Eco’s ‘How to eat ice cream’

A friend recently gifted me a vintage copy of some of Umberto Eco’s essays translated to English. One of the essays, titled “How to eat ice cream,” opened with an anecdote Eco said was based on his childhood. In the story, there was an ice cream vendor who sold regular cones for two cents and ice cream pie cones for four cents. Eco said his parents and grandmother would buy him which ever type he requested, but there was a limit. Young Eco envied the neighbor children who would parade down the street carrying a regular cone in each hand. But whenever he asked for four cents to buy two cones, the adults would flatly refuse and tell him that he could have a pie cone instead. As an adult, he mused:

[…] I realize that those dear and now departed elders were right. Two two-cent cones instead of one at four cents did not signify squandering, economically speaking, but symbolically they surely did. It was for this precise reason that I yearned for them: because two ice creams suggested excess. And this was precisely why they were denied me: because they looked indecent, an insult to poverty, a display of fictitious privilege, a boast of wealth. […] And parents who encouraged this weakness, appropriate to little parvenus, were bringing up their children in the foolish theatre of “I’d like to but I can’t.” They were preparing them to turn up at tourist-class check-in with a fake Gucci bag bought from a street peddler on the beach at Rimini.

The parenting method must have worked because he became Umberto Eco. What Eco recognized was that his parents had inoculated him against false consumerist behavior. The preventative measures were not against the so-called consumerist society but ostentatious display, the process of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Around January 2018, there was a meme floating around social media. It said something along the lines of “Entrepreneur: someone who lives a few years the way most people won’t so that they can spend the rest of their lives living the way most people can’t.” I very belatedly discovered Carl Schramm’s 2004 book The Entrepreneurial Imperative. Schramm identified the 1950s as the time when American society ceased valorizing business ownership and virtuous risk in favor of material security. As part of the “security first” mentality, children and young people were openly discouraged from seeking independence or from being different in a positive way. The world was one of ossification and stagnation, even as the federal government and media pushed a strong Keynesian message of “consume to grow.” On a side note, now that I think about it, Keynesian economics resemble the children’s video game Snake: one guides the snake to food so that it will grow but eventually it becomes so big that it bites itself – Game over.

Even given the massive propaganda effort put into promoting Keynesian theories, scapegoating “consumerism” or “consumerist society” is a form of escapist thought, a dodging of responsibility. Eco spotted the cause and effect nature of being a parvenu. The desire for “fictitious privilege” creates a set of priorities that cause one to spend his wherewithal thoughtlessly. In turn a “boast of wealth” strategy leads to “’I’d like to but I can’t’” through ensuring that there is no money when real opportunity arrives. The world becomes one of abundant middle as the effort to possess everything spirals.

Be Our Guest: “Government: The Great Post-Christian Swindle”

Jack Curtis is back as our guest, and with a thoughtful vengeance:

It is no coincidence that Reformed Judeo-Christian culture has led the explosion of human progress in recent centuries; it both set up the church as society’s and government’s visible conscience, and by reversing sovereignty from king to people, freed incalculable individual effort into the more productive directions celebrated by Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations. The first provided a foundation for the reduced corruption and enhanced public trust that advance economic progress; the second accelerated human achievement. Tales of extraordinary human accomplishment have always centered upon motivated individuals, ordered serfdom has never been considered very productive and slavery, least of all. This is a reality typically brushed off by those selling the idea that alterations of government structure can be used to alter innate human behavior. The idea however, remains an enduring political swindle enshrined among public educators naturally interested in producing complaisant citizens for their employer.

Read the rest, and don’t forget to add your own thoughts. As always, feel free to Be Our Guest

Brazil, the country of Carnival (?)

Maybe for most English speakers it isn’t even known, but we are in the Carnival week. Carnival is a festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March. It typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments. I’m unashamedly taking some elements from Wikipedia here to try to explain it. It is basically equivalent to Mardi Gras. Carnival (or Carnaval, as we say it in Portuguese) is a big thing in Brazil. Or maybe not. That’s what this post is about.

