The rise of lottery professions and why it’s so hard to get a decent job

May 4, 2014

In early September 2002, a young singer named Kelly Clarkson won the inaugural season of a new reality competition called American Idol. Her first single set a new record for fastest rise to number 1, vaulting past the previous record holders from 1964, the Beatles. Her rise to fame was categorized as meteoric, the kind of rags-to-riches story so beloved in America, and one that would be repeated, with more or less success, over the next 12 seasons and in several other similar contests.

Kelly Clarkson is fabulously talented, and also the beneficiary of a windfall. After years of struggling, she rose to the top of what has traditionally been known as a “lottery profession,” one in which there are many aspirants, very few of which succeed, and the rest do menial jobs in the hopes that one day their “big break” will come.

Often it never does. There are thousands of talented singers who never appear on our TV screens and never get Grammy awards because they are unlucky. They don’t win the professional “lottery.” (And in some cases it is a literal lottery: I’ve been to Idol auditions in Canada that have random draws of ticket stubs to determine who is even allowed an audition at the first stage.)

The concept of a “lottery profession” is usually applied to the performing arts – dance, acting, singing – and the literary ones – novel and poetry-writing – as well as sports and other fields in which aspirants need to be exceptionally talented, and also distinct, to an extent. And in these areas it has only become more difficult to succeed in the last hundred years.

The Poor Poet (Der Arme Poet), by Carl Spitzweg


Breakaway: how the best of the best get more market share

Chrystia Freeland writes in Plutocrats of how communications technology and economies of scale have made famous people even more famous. In the nineteenth century and before, a singer’s reach (and therefore income) was limited to those who could pay to afford a seat in a theatre; today, she can make money from records, huge live shows and merchandise. An early twentieth-century soccer player was limited in income by those who had paid to see the match – which is likely one of the reasons we don’t hear about many famous professional athletes pre-twentieth century – while today his face is on Nike ads and jerseys and he earns millions per season through licensing deals to see him on television getting yellow-carded.

And where the limited reach of a theatre or soccer pitch allowed a greater number of quite talented individuals to succeed, the limitless reach of television and the internet allow the über-talented to divide greater spoils amongst a much smaller number. Why bother going to see the local hotshot when you can watch Lionel Messi?


A Moment Like This: the lottery gets bigger

The trouble is, artists and athletes aren’t the only ones risking their livelihoods on a proverbial lottery ticket anymore. There are more new “lottery professions” all the time, often emerging out of professions that were once solidly middle class, able to support a family, with good salary and benefits. To give but a few examples:

  • Investment banking and stock trading, formerly quite boring, now require numerous credentials (CFA, MBA, etc.), and a good network in the right places, to get into;
  • Law work is now frequently outsourced to the developing world with intense competition for fewer and fewer spots at top firms in the West;
  • Tenured positions in academia, as I’ve already written a lot about, are quickly being eliminated with little hope for current Ph.D. holders;
  • Fire fighters have a 15% chance of acceptance at the local fire training academy, and most fire-fighting professionals have second jobs;
  • Medicine, nursing and social work programs accept fewer applicants for even fewer jobs, despite more demand for these professionals, instead hiring temporary foreign workers;
  • Even teaching, that bastion of middle-class professional employment, is a tough job to get these days, and, as anyone who has done any teaching will tell you, it ain’t a glamourous or lucrative gig.

Some of these changes are the effects of globalization, of course, which has pulled many in the developing world into the middle class even as it has displaced work from North America and Europe. The result is intense competition for what are really quite banal professions with long hours and few perquisites. After all, we are talking about work here, and while many of us can hope to enjoy what we do, more people still think of a job as more a way to make money than a calling.


People Like Us: what happens to the “winners”

Who holds the winning tickets? Extraordinarily talented, hardworking and lucky people like Kelly Clarkson and Lionel Messi. Those who inherit wealth. And those who are connected in the right ways. This is a self-perpetuating circle, with fame and money increasingly intertwined.

Success in one area seems to imply expertise in another, which is why we have a rise in parenting and home-making literature from people made famous by playing characters on TV and in movies. Famous actors try their hand at everything from making wine to formulating foreign policy. Just look at Dancing with the Stars, that barometer of cross-professional fame: it has deemed this season alone that comedians, “real housewives,” and Olympic gold medallists and will make money for them, ostensibly as dancers. Previous contestants include politicians, scientists, and athletes galore.

Science! …and cross-promotion.

The links here are fame and money, and while using either to get what you want in a new realm is nothing new, the potential reach of both (and opportunity to make more of each) has exponentially increased. And there is a new opportunity for unprecedented fame from the patronage of modern plutocrats, witnessed by the pantheon of celebrity chefs, celebrity dog trainers, and celebrity litigators. The über-rich want the best, and the best take a disproportionate slice of the industry pie.


Thankful: the rise of corporate patronage

So what happens to all those quite talented people who would have played to full theatres two hundred years ago? (Apart from making YouTube videos, that is.)

