On Giving Up

I’ve noticed something about aging over the years.  An interesting thing about my profession (especially in my case, since I’ve been at the same department for 19 years) is that you’re linked to people for a long time, including people in your age cohort and people who are different ages as well.  So you get a long string of observations of a variety of people.  Mostly, you see their professional side, but you also gain some insight into their personal lives.  It’s something that I think everyone learns, but it’s often implicit, or at least unsaid:  after awhile, people give up.

Usually, when I meet someone my age (around 50), I can’t believe how fucking horrible they look.  Fat, haggard, dull.  Let’s face it, the typical 50 year old person looks like shit.  What do they do with their lives?  Work takes up some time, but apart from that, they eat crap, watch crap on tv, socialize with their peers (which is another form of eating crap).  Thinking, to the extent it’s done, is in the form of rationalization.  Here’s an article about a guy who ate red meat and smoked until he died at age 90, so I can abuse my body in good conscience.  A friend of mine says immigrants tend to be criminals, so I’m justified in resenting all these foreigners taking jobs from white people.  The Republican party says global warming is a hoax, so I can feel good about driving my gigantic pickup truck…  Better to watch some sports on the boob tube or have another Coors and not worry about things too much.

No need to get off my ass, because all my friends and neighbors look like crap too.  It’s sort of a form of collusion, I think.  We all eat dessert and have a few extra drinks to catch a buzz in the evening.  Sure, it’s getting harder to get up off the couch, as my belly’s getting big and my muscles soft, but everyone else is in the same boat.  Sure, the wife is kind of gross, but so am I, so we’ll just turn off the light and think about other people when we have sex.

Here’s the thing:  it’s inevitable.  Unless you die in an accident, you will give up.  Everyone does at some point.  And here’s the other thing:  it’s rational!   Taking care of yourself (what you eat, exercise, using your brain) is a form of investment, and an investment is only worth the cost if the payoff is big enough.  As you get older, you’re closer to death, so there’s an upper bound on the size of that payoff.  If you absolutely know you’re going to die tomorrow, it doesn’t make sense to forego dessert today.  As a good friend would put it, you might as well jerk off until your dick falls off.

And not only does our time horizon shrink as we get older (so the stream of payoffs from current investment is getting shorter), the investment itself becomes more costly.  Exercising is tougher when you’re older.  You’re more likely to get injured, and recovery times get longer, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the effort to get off the couch.

What it boils down to, really, is mortality.  When we (or most of us, at least) are young, we don’t think about it.  As you age, you realize what’s happening:  life is, basically, like sinking in quicksand.  It’s slow at first and takes you by surprise, but there’s a point at which you realize that there’s nothing you can do.  You’re going under.  Once you realize you’re sinking in quicksand, you’re not going to start knitting a sweater.  About the best thing you can do is try not to thrash around, prolong the experience, and make it as pleasant as possible.  That’s what giving up is.

I respect people who try not to give up, and I’ve been one of them.  But those people are starting to remind me of the Black Knight battling the Knights of Ni:


A last comment:  the above ramblings stem not just from my observations of other people, but introspection.  I can sense that the costs of investment are increasing.  I know how my father looked when he died, and that’s ahead of me in roughly thirty years, which is not that long.  Should I spend my free time learning new mathematical techniques to open up new possibilities for my research, or should I listen to music, have a drink, and add an article to my blog?


Backasswards Parking

This question is addressed to all those drivers (you know who you are) who back into their parking spots:  What the fuck are you thinking?  In my mind, this is one of the most inexplicable, ridiculous, even juvenile driving disorders I’ve observed.  My remarks rest on two points.  First, the behavior is socially inefficient, in the sense that it imposes costs on other drivers that are not justifiable by the benefits derived from the backassward parker.  Second — and what is even more remarkable —  it’s not even in the interest (measured by what I think are reasonable metrics) of the parker to engage in this behavior.

On the first point, let’s first note that backing into a narrow parking spot is not easy to do well, and that’s why most people who attempt this feat fail.  Put simply, most of you guys aren’t great at parking backasswards, and you end up off to one side of the space, or even over the line.  How annoying!  Assuming the parking lot is full, this means that someone is forced to park in an extremely narrow space, or they’re already parked there and they need to crawl into their car through the window.  Or, in those wonderful cases when the backassward parker crosses the line, you can forget about the adjacent space altogether.  Thanks a lot, backassward parkers.

