Work As Identity and the Social Safety Net

This week, I’m reading Jody Heymann’s The Widening Gap. This book makes a pretty compelling argument that if you’re a working mother in the United States and you aren’t especially well-off, you’re often forced to choose between providing adequate care for your kids and working. This is the same idea that Arlie Russell Hochschild finds in The Time Bind – she follows the workers at a firm in Middle America and sees that while flex hours are nominally an option for parents, it’s usually the moms who are expected to take them and they can’t take them without being perceived as less dedicated than other workers.

My personal philosophy of work, still nascent, is that we spend around half of our waking time in our adult lives doing work – that makes it inherently tied to our identity, no matter how we might like to say that it’s “just a job.” Then, the best world I can imagine is one in which everyone is perfectly fit to their work. In such a world, work is a meaning-making activity. It pays, but it also gives purpose to each person’s life.

I think in the current world, some people get work that gives their life a purpose. Some people get their purpose from elsewhere – maybe religion or service to their community or to their family. But I think the vast majority of people probably don’t see their lives as having much of a purpose at all. It took some noodling around the Gallup page on Well-Being, but I found this statistic: as of 2014, 44% of non-entrepreneurs surveyed did not feel a “strong sense of purpose.” For the entrepreneurs, that jumps to 51%.

So, here’s the issue I’m bumping up against: I believe that our work has the potential to give purpose to our lives. But so long as there isn’t an appropriate social safety net to provide care for our kids, our siblings, our spouse, our parents, or our grandparents, somebody in the family has to do that job. In practice, the lack of a social safety net keeps women at home and prevents them from realizing their purpose.

(Note: I’m not trying to denigrate people who choose to stay at home here – I think if you choose it, you’re probably deriving meaning from it. All I’m saying is that there is some non-zero proportion of women who are forced to stay at home when they might find another profession more meaningful.)

There are a few policy changes we could make, a few adjustments that might ease this:

  1. Year-round schooling with hours that make it possible to drop your kid off before work and pick them up directly after work.
  2. Shorter workdays – do we really need to be working for eight hours? Could we make a six-hour workday work? (I guess another question is: how many hours must we work per day to have purposeful work?)
  3. Laws that make you less likely to lose your job if you need time off to care for someone else – I think this should include anyone you’re caring for, even friends and weird cousins. After all, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 says that it’s fine if this leave is unpaid, as long as it’s job-protected. Given that you aren’t being paid, you’re just sure that you’ll have something to return to, I don’t think it should matter who it is you’re leaving work to care for.
  4. Expansion of benefits we already have – The FMLA is pretty nitpicky about who is eligible. You need to be at a firm that employs more than 50 people, you must be employed there for a year before applying for leave, and you have to have worked more than 25 hour per week in that year. More than expanding the FMLA though, there should be more flexibility for small, sudden illnesses – kid comes down with the flu or husband gets a stomach bug.

I have a dumb idea to solve the “but who’s going to do the job?” problem for firms: substitute workers. People who know that they’re going to be temporary and just filling in a slot. I think I’d be happy to serve as a waitress for an afternoon if I knew that I wasn’t going to have to go back the next day. I think if you wanted to pull this off, as a firm, you’d need to have a pool of semi-trained substitutes, or you’d need to assign that substitute to a task that makes trained employees’ life easier so that they can take over the tricky tasks. In waitressing, I’m thinking of fulfilling beverage orders, doing side work, and cleaning. You would need to be able to communicate via email and phone – when I’ve held service jobs in the past, they’ve only communicated via phone, and I usually don’t see that there’s been a call until it’s too late.

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The Prisoners’ Dilemma and Bus Stops

I started riding the bus in Boston in my second year at Harvard – in the first year, I was too afraid of making a fool of myself to do it. I knew that I’d have to pay for it somehow, and I imagined myself holding up an entire bus of commuters as I tried desperately to shove soggy dollar bills into a slot.1 My change of heart about the bus came after I spent three months in India in the summer of 2015. Hailing autos and trying to explain where I needed to go without speaking any Hindi made the MBTA incredibly tame by comparison.

In any case: I started riding the bus in my second year, but my route is a popular one between 7:30 and 9:00 am. During the winter, when there’s too much snow to ride a bike without some Masshole yelling at you (a story for another post), the bus looks pretty appealing.

