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  • HungoverEconomist

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Over the course of every interaction between two persons, there are events which occur that impact - temporarily or permanently - the bond between the two. These events can bring the two closer or push them apart. Can strengthen or weaken the connection. I will refrain from categorizing these events from being positive and negative. They are simply events. There may be a tendency to think of events which bring people together as being positive, and those events which draw them apart as being negative. However, this would be assuming that closeness is the ideal. Instead, I will assume each connection has an optimal "closeness", and focus more on the events which impact that "closeness". In fact, I can think of several instances in which closeness is not the ideal - e.g. any abusive relationship. In addition, I will attempt to exclude my own personal experiences and bonds from the discussion, however, it is inevitable that they will leak onto the page.

Let me begin by quoting Erich Fromm, who pointedly wrote of mankind's unavoidable desire to form connections in The Art of Loving:

"Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside."

It is imperative - at a minimum, desirable - for us to form connections, to escape our aloneness. Case in point, I am writing this very post during a period in which I have decided to temporarily close my connections with the outside world. That is, I have decided to spend some time disconnected from all persons in my life. No email, no phone, no contact. However, in writing this post, I am currently reaching out (connecting) to any and all readers. Now, in my defense, as stated in my first post this blog's primary purpose is to express my thoughts in written word. A device to organize and formalize my perspective on whatever topic I fancy at the time. Thus, if questioned, I will claim that I am writing this post for my own self-exploration.

Back to the subject. Our first connection is formed with our mother (I am going to ignore the issue of twins, especially identical twins, or other multiple birth scenarios). The following connections which form are, typically, with our remaining - if any - family members. Eventually, we begin to build connections to individuals outside of our immediate family. I use build here, because it is usual for these connections to be formed under choice, whereas family connections are forced upon us. I wish to make the distinction between building and family connections, because I think that it is important to recognize the difference. I do not particularly subscribe to the notion of "blood is thicker than water". In fact, I tend to value those bonds which I have chosen to create and maintain higher than those with my immediate family. I will not further philosophize about the need and development of connections, but rather discuss the strength, persistence and durability of the connections and what we can learn from the response of the participants to events. So, the question at hand is: How do these connections evolve and change with the occurrence of events which affect them? And, more importantly, what can we learn from this evolution?

To visualize, I want to think of connections as bridges between two individuals in which traffic can flow in either direction. It is not the length of the bridge that matters, but the strength, integrity and capacity of the bridge. This is my notion of "closeness". The stronger the bridge, the greater capacity, the closer we are. We are both the engineer and the operator. We develop the design and implement the building of the bridge, as well as, monitor the traffic (in both directions), deciding what passes across the bridge. With this metaphor in mind, closeness can also refer to what we allow to pass across the bridge. It is important to note that the frequency of traffic is not necessarily the important factor here. The quality of what is passing across the bridge is important and can easily compensate for frequency. The more intimate and personal the information shared, the closer the connection.

As the engineer and operator of these bridges, we need to actively tend to them. Left unattended these bridges will experience decay. The rate of decay may vary across bridges; however, it is always present, even in the smallest amounts. Thus, these bridges require maintenance. Effort which must be exerted to maintain, monitor, repair, expand. Since these bridges are not free to the individual, it is informative to think about how individuals respond to various shocks, or events, which impact these connections. That is, given some cost to investing/effort in the connection (either to maintain or grow), the effort exerted can provide information on the individual's value of the connection. It is important to keep in mind that this is true for both parties involved. Not only can we infer something about the other individual's value of the connection, we can learn about our own. To be more explicit, the idea here is that individuals face a cost of exerting effort towards a given connection, and in return receive some benefit from the connection, i.e. their value of the connection. An individual weighs the costs and benefits of their effort when choosing how much they wish to invest in a bridge. Thus, given their costs, their effort can illuminate us on the value that they place on, or derive from, the connection.