Carnival is a Christian feast, at least in its origin. It occurs right before lent. Lent is the forty days that antecede the Passover. The idea was that people would fast (at least to some degree) during the forty days of lent. Therefore, Carnival was the last opportunity for forty days to indulge in some pleasures of the flesh. Carnival literally means “remove meat”, from the Late Latin expression carne levare. “Farewell to meat” is another possible translation. However, carne is not solely meat in Latin; it also refers to the flesh, especially in the Christian association between sin and flesh. Carnaval, therefore, is the feast of the flesh – taken literally or not. At least in Brazil, to my knowledge, the relationship between Carnival, Lent and Passover is little known. I believe that most people just take it to be a major party that happens sometime between February and March.

Brazil is popularly known as the country of Carnival, Samba and Soccer. Of these three, I kind of like the last one. Not so much the first two. To my knowledge, Carnival has always been very popular in Rio de Janeiro, at least since the early 19th century. At that time, it was known as Entrudo, a celebration in which mostly people throw water on one another, like in a water balloon fight. However, there were some improvements: people started throwing some liquids other than water if you know what I mean and that even at strangers. The party was also an opportunity for slaves to poke on their masters. Carnaval eventually became associated with the slaves’ African culture, and I suppose that’s how the Christian origins were somewhat lost. Today, Carnaval in Rio is strongly associated with Samba music.

I haven’t done a very scientific research for this, but to my knowledge, most people in Rio actually don’t like Carnaval. Carnaval is a street party, with all that comes with it: people leave tons of trash behind; people get drunk, and often violent; the music can get really loud and sometimes going on for hours, even into the night. Given the specific nature of the festival, there are people having sex on the street and other things happening as well. It is hard to say this without sounding moralistic, but the thing is that Carnaval ends up being the most anti-libertarian thing one can imagine. If “don’t do onto others what you don’t want to be done onto you” is the golden rule we’re trying to put into practice, Carnaval is the undoing of this.

In the late 19th century, some authorities already realized that the festival was getting out of control and tried to organize it somehow, mostly to no avail. But things really got out of control in the early 20th century. Coming out of the monarchy, Brazilian intellectuals were dedicated to the task of identifying the Brazilian identity. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda made a huge contribution to this with is Roots of Brazil (Raízes do Brasil), in which he said that Brazilians had a hard time understanding and applying the impersonal relationships necessary for a modern capitalistic society. Another major contribution in this conversation was done in 1933 by anthropologist/sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his book Casa-Grande e Senzala (English: The Masters and the Slaves). In this book, Freyre argued that the Brazilian national identity was the result of miscegenation (both biological and cultural) between masters and slaves.

On the one hand, I want to say that Freyre’s argument was revolutionary because he was saying that Brazilians were not an “inferior race” because of race-mixing. Just the opposite: Brazilian culture was permeated by highly positive elements exactly because of miscegenation. Consider that Freyre was saying that in the 1930s, when race-mixing was still a major taboo in the US, not to mention Nazi Germany. But on the other hand, I believe that Freyre contributed to a movement that gave up trying to “civilize” Brazil.

The topic of civilization is always a polemic one because it implies that some cultures are superior to others. I don’t want to go that way. But I also don’t want to be a cultural relativistic. Some cultures are superior to others in some aspects. There is nothing culturally superior in leaving tons of trash in the streets after a street party. There is nothing culturally superior in imposing your music taste on others. There is nothing superior in imposing your take on sexuality on others.

In the late 19th century, some authorities were trying to organize Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro because things were getting out of control. In the early 20th century, most authorities gave up that enterprise because they decided that Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil) is that “mess”. Instead of trying to correct the bad aspects of Carnaval, they decided to celebrate it as the very essence of Brazilian culture. Eventually, into the 20th century, Carnaval became a great example of panem et circenses policy.

I understand that in the early 21st century more and more people in Brazil are getting sick and tired of Carnaval, and that has some connections with politics. Typically (though definitely not always) people on the left want to celebrate Carnaval. People on the right typically (though definitely not always) don’t want to. Some people on the left are already saying that Bolsonaro’s government represents the taking over of government by Christian fundamentalists. I doubt. They may be right at a very low degree. But for the most part, what is happening is that Brazil is too diverse for a single project of nation to work for everybody. Ironically Gilberto Freyre was right: we are the result of this mixture, and this is not a bad thing. People only need to learn to respect the opinions, tastes and preferences of the other elements in this mix.

