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Fifty years ago today, Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War On Poverty in his State of The Union address.

It’s a war that we will never win, of course: there will always be those people who slip through the cracks of society for any number of reasons, whether through personal fault, societal oppression, or happenstance.

But it would be ludicrous to say that because we can’t eradicate it entirely, we shouldn’t try. Poverty is a horrible thing. It’s endemic to our society. It’s often invisible – how many of you, honestly, spend any amount of time in neighborhoods where every other house is boarded up, falling apart, condemned, or some combination of the above?

In the decade following LBJ’s declaration, the percentage of people in poverty fell from over 1/4 of the American population to less than 1/8. And it has been on the uptick ever since.

Our standard of living has improved since then. It is true that many people who live in poverty have color televisions and cars (that old canard that Republicans love to trot out). But these people are also often not food-secure, and they use their cars to get to jobs that don’t quite make ends meet. Color televisions are cheap these days. Food is not. And it is the height of intellectual dishonesty to claim that our standard of living is higher across the board when more people live in poverty now than did during the recession of the 1970s. Sure it’s true on paper. It’s most assuredly not true in the eyes of the elderly woman who gets her one meal a day from a charity and eats that meal in front of the color television she bought 20 years ago.

The War On Poverty can never be won. Not ever. But we can win battle after battle after battle in an effort to make life just a little bit better for our fellow humans.

Trigger Warning/Author’s note: this post contains a discussion of rape and underage sexual activity. It is also a very personal post.

The subject of rape has been in the news again recently, specifically in regard to Serena Williams’s recent remarks about the Steubenville victim.

Of course, any time the subject of rape appears in the news, there is invariably a chorus of people talking about how victim X shouldn’t have been doing such and such, and if the wanton trollop had just covered up her tits and not drunk to abandon, she wouldn’t have been raped.

Every time I see someone saying this, I counter with the standard litany that we can’t blame the victim, that it’s the rapist’s fault and theirs alone, that women already know they need to be safe and they don’t need to be informed of it again by someone who wasn’t there.

I’m tired of it. I’m tired of repeating myself over and over only to be told that it’s okay to say the victim’s behavior was incorrect even if it’s ultimately the rapist’s fault. Rape is not about some woman wearing something too revealing and getting some guy so aroused that he just can’t help himself. Rape is about power. If you have been raped, you know this. If you haven’t been raped, you only know this if you’ve listened to people who have been.

I’m going to tell you a story. I was eight years old. It was a typical school day. There was a break between classes and I stopped in the bathroom to relieve myself. I finished, and as I was turning around, an older boy entered the room. I didn’t know him; I think he was in sixth grade. I just know he was a lot bigger than me. He grabbed me, and I thought I was in for another round of bullying. But this was different. He pushed me into a stall. He came in with me and shut the stall door behind him. He was blocking it with his body.

He told me to kneel. I still had no idea what was going on, but I had started to cry by this point. And then he pulled it out. I looked up at him and he said “suck it.”

“What?”

“Put it in your mouth.”

And I did. I don’t remember the next few moments at all. I do remember him eventually pulling out and laughing at me. “If you tell anyone, I will kick your ass.” Then I remember him hauling ass from the bathroom as he finished zipping himself back up.

It was my first sexual experience of any kind. I was lucky that my father had already explained what my sex organs were, and I wasn’t ashamed of them. I still felt shamed by the assault I had just faced, however. It wasn’t because I had put another boy’s cock in my mouth, either. I actually didn’t mind that part, and maybe part of me even liked that part. But I was ashamed because had been degraded and abused. My dignity had been completely taken away from me in that moment. I didn’t really know the words for what happened, but I knew how it made me feel. I got up off my knees, still crying, wiped my face, washed my hands, and left the bathroom to go on to class.

I really have no idea what made him do it. I never will. But having experienced it, I understand one thing. Rape is not about sex. It is not about arousal. It is not about being horny. It is about dominance and power. Any sexual component of the rape is entirely separated from the shame and humiliation that results. By extension, any arousal that leads a rapist to initiate a rape is entirely separated from the rapist’s desire to control and dominate the victim. And someone who rapes is not doing so because the victim was too enticing. They do it because they can, and they know they can, and something in them makes them think it’s okay, and society validates that feeling that it’s okay by pretending the victim’s behavior was somehow the cause.

I was raped in an elementary school bathroom because I happened to be in the presence of a predator. The girl in Steubenville was raped because she happened to be in the presence of multiple predators. Maybe if she hadn’t gone to that party, she wouldn’t have been raped. By that logic, maybe if I’d held it in until I got home that day, I wouldn’t have been raped.

Don’t talk to me about rape unless you’ve been raped. If you haven’t gone through it, I guarantee I know more about it than you do.