I’ve been thinking for years now that the “high” arts (theatre, ballet, classical music, dance) depend on wealthy patrons for survival, much as they did before these became popular attractions in the modern period. Those patrons today are largely corporate sponsors, instead of wealthy individuals, and the companies get cultural cachet and corporate social responsibility bonus points while the performers gain a living.

The trend goes beyond the arts. In Silicon Valley (and elsewhere in the US), corporations and wealthy benefactors are extending their philanthropy beyond traditional areas of giving. Mark Zuckerberg sponsors New Jersey school districts. Mike Bloomberg helps municipalities with their tech budgets. The Clinton Global Initiative finances green retrofits in the built environment. As the public sector falls apart, we become more dependent on the proclivities of wealthy people and the companies they run, for better or worse.

Your discretionary income at work!


Don’t Waste Your Time: what happens to everyone else

Those without a good corporate job or corporate patronage can still have interesting weekends. The last twenty years have seen a rise in hobby culture. Not just for hipsters anymore, farming, knitting, and brewing are all things to count as hobbies as it becomes harder and harder to actually make any money doing them. Assembly-line economics prompted a decline in bespoke items in favour of cheaper, ready-to-use/ready-to-wear equivalents, and with it the near-demise of artisan production. Hence, hobby culture has taken over. Many people today have side businesses that were once considered a main income stream, such as making crafts (e.g. through Etsy), photography (helped by the rise of Pinterest and Instagram) or self-publishing. I suspect this trend will only increase as 3D printing becomes more popular.

And for everyone else holding tickets and waiting for their numbers to come up, there is retail. The old stereotype of underemployed actors waiting tables persists because it is still true, and some are servers forever. In some industries and some places (for example, grocery cashiers in Toronto), service jobs are a means to an end, some spare cash earned while in school. In others, like much of the United States and suburban areas generally, people work in retail and/or service (the largest category of employment in North America) because they have no other option.

The result is a proliferation of companies pushing a “service culture,” a movement toward glorifying the customer experience everywhere from fast food to discount clothing stores. And while there is a long history of service as a noble profession (for example, in high-end restaurants), and giving clients what they desire is a laudable goal, claiming a service mandate while maintaining a pay gap between customer-facing employees and top management of 20, 80 or 200 times is deceitful, the false empowerment of the economically disenfranchised.

All of the above trends reflect a growing inequality in the workforce, one that becomes ever-more entrenched. Inequality is a major hot-button issue in politics at the moment, and a number of initiatives have been proposed to combat it, including raising the minimum wage. The long-term success of any solution, however, requires recognizing that the ability to earn a living can’t depend on holding a winning ticket.


What makes a city great? Toward a hierarchy of urban needs

April 3, 2014

A few years ago I created a conceptual model of national needs, shown below, based on Maslow’s hierarchy of (personal) needs. It has become one of the most read posts on this blog, indicating that our identification with both nations and Maslow’s framework both continue to resonate today, decades after their creation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Some context: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for individuals

Of course, it is difficult to map the idea of progressive needs of an individual cleanly to a political entity. Nations, like people, continue to evolve, and the role of nations in the world is changing too. Nonetheless, the idea of a hierarchy, in which basic needs must be satisfied before one can progress to a higher level of actualization and fulfilling one’s whole potential, can be applied to countries in various stages of development.

Since writing my National Needs post in 2010, a new country was created in South Sudan. It is still struggling (as indeed are many other nations) with the lowest level of securing territorial integrity and peaceful borders, and this remains its primary focus. The struggle for survival must come before feelings of security, esteem and morality.

Exon's Hierarchy of National Needs (Click for a larger version)

Exon [Smith]’s Hierarchy of National Needs, c. 2010 (Click for a larger version)

Yet there are other geographical entities with which we commonly identify, and which are becoming more and more important as centres of culture and economy as a greater percentage of the world’s population moves into them: cities. It is estimated that for the first time in human history, more people live in urban areas than outside of them, and cities are becoming important political players in their own right.

Since moving to California in late 2013 (and spending a lot of time on the Atlantic Cities channel), I have been thinking about how fundamentally important cities are. What makes them truly great? What makes them “cities” at all, in a sense apart from the obvious population requirements? For example, I live in San Jose, which is the third largest city in California, ahead of San Francisco in both population and area, and yet its own inhabitants curiously refer to San Francisco as “the city.” Why? What has to happen for a place to transform into a world-class city from a mere urban area?

So, as I am wont to do, I created a new model to explore the needs of a city, also along the lines of Maslow. I’m calling it the “Hierarchy of Urban Needs.” Note that I am assuming that this city exists within the context of a nation that ensures the rights and privileges of, as well as general governance over, its citizens.  Some discussion of the stages is below.


Exon Smith’s hierarchy of urban needs (Click for a larger version)

Basic services 

At the most fundamental level, cities need key services delivered in an efficient and cost-effective way. (This is true even if such services aren’t necessarily paid for by the cities themselves, as is the case with, say, healthcare in Canadian cities.) This includes fire, police, and ambulance services; waste management; housing inspections to ensure both safety and affordability of housing; water treatment, and the like. For many cities, this means being able to control the tax base and be able to levy taxes on the population as necessary.

