Sunday, January 13, 2008

Of momblogs, children and externalities

Dear Mombloggers,

I don't read any of you. I know none of you read me either, but that's immaterial. It does surprise me that you would choose to share details of your life and your children with the world wide web, but I also know that I can't even begin to understand. We all write about what we like, so it's ok I guess.

I am, however, extremely surprised at the way you react to all the people who try to slag you on the blogosphere. It shows the great danger of being emotionally attached to what you write about. We all are, at some level. But when it's one's own children, it's a little too close for comfort. I am genuinely amazed at your willingness to read random people rant about children and be infuriated enough to even try to think of cyber-rebuttals. Feminists fisk stupid things all the time, but I see their point - it's an uphill battle when a large majority of the people don't even share some of your basic views on equality and don't realise that they are being bigoted. Libertarians fisk non-fisk-worthy commie arguments too, but I get their point as well - far too many people have notions of achieving great utopian equality without the slightest idea of how we're going to get there.

You, on the other hand, face no such uphill task. The world at large likes children. Since when did Nilu, Aadisht and Falstaff become representative viewpoint-holders on children? Their rants can be attributed to too much porn, too many graphic novels and too much poetry respectively. I don't agree with them, but I see the point in their rants (except for Nilu, in whose case having a point would defeat the entire point) - they are the ones who face an uphill task. Essentially, people with that extra bit of intelligence and a life that largely revolves around solitude and a computer develop slightly warped views of reality. You need not worry about them. You need to however, think about people like me.

You see, I too have a life that revolves largely around solitude and a computer. However, I am a country boy. I don't pontificate about the US presidential election - I frankly am more interested in the Bharat Ratna controversy. My intellectual rebellion developed much after my initial upbringing had grounded in me the virtues of appreciating the status quo and the constraints of decision makers. I am the one who you should be bothered about, for the majority of people with experiences similar to those three worthies turn out like me, and not like them. Country boys who hopefully understand economics but stop short of seeing Ronald Coase everywhere.

And you will be pleased to know - I don't dislike children. I don't necessarily like them either - but I know that they are going to happen in a few years and am absolutely ok with that. I think I'll like them once they are there, and I see the merits of the status quo. You will never hear me talk in appreciative terms about a growing population (oops, sorry, human capital base) and yet talking ill of children, because it appears terribly inconsistent to me. Don't be bothered yet, because people at large believe that it's not ok to be openly intolerant of children. Not yet.

So am I with you or against you? A bit of both. I sympathise with your predicament and yes kids are cute, but I wish that you'd display some more gravitas and sangfroid. Children rants are not to be replied to - it's a little like trying to beat children at their own game of not listening to reason. You fall into the trap by imitating them, only to realise that its not your core competence. And yes, some emotional distance from what one writes helps.


2) Which brings me to the question of negative externalities. Venu reminds me that to some people, children are akin to pets or smokers that impose negative externalities on other people. There are two questions here - one more fundamental than the other. We shall not even go into the 'pets' argument, for if you bring non-human life into the picture when we are trying to deal with human social systems, I am sorry to say that you've missed the point completely. However, the other aspect is worth examining.

There is obviously a negative externality when a smoker exhales fumes into a setting that involves non-smokers. There is also an obvious externality, though slightly intangible this time, when a child cries through what could have been a perfect rendition of a Mozart concerto. There is also an externality, intangible and not so obvious, to many devout Hindus when they so much as get news of an M F Hussain painting that shows a naked Sita on Hanuman's tail. Or to Muslims when they see their prophet depicted as a terrorist in a cartoon strip. You may want to brush the last two under the 'freedom of speech' carpet (and I would agree) but there's no denying the fact that there exists an externality - it is not for you to judge whether my mother should get angry at MFH or not, the fact that she does get genuinely disturbed is proof enough of the externality's existence. The question is, is the disturbance caused by the child's crying more similar to the MFH example, or more similar to the smoker example? The answer is quite obvious to me, but I would like to know your views on the issue.

