Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why Civil Marriage Ought to End

The debate about who should be allowed to marry is, first and foremost, a debate around what the word 'marriage' actually means. Is it a descriptor of the loving union of two people? Or is it an institution upon which families (and specifically the optimal raising of children) is based? A series of court decisions have cast doubt on whether marriage is really about procreation: one of the foremost arguments against the procreative view of marriage is that if the point of marriage was to beget children, then we wouldn't let old people or the infertile marry at all. Therefore, the logic goes, the institution must be about two people loving each other and having an exclusive sexual relationship, and therefore it is discriminatory not to let gay couples participate in marriage.

Princeton professor Robert George attempts to bolster the procreative argument in a recent paper. His argument is that, even though some heterosexual couples can't have children, they are oriented towards that goal through the nature of the act. He makes the analogy to a baseball team: all baseball teams are structured to win baseball games, but some win and others lose. Yet the losers are still baseball teams, and in a similar way non-procreative heterosexual couples are still oriented towards procreation.

Over at, Kenji Yoshino responds:

I suspect it will be cold comfort to many infertile opposite-sex couples to hear that while their marriage is still "real," it is a "losing" marriage as opposed to a "winning" one. Ideally, most of them view their marriages as something more than honorable defeats and would despise the contention that they had not fulfilled the central purpose of the institution. Moreover, the article says nothing of straight people who choose not to procreate. It is unclear why they would have "true marriages," as they are not even trying to win.

This argument tells you everything you need to know about the pro-gay marriage side of the debate. The first half of the paragraph hints at the skepticism, made more explicit elsewhere in the piece, that marriage has to do with anything other than the shared love and sexual intimacy of two people. (I'll just say, in passing, that the notion marriage is only about love strikes me as historically, anthropologically and psychologically clueless.) But the second half of the paragraph gets at why, despite my much greater sympathy for Robert George's point of view, I believe Yoshino ultimately has the better of the argument. You cannot argue that marriage is about an orientation towards procreation when a large number of married heterosexuals explicitly reject that belief, not by accident of biology, but by choice. And, what's more important, there are no legal or social repercussions when a married couple chooses not to have children.

However, while Yoshino is right that George's procreative argument does not create a sufficient case for preserving marriage as a heterosexual-only institution, he is wrong that his counter argument makes an effective case for gay marriage. Consider this sentence: "Closely examined, the common-procreation argument denigrates not only same-sex couples but several kinds of married opposite-sex couples." He is speaking about the State, our government, smiling upon certain types of loving relationships and 'denigrating' others. Does our government have any interest, at all, in licensing personal, loving relationships? Especially if no-fault divorce means they can be dissolved any time, or for any reason? Of course not. Gay marriage advocates are arguing for inclusion in an institution that, from a civil point of view, is completely hollowed out. If they were intellectually honest, they'd be arguing for an end to marriage as a legal concept, and its replacement with a system of contracts: we could have a basic civil union that covers things like joint tax filing and hospital visits, and a child-rearing contract that expresses the intention of two people to commit to raising a child (whether conceived by the couple or adopted) to adulthood.

To go back to the question of how you define marriage, it isn't an "either, or" issue, but rather a, "both, and" issue. Marriage is both about love, and procreation, and raising children correctly, and (at least for religious folks) making a commitment to God and Church about how you intend to conduct the rest of your life in partnership with your spouse. But that is very explicitly a religious vision of marriage. In our society, I would argue, the only consistent, valuable definitions of marriage are religious ones.

Our society is deeply influenced by its Christian heritage. However, once that faith ceases to be vital in the public square, that influence is not sustained, which means basic assumptions about our society enshrined in law, like marriage, come under scrutiny. I believe marriage as a civil institution was fundamentally hollowed by no-fault divorce, which strips a sense of duty and commitment out of marriage. That shift in the law was largely embraced by the public, including practicing Christians, who get divorced with basically the same frequency as the public at large. If we wish to have a religiously informed vision of marriage enshrined in civil law, Christians must prove through their actions the superiority of that vision. Until then, the best (and most fair) thing to do is to end civil marriage and return it to the religious sphere where it finds its truest expression.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Wall Street Two-Step

I've long harbored the suspicion that our modern financial sector is something of a parasite, sucking wealth out of the American bloodstream. This suspicion intensified when I moved to New York, when I started meeting wealthy people who weren't obviously doing anything valuable to justify their wishes. (I know, a nervy statement coming from someone in advertising.)