But that’s not all.  Because it’s difficult to back into a narrow parking space, the whole operation takes longer than the usual method.  Let’s compare.  If one parks “doggie style,” then pulling out of the space is quick; pulling into the space takes a long time.  If one parks “missionary style,” then pulling into the space is quick; pulling out of the space takes a bit more time.  Note that the slow direction with backassward parking (pulling in) takes longer than the slow direction with forward parking (pulling out), precisely because the backassward parker must make some effort to position his car between two lines.   This means that backassward parking requires a greater total time to enter and exit the space, and thus it imposes greater waiting time on others.

But there’s even more, having to do with sequencing.  The backassward parker makes people wait when they initially back in.  This means that people are stopped in the parking lot, waiting for some guy to take the best available space, and then they’ll have to continue searching after the guy finishes pulling in.  This is even more enjoyable when you’re stopped behind someone backing in, and you can see cars ahead of you filling up the remaining decent parking spaces.  Compare this to forward parking:  you make people wait when you’re leaving, freeing up the best available space in the lot.  If I’m searching for a spot and see someone ahead of me backing out of a space, I’m happy about it, because then I inherit their space.  At least there’s a reward to waiting for the forward parker to leave.

And what’s more is that the very nature of backassward parking creates confusion and potential for conflict.  Suppose I’m driving through the lot behind a backassward parker, but I don’t know they’re backasswards.  For all I know, they’re exiting the lot, and they drive by an open space.  I think, “Great, I’ll start pulling into the space.”  But then the guy in front of me, having driven by the space, stops and begins to back up while I’m closing in to take the space.  This forces me to stop short and then back up, and it gets even more confusing if there’s someone following me who now also has to back up.

On the second point, I don’t have to say as much, because most of it’s already been said.  Backassward parking leads to poor positioning within the space and thus greater risk of dings.  The total time to park is greater with backassward parking.  You’re more likely to make other people grumpy with backassward parking, because they have to wait while you take the best space.  You’re more likely to create confusion, because you have to pull past the space you want, and really this is a poor defensive maneuver:  it allows the person behind you to swoop in and take your spot before you can put your car in reverse.  I just don’t get it.

The only rationale I can see for backassward parking is that some people have a Batman fantasy about jumping into their cars and racing off to answer the Bat signal.  Or more likely, since most people who park backasswards are pickup drivers, they have a cowboy fantasy about jumping onto their horse and racing off to chase bad guys.  I don’t know, it just seems stupid.

A Critique of Legal Marriage

I’ve been divorced twice, so it might not be a shock that I’m less than thrilled by the institution of marriage — specifically, legal marriage.  Nevertheless, I thought it would be interesting to break it down analytically.  I should begin by saying that I have nothing against two people deciding to see each other exclusively and to commit to this arrangement for perpetuity, to the extent that is possible.  My misgivings are about the layer of legality that cloaks the institution, as normally understood.  This layer involves the signing of a contract that is registered with the government of the relevant state, and it gives both parties a claim to the joint property of the couple; the contract can be dissolved, but at great cost if the decision is unilateral.  Even if the decision is mutual, there is usually one party whose income is greater and who bears a long-term financial penalty for the divorce, and this is especially the case if there are kids in the equation.  This asymmetry will play an important role in the analysis.

So marriage, essentially, is a contract in which two people agree to stay together, one that is costly to dissolve.  The cost of divorce means that if, after the initial glow subsides, two people are just indifferent to staying together, then it is optimal for them to continue the marriage.  In fact, because the cost of divorce is significant, it means that even if the relationship is not working and both parties would prefer to disolve the contract, but if the level of dissatisfaction does not outweigh the cost of divorce, then it is still optimal for the marriage to continue.  Observation 1: legal marriage, because of the costs of divorce, encourages the maintenance of relationships that are not to the mutual advantage of the parties involved.

Working backward, Observation 1 implies that the decision to enter the contract of marriage is a big one indeed, as is the proposal of marriage by one party.  Because the cost of dissolution is so high, marriage has a potentially big downside, so two people would only marry if the upside more than offset this.  In game-theoretic terms, by entering into the marriage contract, two people are sending “costly signals” to each other, and this provides concrete evidence that each person loves and intends to remain bound to the other.  There is something to this, but think about it.  Suppose person A says to person B, in effect, “I love you, and to prove it, I’m willing to get married.”  There are two states of the world.  In one, A sincerely loves B, and in the other, A’s love for B is superficial and will fade over the years.  In the first state, person A will stay with person B forever, regardless of whether a binding contract is signed, so legal marriage doesn’t make a difference.  In the second state, where A’s love is fleeting, it does make a difference:  without the bonds of marriage, A would eventually leave B, but this is much less likely (by Observation 1) if the two legally marry.  So, the only reason B would want A to offer marriage is to bind person A in the event that A’s love does not last.  Seen in this light, legal marriage is actually anti-thetical to the ideal of romantic love that some associate with it.  Observation 2: a marriage proposal is only advantageous if one person wants to bind the other in case latter party would eventually prefer to leave the marriage.