World-class cities will also have exceptional healthcare options and a focus on sustainability woven through even these fundamentals, such as extensive recycling and compost programs. San Francisco, for example, deploys teams to examine what its residents recycle properly and what they don’t so the city can mount better educational campaigns.

Of course, the basic running of the city must be free of corruption, and be able to pay its bills so it avoids a Detroit-like bankruptcy claim, or the succession of mayors Montreal has recently had.


Historically, cities developed around major ports and, later, railway depots. Even today, no major cities exist without some kind of harbour, airport, train station or freeway linking them with the outside world. Inter-city transportation, undergirded by solid infrastructure, is a critical component of economic progress.

Cities with poor transit are at a huge disadvantage. Jakarta, a city of nearly ten million people, and the largest city of its size with no metro of any kind, has notoriously been working on an underground transit network for 20 years. Traffic congestion is thought to cost the city $1 billion a year. In another cautionary tale, it can take 12 hours to travel 40 miles in Lagos, Nigeria, and the way is fraught with crime and other dangers, a threat to legitimate trade.

Intra-city transportation is also a key factor, and how best to support the movement of people within a city is a subject of almost universal debate. Subways vs. light rail, bike lanes vs. car lanes, pedestrian-only roads and congestion pricing – these are major issues for all cities, and the thinking on public transportation keeps evolving.

This is one area in which San Jose currently struggles but has big plans for the future. My theory is that older cities, built before car use was predominant, have an easier time planning for pedestrian and bike access. Those (like San Jose) that were built after the advent of freeways and a Cadillac for every nuclear family tend to struggle to retrofit density in the downtown core when its points of interest are already quite far-flung.

And yet. San Jose is a critical location for high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as a hub for transportation around the San Francisco Bay (linking to San Francisco and Oakland), and has reserved space downtown for new transit links. It is planning for increased density to accompany the new transportation. Hopefully use of public transportation within city limits will also increase, because at the moment the city is hugely dependent on the car. Inefficient public transit routes poorly serve the population, resulting in, for example, 78% (!) of San Jose commuters travelling to work in single-occupancy vehicles.

Central Park

Infrastructure also includes sewers and other large-scale public works, including parks and other green space. More and more research indicates that green spaces make for happier communities, and many major cities can be identified by their parks alone (e.g. Central Park, Golden Gate Park, Bois du Boulogne, Sanjay Gandhi National Park). As I’ve said before, I love sewers, water mains and bridges, personally, and think more campaigns should be fought around securing funding for them. The recent, tragic gas explosion in Harlem only underlines the need to think the way the Victorians did about how cities really run and how we can leave a legacy for the future that is perhaps not glamourous, but that is critically important. One of Toronto’s great strengths, as is the case in many other cities, is the numerous cranes on the skyline building new architectural wonders (as well as a few duds). Would that we could focus on what lies beneath the soil as well.

A brief interlude on mayors…

Thinking about these lower levels of needs, it strikes me that the level of a city’s discourse (and thus position on this hierarchy) can often be seen through the lens of its mayoral elections. Toronto’s 2010 (as most likely will its 2014) election centered on the issues of transportation and waste in providing city services, leaving little room for discussion of higher-order issues (such as, ahem, drug use among elected officials). New York’s 2013 election, in which Bill de Blasio won almost three quarters of the votes, turned largely on issues of income inequality and pre-kindergarden education, the next level in my hierarchy. And the major issues of London’s 2012 election, won by incumbent Boris Johnson and his hair, were the economy, tackling crime, public transportation, and affordable housing.

Boris, Campaigning on Transit

Boris: Campaigning on Transit

It makes sense that the basics need to be taken care of, and continually improved upon, before a successful cultural scene can take root, in the same way that humans must be fed and watered, feel physically and emotionally safe, and feel a sense of belonging before they can achieve self-actualization.

…and then back to the hierarchy: Educational and research institutions

A strong educational foundation at every level is critical, and a well-educated population requires relative equality in the quality of schools. This is one of the main reasons cities should not fund their schools through neighbourhood taxes (and thus subject schools to the vagaries of house prices), as many cities in the United States do.  A well-educated citizenry contributes more to the economy than a poorly-educated one.

The presence of leading research and teaching institutions draws in talent and sows the seeds of innovation, which is why “cluster economies” such as Silicon Valley are the next big thing, because they focus research and development into localities with populations educated enough to feed them with employees. Every one of the world’s greatest cities has a leading university at its heart, without exception – this cannot be a coincidence.

Diversity is the key here. Cities built around just one industry are like monocultures: potentially dominant for a short while, but vulnerable to disastrous decline. Take any of the grand old cities in the Rust Belt: Buffalo, for example, was one of America’s greatest cities one hundred years ago, built on a strong grain-milling and shipping/railroad industry. After almost a century of decline, it is, well, no longer great – but it has managed to slow the decline by diversifying into the education and medical fields. Glasgow, once the premier city of Scotland, faced a similar decline due to its emphasis on a resource-based economy and de-emphasis on education.