A couple things to keep in mind. The costs and benefits are, unfortunately, mostly unobservable. This, of course, makes it difficult to make inferences from the observed behavior. I believe we can still learn much from paying attention to how individuals, and ourselves, put effort towards a connection. However, we must be aware that there may be errors in our estimate of the costs to the person, and that there are many factors which can influence an individuals' behavior, some which may not be directly related to the connection and some which we may be unaware of. For example, someone may be experiencing stress from work or family, which may cause a temporary drop in effort. And, it would be a mistake to attribute this fall in effort, due to the external stress, to a fall in their value of the connection. As this example highlights, these costs will vary over time. This is true for the value as well. Therefore, we must be cautious in placing too much weight on any one instance or event. Fortunately, with most bridges, we can observe the traffic and investment over time. Providing more instances and more information about the costs, benefits and effort. However, this does require us to be vigilant and open to receiving, and giving, information throughout the life of the connection. Always learning, always updating, always improving. Lastly, it is important to understand that one person's value of a connection and effort will almost certainly depend on the other person's effort. For example, they may infer, from low effort on my part, that I value the connection very little; they may respond in kind, and provide low effort as well. Therefore, their effort does not necessarily reflect a low potential value to them, but merely a response to my effort.

An example may be useful at this point. Suppose there is an established bridge between to persons, and that nothing outside of this connection is changing in a significant way - i.e. there are no external factors changing and affecting (increasing) the costs, or value. If one party begins, consistently, sharing less and/or more infrequently (reducing effort), then the inference to be made is that their value of that bridge has fallen. To highlight an additional point, I would like to make. Suppose that the individual continues to insist, via words, that they value the connection as before. Either there was some unobserved change in their costs, or they are misrepresenting their true value. Given that overtime we can adjust to changes in costs, even permanent ones; if this reduction in effort persists, then I am inclined to believe the latter is the case. Actions are often more informative than words - i.e. talk is cheap, effort is costly. While trust in one another is still essential, one's actions should be consistent with one's words.

This post is becoming quite long, which may be expected given the topic. However, I will wrap up this long rambling with one additional point (assuming I have made any, or at least any non-obvious ones). In the beginning of a relationship, the building of the bridge will inevitably require a higher level of investment and effort than during the maintenance phase, where there is a more "normal" level of effort. Episodes of growth or repair will also have an above "normal" level. These are periods where effort is spent to provide us with observations to learn about the intrinsic and potential value of the bridge. Therefore, it is expected that there will be a slowdown in effort after the initial building of the bridge, and we should not infer that this is a result of a fall in or low value of the connection. Since there will inevitably be fluctuations in effort due to various reasons, in attempting to infer the value or changes in that value, it is important to pay attention to persistent changes in the effort. Persistent falls in effort suggesting a lesser value and rises suggesting a greater value. An additional important aspect of these episodes of low or high effort is how quickly that effort returns to normal levels. For example, upon a negative shock, the rate at which one repairs the bridge may provide insight on how important the connection is to them. Slow repair may indicate that the individual places lower priority on the connection. This is assuming that the other party is providing effort to repair the bridge. As mentioned previously, if one person is not putting effort into the relationship, the other may respond with lower effort themselves.

The very astute observer may even be able to discern the very nature or intentions underlying one's effort. Regardless of their reasons, we can infer how much they value the connection, evaluate how much they "care". In addition, we may also be able to think about the decomposition of their effort and value, whether it is for narcissistic reasons or more altruistic ones. Since this requires assigning motive to an action, a greater understanding and knowledge of the individual is necessary here. And I would suggest even greater caution in making inferences about motives and intentions.

Lastly, I would like to stress (once again) the importance of being cautious in making any inferences. While there may be information provided, this information is very noisy and there are many things we do not observe. Pay attention, but do not be too quick to make conclusions. Listen, observe, reflect and, most importantly, communicate.

