Levinson on primitive economies of information

Ndap y Ke Rossel

Rossel Island shell currency.

An excerpt from Stephen C. Levinson, “Interrogative Intimations: On A Possible Social Economics of Interrogatives” in Questions. Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives. ed. Jan P. de Ruiter. Cambridge: 2012.

Levinson sketches a model of conversation in which interlocutors measure both the semantic and the social value of information. In this scheme, the semantic measure would be apportioned in units called Carnaps (after philosopher Rudolf Carnap), the social in Goffman units (after sociologist Erving Goffman). The Goffman measure involves ongoing estimations of position relative to others, social costs (which might explain the reluctance, say, to ask a question), authority, expertise, and so on. It underwrites a “micropolitics” of conversation.

Levinson offers an analogy with the shell money system of Rossel Island, in Papua, New Guinea.

An economic model of social information transfer is not going to look like a modern market economy. It might perhaps have some passing resemblance to the “primitive” economics of pre-industrial societies, with multiple measures for specific goods (bushels and grosses, cords and cubits), and multiple barter and exchange systems. Take the so-called shell money system of Rossel Island…, which consists of twenty-odd denominations of shells, with no exact equivalences of value and a delimited arena in which they can be used — it offers only the faintest semblance of a market economy (the shells are usable, e.g., for bride price, the purchase of pigs, houses and canoes, but not for food or manual labour). Shells are stores not only of economic but of social value, and top shells have names, like the Koh-i-noor diamond. Gaining possession of an individually named shell is like being temporary owner of a Picasso: it is an individual, not a mass of multiple undifferentiated tokens, and it reflects glory on its owner. Large injustices and delicts can be atoned for by the assuaging properties of such shells, even if only on loan for a fortnight. Shells go in one direction in exchange for goods, services and immaterial benefits (like forgiveness) in the other; but because there is constant flow in both directions, and shells are borrowed from all and sundry with intended eventual repayment, the market is about as murky as subprime derivatives. Such a system, with a multitude of special factors, frictions and exuberant irrationalities, offers us a better picture of the economics of everyday social life than textbook market economics.

It also moves us well beyond the transactional “ask-bid” model of conversation I described, and found wanting, in an earlier post.

A Translation from La Tregua

From the chapter called “The Dreamers” in Primo Levi’s La Tregua:

In the evenings — those long Polish evenings — the air of our quarters, already heavy with tobacco and human odors, became saturated with crazy dreams. This is the first fruit of exile and uprootedness: the unreal prevails over the real. Everyone dreamed, dreams of the past and of the future, of slavery and redemption, of improbable paradises, likewise of mythical and far-fetched enemies: cosmic enemies, perverse and subtle, ubiquitous, ambient, like the air. Everyone, with the exception perhaps of Cravero, and certainly of D’Agata.

D’Agata had no time to sleep, because he was in the grip of terror: bedbugs. Naturally, none of us were exactly fond of these troublesome companions, but we had all grown accustomed to them. They were not few or far between, but a little bug regimen, which had invaded all our bunks with the arrival of spring. By day, they nested in the crevices of the walls and in the wooden bedframes, and they would not set out on a raid until the comings and goings of the day had ceased. We were all resigned to surrender a little portion of our blood, even to do so willingly; it was less easy to get used to feeling them steal across your face and all over your body, underneath your clothing. Only those who had the good fortune to enjoy a heavy slumber, and who succeeded in losing consciousness before they awoke, could sleep in peace.

D’Agata, who was a little man, a Sicilian bricklayer, sober, reserved, and fastidious, had been reduced to sleeping during the day. He spent nights stretched out on his bed, watching all around, his eyes huge from the horror, the vigil, the spasms of attention. In his hand, he tightly grasped a gadget fashioned from a stick and a piece of wire mesh, and the wall next to him was covered with a lurid constellation of bloody stains.

At first these habits of his were the target of mockery: was his skin so much thinner than ours? But then pity took over, mixed with a trace of envy, because among us all, D’Agata was the only one whose enemies were concrete, present, tangible, and could be drawn into combat, struck, and squashed against the wall.