I have a tendency to destroy the things that I create. I estimate that I have destroyed approximately 99% of everything I’ve ever created that wasn’t research or school-related, whether it’s creative writing or music. In an effort to end that cycle of destruction, I’ve decided to do the exact opposite. I’m working on a short story that I think is pretty good, and I am publishing the first draft of it here. This is really scary for me. I think it’s absolutely atrocious and that I will be laughed at, despite the fact that I do actually have confidence in the things that I do.

So anyway, here is a link to the first draft of the first thing I’ve written in years that is not destined for the circular file:

Face To Face – V1

Comments are welcome.

Niall Ferguson is an asshole. There, I said it. He’s a tenured professor at Harvard (of history, not economics, not that that prevents him from opening his stupid gawp about economics) and clearly worthy of respect, and I’m calling him an asshole.

I’m doing so because he deserves it. He’s said plenty of stupid things in the past, but his recent remarks about Keynes were not just stupid and uninformed (as he himself has pointed out), but also rather bigoted.

Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.

That’s not the part that’s upsetting to me, though, because Niall Ferguson is an asshole, and most of us already knew that. The upsetting part is how few people are even mentioning what a bigoted statement Mr. Ferguson made, and instead treating it as if it were a serious intellectual argument. People all over the world of economics, even when saying Mr. Ferguson was wrong, don’t seem to realize (or care) how incredibly offensive his remarks truly were.

I am a gay man. I am childfree. I am polyamorous. My legacy is mostly going to be my ideas, and any savings I manage to accumulate over my lifetime will not pass to the children I don’t have, but rather to various nonprofit foundations or schools or the like when I die.

Does this make me incapable of thinking about the long run? Of course not. Does this mean that I am predisposed to think only of the here and now? No. Does my relatively hedonistic lifestyle mean that I’m a carefree libertine, living only for today without a thought for tomorrow, incapable of designing policies for the long run? Not in the slightest.

And that’s because I’m a fucking economist. I’m an economist who thinks about the short run, the long run, and everything between. I’m a member of the Long Now Foundation who thinks that space exploration is a great idea for the future of mankind, despite its lack of direct benefit to humans right now. One of the fields I plan to specialize in is economic development, and you really can’t get much more long-run than that. It doesn’t matter that I’m white, overweight, gay, atheist, polyamorous, or, yes, even childfree.

So we can talk about how sodomy and usury were seen as sinful because of Aristotle, or about how Keynes’s quote was taken out of context, or about how maybe Mr. Ferguson wasn’t entirely wrong (and seriously? Fuck that guy). But the point everyone is missing here is that Mr. Ferguson has impugned the abilities of every bright, motivated gay kid who might want to go into economics. And this is not the first time someone has made this argument, and nobody seems to be stepping up and saying “that argument is bullshit - being gay doesn’t make someone a totally shortsighted hedonist, and saying so is offensive“.

That failure to call him out is going to discourage entry of gay students into the field. It’s going to keep economics a club mostly for straight white males, and as a result the field will rot and die as it loses relevance to anyone else. How’s that for considering long-run outcomes?

So allow me to say it. What Mr. Ferguson said is offensive, it is bigoted, and it needs to be seen for what it is. It is like saying that women can’t make good short-run models because all they know how to do is cook and clean and care for children, or saying that black people can’t make good financial economists because they aren’t as good at saving as white people. It is that offensive and devoid of merit. Excusing it or analyzing it or trying to extract a kernel of truth from it does nothing but minimize what truly is a bigoted statement.

Mr. Ferguson has apologized. Here’s my favorite part:

If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?

Wow, Mr. Ferguson. Some of my best friends are black, too. Fuck. You.

fuckyou

Things have value. We can talk about this value in monetary terms, but for better or for worse, everything has a value – how much someone is willing to pay for something. In the world of economics and finance, we often extend this idea into present value (PV) – how much something is worth to us right now – and future value (FV) – how much something will be worth to us in the future. However, the concept of future value as it’s normally conceived is actually rather short-sighted in my opinion. I recently happened upon an argument that I think can serve to illustrate this quite well.

Some background

About a week ago, Daniel Kuehn made this remark almost as an aside in a post about scientific research:

I take a long-term perspective on growth too. I’m not just thinking of the next Apple… I like to think about the next planet we settle too.

It’s a fair point – essentially, Daniel’s saying that he’s not just looking at specific technological innovations that will help people right now – he’s also looking down the road at a more amorphous set of potential innovations that will help people in the future.

Ryan Murphy replied with a rather in-depth response to Daniel’s statement by pointing out that the perceived benefits of space exploration far outstrip their actual usefulness:

Ultimately, I believe that space exploration is just the most preeminent example of a white elephant in developed countries. It is a project chosen because it is big and flashy, not because it will pass a cost-benefit test under a reasonable parameterization.

I would highly encourage anyone who reads this to read Ryan Murphy’s entire response. He goes into a lot of depth, and his argument is well put together, although I think he’s ultimately wrong.

