Book review: The Purchase of Intimacy by Viviana A. Zelizer
This book provides a convincing argument that even though many people talk as if intimacy and the exchange of money belong in separate spheres that would contaminate each other if mixed, most people regularly behave in ways that mix them. She provides an alternate view under which a more narrow set of restrictions on the use of money helps prevent specific types of relationships from being transformed into some less desired category of relationship.
The arguments are phrased to appeal to a wide range of ideologies (but probably not the religious right). But the style is dry, and the numerous legal cases and other examples quickly become tedious and often unneeded. It’s hard to imagine what kind of person would want to read more than the first 100 pages plus the final chapter.
She uses a broader definition of intimacy than I expected, but provides plenty of hints as to why that is appropriate.
One nice example of her evidence is the fact that buying a pet doesn’t prevent people from loving the pet.
One strange passage which raises a few doubts about the otherwise apparently good research behind the book is the definition of “the unfamiliar term polyamory” which makes no reference to love and hints that it typically refers to non-romantic relationships.
The ideas I recently described about the similarities between abolishing slavery and debtors prisons have got me thinking about the similarities between no-fault divorce and the ease with which an employer can dismiss employees.
Attitudes about whether the breakup of a romantic relationship indicate that someone was at fault have influenced how easy it is to end such relationships. In subcultures I see here in Silicon Valley where it isn’t expected that people will assign any blame when a relationship ends, there is less cost to breakups (the people involved are more likely to remain friends). This means there is probably more trial and error in picking relationships (possibly at the cost of each individual relationship being valued less than in cultures where people are expected to make a marriage last a lifetime).
Silicon Valley also has a culture which attaches little importance to an employee leaving a job, and I suspect this extends to employees who get fired as well. The relatively high turnover means more acceptance of trial and error by both employees and employers, less damaging disputes when an employee leaves, and ease of a former employee getting a new job. This contributes to Silicon Valley’s success at enabling startups. (These comments are loosely based on my recollection of Annalee Saxenian’s book Regional Advantage).
Are these two sets of phenomena symptoms of one underlying attitude?
Is the casual attitude toward romantic relationships producing advantages similar to the advantages that Silicon Valley produces for startups?
Can a better understanding of these similarities help spread the Silicon Valley attitude toward employment to other regions?
Book review: Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior by Helmut Schoeck
This book makes a moderate number of interesting claims about envy and its economic effects, interspersed with some long boring sections. The claims are mostly not backed up by strong arguments. It was written 40 years ago, and it shows – his understanding of psychology seems more Freudian than modern.
His most interesting claim is that many societies have more envy than ours, and that prevents them from escaping poverty. An extreme example are the Navaho, who reportedly have no concept of luck or of “personal achievement”, and believe that one person’s success can only come at another’s expense. This kind of attitude is pretty effective at discouraging people in such a society from adopting a better way of growing crops, etc.
Unfortunately, his evidence is clearly of the anecdotal kind that, even if I were to track down the few sources he cites for some of them and convinced myself they were reliable, his examples are too selective for me to believe that he knows whether envy and poverty are correlated. His hypothesis sounds potentially important, and I hope someone finds a way to rigorously analyze it.
He describes a few attempts to create non-envious societies, with kibbutzim being the clearest example. He gives adequate but unsurprising explanations of why they’ve had mixed success.
He claims “The victims claimed by a revolution or a civil war are incomparably more numerous among those who are more gifted and enterprising”, but shows no sign that he knows whether this is true. He might be right, but it’s easy to imagine that he’s been mislead by a bias toward reporting that kind of death more often than the death of a typical person.
He mentions that tax returns have been public in some jurisdictions. I wish he did a better job of examining the costs and benefits of this (one nice example he gives is that people sometimes overreport income in order to appear more credit-worthy than they are).
On page 82, he describes Nazis as having “an almost equally fanatical attachment to the principle of equality”. He seems there to be referring to when they were in power, but somewhere else he implies they moved away from this belief when they gained power. He was born in Austria in 1922, and studied in Munich from 1941 to 1945, which gives him a perspective that we don’t hear much these days. How much of the difference in perspectives is due to his flaws, and how much of it is due to our focus on the worst aspects of Nazism? There’s probably a hint of truth to his position, in that hatred of the Jews partly started with an egalitarian disapproval of their success.