So, sometimes you’ll be standing, waiting for it, shivering, and it’ll be so full that it passes right by you.

You have one way that you can guarantee that you get on the bus: you can walk four or five blocks down to an earlier stop. I’ve done this a few times, but every time I have I’ve felt deeply ashamed if the bus does end up skipping the stop closest to where I live.

Here’s my thinking about why it isn’t right to walk to an earlier stop:

Suppose there are just two people, and they’re getting on the back of a motorcycle, rather than a bus. Only one can sit on the motorcycle, so if they’re at the same stop, they’ll flip a coin to determine who gets to take that transportation. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that each player receives utility 1 if they make it to work on time, and 0 if not. Then, the game they face looks like this:

Bus Stops 1

As this is, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with walking to an earlier stop – if we both do it, we end up just flipping the coin the same as we would before. The only thing that’s really wrong about this is that we only benefit by taking advantage of the other player’s naivety, but they could easily join us at the earlier bus stop if they thought of it.

However, if they can’t walk that far – if they have a disability or if they’ve got kids in tow (suppose you can stick the kids on the motorcycle) or if they’ve just got a ton of bags, the set of choices looks like this:

Bus Stops 2Now I think it’s clear that you’re not justified in moving the earlier stop, since your movement makes them late with certainty. This probably happens pretty often in real life; it isn’t unrealistic to think that some proportion of people taking the bus would find it painful or impossible to travel another few blocks. Since we can’t know whether our companions at the bus stop are in this situation, maybe we should not move to the earlier stop just in case.

There’s a third issue. Consider now a game with 3 stops, where traveling an additional stop costs c. Player 1 chooses first whether to move or stay, and then player 2 chooses. Assume that 1-c>.5, so that it is worth it to move if the other player stays. Then, 1-2c>.5-c. It must also be that .5-2c>-c, since we could add .5 to both sides of that inequality and get back to our previous conclusion that 1-2c>.5-c.

dynamic bus stops

The green path indicates what happens if 0>.5-c: player 1 moves and gets on the bus, and player 2 doesn’t move and doesn’t get on the bus. However, the interesting outcome is the red path – in this equilibrium, both players move until they run out of bus stops, and then they both flip the coin to decide who gets to ride on the bus. [Look up “backward induction” and “dynamic games” if you’re not sure how I came to this conclusion.]

What’s interesting about this? Well, at the end of our dynamic game, for some values of c, both players are left worse off than they would’ve been if they could’ve just cooperated. It’s the prisoners’ dilemma.

Kant’s categorical imperative goes: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” I may be misunderstanding this, but it sounds like “choose no action which would make everyone worse off if everyone chose it.” So, stay at the first bus stop. (This site seems to agree with my interpretation, but this article doesn’t.)

Let’s suppose for a second that Kant says we should cooperate in “Prisoners’ Dilemma” style situations. Public goods provision is one such situation that crops up over and over – why should I pay for a road if I know you’ll pay for a road? If we all think this way, no road will be built without government intervention. However, if we all followed the categorical imperative, we wouldn’t need government public goods provision. I wonder whether Kant concludes that there is little need for government in an ideal world?


1. In the two years I’ve been riding the bus now, this scenario has happened at least five times to me. It is just as mortifying as I imagined it would be, but what I didn’t know is that if you struggle long enough, the driver will either seize your money and feed it to the bus themselves, or they’ll tell you to sit down. This to say: any suffering on the bus is temporary. Back

Charlottesville

I have a slurry of thoughts about Charlottesville, VA.

First Thought: I’ve seen a few tweets from Alt-Right accounts saying that the hate of the Left is just as dangerous and worthy of condemnation as the hate of the Alt-Right. A few posts from liberals quoting religious figures who say that we can’t fight hate with hate. There’s an MLK Jr. quote: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

If we’re defining “hate” as “hostile actions motivated by intense dislike or prejudice” (from Google), then I’m inclined to agree with this idea. The decisive losers of a violent conflict don’t automatically start agreeing with the winners – if they did, we would never have put Confederate statues up in the first place.

But what if we think about “hate” as just meaning “intense or passionate dislike”?