Daniel replied to Ryan’s response by mostly agreeing with him (as do I) but then pointing out the major fallacy in Ryan’s logic:

The point is that in one hundred years humans are living on Mars and the moon and we are thinking about how to get to the stars. As an added bonus, the human species is more robust to catastrophes on Earth. It will be an inflection point in the history of the human species that will be remembered for millennia. The industrial revolution will be considered a minor antecedent to the point when we “slipped the surly bonds of Earth”. When I think of what science can do, more gadgets that we enjoy today are always nice, but I think of the millennia of humans to come and how they will live as well. Think of what a big difference it makes that you’re alive in 2013 rather than 1913 or (God forbid) 1813. The idea of living in 1013 is unthinkable. The point isn’t an Apple product, although that’s obviously great (I’m told – I have no Apple products – my wife has one). The point is a new level of human existence and mastery of its surroundings. This, of course, is not necessarily going to motivate a welfare maximizing individual on Earth today, even with relatively low discount rates. That, of course, is part of the problem. Human flourishing is both a product of optimizing behavior and a hostage to optimizing behavior.

The long now

Daniel’s absolutely right here. He’s talked in the past about a concept called “temporal autarky“, and I think his analysis is spot on. (And really, I could not love that term any more if I tried. I will be using it to talk about this concept from now on.) We can’t interact with people from the future, so we’re certainly not going to be concerned with trading with them or improving their welfare. For all intents and purposes, we as primarily selfish economic agents are concerned only with things that will affect us within our lifetimes. We spend money now to purchase things for ourselves now. We invest money now so we’ll have more money in the future. Occasionally we invest in education or other things that don’t directly give us benefit, but we’re still concerned with our legacies and how it will affect us and others’ memories of us. We are optimizing our behavior for us and possibly for our direct descendants.

I am a member of an organization called the Long Now Foundation. I mention this only to explain a little bit of my perspective here. The Long Now Foundation is based around the idea that our human perspective is quite limited, and that we should be at least partially focused on the far-off future, not just what we normally think of as the future. As an example, one of our quirks is that we number years beginning with 0 (so for example, we are currently in the year 02013, not 2013) – we do this so that we get in the habit of thinking of the implications of the Year 10,000 switchover.

Yes, I know it’s silly. But I have a point here. It’s actually tied up with the name of my blog: Extraordinary Insignificance. I am one of the more than 7 billion humans on earth. I am one of the more than 100 billion humans who have ever lived. I am one of the unfathomably large number of humans who ever will live. Essentially, I am utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe.

Except that I’m not insignificant. I have significance to my loved ones. I have significance to my employers. I will have significance one day to the people I hope to one day teach. I will have significance to the academic community… and so will my ideas. In fact, my ideas, if they are of any value, will hopefully have significance long after I’m dead to people who are not yet born. Let’s expand it further into the realm of the improbable and say that my ideas touch off some new area of research of which I can’t even conceive right now.

Clearly, the value of my ideas to me would be less than the value of my ideas to people in the future. But take a look again at the normal language of present value and future value. The entire framework that we use for investing and depreciation works only over the lives of those making the assessment. In this situation, the PV of my ideas and FV of my ideas are absolutely dwarfed by future value to future humans (FVFH) of my ideas.

The FVFH of space exploration

The PV of space exploration is rather low. We got some cool stuff out of the Space Race, and ongoing research is giving us a steady trickle of things that make our lives better. I agree with Daniel and Ryan that this trickle is not worth its cost. The FV of space exploration is also rather low. We might be able to get some better satellite orientations and find out how we can more effectively live and work in zero-G situations within our lifetimes. Daniel and Ryan both talk about the psychic benefits of space exploration: Daniel is somewhat positive toward them, Ryan is downright dismissive of them. I probably side with Ryan more on this – the psychic benefit of space exploration was probably a lot higher during the 80′s when most people still cared about this stuff. These days, probably not so much.

But the FVFH of space exploration… I don’t want to gush, but just think about it for a second! If there were a colony on Mars, and we had found some way to terraform it and set up a stable, liberal government free from all of earth’s baggage? Come on. The FVFH of that scenario is astronomical (pun intended). Daniel brings up the point that humanity is better protected from disasters in that scenario. All that’s going through my mind is the trade and innovation that would spur. And think about it – if there’s a mechanism to have a permanent colony on another planet, what’s to stop future humans from building a colony ship and going even further out? Again, the trade and innovation possibilities alone are astounding in this situation.

The problem, of course, is that none of that future value accumulates to any of the people making investment decisions now. And just like in so many other problems with disconnected incentives, there is a conflict between the people making a decision and some of the people that decision affects. And in this case, the people who are adversely affected by the decision can’t even give their input or register their discontent, since most of them won’t be born for a very long time.