Nelle lunghissime sere polacche, l’aria della camerata, greve di tabacco e di odori umani, si saturava di sogni insensati. È questo il frutto piú immediato dell’esilio, dello sradicamento: il prevalere dell’irreale sul reale. Tutti sognavano sogni passati e futuri, di schiavitú e di redenzione, di paradisi inverosimili, di altrettanto mitici e inverosimili nemici: nemici cosmici, perversi e sottili, che tutto pervadono come l’aria. Tutti, ad eccezione forse di Cravero, e certamente di D’Agata.

D’Agata non aveva tempo di sognare, perché era ossessionato dal terrore delle cimici. Queste incomode compagne non piacevano a nessuno, naturalmente; ma tutti avevamo finito col farci l’abitudine. Non erano poche e sparse, ma un esercito compatto, che col sopraggiungere della primavera aveva invaso tutti i nostri giacigli: stavano annidate di giorno nelle fenditure dei muri e delle cuccette di legno, e partivano in scorreria non appena cessava il tramestio del giorno. A cedere loro una piccola porzione del nostro sangue, ci saremmo rassegnati di buon grado: era meno facile abituarsi a sentirle correre furtive sul viso e sul corpo, sotto gli abiti. Potevano dormire tranquilli solo quelli che avevano la fortuna di godere di un sonno pesante, e che riuscivano a cadere nell’incoscienza prima che quelle altre si risvegliassero.

D’Agata, che era un minuscolo, sobrio, riservato e pulitissimo muratore siciliano, si era ridotto a dormire di giorno, e passava le notti appollaiato sul letto, guardandosi intorno con occhi dilatati, dall’orrore, dalla veglia e dall’attenzione spasmodica. Teneva stretto in mano un aggeggio rudimentale, che si era costruito con un bastoncello e un pezzo di rete metallica, e il muro accanto a lui era coperto di una lurida costellazione di macchie sanguigne.

In principio queste sue abitudini erano state derise: aveva forse la pelle piú fina di noi altri? Ma poi la pietà aveva prevalso, commista con una traccia di invidia; perché, fra tutti noi, D’Agata era il solo il cui nemico fosse concreto, presente, tangibile, suscettibile di essere combattuto, percosso, schiacciato contro il muro.

A Highland Map of Lake Superior Mining

It would be instructive to lay this map, published today by Highland Copper, over the map of Mines, Mineral Exploration, and Mineral Leasing around Lake Superior published in 2013 by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Having acquired all of Rio Tinto’s exploration properties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Highland now dominates sulfide-mining exploration in the UP.

A multi-billion dollar mining behemoth like Rio Tinto could arguably have left these copper, zinc and gold sites idle for a rainy day. The same can’t be said about a junior like Highland. With market capitalization of $62 million, the company paid $2 million at closing, leaving its subsidiary on the hook for an additional $16 million (in the form of a non-interest bearing promissory note), to be paid in regular installments.

According to company’s own press release, “the payments…will be accelerated if Highland publicly releases a feasibility study covering any portion of the UPX properties.” So once exploration begins with test drilling in 2018, we might see efforts to expedite permitting and development for these sites.

If UPX succeeds in taking even a fraction of these sulfide-mineral deposits from exploration to development, and if these new mines are developed under the pressure of an accelerated payment schedule, the risk to the Lake Superior watershed will be significantly heightened.

A Few Observations on Standing on Quicksand

Three_Ways_of_Standing_on_QuicksandA few thoughts on the drawing I made yesterday morning.

One amoral transactionalist or another in my drawing might try to accumulate sufficient goods — in this case, enough flooring: planks, paving stones, rebar, etc. — to shore up only his patch of quicksand.

As he watched his trading partner and his fellow man sink, he might realize that he has done himself out of the trade that sustained and defined him.

He might also find that he needs the other guy after all, as it’s very hard to lay planks across one area of quicksand without building up another. (The best design would go to the very margins of the whole patch of quicksand, and anchor the floor in terra firma.) He has won only as much land as his transactions to date have secured for him. Once his trading partner sinks, he has made his last acquisition.

Even if their trade observes some rules, it will be short-lived unless they recognize that the patch of quicksand they’re standing on needs shoring up and maintenance. When the pair recognize that they share common ground, and a common future, they have a much better chance of keeping themselves from sinking.

With that recognition, they have already crossed over from amoral transactionalism into some sense of common life or mutual standing. They can start working together, or start coordinating their efforts: they might decide to tax their trade so that they can direct some of the goods toward building a shared foundation.