It seems to me that we cannot get anywhere without this. We need the capacity to label ideas as morally repugnant. You can’t say “Being a white nationalist means that you aren’t a good person” without this kind of hate. (I mean, maybe you’re able to make moral judgments without attaching emotion to them? That’s probably a pretty rare ability to have…)

To say “I am entitled to my beliefs – if you judge me for them, you’re being hateful” is sort of an appeal to moral relativism. Which is weird, since usually liberals are thought of as being the moral relativists, the “anything goes” gang.

Second Thought: I’ve seen quite a few tweets about publicizing the names of the White Supremacists in pictures. If you search “ruin his life” on Twitter, you’ll get a bit of a taste of this.

Eichenwald tweet
One example of a “ruin his life” tweet.

I’m of several minds. The first mind is that if you attend a Nazi rally and you’re photographed, you are an automatic liability to your workplace – they’re completely justified in firing you.

The second mind is that this explanation looks at whether the firm is justified in firing you, but it doesn’t really make a claim about whether you deserve to lose your job. Suppose you attended a Nazi rally and you wore a hood, and your supervisor somehow found out that you’d attended, but no one else knew and there was no chance that anyone would find out. You might still be a liability – your supervisor knows that you have beliefs that make equal treatment of your coworkers and customers unlikely.

What if, in talking to your supervisor, you disavowed your beliefs, promised never to attend a rally again, and generally swore to not be a dick either at work or out. Would your supervisor still be justified in firing you?

I guess the question I’m trying ask is: where does the punishment of “deserving to lose your job” come from? Does it come from a company’s profit maximizing choice, or does it exist outside of that? Do we care about the consequences of you losing your job? We probably don’t care about the consequences to you, since you attended a Nazi rally, so we’re not feeling super charitable, but do we care about the consequences to your family, your firm, etc?

Would we think it was “okay” to keep an avowed Nazi on-board at the company if that company could show that firing him would sink an entire division, leading to more job loss? Would we think a firm was justified in keeping him employed if he was the sole provider to three kids?

And if these kinds of circumstances matter, aren’t we just kind of doing a “maximize the general welfare,” utilitarian calculation? Seems like we should be able to reach a more uniform judgment than this.

Third Thought: “Ruin his life.” Okay, yes, he loses his job. But then when should he be able to get a job again? Should he never be able to get a job again?

I think this isn’t so different from “Ban the Box”. If it is right that someone convicted of second-degree murder who has served their time should be able to get a job, then it must also be right that someone convicted (in the court of public opinion) of bigotry after some time should be able to get a job. Maybe we have different standards for the convict because they actually went to jail and so we can be certain that “justice was served,” whereas the Nazi may or may not have suffered by his association?

I’ll have to think about this one more – I don’t think you can favor banning the box and favor ruining someone’s life for his involvement in a Nazi rally and still be logically consistent, but maybe I’m missing something.

Competing Obligations

I’ve just finished reading Justice by Michael Sandel.

Near the end of the book, Sandel talks about reparations. In a Rawlsian framework of justice, which allows for universal obligations and particular obligations created by consent, reparations cannot be justified. As far as I understand it (and this is the first time I’ve encountered all of the political theories that Sandel is covering, so I may very well be misunderstanding), a system is just if all participants would have chosen it, if they’d been in a contracting situation where no one knew their role in society, what talents they were endowed with, etc. People probably wouldn’t agree to reparations in this kind of society, since they’d know that there’s some chance they’d end up paying for something their parents did, and so reparations cannot be part of a just system.

Sandel’s response to this is that it points out a flaw in Rawls’ political philosophy – we do think that there’s a third category of obligation – we think there’s universal obligation, obligation because you consented or made some contract, and then there’s a type of particular obligation that’s situational. Like, I’m obligated to vote, because I’m a citizen. Or I should call my mother, because I’m her daughter – not because I need to call everyone in the world, and not because I made some kind of contract with her to call her, but simply by virtue of our relationship.

I might be obligated to pay reparations or to make apologies for the sins of my ancestors because I recognize that I’m a member of this society. I recognize that the government from which I now benefit was built on the backs of slaves, and I recognize that many of the prejudices from that time are still held, making it difficult for black Americans to receive equal treatment in society.

So, let’s talk about taking statues honoring Confederate generals down. Sometimes people make the argument that we need to keep these sorts of monuments up in order to remember history. These are clearly people who don’t understand the basic purpose of Wikipedia. Or a public library. Or a museum.

