Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Doing The Right Thing - Part 1

As conversations about The Value Crisis proliferate and mature, there is still a desire to find ways of applying the book's principles in some useful manner.  In this post, I present two common and easily recognized ethical dilemmas.  Then I share a argument for how not to resolve them, along with some hints as to how you could, by recognizing the difference between number-based and human values.

Both topics arose in everyday conversations in the last month.

Conversation #1:  A colleague was telling me about his friend who is a fanatical watcher of Freecycle lists.  These are community initiatives where people who no longer want a household item can post it on a list so that anyone who needs that item can come by and pick it up for free.  Part of the intent is obviously to keep potentially useful things out of the landfill.  However, this friend has turned the service into a business for himself, racing to the donor before anyone else, picking up the free items, and then turning around and selling them.  Is this ethical?  The owner was giving the stuff away for free anyway, and anyone else could do the same, so what's the harm?

Conversation #2:  Canada is in the midst of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees to become fully-fledged Canadians.  At the same time, the Canadian government wants to cut back on their military presence in Syria, potentially reducing their role in taking out the regimes that are responsible for there being refugees in the first place.  The cost of transporting, housing, and feeding all these refugees is enormous.  Is it really ethical to fast-track this particular class of immigrant and spend so much on them when there are already plenty of citizens in just as a great a need for housing and food?

A common way to think about such dilemmas is to consider who benefits and who is harmed by such actions.  The basic principle is that an ethical choice would be the action that provides the greatest good for the greatest number.  This philosophy, known as utilitarianism, seems quite reasonable, and most would accept the concept in theory.  One attraction is that it has the potential to provide a clear-cut, rational decision based on a rational and objective calculation.

Let's consider the dilemmas I presented in light of utilitarianism.  In the first example, the person giving away the object has presumably decided that they can't be bothered to sell it - their benefit is simply getting rid of it, while knowing that it's going to a good home, not the landfill.  It is likely that more than one person may desire the free object, but only one person can own the item.  If the recipient gets it for free, then a second person derives benefit.  However, if my colleague's friend gets there first and goes to the bother of selling the object, then he gets some cash (second benefit) and a third person gets a good deal on a used object.  In terms of assessing harm, no-one loses anything that they already had, so it's win-win-win, right?

In the second example, it is true that taking thousands of people from their homeland and livelihoods, flying them to a foreign country, providing them with all of the basic necessities at no cost to them (but significant cost to the host citizens), teaching them a new language, and then trying to find them affordable housing and employment - all makes no economic sense.  Nor is it fair to many of the host country's own people who are already struggling with the same challenges, or to immigrants from other countries who have to wait years to be accepted.  Many people are harmed compared to benefit for a relative few.

My difficulty with utilitarianism is that it is essentially a number-based value system.  It attempts to maximize a supposedly quantifiable measure of happiness (or more accurately, "utility").  Even assuming that most people can find a common consensus of what constitutes good, and that they can predict outcomes with sufficient accuracy, there are problems with the philosophy.  Critics of utilitarianism say that under such a value set, it is easy to start arguing that the ends justify the means.  In other words, we stop considering the ethics of the means because a utility-maximizing value system is teleological - meaning its morality is determined by the end result.  When put in this light, it is quite easy to come up with examples of where the ends do not justify the means.  Many thousands of consumers might derive significant benefit from the work of a relatively small number of children enslaved in a foreign factory making cheap goods, but that's not the kind of calculation we should be performing to determine ethical practices.

A common alternative to a results-based ethical system is a rule-based one, such as can be found in most religions.  We measure our actions (the "means") against a predetermined set of rules.  Of course, such systems have there own distinct pitfalls.  Rules are inflexible, they don't respond well to exceptions, and they can easily do more harm than good.  Democracy - a numbers-based value system studied extensively in Chapter 9 of The Value Crisis - defends ethics by its means:  A decision is justified if the majority vote that way.  Note the inevitability of the minorities suffering under both utilitarianism and democracy.