Robust arts, sports and cultural scene

This stage is where the jump occurs from a merely livable city to one that is great. A safe, well-run, working city is lovely, but a city with a thriving cultural scene is one to fall in love with. In fact, social offerings, a broad category encompassing art, music, sport, religion and other community activities, are among the most significant contributing factors to residents’ feelings of attachment to their community. This is even above security or the state of the economy.

This stage of course includes both major municipal institutions such as museums, symphonies and ballets, but also spontaneous or smaller-scale, citizen-led activities. Being able to participate in a Sing-A-Long Messiah or see an independent movie at a film festival is as important as having the Bolshoi nearby, and also makes the arts more accessible to a wider population. Having Old Trafford around the corner is great, but so is the local curling league.

Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art


An arts and culture scene, moreover, is a key driver of tourism, which in turn feeds the economy on general feeling of being in a place worth being. (Just imagine Paris without the Louvre, or New York without the Empire State Building.) Older cities naturally have an advantage here because of the in-built history in ancient cathedrals, palaces or public art, but some newer cities have benefited by investing heavily in creating an arts scene. Doha, once little more than an oily afterthought, is planning for the time when its resources run out by creating a strong film industry and thriving place for modern art. It is also newly host to a major international economic forum, and will host the 2022 World Cup. (Probably.)

Openness to influence; becoming a symbolic beacon

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free !

These words adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty  and represent what I have spoken of before, being a city of the imagination. These cities are the subject of books, films, Broadway musicals, and countless daydreams, and have a romance and level of impact that serves to draw people to them, for a visit or for good.

These cities, in turn, receive their tourists and immigrants in a more or less accommodating way, taking from them the best of their cultures and using that to strengthen and further diversify the metropolis. Cuzco, Islamic Seville, and the Florence of the Medici were all historical examples of the power of such “mixing bowls” of culture: out of their cultural milieu came the starting point for a massive empire, the Golden Age of exploration, and the Uffizi Gallery. Modern equivalents spring to mind precisely because they have this pull on our hearts and minds.

The last two levels of the hierarchy are quite iterative: the greater the cultural scene and economy, the greater draw a city has for immigrants, who then enrich the culture further. It is difficult to find a world-class city without a large percentage of immigrants, who bring with them new traditions, great ideas, ambition, and excellent food. It is in fact difficult to overestimate the importance – both historically and in the present day – of immigrants to cities’ successes, which is why openness to influence and disruption may be the most important trait a city can have.


So there’s the model. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Academia Shrugged? or, Why You Should Just Quit Your Ph.D. Now

July 27, 2011

Grad school and academia as a potential career have taken a real beating in the media lately. It seems the world has finally woken up and smelled the (three-day old, re-used) coffee beans that are all grad students can afford. The bottom line is that humanities students should run, not walk, away from a life of debt and uncertainty, and a “dream job” that will never quite pan out.

In an article for, William Pannapacker, himself a professor at a liberal arts college, proposes a few steps to fix graduate school in the humanities. Some of what he advises – such as providing networking opportunities and internships, and recognizing that it may be better to keep one’s passion for obscure fields of study as a hobby – is similar to what I proposed in my own post on a Three-Pronged Approach to Saving Humanities Departments.

But I was really intrigued by his addition of a final, “nuclear option”: quit. In his words:

Just walk away. Do not let your irrational love for the humanities make you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation. Do not remain a captive to dubious promises about future rewards. Cut your losses, now. Accumulate work experiences and contacts that will enable you to support yourself, have health coverage, and something like a normal life. Even the more privileged students I mentioned earlier—and the ones who are not seeking traditional employment—could do a lot of good by refusing to support the current academic labor system. It exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both. You don’t have to return to school this fall, but the academic labor system depends on it.

Wow. A group of highly intelligent, capable individuals upon whom “the system” depends but who are scorned by it decide one day to “go on strike” in the hopes of seeing said system implode and leave behind a twitching lump of ingrates suddenly begging them to return and save them.

This sounds familiar. Where did I read about that recently? Oh, yes – in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s infamous treatise on objectivism. In it, the heroes grapple with their own superior morality in a world of incompetent ingrates and eventually come to realize they are complicit in the very system that condemns them for their unchecked ambition and capitalistic greed. (Of course, unchecked ambition and capitalistic greed are positive attributes in Rand’s heroes.) So, one by one, they go on strike by withdrawing to a hidden, magical place where labour is justly rewarded, and nobody ever gives anybody anything they haven’t worked for, while they watch the world crumbling around them without their input.

(There, I’ve saved you from slogging through 1000+ pages of libertarian/objectivist bluster that would probably outrage and offend anyone who believes in silly things like equality of opportunity and altruism.)

But putting aside the absurd pairing of tweed-jacketed academics and Wall Street “fat cats,” let’s think a minute about the implications of this Randian proposition for academics. Would it work? As Pannapacker points out, there is always the possibility of having a day job with health care and indulging in one’s “irrational love for the humanities” as a hobby. As he says, “more and more people are learning [that] universities do not have a monopoly on the ‘life of the mind.’”