But what about the folks who are more open about keeping such monuments? These are the ones who will tell you that they are proud of legacy of their ancestors. They want to keep these monuments up to honor them. [Peek on a Facebook comment thread about monument removal if you don’t believe that this opinion exists.]

However, I will bet anyone $500 that I don’t have that the very same people who want to honor and preserve the legacy of their ancestors are the ones who would not want the United States government to issue an official apology for enslaving Africans and their descendants. And I’ll bet you another $500 that if you asked one of those people why the government doesn’t owe black Americans an apology for slavery, they would say, “I didn’t own slaves.”

Look – I haven’t fully worked out this screed yet, so I’m not 100% sure that this is entirely logically consistent, but it seems to me: You Can’t Have It Both Ways. You cannot say that you are honoring the legacy of your region and your ancestors without accepting some modicum of responsibility for their actions. What, then, are you honoring? If you completely disavow their actions, then you wouldn’t want to preserve their statues. If you do not completely disavow their actions, then you probably do owe an apology to black Americans, because you’re actively contributing to a prejudiced society.

Now, I think you might be able to get around this conundrum if you were super specific about what it was that you wanted to honor. If you said, I want to honor my great-great-grandfather’s commitment to his children, then it’d be acceptable to have a statue of him, even if he was a slave-holder. But Confederate monuments aren’t honoring some aspect of men unrelated to slavery – they are honoring this man’s willingness to die in defense of slavery. So either you support that or you don’t.

Procrastination: An Alternative Explanation

I’ve been neglecting this blog a little bit – certainly more than I originally intended, since I meant to do a 500 word entry every day for 365 days. A quick look will tell you that I have failed.

I think there are two factors that contribute to this failure:

  1. Once I missed the first entry, my thought process was, “Well, I’m not going to have 365 posts in 365 days now.” That made subsequent missed days less “expensive.” I’d already missed my goal – what was the point in trying to control the margin by which I missed it?
  2. Writing a post for public consumption is a lot more demanding than I thought it would be! I thought it’d be as easy as journaling, but it turns out that not everything I think is worth making public. Who knew?

There’s a third thing, which has happened to me several times in the past three years. The later I am with a piece of work, the higher I believe my supervisors’ expectations to be. If my work is lower quality that I believe their expectations are, then I will not turn it in – I’d prefer to keep working on it.

In terms of behavior, this looks exactly the same as procrastination. However, interestingly, this is a distinct mechanism from the one that’s been floating around in economics.

In behavioral econ, procrastination is sometimes represented as a battle between two selves, present and future – we call this battle the time-inconsistency problem. The future self wants the present self to be able to commit to working out, flossing more often, eating more wisely, or completing a reasonable amount of a large project every day. Instead, present self decides to live it up and not do any of these things, resulting in future self being saddled with bad teeth, bad health, and a full dissertation to write in one month. Yikes.

But what happens to me is distinct from this – you can imagine a world with behavior that looks time-inconsistency, but is actually driven by a beliefs about others’ expectations.

Suppose I’m working on a project. I receive utility greater than or equal to zero if I turn in a project by the due date and I believe that it meets expectations. If I turn it in and I believe that it does not meet expectations, I receive an extremely negative payoff. The diagram below shows just one case where this pairing of beliefs and preferences would lead me to never, ever turn in my paper. As you can probably see, there’s an infinite number of ways not to finish your work.

Procrastination
“I am literally never going to turn in my paper. Sorry.”

Given that my procrastination has a different mechanism, can we still fix it with commitment mechanisms? The above article gives the example of Stickk, which requires you to hand over money that you can only receive back upon completion of the task. This certainly could inspire me to turn in a “below expectations” paper, if I assessed that my utility lost from not getting my money back was greater than my utility lost by turning in something sub-par. However, it does put you in an awkward place of choosing between two negatives.

A better option for this type of procrastination would be to schedule an appointment with whoever you owe a project to before the due date is anywhere near and discuss expectations. This allows you to more correctly assess whether your work is actually falling short. Having a checklist for a minimally acceptable paper would pin the comparison down even more, removing the time-variant component.

Of course, if you can manage it, avoiding this kind of “expectations vs perceived work quality” comparison is the best option. It’s a little nutty to base your happiness on how you think someone else might feel about your work rather than how you feel about it. But this is the kind of mindset change that’s actually a nontrivial ask.

Is Specialization the Point of Life?

(Note: this post might not make a ton of sense – I am ravenously hungry and struggling to make my thoughts connect in a coherent-ish way.)

