the casino and the suckers

“Most people are unconscious up to 17, dreaming until 25, awake to 39, mad after 40, dead after 60.”

— Ian Fleming

“Woe, woe, woe (I think I am quoting Ezra Pound more or less) in a little while we shall all be dead. Therefore let us behave as though we were dead already.”

“It was like this, Mr Bond.” Zographos had a precise way of speaking with the thin tips of his lips while his half-hard half-soft Greek eyes measured the reaction of his words on the listener… “The Russians are chess players. They are mathematicians. Cold machines. But they are also mad. The mad ones forsake the chess and the mathematics and become gamblers. Now, Mr Bond.” Zographos laid a hand on Bond’s sleeve and quickly withdrew it because he knew Englishmen, just as he knew the characteristics of every race, every race with money, in the world. “There are two gamblers… the man who lays the odds and the man who accepts them. The bookmaker and the punter. The casino and, if you like” — Mr Zographos’s smile was sly with the “shared secret” and proud with the right word — “The suckers.”


Of all the visitors to the Deauville casino, perhaps the greatest gambling wizard was Nicolas Zographos, a Greek-born mathematical marvel who in the nineteen-twenties and thirties was the keystone of “the Syndicate,” an association of gamblers who worked together and financed their star joueurs. His background was as mysterious as that of the late Sir Basil Zaharoff. Zographos’ favorite game was not roulette, boule, vingt-et-un, or chemin de fer, but the big one, baccarat in its most rarefied form — banque à tout va (the sky’s the limit ) — played in the privacy of the “salle privée,” a special room with its own set of alert guards. Experts have called Zographos the greatest cardplayer who ever lived. “I decided to perfect myself at them,” he once told a Deauville visitor in the thirties, and he added that he had worked hard at his chosen career and amassed a number of fortunes. “Perhaps you do not realize it, but there is as big a difference between a good baccarat player and a poor one as there is between a scratch golfer and a man with an eighteen handicap,” he went on. “People think, because at baccarat or chemin de fer you have to play with the cards dealt to you, that there is little opportunity for skill, except, of course, when it is à volonté to draw. But I assure you they are wrong, and I should know.” In those days, he kept himself in perfect shape by playing not six-pack bezique but eight-pack bezique and remembering the whereabouts of every card in the eight packs.
    Zographos’ largest loss at a single session of baccarat was thirty-six million francs, at a time when that amounted to nearly a million and a half dollars. “The largest number of times I have ever won consecutively on both sides of the table is twelve, and on one side of the table nineteen,” he has said. “The banker, in drawing his second card after the player’s, has a tiny but definite advantage. But the main difference is that the players double up their bets when they are losing and hedge when they are winning. It is only human nature, but there you are. I will put it another way. The bank plays baccarat as though it were contract bridge, weighing up every chance mathematically. And let me tell you it needs the brain of a very good accountant to assess immediately the amount of money being staked on either side of the table and then to work out mentally whether it is worth drawing a third card. … There is no such thing as good luck or bad luck.” Another member of the Syndicate, a Greek shipowner named Athanasios Vagliano, was often the banker of baccarat games in which two and a half million dollars changed hands in one night.

—Phyllis & Fred Feldkamp,
The Good Life… or What’s Left of It: Being a Recounting of the Pleasures of the Senses that Contribute to the Enjoyment of Life in France,
Harper’s Magazine Press, 1972, p. 123

virtues and values in market exchanges

All appropriations and transfers of conventionally valued goods or services, be they consensual or coerced, are essentially self-regarding as regards their cost, but essentially other-regarding as regards their value. For consumable goods, the relevant distinction between their consumption and socially warranted dominium arises from Deuteronomy 23:24-25, as explained by John Kilcullen. To the extent that sex is valued conventionally rather than intrinsically, all varieties of sexual intercourse are likewise essentially other-regarding. In particular, while no one is qualified to speak for all sadomasochists, the following passage from a review by Charles Rosen is very much to the point:

When I was writing a review of Alban Berg’s correspondence, I remarked to an elderly and very distinguished psychoanalyst that I was surprised by how many of Schoenberg’s students seemed to enjoy being so badly treated and humiliated by him. She replied, “I have no time to explain this just now, but I can assure you that there are a great many masochists and not nearly enough sadists to go around.”

What is valued in all kinds of sex, as in all other kinds of conversation, is not the mere brunt of its experience, but also its mutuality.