Maybe. But I think universities should at least have a competitive edge on it, or else they stand to become exactly what vocationalists want them to be: training for jobs that exist today and have clear mandates and required preparation. This would certainly be the case if all the most brilliant liberal arts minds suddenly decided to be brilliant elsewhere in the world.

Because if not universities, then where? Will we have to start paying people to hear about their ideas? Will we have the same level of interaction if everyone is decentralized and off thinking interesting thoughts in different industries? How will we prepare people to think innovatively, and prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow that don’t have clear mandates or preparatory courses?

The whole point of a university is that it is a hub, a place a little apart from the rest of the world (yes, perhaps even an ivory tower) where people can reflect on the “big questions” that may not be directly related to the pressing fads of the moment. What happens when this education becomes more decentralized? Can we trust that individuals will independently seek out all of the different perspectives they’re likely to get in an undergraduate humanities course?

I reflect on what Stanley Fish wrote in the New York Times a few weeks ago: basically, that academics, and by extension universities, should just abandon trying to be relevant and focus instead on academic inquiry for the sake of it alone. I think that would be unwise. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a great thing, and we need independent places (i.e. not ones funded by corporations) that will ensure that people continue to seek it. But relevance is important too, and while it should not be the only goal, it needs to be a goal.

In short, the current academic system needs to be refined from within, not by walking away and shrugging off all its problems. (Besides, academic types don’t have a magical land in Colorado where we can retreat and live out our ideals of hard work and free love and no taxes.) Professors and administrators could start with being honest about the reality of life as a grad student, i.e. mostly unemployed without the health coverage Pannapacker so enjoys having. And they should stop denigrating non-academic career choices by framing them as a continuation on the path of intelligent, creative thinking, not a deviation from it.

And then we – all of us – can start changing the way we view “amateur” non-academics outside the system, and invite them in. Let’s not exclude people with insider jargon and inaccessible writing. Let’s make a place inside the ivory tower for people who think about the “big questions” of life outside of it, so we can examine the practical implications of our ideas. Let’s show the vocationalists that “academic” is not a dirty word but one that can bring significant insight and positive change to the world outside universities, as well as in its libraries.

Let’s ask people to help us hold up the world, instead of just dropping it.

New Money and How To Buy Things Anonymously

June 16, 2011

The more I read, the more I am determined that privacy/anonymity vs. openness/sharing will be the defining dichotomy of our age. The more web sites start to track pieces of information about what we buy and sell, where we browse, and what we like, the greater the number of calls for regulation and privacy protection. The battle lines between privacy and the power of information have been drawn.

But now there is a way to keep spending private, at least. Bitcoin, a digital currency allegedly created by hacker Satoshi Nakamoto, contains complex encryptions that allow its holders to buy and sell anything, anywhere in the world over the Internet, without revealing their real names or having to pay any kind of exchange fees or taxes. (For an interesting and accessible overview of Bitcoins and their implications, see this article in ars technica.) Bitcoin has all the advantages of cash – anonymity – but without the hassle of having to physically transport it anywhere. It also has all the advantages of a “trust-based electronic currency,” such as credit cards, in that it allows instant, ubiquitous transactions, but without the need for an identity attached to them.

Bitcoin has consequently been embraced by Anonymous, an anarchic online community that first came to mass public attention when it disrupted the sites of PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and others in response to perceived censoring of WikiLeaks last year. It is disrupting them again with Bitcoin, but this time more indirectly.

Normally, when new currencies appear on the scene, they have a hard time with what is termed “adoption and valuation,” that is, getting people to use them, and determining what they are worth compared with other currencies. New currencies are usually the prerogative of federal governments, or supranational ones (as in the case of the Euro), which automatically gives them a head start because citizens need to pay taxes in the new currency and generally use it to make purchases. Even then, as this history of the Euro points out, there are remarkably complex logistical and emotional hurdles to overcome, from swapping the money found in ATMs to choosing the images and words for the notes that so many people identify with to establishing the value of the new currency against other existing ones.

It is very rare for new currencies to spring up without a national backing, and perhaps Bitcoin has only been able to gain attention and adoption of the market because it is digital, and thus doesn’t have the physical/logistical barriers to overcome. But why are people using it? Just like a new national currency, Bitcoin has appeared and boldly declared that it stands for a new order, in a sense. Its users can now engage in economic activity outside of the sphere of government control, or the control of multinational credit corporations, in total privacy.

As an article on BigThink puts it, “You don’t need a banking or trading account to buy and trade Bitcoins – all you need is a laptop. They’re like bearer bonds combined with the uber-privacy of a Swiss bank account, mixed together with a hacker secret sauce that stores them as 1’s and 0’s on your computer.” Bitcoin represents the complete disengagement of the buyer from the seller, the furthest distance yet discovered from bartering or exchanging one good for another. Purchases now require approval from no-one.