But this article, from Tyler Cowen, brought these fuzzy thoughts into sharp relief. Cowen starts with the mission of explaining income inequality, but transitions to focusing on how Wall Street, in his words, "has learned how to game the American (and UK-based) system of state capitalism." How? By "going short on volatility," or by making financial bets that assume what is likely to happen will always happen. Cowen explains it well here:
To understand how this strategy works, consider an example from sports betting. The NBA’s Washington Wizards are a perennially hapless team that rarely gets beyond the first round of the playoffs, if they make the playoffs at all. This year the odds of the Wizards winning the NBA title will likely clock in at longer than a hundred to one. I could, as a gambling strategy, bet against the Wizards and other low-quality teams each year. Most years I would earn a decent profit, and it would feel like I was earning money for virtually nothing. The Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics or some other quality team would win the title again and I would collect some surplus from my bets. For many years I would earn excess returns relative to the market as a whole.

Yet such bets are not wise over the long run. Every now and then a surprise team does win the title and in those years I would lose a huge amount of money. Even the Washington Wizards (under their previous name, the Capital Bullets) won the title in 1977–78 despite compiling a so-so 44–38 record during the regular season, by marching through the playoffs in spectacular fashion. So if you bet against unlikely events, most of the time you will look smart and have the money to validate the appearance. Periodically, however, you will look very bad.

This is essentially the same as Nassim Taleb's Black Swan argument, but Cowen explains why it in fact makes sense to ignore Black Swan possibilities. Taleb argues that there is opportunity betting against the herd (and also that the herd is too stupid to see these risks), but what if the Wall Street herd is actually smart enough to know that the government will have to step in when these unlikely events happen, to 'save the system'?

So far, Cowen is simplifying and clarifying arguments I have come across before, that essentially we are held hostage to Wall Street because it is the lynchpin of the economy. But one could still argue that it in best interests of individuals not to fail, because they will lose money, prestige, and opportunity. That is where Cowen makes his most devastating observation:

Another root cause of growing inequality is that the modern world, by so limiting our downside risk, makes extreme risk-taking all too comfortable and easy. More risk-taking will mean more inequality, sooner or later, because winners always emerge from risk-taking. Yet bankers who take bad risks (provided those risks are legal) simply do not end up with bad outcomes in any absolute sense. They still have millions in the bank, lots of human capital and plenty of social status. We’re not going to bring back torture, trial by ordeal or debtors’ prisons, nor should we. Yet the threat of impoverishment and disgrace no longer looms the way it once did, so we no longer can constrain excess financial risk-taking. It’s too soft and cushy a world.

If, to pick one example, Wall Street traders who lost billions of dollars lost every dollar they had, or spent years in prison, or were exiled to Zimbabwe, individuals would have incentive to resist following the investing herd. But they end up only slightly less rich and successful if they fail than if they succeed. This allure of big money without big risk, as Cowen and others observe, draws smart, driven people away from other fields (creative endeavors, entrepreneurialism, scientific exploration) where success is a prerequisite of financial reward.

The only problem is that this whole no-lose system depends on governments to be able to bail out the banks when the periodic crashes happen. But depending on this will encourage financial firms to take bigger and bigger risks until they overwhelm the government's ability to intervene. Whether what follows is another depression or societal collapse is unclear, but we can be sure it will be ugly.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Limits of Facebook

Let me first start by saying I have a not-entirely-rational animus towards Facebook. It's mostly because I'm a contrarian: when all my basketball-loving friends were touting LeBron James as the greatest player of the 21st Century, I predicted he would fail because he was too immature to handle the fame and money. (In my defense, I underestimated his talent, but he clearly has some maturing to do, even now.) Basically, I get annoyed when someone or something is annointed 'transformative' before they've earned it. So when I read Mark Zuckerberg's recent comments that Facebook would 'reform' the world of entertainment within five years, I felt my teeth grinding.