Market exchanges of all sorts of goods or services are essentially other-regarding, not in regard of obtaining them at the lowest possible cost, but in regard of establishing and maintaining their value. In so far as an analogous situation obtains in communication, this is a matter of conventional values in the conventional Lewisian game-theoretic construal of convention as coordination. Notwithstanding any misgivings concerning the expense of spirit in a waste of shame, market exchanges are expected to leave each party with the impression that what they received in the exchange is worth more than what they gave up. In the normal course of events, a notional impression of increase in value would serve as well as, or even better than, an actual increase therein. Thus Max Weber’s criticism of Benjamin Franklin in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that the appearance of honesty serves the same purpose as honesty itself, and hence an unnecessary surplus of this virtue would appear to Franklin’s eyes as unproductive waste. Weber concludes that Franklin purveys a strict utilitarianism, whereby the mere appearance of honesty (der Schein der Ehrlichkeit) is always sufficient when it accomplishes the end in view. But in the long run, such appearances can only be sustained by tacit collusion of both parties. The butcher who places his finger on the scale enters in a relation of mutual dependency with the carnivore who averts his eyes from this petty subterfuge. Likewise the wife who shores up her sex appeal with face paint and foundation garments, colluding with the husband who bears mute witness to her daily embellishments.

Consider sexual politics. In the context of a long-term romantic relationship, reciprocal constructive ambiguity manifests in the woman wondering whether the man is just using her for sex, while he wonders how long he can keep her guessing. The maintenance of this equilibrium depends on a delicate balance between competition and coordination, negotiated among the parties. This is where David Lewis’ analysis of convention may pay off. Lewisian conventions exemplify two main conditions:

  1. Convention is a strict Nash equilibrium with no gain realizable from unilateral deviation by any party thereto, and a loss realized by any deviating party, with an additional coordination proviso that all parties prefer universal compliance in the convention, on condition that at least all but one comply to it.
  2. Convention is arbitrary in having an alternative that could serve equally well in its place.

Consider the case of corporate employment, where the corporation is tasked with creating the appearance of improvement in the lot of its employees over the scenario of their free agency. As explained by Ronald Coase, this improvement is due to amortizing the transaction costs of their initial association. The appearance of extra value accruing to the employees in this association, depends on coordination among its parties in representing real or imaginary long-term benefits of sticking together. Correlatively, the appearance of extra value accruing to the employer from the employees is a matter of coordinating their appearance of hard work sustained through brown-nosing and back-biting, and relieved by the meremost minimum of discreet sexual harassment and persiflage around the water cooler. And so on.

A Microsoft employee takes several years to vest into his stock options. In exchange, he gives up the opportunity of higher wages in the free market. (That may no longer be the case in the current economy, but let us set that aside.) The value of this long-term benefit depends on the interim growth in the Microsoft stock price. This dependence yields a motive for all Microsoft employees to prefer universal loyalty to their employees amongst their colleagues, on which see the pep talks by Steve Ballmer, with their disparate reception among the faithful and the unaffiliated. At the same time, when and if Google gets big enough to buy Microsoft, with all outstanding stock warrants subject to universal conversion, all current Microsoft employees would prefer a universal shift in loyalty to their new employer amongst their colleagues. In short, their loyalty is stable in being motivated by a prospective gain dependent on universal compliance, but arbitrary in lacking an essential connection to the fortunes of the brand.

An analogous situation appears to arise with any construal of value motivating economic exchanges putatively benefiting both parties. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of an alternative to construing it as a matter of coordination in the foregoing fashion, given that the labor theory and other unfashionable imputations of inherent value are unlikely to yield the preponderance of the “win-win” scenario. As for the aspect of virtue playing its part in market exchanges, its role appears to be taken by Frankfurtian bullshit serving as the counterpart of the mere appearance of honesty claimed by Weber to be necessary and sufficient therefor.

better not to have been

     „Niemals geboren zu werden wäre das beste für die sterblichen Menschenkinder“, „Aber“, setzen die Weisen der „Fliegenden Blätter“ hinzu, „unter hunderttausend Menschen passiert dies kaum einem.“
    Der moderne Zusatz zum alten Weisheitsspruch ist ein klarer Unsinn, der durch das anscheinend vorsichtige „kaum“ noch dümmer wird. Aber er knüpft als unbestreitbar richtige Einschränkung an den ersten Satz an, kann uns also die Augen darüber öffnen, daß jene mit Ehrfurcht vernommene Weisheit auch nicht viel besser als ein Unsinn ist. Wer nie geboren worden ist, ist überhaupt kein Menschenkind; für den gibt es kein Gutes und kein Bestes. Der Unsinn im Witz dient also hier zur Aufdeckung und Darstellung eines anderen Unsinns wie im Beispiel vom Artilleristen Itzig.
Never to be born would be the best thing for mortal men.’ ‘But’, adds the philosophical comment in Fliegende Blätter, ‘this happens to scarcely one person in a hundred thousand.’
    This modern addition to an ancient saw is an evident piece of nonsense, made sillier by the ostensibly cautious ‘scarcely’. But the addition is attached to the original statement as an indisputably correct limitation, and is thus able to open our eyes to the fact that this solemnly accepted piece of wisdom is itself not much better than a piece of nonsense. Anyone who is not born is not a mortal man at all, and there is no good and no best for him. Thus the nonsense in the joke serves to uncover and demonstrate another piece of nonsense, just as in the example of Artilleryman Itzig.