Essentially, if you believe that a first principles based, non Coasian solution is the answer to the free speech issue, I fail to see why that should not be the case with children. However, even if you think a child is more analogous to a smoker than to MFH, there is another issue here. Am I the only one who sees the problem with trying to create an analogy between what is a choice, and what is a stage/fact of life that one does not really choose? Being of a particular age is far more like being a boy, a girl, a white or short than being a smoker. Coasian solutions for the gender and race issues as well, sirs?

Of course, private property rights are part of the solution - a theater owner would be well within his rights to ask the family of an unruly child to leave. Restaurants that an the entry of children could easily come up if it was a viable business model. But the point is not that - the point is, does there exist sufficient moral ground to ask for a Coasian solution at the society level?

Which brings me to the last, most confusing point. Is it correct for the government to have legislation that requires companies to have explicit no-discrimination policies? It is coercive, an infringement of absolute private property, and yet necessary if equity forms a reasonable chunk of the social welfare function. What are your views on this?


Sriram said...

Here goes another one... Why wouldnt you guys leave mom bloggers alone. They sure are infuriating, but trying to reason out why they suck, sucks much more.

zen babu said...

And pointing out that the post sucks sucks even more? Recursion without base class, and all that jazz.

kunaal said...

lemme try

there cannot be enough moral ground to ask for a coasian solution to the "baby" problem at the society level. the fundamental point here being that it is beyond the baby's natural capacity to know he is creating a disturbance. you could at best request the mommy to look into the matter or you could choose to walk away.

its not right either, to "have legislation that requires companies to have explicit no-discrimination policies". a person ought to have the right to discriminate without explicitly saying so.

Subhash said...

I wonder if we are panicking at the thought of evolution catching up and leaving us behind. Why else do people hate children?

kunaal said...

maybe because they might irritate you!!???

we dont think about how this tiny little thing is going to grow up and "beat us to it" do we?

Arvind Narayanan said...

communist-style equality, even if we could achieve it, is closer to dystopia than utopia. it's not just a case of works in theory but not in practice — the whole concept is broken.

Venu said...

Is it correct for the government to have legislation that requires companies to have explicit no-discrimination policies?

An year ago, I would perhaps have answered that such a policy would be immoral. I am no longer sure.

I think there cannot be an abstract answer that is independent of the history and circumstance of the state that is implementing the policy. In countries which have had bitter experiences with racism, I think that giving a prospective hire the right to sue the company on grounds of racial discrimination is, I think, fair. There is an argument that government legislation follows social reform and hence it is too late on the scene anyway, but I don't buy that completely. Even today affirmative action means that a lot of Asian Americans get edged out of spots at elite colleges in the US, and there is a suspicion that this is how college deans want to keep it. So I would think that anti discrimination laws are still relevant and useful in the US. In India as well, I suspect there is a lot of caste-based/region-based discrimination and nepotism going on that is not challenged probably because people aren't as litigious (yet) and also partly it is taken for granted that such favours will be granted as a matter of course. I am not claiming that govt. legislation can solve the whole problem, but it can help improve the situation once more people realise the law is (technically) on their side.

We shall not even go into the 'pets' argument, for if you bring non-human life into the picture when we are trying to deal with human social systems, I am sorry to say that you've missed the point completely.

I am a little surprised by your reaction. I have seen plenty of people attach a lot of value to pets, and surely the non-human/human distinction is not very relevant, given that babies and pets have about the same cognitive abilities (babies have the _potential_ to much greater cognitive abilities, but while that motivates the mother to take good care, it is no reason for a disinterested third party to treat a baby with undue respect (at the same time I would agree that killing a baby is a greater sin than killing an animal because of the potential that is inherent in a baby)). Both lack social graces, at the same time there are lots of people who cannot understand how someone cannot like babies/pets given their innocence/purity/whatever.