Tag Archives: trade

The appeal of fictional conflict

Robert Wiblin asks why stories celebrate conflict rather than compromise:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society…it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds…

We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

Incidentally, the one line I still remember from Avatar:

They’re not going to give up their home — they’re not gonna make a deal. For what? Lite beer and shopping channel? There’s nothing we have that they want.

Nothing at all…oh, except control over the destruction of everything they care about. You’re right, you really have no bargaining power. As Rob elaborates further, the premise of the extreme conflict was so flimsy, one must infer that it was pretty important to have an extreme conflict.

Rob guesses the popularity of such stubborn warring in our stories is to do with what we subconsciously want our tastes to say about us. When we don’t pay the costs of fictional war, we may as well stand up for principles as strongly as possible.

I think he might be roughly right. But why wouldn’t finding good deals and balancing compromises well be ideals we would want to celebrate? When there are no costs to yourself, why aren’t you itching to go all out and celebrate the most extravagant tales of successful trading and extreme sagas of mutually beneficial political compromise?

I think because there is no point in demonstrating that you will compromise. As a default, everyone can be expected to compromise, because it’s the rational thing to do at the time. However it’s often good to look like you won’t easily compromise, so that other people will try to win you over with better deals. Celebrating ruthless adherence to idealistic principles is a way of advertising that you are insane, for the purpose of improving your bargaining position. If you somehow convince me that you’re the kind of person who would die fighting for their magic tree, I’ll probably try to come up with a pretty appealing deal for you before I even bring up my interest in checking out the deposits under any trees you have.

Of course the whole point of being a bloody-minded idealist is lost if you keep it a secret. So you probably won’t do that. Which means just not going out of your way to celebrate uncompromising fights to the death is a credible signal of willingness to compromise.

Nothing wastes resources like saving them

Imagine you find yourself in possession of a diamond mine. However you don’t like diamonds very much; you think they are vastly overvalued compared to important resources such as soil. You are horrified that people waste good soil in their front gardens where they are growing nothing of much use, and think it would be better if they decorated with a big pile of this useless carbon crystal. What do you do?

a) Cover your own lawn with diamonds

b) Donate as many diamonds as you can for free to anyone who might use them to decorate where they would use soil

c) Sell the diamonds. Buy something you do value.

d) Something else

Environmentalism often takes the form of the conviction that human labor should take the place of other resource use. Bikes should be ridden instead of cars, repair is superior to replacement, washing and sorting recycling is better than using up tip space, and so on. This is usually called ‘saving resources’ not ‘using up more valuable resources’. One might argue that while human labor is usually relatively expensive (you can generally make much more selling five minutes of time than a liter of tip space and a couple of cans worth of clean used steel), environmentalists often consider the other resources to be truly more valuable, often because they are non-renewable and need to be shared between everyone in the future too. Even so, since when is it sensible to treat your overvalued resources as if they were worthless? How will resources come to be used more efficiently if those who care about the issue destroy their own potential by donating their most valuable assets to the world at large in the form of the very things which the world supposedly blithely squanders?

When is forced organ selfishness good for you?

Simon Rippon claims having a market for organs might harm society:

It might first be thought that it can never be a good thing for you to have fewer rather than more options. But I believe that this attitude is mistaken on a number of grounds. For one, consider that others hold you accountable for not making the choices that are necessary in order to fulfil your obligations. As things stand, even if you had no possessions to sell and could not find a job, nobody could criticize you for failing to sell an organ to meet your rent. If a free market in body parts were permitted and became widespread, they would become economic resources like any other, in the context of the market. Selling your organs would become something that is simply expected of you when the financial need arises. A new “option” can thus easily be transformed into an obligation, and it can drastically change the attitudes that it is appropriate for others to adopt towards you in a particular context.

He’s right that at that moment where you would normally throw your hands in the air and move on, you are worse off if an organ market gives you the option of paying more debts before declaring your bankruptcy. But this is true for anything you can sell. Do we happen to have just the right number of salable possessions? By Simon’s argument people should benefit from bans on selling all sorts of things. For instance labor. People (the poor especially) are constantly forced to sell their time – such an integral part of their selves – to pay rent, and other debts they had no choice but to induce. If only they were protected from this huge obligation that we laughably call an ‘option’. Such a ban might be costly for the landlord, but it would be good for the poor people, right? No! The landlords would react and not rent to them.

So why shouldn’t we expect the opposite effect if people are allowed to sell more of their possessions? People who currently don’t have the assets or secure income to be trusted with loans or ongoing rental payments might be legitimately offered such things if they had another asset to sell. Think of all the people who would benefit from being able to mortgage their kidney to buy a car instead of riding to some closer job while they gradually save up.

In general when negotiating, it’s best to not have options that are worse for you. When the time comes to carry out your side of a deal, it’s true this means being forced to renege. But when making the deal beforehand, you do better to have the option of carrying out your part later, so that the other person does their part. And in a many shot game, you do best to be able to do your part the whole time, so the trading (which is better than not trading) continues.

Why are obvious meanings veiled?

Why do people use veiled language even when both parties likely know the real message? For instance if a boy asks a girl up for coffee after a date, nobody is likely to miss the cliched connotation, so why not be direct?  The same question goes for many other threats, bribes, requests and propositions. Where meaning is reasonably ambiguous, plausible deniability seems a good explanation. However in many cases denial wouldn’t be that plausible and would make you look fairly silly anyway.