Still, in the end, most people rely on some combination of the above to guide their actions (or to justify choices that might be questionable!).  At other times, we struggle to know what is the right thing to do.  So here are some observations, based on our original ethical dilemmas.

When I was told about the Freecycle 'entrepreneur' who grabs free stuff and sells it, I was immediately repulsed by this.  Clearly it was contrary to my own value system, so I wondered what it was that I had instinctively found abhorrent.  It is by no means obvious.  For example, had the reseller paid the original owner even a tiny sum instead of taking it for nothing, I wouldn't have the same reaction - and that's the critical clue.  It is not the profit that irked me.  Rather, I believe it to be the transformation of the gesture from one value system to another that rubbed me the wrong way.

When someone takes an item of potential monetary value and gives it away, they are expressing a different kind of value.  It's not quantifiable.  As noted above, they are freeing themselves of an item they no longer need; they can relax knowing they're not adding to the community's trash pile; and they can rejoice in the fact that it is going to someone who needs it at no cost to the recipient.  That conveys considerable benefit in human values: simplification, environmental responsibility, and generosity.  By participating in the established Freecycle system, they put the item out there with an understanding and trust that it will go to a fellow citizen for free.

'Entrepreneurs' who crassly take advantage of this system, abuse the understanding and trust, and profit monetarily from the expression of those human values are twisting and diminishing them.  It doesn't matter whether the donor is aware of this or not (and almost certainly they are not aware that this is happening).  In my books, it is simply wrong.  Integrity means doing the right thing, even when no-one is looking.

So how would anyone know that this is the wrong thing, if the feeling in their gut is either absent or ignored?  The key, and the point of this post, is to note the value system transformation.  The initial act was an expression of human values.  Turning it into a number-based transaction disrespectfully negates those human values, and once you've done that, you can't go back. The 'creation' of monetary value from nothing was not, in fact, from nothing at all - it came at a cost to human values.  (Chapter 8 of The Value Crisis talks more about what happens when we attempt to use value systems interchangeably - with some dramatic examples of the harm that can be done.)

Monetary values, in my opinion, do not have the right to trump unquantifiable values.  That kind of thinking leads to huge global challenges, of the sort we are only now beginning to acknowledge.  And fixing those huge issues starts with each and every one of us being able to recognize the right thing to do.

Perhaps that's enough to chew on for now.  I'll talk about the refugee conundrum in "Doing The Right Thing - Part 2".

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Is José Bautista greedy?

Of all the questions raised at our most recent Value Crisis Exploration, this one seemed to sum up a good portion of the evening.  I'm sure there is a detailed background that we could go into on this sports story, but I'll stick to the essentials.

José Bautista is a professional baseball player - a right fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays.  His contract is currently up for renewal, and the word is that he is not interesting in negotiating a salary - he simply named one, take it or leave it.  Those in the know are guessing that it is something on the order of $150 million over 5 years.  So the question was posed at our meeting:  Is José Bautista greedy?

I don't think I had a really good answer at our gathering.  Now, with the benefit of some reflection time, I'd like to try and make up for my shortcomings of the moment.  What I should have done was go back to the way the meeting opened in the first place - with a question on the definition of greed.

Defining the term is in fact something that has already been addressed on this blog in an earlier post, and this is what I put there:
  • excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves
  • excessive consumption of or desire for food; gluttony
  • excessive desire, as for wealth or power
  • excessive or rapacious desire, esp. for wealth or possessions; avarice; covetousness
I'm going to go with the first of these, since it is most relevant to the context of our discussion for the evening.

To further fill in the context of the contract negotiations, it might be relevant to some to know that the Toronto Blue Jays team is worth at least $1.4 billion; Rogers Communications, the massive corporation that owns the team, is worth about $25 billion dollars; and credible connections can be argued for a correlation between the team's prospects and Rogers' share price.