Do the pair locked in territorial rivalry have any future? One might prevail over the other, raid his stores of goods and make plans to occupy the entire territory. He could even enslave him or coerce him to build a stable platform over the quicksand patch.

It’s a future from which both parties should recoil in horror. At the very least they might understand that, all things being equal and luck being what it is, committing to this course means that one of them will end up dead or suffering under the lash.

And the best the winner of such a contest can hope for is the master’s fate: he will never be truly respected nor have standing as a person (which can only be granted by another person; but he has deprived his rival of that standing). He will have lost even that bitter sense of “we” that he knew in the days of territorial rivalry. Now he can only make the vanquished party hand over his goods, do his bidding, cower in fear or howl in pain.

Scanlon on Tolerance and Territorial Rivalry

From “The Difficulty of Tolerance” in Toleration. An Elusive Virtue:

Any society, no matter how homogeneous, will include people who disagree about how to live and about what they want their society to be like. (And the disagreements within a relatively homogeneous culture can be more intense than those within a society founded on diversity like the United States.) Given that there must be disagreements, and that those who disagree must somehow live together, is it not better, if possible, to have these disagreements contained within a framework of mutual respect? The alternative, it seems, is to be always in conflict, even at the deepest level, with a large number of one’s fellow citizens. The qualification “even at the deepest level” is crucial here. I am assuming that in any society there will over time be conflicts, serious ones, about the nature and direction of the society. What tolerance expresses is a recognition of common membership that is deeper than these conflicts, a recognition of others as just as entitled as we are to contribute to the definition of our society. Without this, we are just rival groups contending over the same territory. The fact that each of us, for good historical and personal reasons, regards it as our territory and our tradition just makes the conflict all the deeper.

Three Ways of Standing on Quicksand

Here’s a drawing I made on the back of an envelope over breakfast this morning, to illustrate three ways of standing on quicksand: territorial rivalry, amoral transactionalism, and moral community or mutual standing.


Preston King on Acceptance

As I was saying:

Tolerance features a predominant objection to an item conjoined with some form of free acceptance of that item….one exhibits some general aversion to the item tolerated plus some kind of ‘acceptance’ of it….

Where one objects to an item without regard to any consequences that might flow from acting against it, it is plain that on the crest of that objection rides a predisposition to act against it. Where one dislikes or disapproves of an item, and yet freely accepts it, it is impossible that the objection can be understood as the reason for accepting it. There must be other considerations that stand outside and tend to cut across the objection, thereby producing the item’s acceptance….

When we speak of an objection what we are basically concerned with is a disposition or assessment. When we speak of acceptance, what we are basically concerned with, by contrast, are those consequential acts that are assumed to flow from the disposition or assessment. Assessment of course involves approval or disapproval. Similarly, consequential acts embrace rejection as well as acceptance. The consequence of approval tends to be acceptance. The consequence of disapproval tends to be rejection. In the tolerating conjuncture we discover elements both of objection (dislike/disapproval) and of acceptance. The consequence involved in tolerance, on balance, is acceptance, and it flows from an interruption of the objection. Thus the tolerant consequence is necessarily equivocal — involving either the surrender of some negative impulse or the indulgence of some limited act of association. When we tolerate an x, we accept it either in the sense that we associate with it or do not interfere with it in some limited sphere, in some limited degree. If we tolerate a doctrine, for example, we may do so in the sense that we do not physically attempt to stop others from advocating it (although we would ourselves preach against it). If we tolerate a person, for example, we may do so in the sense that we do not attempt to deprive him of fair trial procedure or of citizenship in our state (although we would not particularly wish to entertain him in our home). The act of acceptance, like the objection which precedes it, comes in varying degrees and applies on varying levels, in different spheres. If one objects to an x, that is a warrant for being dissociated from, or acting against, it. If one objects to a person or doctrine, that is in itself a warrant for having nothing to do with that person or for inhibiting the influence of that doctrine. To tolerate them implies an objection to them; but it also implies some limited form of association or non-interference with them. The act of acceptance, coming in degrees, may range from one to the other. Thus, when we say that we tolerate an x, assuming some form of acceptance of that x (starting for example at the minimal level of mere non-interference), the clarity of the assertion further depends on communicating the degree of our acceptance and the specific sphere or spheres to which it relates….when we display tolerance…we accept, but accept in the sense of some limited degree of association or non-interference with, the object of tolerance.

