Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Slate doesn't understand what offensive speech is

Over at The New York Times, Jeremy Peters has an interesting article on the decline of the word 'homosexual' as self-description by those who identify as gay or lesbian. In the header of the article we are also told that "for many gays and lesbians, the term 'homosexual' is flinch-worthy."

In response, Slate's J. Bryan Lowder contested the thrust of Peters' piece. Most critically, Lowder writes of Peters' article, "let's not get in the habit of letting the overseers at GLAAD, on whose authority this article hinges, rescind access to words that really are innocuous." Unfortunately for Lowder's case, Peters does not at all hinge his authority on GLAAD.

GLAAD is brought up as an example of an advocacy group that finds "homosexual" to be an offensive term. Other reasons suggested for disfavoring the term include:

  • It contains the syllables "homo" (a common anti-gay slur) and "sex" (which puts more emphasis on the sexual aspects of gay life than might be desirable)
  • It invokes a period of time in which "homosexuality" was a mental illness
  • "Homosexual" is the term of choice for most anti-gay groups
To this last point, Lowder argues that we shouldn't let the Rush Limbaugh's of the world determine what words we use. But this objection gets to the heart of Lowder's confusion. The New York Times' article was not meant to forbid use of a word or declare it a slur. It was exploring a position taken by many gay advocates, and explaining the way words are used and the choices behind them.

Sometimes it is not immediately obvious why we choose the words we use, but these reasons can be revealed to us. When this happens, we discover that a word had connotations we did not expect. Peters uses this example: consider the phrases "homosexual activist", "homosexual community", and "homosexual marriage." Few gay advocates would ever use these phrases; I know I would not. There is a pejorative ring to each phrase, which disappears as soon as "homosexual" is replaced with "gay". This suggests that "homosexual" carries more negative connotations than we might have initially realized.

It's clear that Lowder does not appreciate that this is the level of analysis at which the NYT piece is working, because he writes, "As a member of The Community in Question, I’m willing to grant you...permission to use homosexual when the occasion calls for it." Even if this is meant as a joke, it shows that he misses the point. We don't avoid slurs because we lack permission from a particular community, we avoid using them because they carry connotations and implications that are damaging to the individuals in question. Words our powerful because the shape our shared understanding of the world, so we should choose the words we use wisely.

Making this about the author's identity, in this case, was unnecessary. It's fine if Lowder wants to share the fact that the word "homosexual" does not offend him--but this does not support his thesis. People of any community will have a variety of reactions to a word, but this is not the sole determinate of a word's status as a slur.

There are a few reasons to question Peters' analysis. One is that "homosexuality" serves as a useful term for which "gayness" is an awkward substitute.  And second, it seems "homosexual" is an appropriate word to keep around to describe the same-sex sexual behavior of non-human animals. (However, this second point might actually bolster the Peters' understanding, as in this context it would likely be exclusively used as an adjective, rather than as a noun.)

But I would not be surprised at all if "homosexual" went the way of the term "oriental." This, in my opinion, is likely a better parallel to draw than to analogize "homosexual" with a really hateful term like "fag". "Oriental" was never exclusively a hateful term, but it represented a very misguided and deficient understanding of a group of people. If it is heard these days, it is not necessarily perceived as an insult, but it is more likely seen as an outdated and inappropriate term for a group of people. So too, I believe, we can plausibly that "homosexual" will one day share a similar status.

How to stop corporations from breaking the law

Today, I was surprised to receive the above e-mail from Amazon.com. It seems the publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Macmillan agreed to pay nominal amounts of money to consumers who has purchased their ebooks within a certain period of time. Though they do not admit guilt, they are alleged to have broken antitrust laws and to have conspired to raise the prices of ebooks.

So I am now the proud owner of a $.73 credit to be used for the purchase of any book or ebook purchased through Amazon between now and March 31, 2015! (Amazon is not a party of the suit, but appears to be aiding in the delivery of the compensation. Apple Inc. also stands accused of violating antitrust laws, but that case is ongoing.)