—Sigmund Freud,
Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten‎, Deuticke, 1912, p. 45
Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, translated by James Strachey, Norton, 1990, pp. 65-66

I got a real depressing letter from my folks about two weeks ago, because I haven’t been taking real good care of my money. They said, ‘Sam, we can’t send you any more money. You’re out of control, and you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing with your cash. And… you’re old enough to be on your own.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay’… and I called them. I said, ‘Mom, get dad on the phone too, wake him up, I know it’s late, but I want you both to hear this. You know, before I was your little son—before I was your baby—before I was your loan—I was a free spirit in the next stage of life. I walked in the cosmos, not imprisoned by a body of flesh, but free, in a pure body of light. There were no questions, only answers. No weaknesses, only strengths. I was light, I was truth, I was a spiritual being, I was a God!!! But you had to FUCK and bring my ass down HERE! I didn’t ask to be born! I didn’t call and say: ‘Hey, please have me so I could work in a fuckin’ Winchell’s someday!’ Now you want me to pay my own way? FUCK YOU! PICK UP THE FUCKIN’ CHECK, MOM! PICK IT UP!

This year’s winner of the Bookseller/Diagram prize for the oddest title of the year is Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Other finalists included How Green were the Nazis?, Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan, and the book I’m reviewing here. The title is indeed odd. But it isn’t intended merely to be catchy, another one of those volumes appealing on the cover but deadly dull within. Benatar appears genuinely to believe that we are all harmed, and fairly seriously harmed, by being brought into existence and that it would really be better, and better for us, had we never been born. There are two important and immediate objections: how can something that odd, that strange, possibly be true? And, if it is true, why don’t we all, or at least those who believe it, go and put an end to things now? Why is Benatar still with us? Is he still with us? He is, and he thinks he has an answer to these objections. I’ll come to these below.
[…]
So, give Benatar a charitable reading and there are still objections to be made. Give him what may in the end be a fairer reading, and the objections are stronger. Both in the paper and the book he argues thus: suppose you have to choose between two packages. The first contains something good and something bad, while the second contains something good and something neutral. The second package is to be preferred. But the first package is one in which we exist, and where our lives involve both goods and bads, or pleasures and pains. The second is one in which we don’t exist, and so there are no pains—something good, and no pleasures—something not bad, or neutral. So, on balance, existence is worse than non-existence. This is a dreadful argument. It’s most obviously dreadful in taking no account of the quantities of pleasure and pain involved. You might think that Benatar must at least anticipate this objection. Certainly in the paper he doesn’t. Not so in the book. There (pp. 45-47) he does attempt to address this challenge. But as he appears almost altogether to misunderstand it, there is just no force in his reply.

Reviewed by Christopher Belshaw, The Open University

Let us follow David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 45-47:


[…]

Quadrant (1) must be negative, because it is bad, and quadrants (2) and (3) must be positive because they are good. (I assume that (3) must be as good as (1) is bad. That is, if (1)=−n, then (3)=+n.) Since (4) is not bad (and not good either), it should be neither positive nor negative but rather neutral.

Employing the value assignments of Figure 2.4 we add (1) and (2) in order to determine the value of A, and then compare this with the sum of (3) and (4), which is the value of B. Doing this, we find that A is preferable to B where (2) is more than twice the value of (1).35 [Where (2) is only twice the value of (1), A and B have equal value and thus neither coming into existence nor never coming into existence is preferable.] There are numerous problems with this. For instance, as I shall show in the first section of the next chapter, it is not only the ratio of pleasure to pain that determines the quality of a life, but also the sheer quantity of pain. Once a certain threshold of pain is passed, no amount of pleasure can compensate for it.

But the best way to show that Figure 2.4 is mistaken is to apply the reasoning behind Figure 2.4 to the analogy of H (Healthy) and S (Sick) mentioned earlier.