In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker offers six possible explanations for these cases, the last of which I found particularly interesting: People are not embarrassed nearly as much by everyone knowing their failings as long as they aren’t common knowledge (everyone knows that everyone knows etc). Pinker suggests veiled language can offer enough uncertainty that while the other party knows they are very likely being offered sex for instance (which is all you need them to know), they are still unsure of whether you know that they know this, and so on. Plausible deniability of common knowledge means if they decline you, you can carry on with yours pride intact more easily, because status is about what everyone thinks everyone thinks etc your status is, and that hasn’t changed.

This has some problems. Does any vagueness preclude mutual knowledge? We don’t act as though it does; there is always some uncertainty. Plus we take many private observations into account in judging others’ status, though you could argue that this is to judge how they are usually judged, so any aspect of a person you believe others haven’t mostly seen should not inform you on their status. Pinker suggests that a larger gap between the level of vagueness that precludes mutual knowledge and that which allows plausible deniability is helped by people attributing their comprehension of veiled suggestions to their own wonderful social intuition, which makes them less sure that the other knows what they understood.

But veiled comments often seem to allow no more uncertainty than explicit ones. For instance, ‘it would be great if you would do the washing up’ is about as obvious as ‘do the washing up’, but somehow more polite because you are informing not commanding, though the listener arguably has less choice because angrily proclaiming that they are not your slave is off the table. Perhaps such phrases are idioms now, and when they were alive it really was less obvious what commenting on the wonderfulness of clean dishes implied. It seems unlikely.

Some other explanations from Pinker (I omit one because I didn’t understand it enough to paraphrase at the time and don’t remember it now):

The token bow: indirection tells the listener that the speaker has made an effort to spare her feelings or status. e.g. requests made in forms other than imperative statements are designed to show you don’t presume you may command the person. I’m not sure how this would explain the coffee offer above. Perhaps in the existing relationship asking for sex would be disrespectful, so the suggestion to continue the gradual shift into one anothers’ pants is couched as something respectful in the current relationship?

Don’t talk at all, show me: most veiled suggestions are a request to alter the terms of the relationship, and in most cases people don’t speak directly about the terms of relationships. This is just part of that puzzle. This explanation doesn’t explain threats or bribes well I think. By the time you are talking idly about accidents that might happen, awkwardness about discussing a relationship outright is the least of anyone’s worries. Also we aren’t squeamish about discussing business arrangements, which is what a bribe is.

The virtual audience: even if nobody is watching, the situation can be more easily transmitted verbally if the proposition is explicitly verbal. If the intent is conveyed by a mixture of subtler signals, such as tone, gestures and the rest of the interaction, it will be harder to persuade others later that that the meaning really was what you say it was, even if in context it was obvious. This doesn’t seem plausible for many cases. If I tell you that someone discreetly proffered a fifty dollar note and wondered aloud how soon their request might be dealt with, you – and any jury – should interpret that just fine.

Preserving the spell: some part of the other person enjoys and maintains the pleasant illusion of whatever kind of relationship is overtly demonstrated by the words used. Pinker gives the example of a wealthy donor to a university, who is essentially buying naming rights and prestige, but everyone enjoys it more if you have fancy dinners together and pretend that the university is hoping for their ‘leadership’. This doesn’t explain why some transactions are made with a pretense and some aren’t. If I buy an apartment building we don’t all sit down at a fancy dinner together and pretend that I am a great hero offering leadership to the tenants. Perhaps the difference is that if a donation is a purchase, part of the purchased package is a reputation for virtue. However outsiders aimed at mostly don’t see what the transaction looks like. For other cases this also doesn’t seem to explain. While one may want to preserve the feeling that one is not being threatened, why should the threatening one care? And seducing someone relies on the hope of ending air of platonic aquaintence.

Another explanation occurs to me, but I haven’t thought much about whether it’s applicable anywhere. Perhaps once veiled language is used for plausible deniability in many cases, there become other cases where the appearance of trying to have plausible deniability is useful even if you don’t actually want it. In those cases you might use veiled language to imply you are trying, but be less subtle so as not to succeed. For instance once most men use veiled come ons, for you to suggest anything explicitly to a girl would show you have no fear of rejection. She mightn’t like being thought either so predictable or of such low value, so it is better to show respect by protecting yourself from rejection.

None of these explanations seem adequate, but I don’t have a good enough list of examples to consider the question well.

Unpromising promise?

Marriage usually involves sharing and exchanging a huge bunch of things. Love, sex, childcare, money, cooperation in finding a mutually agreeable place for the knives to live, etc. For all of these but one, you can verify whether I’m upholding my side of the deal. And for all but one, I can meaningfully promise to keep my side of the deal more than a day into the future. Yet the odd one out, love, is the one that we find most suited to making eternal promises about. Are these things related?

Why are fictional inventors anti-trade?

In stories, those who invent and make powerful technologies frequently seek to gain power via the technology they make.

In reality, those who invent and make powerful technologies seek to gain power solely through selling their technologies and getting status.

Fictional artists do not keep their paintings, to go out provoking and moving people themselves. Fictional chefs usually prefer trade to eating it all themselves.

Why the difference?

How much does this bias our expectations for the social outcomes, especially risks, of future technologies?