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  • HungoverEconomist

I would like to think about constructing a moral code. A set of rules which define appropriate, let's say good, behavior. Then, from these rules, we would have a basis for assessing our actions and conduct in life. The following disclaimer shall apply: I will not construct a complete moral code within this blog. Firstly, because that would be silly. Secondly, If I could, then I ought to spend less time blogging and more time solving the world's problems. Instead, I will suggest a construction method with the hope of obtaining some broad rules which can guide our actions for more simple situations, without considering the endlessly complex issues which a full moral code would need to address. How can we go about doing this?

Ideally, we would like to derive these rules from natural or universal principles. However, that would require knowing such natural or universal principles. Since we cannot simply observe these laws, “knowing” these laws would require developing a theory of such laws and then using that theory to deduce a moral code. Economics, along with many other sciences, attempts to make normative statements (what should be) by developing theories, deriving implications from that theory about how different actions affect the outcomes and, finally, determining which actions are optimal. Those actions which lead to the best outcomes. Similarly, in deriving a moral code, we would specify a model, a theory of natural laws, and then determine the optimal actions within that theory, i.e. a moral code. Unfortunately, models are approximations of the actual world and are subject to a myriad of misspecifications. Now, this may not be a significant problem if we are interested in a specific question, such as whether to increase/decrease benefits to unemployed workers. Modeling the outcome of such a change in policy would not necessarily require having a theory about global warming. Thus, we could abstract from issues pertaining to global warming and have a simplified theory about how people choose whether to search for a job or remain unemployed.

Unfortunately, if we want to derive a complete moral code, then we require a model, hopefully the true model, of the universe in its entirety. A theory of all-natural laws in which we can use to determine the optimal policies that we ought to follow. A theory that we cannot possibly hope to specify properly. Furthermore, even if we were able to specify such a model and identify it as the true model, it would be too complicated to enable us to derive any implications for outcomes and optimal policies. Rather than theorize, attempt to reveal and debate these natural laws. I want to propose a different approach. I would like to work backwards. Let's start by thinking about the sets of optimal policies for each possible model of the universe. Each set contains the moral code that would be deduced from the corresponding, potentially true, model of the universe. To codify morality, I want to identify the set of rules which makes up the intersection of these sets. That is, a rule is included in the moral code, if it is common to all moral codes derived from any possible model, including the true model. This procedure will potentially fail to identify rules which are in the set corresponding to the true model, but are not common to all other models. More importantly, this procedure will exclude rules which are not consistent with the true model from being part of the moral code. There is a trade-off here: We will be limiting the moral code by possibly missing rules which are consistent with the true model, but we will avoid including false rules which could lead to justifying immoral actions. As a result, we will be introducing more "grey area" into our morality, however, I believe the cost associated with including false rules which could then justify truly immoral actions are higher than those of limitations on evaluating actions imposed by a limited moral code. I would like to note that economics has many ways of dealing with model uncertainty which I am not employing here. The reason I am choosing the specific criteria above is my clear preference for limiting the moral code. More specifically, I am not interested in characterizing an entire moral code. There are countless situations, some paradoxical, which a complete moral code would need to address. However, for our daily lives, in which we do not encounter complicated moral dilemmas very often, there is less need for a fully characterized moral code. I am more interested in identifying broad rules which can generally be agreed upon by everyone and easily implemented in daily life, a sort of ad hoc moral code.

Can we identify any rules within the intersecting set, or is this set empty? I believe the following rule resides in the intersection: You ought not take action(s) which would hurt (impose a negative externality(ies)) on another individual. Considering any model in which good, in the traditional sense, is the basis of morality, then actively avoiding causing harm to another would certainly be among the optimal policies. First, it is important to note that I am considering only models in which the individual is the unit of analysis and I am not considering morality concerning aggregation of individuals. That is, I am abstracting from issues considering the "good of the many", and not addressing the societal trade-off between the common good and the individuals within that society. Second, the above rule focuses on action, and not on inaction. Leaving open and entire debate about whether it is immoral not to act in situations in which action may be helpful to another. Lastly, there are surely more rules within the intersection; rules which cover more specific situations and actions than the broad rule identified above. As the previous two comments suggest, identifying these additional rules would be required to more fully construct a suitable moral code.