Is this radical new territory, or a return to what currency is intended to be? As a means of exchange, currency technically need not have an identity attached to it. It stands as a measure of commensurability; buyers and sellers can rely on the value of the currency as a standard without having to ascertain the value of goods being exchanged every time they buy or sell. And it was only very recently in the trajectory of human history that currency was created with no direct correlation to an existing good like gold (called fiat currency), but with instead the backing of a national government with whose laws and regulations the buying and selling parties tacitly agree to comply. New virtual currencies like Bitcoin are similar to all modern government currencies in that their value is not intrinsic but imposed by decree (and perceived rarity, and a bunch of other factors). But they lack the oversight of institutions and regulators that comes with a national means of exchange.

Whether Bitcoins will remain as seemingly ominous and valuable as they have recently become is questionable. This week, the Bitcoin plot thickened with an apparent heist in which approximately $500 000 worth of Bitcoins were stolen from one veteran user. The theft pointed to the limits of exchange without third-party oversight, whether in the form of government or a corporation to monitor fraud and persecute offenders. Is the anonymity of exchange worth the risk?

It seems as though this has come down to the same “privacy vs.  security” debate that has dominated public discourse since the rise of the Internet (and, of course, September 11). In all likelihood, some third-party institutions will step in to regulate Bitcoin trading with limited liability and criminal activity investigations, as the above-linked article details. But these would decrease the anonymity of the users of the currency, in some ways negating the whole point. Perhaps the main take-away of Bitcoin is  that anonymity, in today’s world, has its trade-offs too, and can never be an absolute good.

Scandal, Scandal! Lisez Plus Ici…or Not

June 7, 2011

What is it with the French?

Despite the puritanical Anglo-American attitude toward sex that supposedly stifles our expression of sexual content in North America, the French press is muzzled to a far greater extent than our own. Titillating details of adultery, hypocrisy and intrigue remain untold. As one weekly puts it, “News always stops at the bedroom door.”

There has been a wave of self-examination on the part of the French media in response to the recent scandal involving former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a hotel maid, and a rape charge. In response, Matthew Fraser, formerly editor of the National Post and now an academic in France, wrote a thought-provoking explanation of why the French media clam up just when politicians’ private sins and indiscretions could be selling millions of papers. He describes modern France as a guilt-free land of entitlement where power essentially allows the ruling elites – historically monarchs, but now politicians and top-level bureaucrats – to do whatever they want without fear of it being reported. And even if it is reported, they respond with a Gallic shrug as if to say, “And?”

While I’m not sure I agree that a culturally Catholic country can be devoid of guilt (!), or that French journalists are mostly unconcerned with facts (another argument Fraser makes), I am intrigued by his remarks on privacy. In France, privacy trumps freedom of speech. In Canada, the US, and especially Britain, it is just the opposite. Britain doesn’t even have a formal privacy law; thus, newspapers tend to print first and ask questions (or defend against a libel claim) later. Case in point: my favourite footballer is currently embroiled in an adultery scandal that he (unsuccessfully) attempted to quash before publication with a full court superinjuction. The matter even came up in Parliament.

Going to such lengths to stop the presses seems ridiculous, but on the other hand, once a story is out, and has been seized upon and exaggerated beyond recognition by numerous blogs, tweets, and other retellings, the damage is done – even if the content is inaccurate. Such lengths are standard in France. The French legal system, in order to treat all citizens as equals before the law, grants everyone the same level of privacy. For famous people, this amounts to establishing legal walls which severely limit the stories that can be told by the official press. There are cultural walls too, which results in a lot of open secrets in France that are never officially acknowledged.

The Public Face and the Tipping Point

Do we really need to know all the gory details? Perhaps we Anglo-American types have baser instincts for needing juicy gossip, because I suspect that if the French public were really clamouring for a story, the media would give it to them, particularly in an age when newspapers are going bankrupt on a weekly basis. But it is difficult to argue that salicious tales of seduction by the ruling elites are really essential information for the public at large.

Unless, that is, they reflect poorly on a leader’s judgment or character. Does personal biography matter? So asked the New York Times recently, in an interesting series of short opinion pieces that explored how much we really need to know about our elected officials. Should they be considered differently because they are famous? The general consensus is no. Should they be considered differently because they are powerful? Absolutely. Hypocrisy and corruptibility are certainly unattractive characteristics in figures of authority, and even I will admit to a healthy sense of schadenfreude when an undeserving hero is brought down by an enterprising journalist. The trouble arises when determining what information the public needs to judge a public figure’s accountability. What is the line between a public role and the private person? Are both real? Are both fair game for reporting?

An important duty of the media is to hold public figures to account for their actions. Sometimes they don’t go far enough. Fraser writes that in France:

…there a legal barrier between private and public lives — though when Mitterrand installed his parallel family in a state residence at taxpayers expense, the French media still observed obedient silence.

Then-President Mitterand’s tacit second family may not have been newsworthy, but there is evidently a tipping point, and one that has been reached recently: with the explosion of the DSK scandal in all its gory detail, particularly the charge of rape, a line was crossed and the media floodgates opened. Several prominent French women have since opened up about the sexual harassment they faced from politicians, colleagues, and others. It’s a dialogue that needs to be had, certainly, in order to advance women’s rights in France and break down one more barrier that prevents women from speaking up.