The word "greed" has a lot of negative connotations, and that's the first thing that got us into trouble.  The discussion seemed to be heading rapidly towards "Does José Bautista deserve $30 million per year?"  I'm going to avoid that question because I couldn't possibly answer it without (a) a lot more information, and (b) going into a debate deeply mired in number-based value systems.  In other words, anybody with a working brain and 30 minutes of preparation could weave an entirely convincing argument for either side.  That's what it means to argue using numbers.

Another trap that we get into if we start asking what people deserve is that it is suddenly relative to everything else.  You will note that I mentioned how much money Rogers and the whole team was worth.  I could also have mentioned that Bautista is asking for seven times more than the average Major League Baseball player.  We could talk about how he is one of the top offensive players in the league right now, or we could consider that, as a defensive player, he is ranked a pathetic 197 out of 200 players.  See what I mean?

I'd rather bring it back to those essential elements of our chosen chapter for the night: "Motivation" and "Need".  Is Bautista motivated by wealth?  Again - define the terms.  Do you mean "Does he want more money?"  Obviously yes.  Or do you mean "Will he play better with a higher salary?"  That's not clear at all.  Most research on this subject would suggest the answer is no.  For now, the motivation question boils down to the way Bautista himself framed it:  "You either get me or you don't."

What if we ask the question "Does José Bautista need $30 million per year?  On this point, I can confidently state:  No, he does not need $30 million.  He wants $30 million.  Need - want - not the same thing.  Our reference point for this discussion happened to be Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  Everyone seemed to agree that even in our consumer society, basic human needs (food, shelter, healthcare, security) could (on average) be met in North America with a salary of about $75,000 - according to the studies.  For the vast majority of us, everything beyond that is negotiable.  We have other 'needs' that are, in reality, a direct consequence of other wants, or are the result of a societal level 'want' - a standard of living that we have grown accustomed to through affluence and hedonic adaptation.

So is this post suggesting that we should all live like monks in a barren world of bare necessity?  Not at all.  Indeed, even within the stark context of Maslow's pyramid, an individual's impulse for self-actualization will include the needs for respect, achievement, creative expression, morality,  etc.  We don't simply want art, music, recreational pursuits, fine foods, and all those other nice 'extras' - we need them.

However, we have to remember the basic premise of Maslow's theory.  We focus on the lowest level of current needs until they are met, and then we move on to the next level of needs.  Each level has an implicit concept of sufficiency.  Once you can determine sufficiency, you can also determine excess - going beyond what is sufficient.  Which also happens to be a key element of most definitions of greed.

The life of a professional baseball player likely has all kinds of hugely expensive expectations that we mere ballpark patrons could only begin to guess at.  The job has a working-life expectancy that ends when most other careers are really taking off, and physical injuries can cut that even shorter in an instant.  There are all kinds of supply and demand marketplace reasons why players receive phenomenal salaries to play a game.  Furthermore, it cannot be denied that we have created a culture where respect and worth are intimately enmeshed within the single numbers that are our annual paycheque and net worth.

So is José Bautista greedy?  What do you think?

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Mystery of the Uncomfortable Barter

One of the truly wonderful things about The Value Crisis discussion groups and speaking engagements is that my perspective gets challenged by intelligent people struggling to apply the concepts to everyday life.  One such magical moment arose this week, when a participant in our chapter-by-chapter exploration of the book gave us a perplexing anecdote to puzzle out.  Let me first set up the context...

We were discussing Chapter 3 (Money - The Number Culture), which includes a brief history of money, from the days of barter through to today's banking databases.  One of the propositions of that chapter is that the barter of goods or services between two willing participants is always a win-win transaction.  Both sides are getting something they want, and either employing a skill that they already have or giving something that they want less - hence the net value of both sides goes up.  Such an exchange feels quite different when you instead look at two separate transactions that use money to quantify the value.

Barter actually capitalizes on the concept of marginal value.  This economics term is used to convey the idea that the 'value' of a particular thing (to us) depends on the quantity of that thing that we already have.  If I have hundreds of arrowheads, their marginal value to me is low, but if I have no baskets, the marginal value to me of a needed basket would be quite high.  I would be very willing to trade a few arrowheads for a basket.  Barter works when I find someone with many baskets (each therefore having a low marginal value for them), who needs an arrowhead or two.