A few things to note:

  • This credit is not likely to effect my future decisions to purchase books, it will just make me slightly less poor after doing so.
  • That said, settlements need not tangibly benefit the consumer or wronged party, as long as they effectively serve as a deterrent. 
  • That said, it's not clear that a $.73 payout per book purchased ($3.17 for NYT Bestsellers, and slightly higher amounts for MI residents) is a significant enough deterrent. 
  • Illegal trusts could easily raise prices greater than $.73 per book, and anyway, the refund should be higher than estimated price inflation. If corporations risk only breaking even, then there's little disincentive to attempting to break the law.
  • Amazon, it seems to me, is a big winner in all this; for people who get higher payouts, the credit may well serve as a de facto subsidy for purchasing more books.
Corporations will always try to break the law like this, if they think they can get away with it. The fact that the publishers settled certainly suggests that they have some guilt (or at least that there's a plausible case against them) but settling out of court very likely means a significantly lower payout. In the short run, this may save the government money (not having to pay for a trial), but in a world with lots of out-of-court settlements, corporations will see law-breaking as less risky. In the end, this means more charges to bring, and more government money spent, before we even consider costs to the consumer.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What we can learn from the acceptance of gay marriage

Image credit: Adam Jennings / AP

The acceptance of gay marriage seems to be almost a forgone conclusion in the United States. Many of its proponents argue it's just a matter of time before gay marriages are recognized across the union,  and decades of polling on the matter certainly support this view. Still, the US is but one (albeit influential) country, and there are many places in which this trend is not apparent. Rehearsing the arguments, then, is still of use. Even more importantly, as I will argue, understanding structure of the argument for gay marriage (and in general, equal treatment of individuals regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity) sheds light on broader moral principles.

Dialogues about gay marriage often take this form (A and B are two interlocutors):

(1) A: Gay couples deserve all the benefits and protections that straight couples get from having their marriage recognized by the state. There is no morally significant difference between gay couples and straight couples that justify the recognition of one kind of relationship but not the other.

(2) B: In fact, there is a morally significant difference between gay couples and straight couples. Straight partnerships are the only kind of union that can produce children, and the state has a special interest in protecting that union.

(3) A: It might be true that in some sense only "straight couples" can produce children, but gay people do have and produce children as well, albeit in somewhat different ways. And even more importantly, many straight couples are allowed to get married, but do not or cannot have children. If they can still enter into marriages, why can't gay couples?

(4) B: You misunderstand. It's not the "having" of children that marriage protects, but the special form of human relationship that is protected, which has the potential for procreative activity.

(5) A: But this is just begging the question. You're saying that this form of relationship is special and should be protected, but you're not showing any reason why this "special" kind of relationship merits these particular protections. The benefits of marriage are not solely designed for the protection of relationships that produce children, and even less so for the protection of the "form of relationship" that produces children. Since these protections would surely benefit gay couples, and it is incumbent that you show some good reason why denying them to gay people is justified. You have failed to do so.

I've never heard a good response to (5). Obviously people make some other claims to oppose gay marriage, most of them empirical or religious, but there's no reason to take these claims seriously. (One other argument worth taking seriously, though I don't have the space for it here, is a reductio ad absurdum that is usually mistaken for a slippery slope argument.)

I imagine most proponents of gay marriage would be happy with the dialogue as I've laid it out. If it's accurate and correct, it explains a lot. Obviously, it's a much simpler dialogue than nearly anyone will ever have on such an issue, but I think it somewhat represents the way the zeitgeist has moved on the issue.

What it shows is that the restriction of marriage rights to straight couples is the result of a bias against gays. This is why the only arguments against gay marriage that B can come up with beg the question. B assumes that only straight people deserve marriage rights, and tries to argue this point, but all their points just show that this is their base premise. And since this premise isn't obvious or shared, it cannot be defended.

Image credit: Sequoia Hughes / Flickr

Similarly, dialogues about animal rights often take this form:

(6) C: Sentient non-human animals deserve all the basic rights (right not to be killed, right not to be treated as property, etc.) that humans are afforded. There is no morally significant difference between animals and humans that justify recognizing the basic rights of humans but not the rights of the other animals.