It is the job of the media to advance that debate, and perhaps they can do so most persuasively by bringing in anecdotal evidence of famous persons and their misdeeds. The joy and curse of leadership is the opportunity to set an example for others. Those in the public eye are often leaders, by virtue of their skills, hard work, or simply that others look to them for guidance. As such, they are not mere private citizens, and their actions – all of them – deserve scrutiny. Scandals show that leaders are human too, for better or worse, and knowing about them helps the public evaluate which leaders should stand and which should fall.

What Canada Desperately Needs: Visionary Leadership

April 20, 2011

Many people have been calling Canadians parochial throughout this election. Apparently we’re not comfortable with our leaders having opinions about politics outside our own country (and casting votes to back them up). We are apparently less involved internationally than ever before, especially in leadership roles. As a country, Canada is “retreating in on itself, clinging to the security of its own cultural stereotypes.”

Quite frankly, I think the kind of parochialism described above is but an aspiration at this point. I would love to see nation-wide parochialism. Instead, we have something closer to the real, historical definition of the word: looking no further than one’s own church parish. The campaign has showcased several variations of such limited and narrow outlooks, and the dialogue has largely been confined to pet causes, special interests, and the concerns of small minorities.

The real tragedy of this election is not that we will have spent several hundred thousand dollars to get to about the same place, give or take a few seats. It is that we – led by our fearful leaders – have failed to take the opportunity to engage in dialogue about the path Canada is on, and more importantly, what that path should be. This election has mostly been fought over the past: disrespect for Parliament, carpetbaggery, where money was and wasn’t spent, what was and wasn’t allowed to happen, and generally the same tired policies and pot shots we’ve heard for years.

Thus far, there has been a woeful lack of debate about the real issues that will shape the future, such as youth unemployment and skill development, education, and the role of urban areas. Nobody has yet talked about a solution to the looming crisis in pensions. The critical and contentious issue of technology scored nary a mention at the debates. Overall, there is a chronic lack of an overriding, national vision.

This is why I cringe every time I hear someone talk about how Gilles Duceppe would be the best person to elect. “He’s just sooo charismatic, and such a great speaker.” Indeed. (Especially en français in comparison to the other party leaders whose first language is English, n’est-ce pas?) Let’s not forget that he is running on a platform that, 150 years ago, would likely have been considered treasonous, and continues to act as a catalytic force for ill in Canadian politics.

It is very easy for Gilles Duceppe and his Bloc Party colleagues to say whatever is most appealing to Canadians because 1) they know they will never have enough power to actually act on any of their promises; 2) they know they will never have to find any money for their schemes; and 3) since they are at heart a regional party, they need not come up with any coherent vision. They can borrow from the left and the right with no regard for the practicality of their position. As Tasha Kheriddin wrote recently in the National Post:

For federalists, the Bloc continues to represent an immovable force, not only an obstacle to a majority government, but a siphon for political talent and resources which would otherwise be deployed in the other parties, most notably the Tories and the NDP.

Instead of allowing federal politics to develop on a left-right continuum, as in the Rest of Canada, the Bloc continues to perpetuate the federalist-separatist dichotomy, and run an effective extortion scheme to boot.

Basically, the Bloc constitutes a wedge between voters in Quebec and national policies enacted by widely-supported national parties.

I don’t mean to vilify the Bloc above all others, as there are several parties at fault here. I have heard the Green Party criticized for similar reasons, namely being a single-issue party. I can certainly see the merits of that argument, given that the Green party’s platform is neither particularly left- nor right-wing, but mixes and matches policies to suit its “Green” foundation. (It also siphons votes and resources away from other parties, ones that could perhaps be more usefully employed formulating policies within mainstream parties that have a hope of being elected in numbers.)

I personally disagree and think the Green Party is coherent in its vision of offering policies undergirded by a focus on sustainability, in the same way the Tories offer policies broadly based on the principles of personal accountability and small government, and Liberals’ policies are broadly based on the idea of equality of opportunity and greater state involvement. What differentiates the national parties from the Bloc is that their policies (for the most part) allow Canada to work together without demanding rights and special privileges for some and not all.

To be clear, I don’t believe that parties should stick strictly to where their political forebears have trod. But political parties are important because they organize political thought and allow voters to make decisions based on what they imagine will be consistent ideologies. No election campaign can cover every possible scenario, so we want those we elect to act along predictable lines when something unexpected occurs. Those who elected George W. Bush in 2000 should not have been surprised that he reacted to the September 11 attacks as a conservative Republican would; this was the blueprint he ran on. With some exceptions, right-wing American politicians have often shown less regard for multilateral institutions like the UN than their left-wing counterparts. It is part of their ideology.

The American comparison is useful because it also shows us what a visionary candidate for a nation’s leader looks like. Vision is a mandatory quality for American presidents. They need to be able to energize vast numbers of voters into believing in their vision of the future. George W. Bush had a vision, that of “compassionate conservatism.” Obama certainly had a vision – of hope, change, empowerment of communities and international bodies, and support for social programs. Some might argue that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price for enacting his vision of an America in partnership with other nations around the globe in such a short time after taking office.