The Good Life vs. reality

Recently, a former classmate badgered me into accompanying her on a run to the supermarket. As we were checking out, I, as a person who is very dedicated to the principle of self-interest, used a handful of coupons and a discount card to lower my final tally. My companion had a judgmental reaction to the proceedings: she gave me to understand that she never sought discounts or used coupons because to do so was beneath her station. Oddly, she could see no connection between her attitude and her continuous complaints about being short on funds. It was only much later that I connected her attitude at the cash register with her frequent monologues about a “broken society,” a slight fixation on “inequality,” and an overweening sense of entitlement.  

In 1971, NBC produced a sitcom called The Good Life, not to be confused with the British series of the same name. The American series was unsuccessful, in comparison to its competition, and it was canceled after fifteen episodes. I have never seen the show as NBC has never rerun it or provided a home release of it. I first heard of The Good Life in a book, whose title I have regrettably forgotten (for a long time I thought the book was Greg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox but now I can’t find any allusion to the tv show in Easterbrook’s book.). The author of the forgotten book alluded to The Good Life as a watershed moment in tv history with its portrayal of the so-called super-rich – the one bit I remember was that the book described the show as “the most luxurious show [in terms of portrayal of lifestyle]” and connected the show to a sudden increase in a broad sense of entitled victimhood throughout society. The Good Life  was also, apparently, part of creating the environment conducive for the success of the soap opera Dallas (1978 – 1991).

The plot behind The Good Life is that a middle-class couple become exhausted with the pressures of suburban life and maintaining a lifestyle that’s beyond their means. Consequently, the pair decide to scam their way into the household of an industrialist multimillionaire by disguising themselves as a butler and housekeeper. The theme which (apparently) underlay the show was the idea that there is a class of people who live extravagant, exotic lives (the proverbial good life) and therefore can afford to support some sponging malcontents.

When researching the show, one thing that struck me about it was how prescient it was in terms of foretelling some of the themes which are present in our current socio-political discourse. The two con-artists are reasonably successful college graduates who believe that society promised them the good life as a reward for going to college and having careers; however, when the pair see the lifestyle shown in glossy magazines – mansions, tennis courts, Rolls-Royce cars – the couple feels that society has reneged on its promise. The logic of the show’s premise is that the couple has been pushed by society – that wicked, amorphous “they” – toward a life of deception because there is no other path to riches open to them.

LitHub ran an article titled “How the well-educated and downwardly mobile found socialism.” The article isn’t worth reading, but the title touches on what began as the fictional premise of The Good Life and has become a full blown, ideologically fraught, issue today. What happens when perception of status is overblown and there is no sense of timeframe to temper expectations? 

Thinking of the popularity of AOC or Andrew Yang and the manner in which they have successfully tapped into the tropes of “unjust society” of “inequality,” the modern millennial (my own generation) seems to have embraced the premise of The Good Life. The tv show contained a very subtle, and completely subversive, inversion of the moral order: because “society’s promises” were broken, the dishonesty of the protagonists was not immoral. The extension of such reasoning is that the industrialist was obligated to support the swindlers anyway due to his greater wealth.

Capx just ran a terrific article by Jethro Elsden, “Jane Austen, the accidental economist,” in response to the new film version of Emma. One of the interesting tidbits the author found was that in modern terms, Mr Darcy’s £10,000 per annum income is probably equivalent to £60 million today, which would make his wealth around £3 billion. Even then Elizabeth Darcy had to “make small economies” once she decided to support her sponging sister and feckless brother-in-law. Granted the economies might have been the result of not telling her husband, but still the point remains that no one can long support spongers.

Elsden alluded to the logic of social pressure and the malignant effect it had on Austen’s characters who feel compelled to engage in an “arms race.” A major reason the swindlers of The Good Life turn to dishonesty is that they feel pressured to look like successful suburban college graduates. The problem was that  in the case of Austen’s characters and the tv show from 154 years later, the definition of “success” in relation to appearances was fungible. Rationally, it is ridiculous for the youngish couple of The Good Life to be in same place financially and socially as their mark, the middle-aged, widower industrialist whose lifestyle (but not work ethic) they covet.