To conclude, I am not interested in deducing a complete code within this post. I would like a simple, operational, moral code which can provide general guidance for common situations. A minimum set of rules we can all agree upon and follow. Limiting the set of rules has several virtues. First, by construction, we all agree on them. No matter your theory of the universe, or natural laws, the moral code constructed above is within the set of optimal rules that you would deduce from your specific beliefs. Second, it limits the ability to justify actions on moral grounds. For example, if you choose to be an asshole (which is a clear violation of the rule identified above), then you are simply choosing to act immoral. That immoral act may well be justifiable on other grounds. Not all acts which we deem good need be moral. The specific and complex rules required to justify such actions, or similar, would most likely not reside in the intersection of all possible models. Lastly, it limits the ability of people to pass moral judgement on one another. There are vast differences in the beliefs of individuals, and these differences can cause conflict, sometimes severe. With broad and common definitions of right and wrong, these "fundamental" differences would be removed and moral arguments against specific actions would no longer be valid. Take, for example, homosexuality. People (not I) argue that homosexual acts are morally wrong, citing the moral code laid out by, say, their interpretation of the bible (their model). Now, I would argue that the act of homosexuality has no direct negative impact on other individuals (assuming these acts are consensual). Thus, there would be no moral basis for arguing against or for. It would simply be a difference in tastes, which is perfectly acceptable. Individuals could still, and certainly would, disagree. However, insisting on and pressing their beliefs would not make them anymore right or just, it would make them just assholes. And, as previously mentioned, being an asshole is certainly wrong.

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Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Let me start by informing you of one of my ambitions. It is one of my ambitions to maintain this blog. I am uncertain how well I will succeed at this, but nonetheless it is an ambition of mine. I have not written very much outside of academic writing in quite a while, and it is with the hope that I will begin writing again that I enter the blogosphere. I don't promise much from this blog; it will mainly be an outlet for my thoughts on the universe and the order of which may or may not exist.

So, what do I think of ambition? Well, I think it is necessary for, as Jay "Red" Hayes and Jack Rhodes put it, a satisfied mind. At its barest, it gives focus and purpose, in a world which can often feel purposeless. I have a career and have worked hard to arrive where I currently am, however, I have recently been drifting in life, living in a sort of limbo between my past life and my future life. While it can be fun and exciting to allow the waves (wind or whatever elemental force you want to think about) of the world take you where they may, I found that the randomness and undirected (sometimes self-destructive) actions led my mind to drift as well. Focus and sharpness of the mind were often hard to come by, which reinforced the undirected decision making and prolonged the drifting.

I don't wish to suggest that eliminating randomness is the goal. First, I believe that is an impossible endeavor. There is no escaping uncertainty in this world. Second, I would not want to. Along with the negative random events, there are just as often positive ones which can be a beautiful thing in life. Creating excitement, surprise and a sense of adventure in life. Predictability can be mundane. It is about striking a balance. Life is always moving, regardless of whether we are pushing it in a specific direction. The balance is about choosing a path, or ambition if you will, and then embracing the randomness along that path. Of course, you can make any adjustments or start down entirely new paths at will. That is, the path need not be fixed, and in fact, it will not be, since it is subject to shocks which may redirect it, no matter the actions you might take. Furthermore, holding on too tightly to a specific ambition, can be just as destructive, maybe more so, as not having one. My recent episode of drifting is a direct result of a significant change in my own path, and it took me quite a while to realize (and admit) that I was avoiding choosing a new path. The problem with avoiding that choice, and simply "enjoying the ride", is that life will eventually make a choice for you. Therefore, the importance of ambitions is not in their grandeur, but merely in their existence.

Having ambitions help us set goals, focuses our mind and energy on achieving those goals. They provide us with purpose and self-worth. They help us find ourselves. They keep us from endlessly drifting through life. My advice: choose a path, have ambitions. Change it as often or as little as you like, but don't let life, or someone else, choose your path for you. It is your choice to make, so embrace it (and try to enjoy it).

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