Akrasia for you

The merest coincidence with the Labor Day interruption, but a turn to British politics, courtesy of the great Fintan O’Toole. He lays bare a striking (sorry – this is not the time!) aspect of Brexit and especially the loathsome Boris Johnson, as smarter than he is playing – but for the sake of, well, you will believe it:

[T]his raises the two central questions about Johnson—does he believe any of his own claims, and do his followers in turn believe him? In both cases, the answer is yes, but only in the highly qualified way that an actor inhabits his role and an audience knowingly accepts the pretense. Johnson’s appeal lies precisely in the creation of a comic persona that evades the distinction between reality and performance.

The Greek philosophers found akrasia mysterious—why would people knowingly do the wrong thing? But Johnson knows the answer: they do so, in England at least, because knowingness is essential to being included. You have to be “in on the joke”—and Johnson has shown just how far some English people will go in order not to look like they are not getting it. The anthropologist Kate Fox, in her classic study Watching the English, suggested that a crucial rule of the national discourse is what she called The Importance of Not Being Earnest: “At the most basic level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of ‘earnestness.’” Johnson has played on this to perfection—he knows that millions of his compatriots would rather go along with his outrageous fabrications than be accused of the ultimate sin of taking things too seriously.

“Boris being Boris” (the phrase that has long been used to excuse him) is an act, a turn, a traveling show. Johnson’s father, Stanley, was fired from his job at the World Bank in 1968 when he submitted a satiric proposal for a $100 million loan to Egypt to build three new pyramids and a sphinx. But the son cultivated in England an audience more receptive to the half-comic, half-convincing notion that the EU might be just such an absurdist enterprise.

Do you know any people like this? They would rather make fun of something than think or reckon seriously with ramifications or consequences. How boring! Nihilists to the core, though I prefer the more direct soubriquet – assholes.

And yes, yes you do know some, unfortunately, probably more than a few.

Reflections on the Passing of a Car

Value – noun, verb, -ued, -u·ing.

A colleague used this term in a written draft recently and it immediately triggered in me the impulse for the equivalent of an electronic scratch-through; so much do I detest the term as generally construed but especially in the context of quantifying the benefits of something that should be considered in terms of quality.

So, given such a distaste and allergy, the sensible thing is to turn sharply back into the term, which I did on my walk this morning.

One of the qualities still heartily propping up Our Way® is the skewed preference we preserve for the wrong things – wrong in the context of resource depletion and ghg generation, the burning of coal and general wasting of essentials that is the chief characteristic of 1st world progress. We’re not that far away from being able to shift our priorities – the rank of what we value. But we’re also not close to actually doing it, either. We basically market ourselves vis-à-vis that transition as far into the future as possible, so much so as to make the possibility appear remote and implausible, and largely making this so, as well.

Why this disconnect between capability and action? Value (n.,v.) seems to be the culprit.

An example close to home, pun intended: We could value the ability to commute to work on foot more than the ability to drive that Porsche or BMW we cannot afford anyway. Now this one statement is chock-full of some of the neat contradictions that define us. But we do reserve a high degree of importance for the kind of car we can drive, not in any way comparable to that which we attach to walking – which we associate with drudgery as well as a kind of personal failure on the part of the walker. It takes excessive time and energy. But the car, its excessive costs and energy externalities, delivers a kind of status walking cannot touch. The qualitative difference at the center of our ability to value one over the other, despite the terrible quantities of money and energy demanded to hold this equation in place – not to mention the quantities of time and health extracted from us in the exchange – make the arrangement appear permanent and intractable. That’s not even considering the marketing to which we voluntarily submit ourselves and our consciences. Until we realize how we are not the ultimate beneficiaries of this arrangement and attach status value with being able to go car-less, indeed we are trapped within this tight little circle.

Yet it is easy to comprehend: were we availed of it, walking has just as much status potential, with the ability to do it everyday far superior to being trapped in a personal automobile.

Even supposing a person could conquer the desire to drive a Porsche or BMW and replace it with a preference for walking to the same destination, what would a person have to do in order to close the distance. The first order would be actually closing the distance, creating a real choice between the two modes of transportation. Granted, this is not the option for most people, and makes the question moot. But how to move the window? You would have to put value on living with proximity to work, food, school and play, with the ultimate prize being the ability to walk. In-town neighborhoods would be the most desirable (and most highly-valued, touché!); once they are fully occupied, demand drives development at the edges of walkable distances; to remain carless at these edges, public transportation infrastructure crops up to facilitate access to proximity – convenience, but not prioritized for personal automobiles. With this, a cascade of other values fall into place. You suddenly began to value other things that end with you/yours and quality re-enters the picture whereas before only quantity was considered: how many miles to work? How long will it take with traffic? How fast can we eat? How long can he wait at school for me to pick him up? How much does gas cost now? How much for new tires? Repairs?  A tune-up? There is no end to these questions. Their answers may change subtly but their nature does not. They worry and weigh upon us, but these questions are essential trivial – which itself worries and weighs on us, re-enforcing the circle.

We need the slippery slope of weightier issues and topics. Compare to: what is the walk doing to my weight? Am I feeling better with a little more exercise? What should we eat tonight? Is that new book store open? What should I read? What should I write? What new music would I like? Should we get the band back together? Could I learn Italian listening to a podcast five minutes a day? What is Coriander for? These questions are also endless, in a good way as you can see.

Which set of questions do you prefer?

Your Permanent Record

And I’m not talking about News Of the World glued B side up on your turntable. This is more of a …And you’ll know us by the trail of dead kind of thing, only crappier.

Land use. Really good s.f.streetsblog piece on this Transportation Research Board report on Driving and the Built Environment. Among the nuggets:

Finding No. 2 is: “The literature suggests that doubling residential density across a metropolitan area might lower household VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) by about 5 to 12 percent, and perhaps by as much as 25 percent, if coupled with higher employment concentrations, significant public transit improvements, mixed uses, and other supportive demand management measures.”

They note that were you to move the residents of Atlanta to an area built like Boston, you’d lower the Atlantans’ VMT per household by perhaps 25 percent.

Better land use results in reductions in energy use and carbon emissions, the authors report, from both direct and indirect causes. (Direct causes would be a reduction in VMT; indirect include things like longer vehicle lifetimes from reduced use and the greater efficiency of smaller or multi-family housing units.)

Not only that, but were you to move the residents of ATL to a Massachusetts-like locale, you’d have one hell of a lot of pissed off, not to mention cold, white people. Which could do wonders to re-invigorate the hypothetical Boston-like area punk scene. But really, these are the kinds of shake-ups that people (researchers) can actually quantify with models that make sense of the implications of changing things like where we build the new houses, in-fill vs exurbia, that will create the density that will in turn make mass transit a more realistic necessity – rather than the mere wish for better transportation options. There’s also the side benefit of helping us decouple the concepts of person liberty and freedom that have become so defined by isolation, three-car garages and the God-given right to front and back patches of personal lawn of minimum dimensions.

&%$#!… that’s not at all where I was going with this. Oh well.