So back to our story.  The reader who shared the anecdote is an organic hobby farmer of sorts.  She keeps a variety of livestock and is an enthusiastic promoter of permaculture practices.  As she relates it, she had an experience where the long hours of back-breaking farm work had taken its toll and she wanted to get a massage.  She had met a masseuse who was open to providing such a service in barter for some of the meat that the farmer raised on her land.  Learning that the typical price for the service was $80, she gathered up $80 worth of organic beef and went in for the relaxing treatment.

Alas, afterwards, she was disappointed by how she felt about the transaction.  Perhaps while in the midst of having the knots removed from her back, she was thinking about all the hours of work that had put them there: looking after her stock day after day, mucking out stalls, and hauling buckets of food for the grain-fed beef.  And, in exchange for a significant portion of the end gains, she was getting perhaps less than an hour on a massage table.  It didn't feel right.

This struck a chord with me.  In a later chapter (Ch. 5 - The Value of Time), I talk about how difficult it was for me, as a newly self-employed person, to set a billable value for my time.  I might do a day's work with community not-for-profits for $100, and then do the same work for a large corporation and bill more than ten times that amount.  So what was the true value of my time?  What should I bill clients who fell in between those extremes?  Was it right that the client's budget always determine my fee?  How could I determine if a particular project remuneration was "worth my time"?

My ultimate solution was how I felt about my contribution and corresponding compensation.  If I felt I was being taken advantage of (or was taking advantage of someone else) I felt bad.  Otherwise, I would consider the project a fair transaction.  The numbers played no direct role.  Now here was this woman voicing a familiar reaction:  the massage-for-beef transaction didn't feel right.  But this was barter!  So what went wrong?

Most people initially see the disconnect in terms of the time differences.  Farmers work long hard hours to grow, maintain, harvest, and prepare their produce for consumption.  And here was my friend, trading a chunk of that for a service that was provided in a tiny fraction of that time.  I agree that this would certainly be an influence.  However, quantifying time and worth is full of all kinds of pitfalls.  There are so many added variables.  A dentist charges not just for the half-hour of teeth work, but also the training, capital costs of the office, etc.  Part of a masseuse's fee has to take into account that they don't usually work full 8-hour days.  Nor can they leverage economies-of-scale to massage more than one client at a time, the way a farmer might be able to double their herd with minimal additional effort and overhead.

No, upon reflection, I think something much more interesting happened to this transaction.  The clue is the $80 value.  The reader had looked up the posted value of the massage and then tried to put together a package of food that had the same monetary value.  To me, that is not really barter.  That is simply a transaction, using prices on both sides, that happens to use meat as a currency.  Marginal value was no longer a key component of the feelings of value and worth.  Instead, both players reverted to the quantified market value, which completely alters the quality of the relationship.  As soon as the numbers come in, the barter doesn't even have to take place for the farmer to feel disappointed.  She could simply contemplate how she had just paid $80 for a massage and then later think about how much work had gone into a totally separate sale of $80 worth of beef.

That's the thing about numbers and number-based values.  They allow us to do things like instantly compare our salary to that of our spouse or a co-worker or a professional baseball player.  Or compare a season of livestock management to a spa treatment.  Such pursuits often to lead to bad feelings, no?

Friday, January 29, 2016

When are numbers bad?

Two years ago, I wrote a post about SMART goals, wondering whether society had developed a predilection to dismiss any goals or efforts that are not measurable.  I defended such immeasurable goals as being perfectly valid.  Then last week, a participant in our chapter-by-chapter exploration of The Value Crisis, asked if we should actually avoid SMART goals because they were number-based.  This is a common musing among readers: Is the book saying that numbers are bad?

The question highlights a distinction that cannot be over-emphasized:

Numbers are great.  It is our reliance on Number-Based Values that I question.