Of course, that's hardly the most outrageous thing anyone has said about Facebook: one Russian tech investor with a stake in the company said it could help create artificial intelligence the next decade. All of these claims are based on one central contention: that the massive amount of data, and the underlying 'social graph', that Facebook controls will enable it to transform industry and technology in unprecedented ways. In the interests of brevity, here are three reasons why I don't think it will happen, at least not to the extent Zuckerberg and his investors would like:

1) Who owns the data?
Facebook has courted controversy multiple times when it has changed its privacy settings or let third parties access its data. So far, it hasn't seemed to lead to any mass exodus from Facebook. But the business needs of Facebook fundamentally clash with the desires of its users. Most poeople I know use Facebook to keep a virtual finger on the pulse of distant friends, and as a way of sharing lower-level personal news (photos of your vacation, where you went for dinner on Friday, the celebrity you saw at Saks Fifth Avenue) with a bunch of people easily and unobtrusively. Then there are the people who are on the site obsessively, curating their network and their social presence to some personally defined level of perfection. The former group likes the convenience of Facebook, but doesn't need it if push comes to shove. And the latter group is msotly showing off for each other and for the majority that fits into the first bucket. If Facebook starts monetizing its networks too aggressviely people will get turned off and leave. So the power of Facebook's data only exists so long as it can avoid too obviously using the data. When Zuckerberg talks about "changing standards of privacy," what he is saying is that his business ultimately depends on his users becoming comfortable with Facebook selling their data (aka the digital version of their personal lives) to marketers.

2) The Perils of Overexposure
Unsurprising news: many divorces, including celebrity divorces, are being abetted in part by discoveries on Facebook. This isn't a failing on the part of Facebook any more than it is Visa's fault if a wife finds charges for expensive 'massages' on her husband's bill. But it is the inherent nature of Facebook to expose the ragged edges of human life, and more and more people are going to get burned by it as time goes by. Soon everyone will have the story of a coworker who got fired because of an ill-conceived post, or family members who aren't talking because one sibling saw the other blew off her baby's christening to go to the movies. Once people start aggressively self-censoring, the site becomes less fun, and the data less valuable.

3) Our Network is not Our Brain
One of the fundamental assumptions of Facebook is that we'd rather learn things from our friends than from an algorythm. Zuckerberg and his boosters think we will soon be deciding what to buy, where to eat, and what to believe thanks to the power of our network. And to some degree, that will happen: there is a fairly compelling body of research that we are subtly influenced by the decisions and beliefs of the people around us. But where Facebook goes wrong is assuming the subtle interactions that drive so much human behavior are easily replicated online. If I see a friend wearing a really nice jacket, I might be envious and go get a similar one. But if I see a friend of five 'likes' Burberry on Facebook, that is not going to arouse my desire for Burberry coats: if anything, the display of sycophantic passion for a consumer brand is going to be a bit of a turnoff. I'll think less of my friend, and maybe a bit leas of the brand. The reason social effects drive so much real world behavior is because we aren't really aware they're happening. When we become conscious that someone is trying to influence us, we react very differently.

In the movie The Social Network, the Eduardo Savarin character wants to sell advertising on the site. Zuckerberg, under the influence of Sean Parker, is hostile to the notion, because "ads aren't cool." This is a basic insight into Facebook's enormous success: people like Facebook because it seems like a safe space to connect with people they know. But Facebook exists to make money, and the desires of its users and owners are in tension, if not conflict.

I am not predicting Facebook's demise: I learned better after talking down LeBron. But like LeBron, Facebook may not fulfill all of the lofty expectations people have for it, and when the hype has gotten this out of control, moderate success can feel an awful lot like failure.