(7) D: In fact, there is a morally significant difference between humans and the other animals. Only humans make laws, are self-aware, are creative, listen to opera, engage in moral behavior, and have all the capacities that make humans unique. It's these capacities that make us deserving of basic rights.

(8) C: It might be true that in some sense only humans can have all these capacities, but other animals have these and other capacities in a variety of degrees and to different extents. And even more importantly, many humans, such as babies and the mentally disabled, lack any or all of these capacities to certain extents. If we still protect the basic rights of these humans, why shouldn't we protect the basic rights of the other animals?

(9) D: You misunderstand. It's not the "having" of these capacities that warrants basic rights, but the special form of life that is humanity that is protected, which has the potential for these capacities.

(10) C: But this is just begging the question. You're saying that the human form of life is special and should be protected, but you're not showing any reason why this "special" kind of life merits these particular protections. The benefits of basic rights are not solely designed for the protection of human life, and even less so for the protection of the potential for the capacities of human life. Since these rights could surely protect animals, it is incumbent that you show some good reason why denying them to animals is justified. You have failed to do so.

I have never heard any good responses to (10). It might seem I crafted this parallel on my own for my own nefarious purposes, but I assure you the discovery was quite by accident. Obviously, I have emphasized the similarities here for effect. But part of my being convinced of (10) was the fact that I already accepted (5).

Just as before, the reason D cannot defend their position is that D is assuming from the outset that animals can't have rights. But this assumption belies an internal prejudice, which is not itself justified.

If we want to believe that the spread of gay marriage across the country is a good thing, and that it is moral progress in the right direction, we have reason to pause. To accept this means that there are better and worse ways of constructing society, ways that we ought to be treating others. And if the conclusions of (5) are correct and warranted, we should accept the power of reasoned argument to reach moral conclusions. If we don't accept in turn accept (10), we need a very good explanation of why these dialogues are disanalogous.

I have looked and I have never discovered such an explanation.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This Is Why Your Rent Is Going Up. Here's How We Can Stop It.

Photo Credit: Y. Sawa
Writing for The Atlantic Cities. James Frank Dy Zarsadiaz complains that it is very difficult to stop gentrification. The problem of rising rents, increasingly expensive commodities, and the displacement of minorities is a problem that Boston knows quite well. These trends and their connection to gentrification are deeply worrying, but they are also broadly misunderstood.

What confuses most people about gentrification is that they think that it is gentrification that is the problem. To see why this is wrong, one need only realize the most obvious solution to gentrification itself: make the city a worse place to live. 

If the problem is that wealthy young professionals are moving to a neighborhood and driving up rents, there are countless ways to discourage them from doing so. Prohibit the launching of new businesses. Require all bars to close by 7:00pm. Fire half of the sanitation department and police force. Sure enough, fewer people will want to live in your city, and rents will not go up.

Of course, these proposals are ridiculous. No reasonable person wants to actively make a neighborhood or city a worse place to live. Most people want to improve their neighborhoods. The problem is, once an area becomes a better place to live, more people want to live there, and rents go up.

We should realize that, in this sense, gentrification is a good thing. Gentrification means that the quality of life for a given area is improving. What we want is for the benefits to be enjoyed by all, not just the wealthy who can afford it.

In his book, The Rent Is Too Damn High, Matt Yglesias describes how we can do exactly that. The problem of gentrification is not that a city becomes a better place to live, but the fact that not enough people can live there. The real solution to the problems of gentrification is to ease the zoning restrictions that reduce the supply of housing.

What, exactly, does this mean? Allow for taller apartment buildings in the downtown. Allow for narrower lots in the suburbs and for more multi-family structures. If we curb legislation that reduces population density, developers will build more places for residents to live, and rents will come down. A broader portion of the population will be able to enjoy the benefits of a modern city.

This is the quintessential case of supply and demand. Rents are only high when a lot of people want to live somewhere, paired with housing scarcity. Those who can use their higher incomes to gain an advantage do, and those without much money to spare are priced out. If there were a greater supply of housing, the increase in competition from landowners for tenants would drive down rents.

