Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page


In Uncategorized on October 25, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I’ve just read most of an Atlantic Monthly article by Kate Bolick describing her ambivalence toward marriage. Bolick is in her late thirties, still single, and hesitant to make the tradeoffs that marriage would entail—particularly now that (she says) the pool of good men has dried up and she’s less physically attractive than previously. She recounts breaking up with a wonderful man at 29 (they remained close friends; she later helped him pick out his wedding tuxedo) because of a vague sense of doubt, combined with unalloyed confidence that she’d find someone else. She now wonders whether she should have stayed with him, although she doesn’t feel strongly that she made a mistake.

I find it difficult to write about Bolick’s piece without anger. In part, I’m offended and threatened by the capriciousness of her decision to break up with her boyfriend. I also feel strongly that the tuxedo anecdote is sick: “As he and I toured through Manhattan’s men’s-wear ateliers, we enjoyed explaining to the confused tailors and salesclerks that no, no, we weren’t getting married. Isn’t life funny that way?” This points to problems with the ex-boyfriend. A real man (yes) would never confuse his friends with his lovers like this. Bolick’s piece is pervaded with a woolly uncertainty—“What should I do?”—and her ex has made himself part of the problem: by indulging her desire for commitment-free companionship, with all the rituals of intimacy, all the conspiratorial laughter at the outside world, and none of the real sacrifice, he has allowed her to avoid figuring out what she truly needs and what she’s willing to give up to get it. He could have done her a big favor with a firm, manly No; but that would be immodern.

Beneath the anger and insecurity, there’s sadness. I regret how difficult it is to choose anything (a school, a job, a mate); to be chosen in return; and to stick with your choice. I also feel deeply sorry for American women, who by middle age are the most stressed-out people in the country. If they’re married mothers with elderly parents, they’re likely caring for three generations, all while working full-time jobs. Meanwhile, the messages they’re getting from the culture are largely about what they ought to be—more independent, more assertive, more spontaneous, more fun, thinner, younger—and how they might be making a big mistake by working or not working, having kids or not having kids, divorcing or not divorcing. You can see why Bolick wants out: how much easier, and how much less brutal, simply to live for oneself. But living for oneself is what a child does. If we never commit, do we become the children we never had?


In Posts on October 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm

One of the most powerful notions I’ve picked up in my study of economics is that “people respond to incentives.” That is, regardless of people’s views, attitudes, and beliefs, they tend to be irresistibly drawn to things that reward them, and neutral to or repelled by things that do not. This view tends to make people a sort of liquid, flowing around the circumstances they’re put in. If people can’t do business through official channels, a booming black market is bound to develop, just as water is bound to flow downhill. The “incentives” model makes extremely powerful predictions of aggregate behaviors, and it’s also helped me to understand elements of my personal life, such as why my actual conduct often falls short of my goals. (Perhaps I feel like I “should” do something more than I do; but perhaps actually doing the thing offers very little reward except guilt alleviation.)

But where does this leave human agency? “Incentives” may be a good way to analyze trends in the aggregate, but an individual’s conduct can—and must—rise above the structural forces acting on him or her. My concern is that students of economics (and other disciplines that deal heavily with incentives) sometimes end up falsely rationalizing cynicism and amorality, by setting their general models of people’s tendencies as the standard of their personal conduct. (I have a stylized image of a disgraced Wall Street banker saying, “Of course I did it; I was incentivized.” Well, fine, but that attitude is the essence of criminality.)

The people I most admire—George Washington and some other founding fathers, certain religious teachers—had incredible integrity. When they knew what they should do, they did it. So in addition to studying the venality of people in the aggregate, perhaps we should study and imitate the integrity of the people we admire. After all, if we model our ethics on averages, we are essentially aspiring to be ethically average—all while demanding inordinate wealth, power, and influence based on our “training.” Depending on how much you blame Wall Street excesses for the current global economic crisis, this is either a recipe for disaster, or an actual cake.