To answer the query that was raised at the meeting, there is nothing wrong with SMART goals.  If you can define a goal numerically, then it makes total sense to measure (and celebrate) your progress towards that goal.  If you choose to save $5,000 for a two-month vacation next year, I don't find any fault with that particular example of value-based decision-making.  Such a goal is not a demonstration of number-based values.  Why not?  Because we have not defined a situation in which more is always worth more.

On the contrary, the ultimate goal is quite specific: taking a two-month vacation.  The money is simply a means to an end.  Furthermore, the very nature of a properly formulated SMART goal is that it should incorporate a specific target, which can (and should) be interpreted as a definition of sufficiency.

Contrast this with a SMART goal that sets an objective of saving $10,000 more every year.  Now we are beginning to cross over the line.  A goal phrased in this way has milestones but no specific endpoint.  The money is no longer the means to an end - it has become the end in itself.  And we have made the tacit assumption that more money is always worth more.  That's true in a monetary (number-based) value system, but is it true when it comes to our quality of life?  Well, that's the $64,000 question, isn't it?

This is not an easy distinction to make.  As the discussion progressed, another participant asked if it was therefore more acceptable to set a specific dollar goal for money to be saved for your retirement (say $1,000,000) as opposed to setting a goal of a specific level of annual growth for your retirement investments (like 4%, for example).  Yes, there are probably subtle differences between the two goals, but I prefer to look at the bigger picture.  Is your overall goal really to have a certain amount of money when you retire, or should you be trying to define a certain quality of life that you hope to be enjoying when that day comes?

Better yet, perhaps you should be looking at the overall concepts of work and retirement.  That inquiry might involve examining your quality of life before your 65th birthday.  How many of us devote decades of our lives struggling at jobs that we consider onerous, with the major aim of better enjoying life when (and if) we reach a retirement age?  How many youth make life-altering career decisions solely on the basis of how much money they might make for the next four or five decades?

In The Value Crisis, I tell the story of how I observed folks in the previous generation 'retiring' but still working, and I asked them to define what retirement really meant for them.  It meant that they didn't have to work the same hours, but could choose to.  They stopped doing work that didn't interest them, and created understandings where they could take time off to enjoy a new project if an opportunity came up.  They avoided long-term work commitments and gave greater respect to their lives away from work  Why would anyone wait until they were in their 60's to take that approach to life?

So, working from that definition, I declared myself 'retired' before I was 40.  It doesn't mean I don't have to earn money any more - of course I do.  But it gave me a whole new outlook on how much I need (or don't), and what I am willing to do to get it.  My standard of living has gone down since then, but my quality of life has gone up.  A smart goal?  Well, for the most part, it's worked for me.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Moral Case for Alex Epstein

A Review of The Moral Case for FossilFuels, Alex Epstein (2014, 256 pages), as published in Alternatives Journal, December, 2015, by Andrew Welch.

Alex Epstein wants to shake up the way that we think about fossil fuels and challenge what behaviours we consider moral and immoral.  In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, he proposes reframing the conflict of environmentalists versus the hydrocarbon industry.  It’s not a question of fossil fuel usage being good or bad – it’s a question of what standard of value we are using to judge it.  I agree.

The author is a self-labeled humanist – a term he uses to describe someone who “treats the rest of nature as something to use for his benefit; the nonhumanist treats the rest of nature as something that must be served.”  What may at first appear to be conceit actually makes sense if we look deep enough inside the value system of most humans.  He argues that we should all hold human life as our one and only standard of value.

I believe this is a must-read book for environmentalists and climate change activists, but it won’t be an easy read.  Firstly, it’s hard to read anything that contradicts your strongly-held beliefs; however, questioning those beliefs is essential to gaining a truly balanced perspective.  Secondly, Epstein clearly targets an audience on the totally opposite end of the spectrum, opening with ‘proving’ that all the so-called ‘experts’ preaching the supposed detrimental impacts of rampant fossil fuel consumption are dead wrong and always have been.  (The ironic single-quotes and sneering italics are his frequent literary devices, not mine.)  Thirdly, although he conveniently lists the most common logical fallacies that surface in this debate, he happily (and frustratingly) employs each one in his own arguments.