This doesn’t mean, as some worry, that we should abandon of public goods. We can still have parks, libraries, (some) historical structures, and we don’t have to live next to nuclear plants. Some zoning laws justified. 

But where residential structures are permitted, there is no reason to, as the city of Boston’s web page suggests, protect neighborhoods from the development of residences that “do not into the context of a neighborhood." Whether it is intentional or not,  protecting a neighborhood's "context" results in keeping poor people out. 

Many people defend the virtues of smaller, less-dense cities, and for these reasons favor restrictive zoning laws. But if someone wants to live in an area of shorter buildings, they can move out of the areas with the highest demand for housing. All housing choices involve some trade-offs, and it is not fair to use city regulations to essentially turn neighborhoods into highly desirable, and deeply inegalitarian, country clubs.

Some on the political left deride the market-based ideas I’m advocating with the the dreaded epithet of “neo-liberalism.” But their counter-proposals of rent-control and low-income housing zoning have well-known problems. And though there are clearly cases in which market solutions are likely not the best solution (such as in health care or education), there is something fundamentally democratic about market-based solutions. When a market is working well, individuals have the power to decide for themselves which trade-offs they want to make for their own lives.

This problem is even more pressing than it might first appear. Lower rents mean higher take-home income, which can be a very big deal for struggling families. Even better, an increased housing supply makes it easier to get highly desirable jobs within the city itself, giving residents access to opportunities they might otherwise have missed. And the easing of zoning regulations can be a boon to the construction sector, which will have many positive spillover effects.

The rise of the micro-apartment, while a small contribution to population density, is a symptom rather than a solution. It is clear that Boston needs to get serious about housing policy, and we can be a leader in the right direction for the rest of the country. If we really care about making our city a more inclusive, budget-friendly, and welfare-oriented metropolis, then we must learn to love a taller, denser Boston.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why Should We Protect Copyright?

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan
Dean Baker, over at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, raises the fantastic point that government enforcement of copyright law enables small groups of individuals to become very wealthy in our economy. He points out that "an increasing share of sales of music is going to a relatively small number of big hit performers," and that this is because our government has decided to prioritize the enforcement of copyright infringement that happens via new technologies.

The most important thing to recognize about this line of argument is that this state of affairs is a policy choice. It should not be our default assumption that copyrights need to be stringently enforced, but these policies have been put in place because people with a strong interest in them have considerable weight to throw around.

It is far from clear that the current policy is optimal. The reason we protect copyrights is that we want to incentivize the production of creative works. But, especially in the domain of the arts, there is hardly a dearth of creative production. One point I often make is that people seem to like making art for its own sake, so we should be skeptical about claims that artists need excessive incentives.

To a lot of people, it just seems fitting and obvious that artists producing popular works should have very high compensation. But this is simply because we are used to the status quo, and don't see this state of affairs as the reflection of decisions made by our society. If we wanted, we could have very different practices when it comes to protecting creative work.

Consider my line of work, teaching students with behavioral challenges. For a particular student, I might come up with a treatment method or behavior management technique that is particularly unique and effective. We can imagine a society in which this kind of activity, coming up with new approaches to treat behavioral conditions, was strongly encouraged by using copyright law to restrict the implementation of this new method. From then on, if parents wanted to use this method, or other teachers wanted to use it, they would have to pay me.

I think there are pretty good reasons the world doesn't work this way. But the fact that the world works the way it does is a choice we make, and we could have made a different choice were we to find different reasons compelling. And we should be willing to re-examine our the reasons we have for certain policy decisions, especially if those policies are most strongly supported by individuals whose interests are favored by the policies.

We should be concerned when that copyrights are making some individuals very wealthy, and imposing costs on others. And the fact that we restrict the distribution of creative works impedes our society, potentially in ways that are counterproductive to our goals for creating these restrictions in the first place. If the world with strict copyright protections is one in which creative works generally are shared less, developed less, and enjoyed less than a world with more relaxed regulations, then we are really just shooting ourselves in the foot.