forced so much skilled labor out of employment (with much more lingering in part-time/low-skill work), businesses could use microlabor sites to try out employees without having to go through the onerous processes temp agencies involve. In fact, at this point, whether we like it a lot, the move toward project-based labor makes everyone a potential temp. While a temp job may be much better than no job, project-based labor affords laborers none of the security non-project-based labor would. Worse, by decreasing the transactions cost required to find someone to perform a specific task, people already in relatively secure positions see their security decrease.

The articles from the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal suggest higher pay for less desirable work, which sounds nice and which also brings me to Hafiz Saeed, the Paki leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Most reports on LeT cover their charitable/governance work and their paramilitary efforts in Kashmir, but Saeed doesn’t have a price on his head for earthquake recovery programs. CBS News reports that documents found after Osama bin Laden’s death revealed that LeT was the group bin Laden turned to when he had plans to assassinate President Obama. Their mission to return Kashmir to Pakistan grounds their operations in India, including the 2008 Mumbai bombings.

The $10 million bounty for information leading to the arrest of Saeed is the ultimate in project-based labor, but whoever delivers that information will place themselves in mortal terror to do so. The United States and some anonymous informant are playing a hypotheticals game at this point: “Would you do it for… $10 million?” “Mmmm, I don’t think so, I’m not sure being terrified for the rest of my life or having to assume a new identity is worth it.” “What about… $15 million?” Whoever has information that may lead to Saeed’s arrest has a real chance to evaluate how much his or her attachment to his current life is worth.

The associated auction dynamics are, well, confusing. The United States, as bidder, doesn’t know from whom it is trying to buy or if a seller even exists. The sellers, assuming they both exist and are plural, may not know their reserve prices (probably don’t know their reserve prices). The sellers also may not know whether their product is actually the product for which the US is bidding, since there’s only a chance that the information leads to the arrest of Saeed. With that in mind, there has to be some type of risk discounting involved for any potential informant who weighs the bounty against the chance he informs, has his entire life changed as a result, and does not receive the bounty. Then, the delivery of the product (the information, not Saeed himself) has risks associated with it as well, for instance, that the informant will be found out in advance and murdered before he has a chance to secure the bounty. Between the cost of betrayal and the following transactions costs, it’s surprising that the bounty offered is ever enough.

Eventually, the question is whether we can analyze every choice as an economic one. Duncan Foley tackles that question in Adam’s Fallacy, but I haven’t read it yet, so I’ll leave that question alone for now.