I found a number of other strange claims. E.g. “The incest taboo alone makes possible the co-operative and stable family group.”; “Lee Harvey Oswald’s central motive was envy of those who were happy and successful”; “In 1920 President Woodrow Wilson predicted class warfare in America that would be sparked off by the envy of the many at the sight of the few in their motor cars.”.
He says “No society permits totally uninhibited promiscuity. In every culture there are definite rights of ownership in the sexual sphere, for no society could function unless it had foreseeable and predictable rules as regards selection of the sexual partner.” I’m not sure how close-minded that would have sounded in 1966, but there are cultures today which discredit it fairly well.
If you read this book, I suggest reading only these chapters: 1,3,5,8,13,17,21,22.
Update: Mike Linksvayer has a better review of the book.
Book Review: The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt
This eloquent book is mostly fun to read. It provides a good alternative to the standard view of sluts: “A slut shares his sexuality the way a philanthropist shares her money”.
But much of the book seems designed mainly to reassure sluts that they aren’t alone and shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves. I didn’t get much out of those parts.
They say a number of things that don’t seem quite right, such as defining consent to refer only to “active collaboration”, or suggesting that people schedule fights (a rather strange way of describing how to ensure communication).
Their claims about how desirable polyamory is seem exaggerated. One of their more appropriate analogies is “having a second child doesn’t usually mean that a parent loves the first child less”. The people who think parents have an unlimited supply of love but love between spouses is a zero-sum game appear to be hypocrites, but I suspect the first child doesn’t fare as well as the optimistic view suggests.
I think a more instructive analogy would be supply side economics. The zero-sum thinking that leads some people to think that tax cuts/polyamory simply shift a fixed amount of wealth/love assume an unrealistically static human nature that overlooks the ability of people to be more creative when constraints on income/love are weakened, and that can easily make the average person better off. But there will be plenty of shifting of income/love that makes it hard to predict which individuals will be better off.
Lest my comments be interpreted as being overly critical of polyamory, I should mention that this book was recommended to me by a very polyamorous boyfriend (who has by his example taught me more than a book like this could), not to help with our relationship, but to help me look for an additional boyfriend. Our relationship is sufficiently atypical that I’m still wondering how well a typical polyamorous relationship works.
People interested in this subject might also get something out of Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits : Secrets of Sustainable Intimate Relationships by Deborah M. Anapol, which is written more carefully but in a less entertaining style.
After wading through many online dating web sites, and being depressed at having to choose between searches on superficial features which return thousands of uninteresting results, or keyword searches which rarely return any results, I found OkCupid! (thanks to Wayne Radinsky). I have some hope that it will do for online dating what Google did for searches.
It encourages people to provide it with lots of information that can be used to compare people, mainly by asking lots of yes/no or multiple choice questions (many submitted by users). A few examples (selected more for their amusement value than importance):
Eventually, a computer will write the best novel ever written.
I should be able to sell my vote for cash if I feel like it.
Would you rather get caught masturbating by your mother or father?
Could you date a giant carnivorous reptile?
Would you ever date or mess around with a good friend’s ex?
Ethnicity restrictions? You racist. Please note that unless you leave these blank (which we recommend), you’ll only match with people who’ve submitted their ethnicities.
They have some way of deducing from user responses how valuable each question is.
They’ve written and open sourced their own web server.
It’s free and plans to stay that way, and is supported by ads.
I’m a bit disappointed that they claim the site shows “a disregard for profit”. I doubt they’re any less interested in profit than Google is, although they’ve clearly avoided the cover-your-ass culture of large bureaucracies. The site doesn’t yet have enough people to be terribly valuable, but it appears to be growing quickly enough that it will succeed.
So for I’ve got one message from a person who is a good deal more interesting than anyone I’ve met on the usual dating sites in quite a while, except that he’s in Pennsylvania (OkCupid doesn’t seem very good at handling geographic preferences).
I’m annoyed that their menu for languages in which I’m fluent offers Khmer, C++, LISP, and some languages I don’t recognize, but not Python.
It has a Friendster-like provision for lists of friends. If I know you and you become an OkCupid member, please let me know.