To return, finally, to the anecdote regarding my shopping expedition, the episode is an example of a type of path that begins with frivolous preconceptions and ends with The Good Life on the comic end and the rise of Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren on the other. These politicians have located a demographic which has no sense of progression of time, stages of development, or realistic expectations. A perfect example is my ex-classmate, who has subjected herself to a fantasy regarding her own realistic expectation and now believes that the social contract has been broken.  For such a demographic, the emotional trumps the rational. It is easier to believe themselves wronged than as merely victims of their own imaginations.

The Lesson to Unlearn

Paul Graham writes:

In theory, [classroom] tests are merely what their name implies: tests of what you’ve learned in the class. In theory you shouldn’t have to prepare for a test in a class any more than you have to prepare for a blood test. In theory you learn from taking the class, from going to the lectures and doing the reading and/or assignments, and the test that comes afterward merely measures how well you learned.

In practice, as almost everyone reading this will know, things are so different that hearing this explanation of how classes and tests are meant to work is like hearing the etymology of a word whose meaning has changed completely. In practice, the phrase “studying for a test” was almost redundant, because that was when one really studied. The difference between diligent and slack students was that the former studied hard for tests and the latter didn’t. No one was pulling all-nighters two weeks into the semester.

Even though I was a diligent student, almost all the work I did in school was aimed at getting a good grade on something.

This, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with the education system. Forget governments, unions, misunderstandings, standardization, Baumol Disease and all the rest. The big problem is that the signal value of school subsumed the educational value. It’s Campbell’s Law.

The rest of the article is worth the read.

The Least Empathic Lot

On standard tests of empathy, libertarians score very low. Yet, the world’s “well-known libertarian bias” coupled with many people’s unwarranted pessimism makes us seem like starry-eyed optimists (“how could you possibly believe things will just work themselves out?!”).

Under the Moral Foundations framework developed and popularized by Jonathan Haidt, he and his colleagues analyzed thousands of responses through their YourMorals.org tool. Mostly focused on what distinguishes liberals from conservatives, there are enough self-reported libertarians answering that the questionnaire to draw meaningful conclusions. The results, as presented in TED-talks, podcast interviews and Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion contains a whole lot of interesting stuff.

First, some Moral Foundations basics: self-reported liberals attach almost all their moral value to two major categories – “fairness” and “care/harm.” Some examples include striving for equal (“fair”) outcomes and concern for those in need. No surprises there.

Conservatives, on the other hand, draw fairly evenly on all five of Haidt’s different moralities, markedly placing weight on the other three foundations as well – Authority (respect tradition and your superiors), Loyalty (stand with your group, family or nation) and Sanctity (revulsion towards disgusting things); liberals largely shun these three, which explains why the major political ideologies in America usually talk past one another.

Interestingly enough, In The Righteous Mind, Haidt discusses experiments where liberals and conservatives were asked to answer the questionnaire as the other would have. Conservatives and moderate liberals could represent the case of the other fairly well, whereas those self-identifying as “very liberal” were the least accurate. Indeed, the

biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives.

Within the Moral Foundations framework, this makes perfect sense. Conservatives have, in a sense, a wider array of moral senses to draw from – pretending to be liberal merely means downplaying some senses and exaggerating others. For progressives who usually lack any conception of the other values, it’s hard to just invent them:

if your moral matrix encompasses nothing more than Care and Fairness, then to imagine a political opponent is to reverse one’s own position for those foundations – that Conservatives act primarily on other frequencies, on other foundations, wouldn’t even occur to them.

Libertarians, always the odd one out, look like conservatives on the traits most favoured by liberals (Fairness and Care/Harm); and are indistinguishable from liberals on the traits most characteristic of conservatives (Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity). Not occupying some fuzzy middle-ground between them, but an entirely different beast.