The last Canadian PM to win a Nobel Peace Prize was Lester Pearson. During his minority government, he implemented what are now seen as the signature Canadian social programs and icons, including universal healthcare, the CPP, and our current national flag.

Do any of our current potential national leaders have that kind of vision? Please, someone, convince me – my vote is up for grabs.

A Communism of Pain

April 10, 2011

When I was younger I thought often about the idea of a communism of pain.  If all humans were somehow linked to the extent that pain could spread itself out among many, what would be the net effect at the individual level? How much pain – in terms of an impossible-to-quantify objective amount – is out there in the world? Would the extreme suffering of the few spread out to a chronic, if manageable, level of pain for the rest of us? Or would it, distributed amongst the billions of humans on the planet, amount to almost nothing in a single one?

Of course, I understand that pain is a biological imperative, our bodies’ way of telling us that something is wrong and that we should stop whatever we are doing that is causing it. But from a purely sociological (or maybe political) perspective, what would be the result of averaging it out? Perhaps equal distribution wouldn’t be optimal – after all, communism in theory espouses taking from each according to his ability, and giving to each according to his need. Varying pain thresholds might in some way be taken into account. Or perhaps those most in a position to inflict pain could be those who felt it most deeply. (No pain, no gain, as it were.)

Actual sharing of pain through embedded receptors or similar technological enhancements is more in the realm of science fiction or post/transhumanism than reality at present. But empathetic pain-sharing does in fact exist. Recent research has indicated that the same areas of the brain are activated in those observing someone in pain as the actual sufferer. In both cases, our anterior insular cortex, the area that monitors how we feel about things inside our bodies, and the anterior singular cortex, the part of the brain that processes emotions and attention, are engaged. Moreover, the empathetic response is greater the higher the level of affection for, or perceived identification with, the sufferer.

Pain expert Sean Mackey theorizes that pain empathy played a role in mammalian evolution by signalling those in distress so a pack could stick together, heal together, and prosper. Noted primatologist Frans de Waal would agree. He studies bonobos, the great apes scientists now believe are as closely related to humans as chimpanzees. He has concluded, after studying bonobos extensively, that empathy is a much more basic instinct than many consider it to be, and much less intellectual. Instead of a fairness rationalization, or a sense that one can imagine himself in another’s position, he believes that empathy is much deeper, and less complex. His theory explains why infants show empathetic responses to fellow children crying, but only learn theory of mind, or the more intellectual basis for understanding others, around age four. Incidentally, a physical basis for empathy also explains the contagious nature of yawning, as he has explored in other research.

Communist bonobo

A communist bonobo (picture slightly adapted) - does he feel our pain?

Bonobos are also noted for their very sexy way of solving all kinds of problems, and for generally displaying much more cooperative and less competitive behaviour than that of chimpanzees. This is significant because the narrative of competition has coloured much of the modern period’s image of itself, and its image of the way early humans lived – nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes once wrote. De Waal locates the competitiveness myth around the time of the Industrial Revolution, as a necessary backbone for the proto-capitalist system that was then forming, and which has now come to dominate global economics and politics.

The political bent of the concept might be significant. A growing number of studies has pointed to those on the more liberal left end of the political spectrum being more open-minded and thus more empathetic than their more conservative counterparts. Tolerance, inclusiveness, and a passion for social justice have recently been linked with both political liberalism and high levels of empathy. (One might ask if this implies that communism is a political representation of empathy, which could set off hours of debate, I’m sure.)

Given the general trend toward a more liberal way of thinking and behaving over the past hundred or so years, and the ever-expanding list of encounters with “others” that telecommunications, air travel, and globalization has allowed us, is it possible that humans are in fact more empathetic today than they were, say, when Victoria ruled England? Or when Arthur did? Would the apparent recent setback of declining empathy and rising conservatism then be a blip, or a reversal?

And if we are more empathetic now, does that mean we inflict less pain on others than in the past?  Sadly, I believe conflicts arising out of urbanization, a skyrocketing global population, and scarce resources – coupled with the arrival every year of new ways to maim and torture others – would signal otherwise. After all, it appears that humans also share enjoyment of schadenfreude, the pleasure in seeing others’ misfortune (apparently as much as a good meal). Similar to the way being in a group can magnify feelings of competitiveness, it can also augment satisfaction in seeing rivals fail. This enjoyment also carries a political twist: in one study, Democrats were found to be secretly happy when reading about the recession, thinking it might benefit the party at the next election. And the stronger the political identification, the stronger the sense of schadenfreude.

It seems, then, that we are hardwired both for empathy towards those in pain, and a delicious satisfaction with seeing it. Perhaps a communism of pain would therefore make us more sensitive to the suffering of others, but all the more likely to enjoy it.

(Note: Almost all of the articles linked to in this post were fascinating to read; I’d highly recommend perusing the ones on primates and schadenfreude in particular.)