Epstein is a practical philosopher and that’s where he shines.  He’s not a scientist, and when he attempts to take on science, his misuse and misrepresentation of statistics and data is unmistakable and shoddy.  Like every other non-scientist (and, sadly, some scientists) he chooses policy-based evidence over evidence-based policy.  To be fair, it’s a habit all humans have: being blind to evidence that contradicts our beliefs.  Furthermore, he does also present facts that many activists choose not to see.  However, he’s also happy to make up his own, such as “if there is no equal or superior alternative, then any government action against fossil fuels … is a guaranteed early death sentence for billions.”

The book is highly critical of mainstream thought leaders because they’re always preaching the costs of fossil fuels and never the benefits.  This is quite true, and while the reason might be not so much a bias as a tacit acceptance that such benefits go without saying, if we don’t consciously consider them, it may well skew our perspective.  Fossil fuels have made near-miraculous contributions to our standard of living in the last two centuries, and anyone who says we should stop using them needs to have their arguments seriously questioned.  Fair enough.

Accepting that there are errors and bias on both sides, I’d rather review the essence of his argument – that being, in his words:  “Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous – because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.”  And consequently, we should burn more, not less.

The problem is the standard he has chosen to judge our morality as a species.  He may be a humanist, but his goodness indicators are entirely quantitative measures:  More people, living more years, earning more money, to buy more stuff – all good.  For example, the only scale he uses (repeatedly) to measure safety is number of deaths (including life expectancy and infant mortality) – never health.  Happiness?  Quality of life versus standard of living?  Those he avoids entirely.  By his singular measure of success, a planet with 120 billion extravagant consumers, living 150 years each should be a stunningly better place for all (all humans, that is).  It’s a deeply-flawed more-is-always-better approach for an author who claims to be writing about morality.

In The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein reframes the fossil fuel debate correctly (as a value question), but, with Ayn Rand as his muse, he employs a highly questionable perspective for his big picture: ethical egoism.  Still, I think this book should be on every environmentalist’s bookshelf, if for no other reason than Stephen Covey’s "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Exploring The Value Crisis Chapter-by-Chapter

This post is a bit of a departure from the blog theme.  Consider it an introduction to the next series of postings (I hope).

I was very excited to see that The ValueCrisis is quite popular with book clubs – even clubs that normally only do fiction.  It seems that readers want to talk about this book with their peers.  That was definitely one of my hoped-for outcomes when writing it.

However, it turns out that some readers wanted to go even further.  A few months ago, two different book clubs (who had already done The Value Crisis as part of their regular gatherings) approached me in the very same week and asked if it might be possible to create a special club that explored the book as one chapter per meeting.

I was ecstatic!  Not only did this indicate an obvious interest in the subject matter, but I had sat in on a few gathering nights when clubs were discussing my book, and they often talked about the same things.  I wanted to know what they thought about other chapters, but I was also determined to shut up, listen carefully, and take notes on whatever they chose to talk about.  Here, at last, might be an opportunity to explore every nook and cranny.

The Caledon Public Library was quite receptive to this very novel idea (no pun intended), and announced The ValueCrisis discussion series as a new program, exploring a different chapter every two weeks.

Our first meeting was on January 12, 2016.  The weather was a bit dicey and I got calls from four people who had intended to come but were not going to be able to attend the first gathering.  Consequently, I was expecting a small crowd, but the big table ended up with 20 people sitting around it.  We never set a maximum for the series, but if we had, that would probably have been it.  We had a great introductory discussion, and some excellent refreshments!  I hope to have the same at every meeting.

So, the next few blog postings will be inspired by these chapter-by-chapter meetings.  Who knows, I may also get enough detailed feedback that I might attempt a second edition of the book, with clarifications, a stronger message, and updated anecdotes.

Please feel free to join us for any meeting, or contact me about starting a group in your area.