When I was deciding to take a leave of absence, one of the professors I spoke to said, in the course of our conversation, that the point of life is to specialize. My gut response, then and now, is that this isn’t true. But I haven’t really pinned down why I don’t think this is true.

I guess we need to define some things to determine whether this claim is all the time true, sometimes true, or never true. I’ll define “the point of life” as “an action without which a life is ‘worse.’” This is a lower bar than we could set – I think “the point of life” sounds strong enough that we could define it as “an action without which a life may as well have never been lived.” But if specialization doesn’t pass the threshold set by the first definition, it certainly won’t pass the second.

Then, what do we mean by “specialization,” here? In the context of the conversation, “specialization” meant content expertise. But I think we can be more general with it – you’ve specialized if you have one subject that you know more about than others. Translated: your life will be less worth living if you do not have some subject that you favor over others.

I can’t evaluate this, because there’s no practical way to know exactly the same amount about everything – you’re always “specializing” in something, if only by choosing not to know something else. That is, the only way to not specialize at all is by either knowing everything or knowing nothing.

So, I clearly screwed up on defining specialization. Specialization definitely means knowing more about one thing than others, so let’s say that there’s some threshold. For instance, if you know twice as much about cheese as you know about the next thing you know a lot about, then you are specialized in cheese. But then, we’re saying that if you increased your knowledge of the next category (the thing you know the second most about), all of a sudden you will not be specialized, and your life will be “worse.”

This definition of specialization also leads to crazy outcomes. It should not be the case that learning more makes my life “worse” than it was if I’d known just a little less. Clearly thresholds won’t work. But we’re close – we could say that you’re worse off spending that additional hour working on something that isn’t cheese than you would’ve been if you’d spent that hour learning more about cheese. I think this is probably what my professor was referring to (not about cheese, obvs, but about the marginal benefit of an hour doing something you’re expert in versus something you’re not).

I’ll need to think about this about more, but my feeling is that this would imply kind of weird preferences. You certainly wouldn’t have Cobb-Douglas preferences about your knowledge – you’d prefer to invest in one thing, rather than a mix. You’d also need to see increasing returns to knowledge. We’d be able to recreate it with a utility that’s equal to the maximum of time spent across every possible field. So, I guess technically there’s some preference for which this claim is true, but it certainly isn’t all the time true. And this is all assuming that personal utility is the best way to assess whether a life is better or worse.

Jobs I Can’t Have: Data Journalist

I have a confession to make. I actually really hate finagling with visualizations on various data analysis platforms.

I reached this conclusion about 10 minutes ago, and I think that it’s already changing my life. Up until 10 minutes ago, if you’d asked me whether I’d like to spend time learning how to more effectively visualize data, I would’ve said hell yes.

And who could blame me for not knowing myself! Just look at statisticians of any public acclaim whatsoever. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is chockablock with effective visualizations. The data folks at the New York Times create works of such staggering beauty and simplicity that you can just look at the graph without reading the article and know what they’re saying. And then there’s whatever the hell this sorcery is:

Crazy Scatterplot
Here’s the original link, if you’d like to spend the next five hours trying to assemble this bad boy.

Since I’m trained as a statistician, there’s always going to be a part of me that whispers, “You should be able to make this graph too.”

But I think at a certain point, maybe part of growing up is admitting that there are some things you would like to be able to do that you are just never, ever going to be able to do. I’m a firm believer in the idea that just about anyone can learn just about anything, but I think we also have to recognize how much it’ll cost you to get to an expert level.

Case in point: I just spent about an hour making this dumb scatterplot1:

ugly scatterplot
Honestly? What even is this?

It probably would take another two hours to get it to a point where it makes any sense. And in the meantime, though fiddling with graphics does make time pass quickly, it’s a little alarming to look up and see that an entire evening has passed you by and all you have to show for it is some crappy scatterplot.

This is a life-changing revelation because, in my mind, I was holding the door of data visualization expert open. If that door is firmly shut, I’m probably not going to become a data journalist. I could still work with data, but I’m always going need help from someone with better artistic sense and ggplot2 skills than I have.

This is a relaxing kind of realization. I can stop castigating myself for being such shit at graphics.


1. In my defense though, I did create this in Python, which I am only just learning. But it would still need a lot of work to be intelligible. Back