Now, let’s return to the asymmetry noted above.  Consider two people who are married, and suppose person A has a greater income than person B and bears greater cost in the event of dissolution.  This puts A in a worse bargaining position.  Given that A and B are married and have to make at least some joint decisions, either party can conceivable make a demand of the other, but neither party can be pushed to accept something worse than their outside option — which in this case is divorce.  By assumption, person A’s outside option is quite bad, whereas person B’s is relatively much better.  This means that B has the ability to push collective decisions in that party’s preferred direction, while A has only limited ability to do so.  And this means that collective decisions within the marriage will be consistently skewed toward one party’s preferences, leading to an unfair distribution of the benefits of marriage.  Observation 3:  legal marriage not only encourages the maintenance of bad relationships, and not only are its foundations without any romantic merit, but it actually establishes conditions that precipitate bad relationships!

By the way, the marital asymmetry can easily go the other way.  I’ve presented it as above because of my particular experience, but it could certainly be that person A has a large income, while person B has chosen to forego professional training to raise children or maintain the couple’s joint home.  In this case, A may face substantial monetary payments in the event of divorce, but B’s standard of living is likely to suffer more, in which case B’s outside option is worse, and A is better able to dictate  collective decisions within the marriage.

Finally, I have to admit that I just plain don’t like the government asserting (and voters conceding) the power to endorse some relationships as valid or real, while others are somehow inferior. How is this the government’s business?  Imagine that a new social status called, say, “happy camper,” was created and each adult US citizen could register as a happy camper, and imagine that a vast majority of Americans decided it was important to get the official happy camper stamp.  Should I take time out of my day to become, legally, a happy camper?  I don’t think so.  In sum, let’s say I don’t intend to go up to bat a third time.

Having said all that, the political system in the US has created practical incentives to enter into legal marriage, including tax breaks (depending on the parties’ relative incomes), citizenship, health benefits, and death benefits.  These are what economists call “distortions,” which can lead people to make decisions that are sensible given their financial environment but that are ultimately hurtful and are not necessitated by fundamental circumstances.  That’s something to think about later…

In Defense of Kamikazes

The Sept. 20, 2013 issue of the New York Times contains an op-ed piece, “Kamikaze Congress,” by Charles Blow.  The article cogently describes the frustrating irrationality of the Tea Party Republicans’ efforts to defund Obamacare, even though those efforts may result in a government shutdown or, worse, a failure to lift the US debt ceiling and a default on the public debt.  Whether these politicians are actually being irrational (instead of pursuing their own personal and political interests) is something that could be debated, but I want to take issue with the title of the article.  Blow does not really push the analogy in his article, but the title suggests that Kamikazes were on the same level that Tea Party Republicans are now.  

I object for three reasons.  First, Kamikaze pilots were not motivated by partisan interests.  Although religious motives were probably mixed with patriotism, these Japanese sailors and airmen were directed by military leaders in a time of war to try to reverse the impending victory of the Allies near the end of World War II.  It is a safe bet that the Kamikaze pilots deeply believed their actions were in the national interest, rather than the interest of members of one political party.  The effort to defund Obamacare, in contrast, is partisan.  As cited by Blow, a CNN poll shows that 43% of respondents favor the new health care law, while an additional 16% of respondents are against it because it is not liberal enough.  That is, the defunding of Obamacare would go against the perceived interests of well over half of Americans (or at least those who would respond to a CNN poll).  The Tea Party’s efforts are political, not patriotic, and in this sense they are very different than the actions of Kamikaze pilots.

Second, the Kamikaze attacks were a military tactic, a means to the desired goal of inflicting casualties on the US Navy and sinking its vessels.  In contrast, there is no way the US Senate will pass the recent funding bill containing the defunding of Obamacare.  Unless that clause is removed, the federal government will shut down, and the Tea Partiers will not achieve anything else.  If the debt ceiling is not raised, then damage to the US economy (and beyond) will result, but nothing else — the Tea Partiers will still not achieve their goals.  The analogy would be better if the Kamikaze pilots deliberately smashed their airplanes into the water next to US ships, just to show them how much the Japanese meant business.