Following Figure 2.5, it would be better to be S than H if the value of (2) were more than twice the value of (1). (This presumably would be the case where the amount of suffering that (2) saves S is more than twice the amount S actually suffers.) But this cannot be right, for surely it is always better to be H (a person who never gets sick and is thus not disadvantaged by lacking the capacity for quick recovery). The whole point is that (2) is good for S but does not constitute an advantage over H. By assigning a positive charge to (2) and a ‘0’ to (4), Figure 2.5 suggests that (2) is an advantage over (4), but it quite clearly is not. The assignment of values in Figure 2.5, and hence also in Figure 2.4, must be mistaken. 36 [To take the implications of the value assignments in Fig. 2.5 for Fig. 2.4 as evidence that the analogy between the two cases must be inapt is another instance of treating the avoidance of my conclusion as axiomatic.]

To recap, David Benatar argues that uncontroversial symmetry between the presence of pain being bad and the presence of pleasure being good does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure. On the contrary, it strikes him as true that the absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, whereas the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation. Consequently, the absence of any possible subject of pain and pleasure would amount to an overall good in the balance of his absent pains and pleasures.

It is equally uncontroversial, and uncontested by Benatar, that absence of pleasure in an extant subject does add up to a deprivation, whence the traditional recognition of acedia, a condition of sloth or torpor leading to listlessness and want of interest in life, as one of the seven deadly sins. It might be argued that the absence of any possible subject of pain and pleasure would amount to a deprivation to his potential creators. Thus within the same framework of sin and salvation, potential parents may suffer from a lack of progeny required to honor them pursuant to the Fifth Commandment, just as God may suffer from a lack of humans required to honor Him pursuant to its predecessors. But this teleological account preempts the utilitarian reckoning of the presence and absence of pain and pleasure. Likewise the human duty recognized by Socrates in the Phaedo at 62b-c, to live as a ward (κτῆμα) of the gods, consigned to their care (ἐπιμελέομαι). The key consideration here is that utilitarianism arises as an exclusive alternative to imputations of human duties or purposes and narratological construals of human lives not lending themselves to a scalar summation of pleasures and pains. It is therefore pointless to bring up such imputations and construals as conclusive rebuttals of Benatar’s utilitarian argument. There are good reasons for rejecting utilitarianism, but the spirit of charity requires the philosopher to set them aside in assessing the merits of arguments made within its tradition.

In this context belongs a critical response to a passage from John Bunyan cited in an earlier discussion of Benatar on Crooked Timber:

The figure in the Sermon on the Mount, contrasting the straight and narrow way to salvation with the broad highway to destruction, has been the basis of a number of sustained allegories, the best known being Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To keep the figure of a way going for a whole book, the course pursued has to be a very labourious one: this is theologically defensible for Bunyan, even though we can see that the difficulty of the journey is a technical as well as a religious requirement. Toward the end of the second book Bunyan says:

Some also have wished that the next way to their Father’s house were here, that they might be troubled no more with either hills or mountains to go over; but the way is the way, and there is an end. [fn. 41 See John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to that which is to come, ed. Roger Sharrock (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 355 (pt. 2).]

One wonders if there is not a suppressed voice also in Bunyan’s mind asking why we have to be stuck with this spiteful and malicious God who puts so incredibly difficult an obstacle course between ourselves and himself. In the great danse macabre with which the second book concludes, the dying Valiant-for-Truth says, “Though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am,” [fn. 42 Pilgrim’s Progress, 397 (pt. 2).] where the suppressed voice is almost audible. When there are dissenting voices like this murmuring in the subtext, one wonders if the author does not feel some difficulty about his choice of metaphor.

—Northrop Frye, Words With Power: Being a Second Study of ’The Bible and Literature,
The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, Vol. 26, University of Toronto Press, 2008, pp. 90-91

Northrop Frye’s apprehension of a suppressed voice in Bunyan’s mind belongs to the spectrum of legitimate reasons for purging ethical thought of duties and purposes along with narratives that give rise thereto, reducing it to a dispassionate calculus of scalar values. As a famous philosopher pointed out, there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Accordingly, saying that an argument is bad without a thought to back it up, amounts to nothing. Likewise gainsaying a premiss in the calculus of utility, in so far as it amounts to its thoughtless contradiction. The utilitarian project may be a failure, but it begins and ends in rational thought, and deserves to be addressed by rational means.