Empathy, being captured by the ‘Care’ foundation, lines up well with political persuasion, argues Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in his Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Liberals care the most; conservatives some; and libertarians almost none at all. Liberals are the most empathic; conservatives are somewhat empathic; and libertarians the least empathic of all. No wonder libertarians seem odd or positively callous from the point of view of mainstream American politics.

Compared to others, libertarians are more educated and less religious – even so than liberals. Libertarians have “a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style,” concluded Haidt and co-authors in another study; they are the “most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional,” allowing them more than any others to “have the capacity to reason their way to their ideology.”

Where libertarians really do place their moral worth is on “liberty” (a sixth foundation that Haidt and his colleagues added in later studies).  Shocking, I know. Libertarians are, in terms of moral philosophy, the most unidimensional and uncomplicated creatures you can imagine – a well-taught parrot might pass a libertarian Turing test if you teach it enough phrases like “property rights” or “don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.”

The low-empathy result accounts for another striking observation to anyone who’s ever attended an even vaguely libertarian event: there are very few women around. As libertarians also tend to be ruthlessly logical and untroubled by differential outcomes along lines of gender or ethnicity – specifically in small, self-selected samples like conferences – they are usually not very bothered by the composition of their group (other than to lament the potential mating opportunities). The head rules, not the heart – or in this case, not even the phallus.

One of the most well-established (and under-appreciated) facts in the scientific community is the male-female divide along Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing scale. The observation here is that males more often have an innate desire to understand entire systems rather than individual components – or the actions or fates of those components: “the variables in a system and how those variables govern the behaviour of that system,” as Haidt put it in a lecture at Cato. Examples include subway maps, strategy games, spreadsheets, or chess (for instance, there has never been a female world champion). Women, stereotypically, are much more inclined to discover, understand, mirror and even validate others’ feelings. Men are more interested in things while women are more concerned with people, I argued in my 2018 Notes post ‘The Factual Basis of Political Opinion’, paraphrasing Jordan Peterson.

The same reason that make men disproportionately interested in engineering – much more so than women – also make men more inclined towards libertarianism. A systemizing brain is more predisposed to libertarian ideology than is the empathizing brain – not to mention the ungoverned structure of free markets, and the bottom-up decentralized solutions offered to widespread societal ills.

Thus, we really shouldn’t be surprised about the lack of women in the libertarian ranks: libertarians are the least empathic bunch, which means that women, being more inclined towards empathy, are probably more appalled by an ideology that so ruthlessly favours predominantly male traits.

As I’ve learned from reading Bloom’s book, empathy – while occasionally laudable and desirable among friends and loved ones – usually drives us towards very poor decisions. It blinds us and biases us to preferring those we already like over those far away or those we cannot see. The “spotlight effect” that empathy provides makes us hone in on the individual event, overlooking the bigger picture or long-term effects. Bloom’s general argument lays out the case for why empathy involves in-group bias and clouds our moral judgements. It makes our actions “innumerate and myopic” and “insensitive to statistical data.” Empathy, writes Bloom:

does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

In experiments, truly empathizing with individuals make us, for instance, more likely to move a patient higher on a donation list – even when knowing that some other (objectively-speaking) more-deserving recipient is thereby being moved down. Empathy implores us to save a visible harm, but ignore an even larger (and later) but statistically-disbursed harm.

Perhaps libertarians are the “the least empathic people on earth.” But after reading Bloom’s Against Empathy, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Perhaps – shocker! – what the world needs is a little bit more libertarian values.

Be Our Guest: “Sailing a Catholic Ship on Modern Seas”

Jack Curtis is back with another excellent guest post, this time on Catholicism and it’s place within the modern world. An excerpt:

The Church is losing ground among the powerful while it is gaining among lesser folk; how will the Church’s captain plot its course among such shoals?

Its Cardinals are obviously concerned; they have violated a heretofore unbroken rule by electing the Church’s first Jesuit pope. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is also the first Pope from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere and the first from outside Europe since the 8th century.

And, a little further down:

To date, he seems to have succeeded in scandalizing the conservatives and progressives equally without actually altering his Church very much, which must be doubly frustrating for an intended savior.

Read the rest.

Wanna get something off your chest? Be our guest and do it.