Third, the Kamikaze pilots were giving up their own lives (and of course injuring as many US sailors as possible), but the the welfare of the Japanese people or the world at large did not suffer as a result.  In contrast, the intention of the Tea Party branch of the Republican Party seems to be to shut down the federal government, jeopardizing essential programs and the US economic recovery; and if the US defaults on its debt, then the economic consequences–not just to the US economy, but to the global economy–will be potentially devastating.  And keep in mind, if global economic growth drops 1 or 2 percentage points and unemployment ticks up a couple percentage points, these are not just numbers:  small-seeming changes in these numbers means hardship for hundreds of millions of people across the world.  To sum up, the title of Blow’s article does the Kamikaze pilots an injustice; if the Kamikazes were around today, they would use “Tea Party Republican” to refer to someone who was really crazy.


In his op-ed piece in the NYT on  Sept. 8, 2013, “The Syria Babble We Don’t Need,” Frank Bruni wrote that “The media has a wearying tendency — a corrosive tic — to put everything that happens in Washington through the same cynical political grinder, subjecting it to the same cynical checklist of who’s up, who’s down, … what it all means for control of Congress after the midterms, what it all means for control of the White House two years later.”  I agree that this can be really annoying, and that the substantive content of news reporting often suffers on account of this tendency.  On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to go too far in the other direction.  The constant awareness of and speculation about the motives of news makers, although a cynical exercise, protects the public from being manipulated by those who may not have the public interest at heart.  (I strongly suspect that the lapse of the media’s vigil contributed to the Iraq antics of the Bush 43 administration.)

With this in mind, I wonder what calculations President Obama made when he decided to ask Congress for authorization of military action in Syria.  Lack of public support is well documented, and the resistance of many Republicans (and even some Democrats) must have been anticipated.  Even if his personal interpretation of the US Constitution dictated that military action should have Congressional approval, the political costs if his request were rejected would be large:  it would convey a sense of weakness to voters, it would set an even more negative tone for the remainder of his term, and it would likely detract from Democratic outcomes in the midterm elections.  I doubt that he had anticipated Kerry’s off-hand remarks about Assad surrendering his chemical weapons and Putin’s proposal for negotiations over the international control of Syria’s stockpile.  (See “Analysis: How Kerry’s Off-hand Remark Put a Deal on Syria in Play.”)  Did President Obama really put principle over politics?

Possibly, but one other things occurs to me.  He might have anticipated that his proposal for military action would fail to gain Congressional approval.  Of course, he could try to spin this as another case of Republican obstructionism, but that kind of message wouldn’t be likely to register with voters any more than it has in the past.  Until Assad used chemical weapons again.  If thousands more civilians, including children, were killed by chemical agents again — after Congress rejected military action to prevent such killing — then it wouldn’t be difficult to shift blame for those deaths to Congress (primarily Republicans).  I think that kind of message would likely register with voters, and it could have justified unilateral action by the President and turned momentum against his opponents.  Interestingly, if this speculation is correct, then it may be that President Obama is actually unhappy with Kerry’s remarks and Putin’s suggestion for a peaceful resolution.  But that’s very cynical.

I’d Like a Grande Artificial Niceness Latte

I feel uncomfortable socializing with service staff during commercial transactions at restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops, the gym, etc. Sure, they always have a smile and ask “How are you?”, but they’re paid to be friendly. There’s a very good chance that they don’t mean it.  If they’re not nice to you, then their manager will not be nice to them. Of course, this is part of the service I’m buying, so really, I’m paying them to be nice to me. (It’s a slippery slope from that to prostitution, but I won’t go there.) This makes me feel totally awkward, and if anything I feel sorry for them, having to act as though they like me, and I tend to be pretty stiff. I actually detest customers who lap up this artificial niceness and hook the staff into meaningful conversations, trying to elicit more more more niceness (like a mouse frantically hitting a button to receive more endorphins) while other customers (that’s me) are waiting in line. And I respect service people who are rude, because at least they’re expressing authentic emotion and not bending to the edicts of their managers. Ironically, I probably seem unfriendly, and the baristas at Starbucks probably all think I’m a huge dick.