Insisting in response to Benatar, that some pleasures are worth the pains, let alone recognizing the existence of masochists taking pleasure in pain, gets us nowhere near an argument as an intellectual process comprising a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition. The correct utilitarian response to invocations of sadomasochism is reflected in Harsanyi’s distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding utility functions and preferences. Benatar’s argument would stand after discounting all social and empathetic factors. All such factors ought to be discounted in considering, of an individual life, whether or not it is worth being brought into existence. After all, the masochist patient does not take pleasure in any old pain, but revels in being inflicted pain by another agent. So the pain of natural suffering, as distinct from the social kind, suffices to motivate the top half of Benatar’s Figure 2.4. Pain is bad and pleasure is good; whereas lack of pain is bad, but lack of pleasure is indifferent, unless it is a privation. In the balance, better not to create a potential subject for such privation.

It might be objected that a masochist before God could take pleasure in the pain of cancer, as a means of proving himself equal to the challenges raised by his heavenly Father. This is the position of John Bunyan’s Valiant-for-Truth, shored up by many modern luminaries. Thus George Bernard Shaw:

All that you miss in Shakespeare you find in Bunyan, to whom the true heroic came quite obviously and naturally. The world was to him a more terrible place than it was to Shakespeare; but he saw through it a path at the end of which a man might look not only forward to the Celestial City, but back on his life and say: “Tho’ with great difficulty I am got hither,—yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get them.” The heart vibrates like a bell to such an utterance as this: to turn from it to “ Out, out, brief candle,” and “ The rest is silence,” and “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded by a sleep” is to turn from life, strength, resolution, morning air and eternal youth, to the terrors of a drunken nightmare.

—“Better than Shakespeare”, in Dramatic Opinions and Essays with an Apology by G. Bernard Shaw, New York, Brentano, 1906, Vol. 2, p. 147

And thus Robert Louis Stevenson:

Last and most remarkable, ‘My sword,’ says the dying Valiant-for-Truth, he in whom Great-heart delighted, ‘my sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it.’ And after this boast, more arrogantly unorthodox than was ever dreamed of by the rejected Ignorance, we are told that ‘all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’

—Robert Louis Stevenson, “Bagster’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’”, in Sketches, Criticisms, etc., New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1898, p. 215

The anticipation of trumpets sounding on the other side may well inspire the faithful to withstand the pains of earthly existence. But merely pointing out that the ultimate pleasure of reuniting with God, or some interim ersatz thereof, would be worth the pains that precede it, is irrelevant in the setting of Benatar’s decision matrix. For this point amounts to a postulation that foreclosing the possibility of future pleasure in an as yet unrealized subject always already amounts to a privation. While this postulate is well suited to a hopeful narrative of posthumous salvation, it is less apt for a pure spiritual being about to be imprisoned by a body of flesh, and bears no relevance to a reckoning of worldly utility in prospective lives.

While social and empathetic factors are essential constituents in a worthwhile life, their role in evaluating whether an ongoing life is worthwhile does not find any counterparts in deciding whether a prospective life is worth being brought into existence. There may be no grounds for disputing that all social and empathetic factors ought to be discounted in considering, of an individual life, whether or not it is worth being brought into existence, just as there may be no actual lives having been brought into existence in complete disregard of these factors. In other words, while people invariably have children for selfish reasons, the only good reason to have a child is for its own sake. Some variety of methodological solipsism is indispensable as the correct framework for such deliberation. It may be impossible to understand a person in separation from other people or in separation from his environment. But there is a crucial difference between understanding an actual person in his connection with other people and his environment, and deliberating on the merits of bringing into existence a potential person with merely conjectural interpersonal and environmental connections.

In this regard, Benatar’s observation has devastating consequences for the utilitarian assessment of the choice to bring a new life into existence. If there is nothing bad about never coming into existence, whereas there is something bad about coming into existence, it is always preferable to choose a scenario that involves nothing bad. The same conclusion extends to the voluntary acceptance of bad pains in order to achieve greater pleasures, pursuant to Benatar’s analogy between existence versus non-existence and sickness versus health, as reproduced above.

—Reproduced for, and summarized from, a discussion on CHORA; also see an earlier discussion on Crooked Timber.

the basic laws of human stupidity

THE BASIC LAWS OF HUMAN STUPIDITY

by Carlo M. Cipolla
illustrations by James Donnelly

THE FIRST BASIC LAW of human stupidity asserts without ambiguity that:

Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

Stupid Person No. 1
At first, the statement sounds trivial, vague and horribly ungenerous. Closer scrutiny will however reveal its realistic veracity. No matter how high are one’s estimates of human stupidity, one is repeatedly and recurrently startled by the fact that:

a) people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid.

b) day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments.

The First Basic Law prevents me from attributing a specific numerical value to the fraction of stupid people within the total population: any numerical estimate would turn out to be an underestimate. Thus in the following pages I will denote the fraction of stupid people within a population by the symbol å.

Continue reading the basic laws of human stupidity