The act of acceptance in tolerance, since it frequently reduces to a non-act, must be seen most minimally as a remission from intolerance. One may negate one’s intolerance simply by declining to act out one’s disapproval, as also by acting in a manner wholly contrary to that ordinarily implied in or associated with one’s disapproval. The act of acceptance, therefore, has minimal and maximal degrees. Also, an item can be accepted on different levels. One may associate with a person in different degrees within the home, club, church, firm or state. One may tolerate a person when one is prepared to associate with him on some of these levels, but not on others. Suppose we tolerate a Jew, or a Catholic, or an Anglican in the sense that we object to him for religious reasons, while accepting association with him for pecuniary reasons. Our tolerance here may imply ready association on some levels, such as the firm and the state, but dissociation on other levels, such as the home, the club and the church. It may be objected that this is not tolerance but intolerance. The answer, however, is that it is both. One may be tolerant of an item on one level and intolerant on another. That is why it is essential to sort them out. Just as one may tolerate on different levels, so may one tolerate in different degrees on each of these levels. It is always essential to inquire in what area and in what degree a tolerator is tolerant. It makes no sense to speak of a tolerator as being completely tolerant of an item. Where an item is not rejected or discriminated against in any degree, or on any level, it cannot be disliked or disapproved in any degree on any level. Complete remission from intolerance is less a matter of tolerance than of indifference or love. It is for this reason that it is not particularly helpful to speak of a ‘pure’ tolerance…. Complete tolerance has to be regarded as an impossibility. (In saying this the distinction is assumed between tolerance and acceptance.)

-Preston T. King, Toleration, pp. 51-54

A First Note on Naim’s End of Power

I didn’t read Moises Naim’s The End of Power when it was fashionable to do so a couple of years ago, after Mark Zuckerberg put the book on his recommended reading list. In fact, I am so unfashionable that I hadn’t heard of the book until yesterday, when I came across a reference to it in an article in El Pais and was intrigued enough to download a Kindle sample chapter (the local bookstore didn’t have a copy I could look over). I plan to continue with it, mainly to see what Naim has to say about cooperation, co-deliberation and joint commitment — themes I’ve been exploring in my posts on the power of asking.

So far, not much. Naim tends to present deliberation as a dissolution of power, instead of appreciating that there is power in it. He wants to remind us that the decay of power he’s documenting in this book can lead to stalemates and “ineffectiveness”; but he risks going too far in the other direction:

A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiative but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.

There is not much patience in these opening pages for gathering as equals and talking things over, little appreciation that taking decisions together can be something other than head-butting, very little room at all here for co-deliberation (in the course of which players might veer, or would be open to veering, from their preferred course and adopt another course). It’s a world without much charity. Conversation and coordination with others — yielding or deferring to them — just delays or creates obstacles to action. Effectiveness is all. Order is a necessary and one-way imposition, for Naim, and the quicker order is imposed, the better. A world in which “no one has the power to impose” upon others, he warns, threatens to collapse into “chaos and anarchy.”

This, I gather, is one of the main arguments of The End of Power. The trouble I’m starting to have with it has to do with Naim’s Hobbesian view of things and his definition of power: “Power is the ability to direct or prevent current or future actions of other groups and individuals.” Look at those verbs. Power directs and prevents others: command and control. Or, look at the preposition Robert Dahl uses when he defines power in “The Concept of Power,” a paper Naim cites approvingly: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”

Even in that sentence there is much to unpack, and, as I say, I’ve just cracked the book. But I am wondering if in subsequent chapters Naim will offer any consideration of power that is not power over others but power with them.

Another Abuse of Asking

I’ve been interested for a while now in the way asking works: what exactly are we doing when we ask what to do (what we should or ought to do) and when we ask things of each other (when we make requests or demands)? For the most part, my posts on what I’ve called, for better or worse, the power of asking have focused on the abuse of asking, the confusion of asking with orders that are not open to deliberation, or the issuing of commands in the guise of requests, as when people use the nominative “ask” but aren’t asking anything at all.

When I talk about “abuse” in this context I mean, for starters, that these confusions and ruses and other kinds of indirection make asking an “act professed but hollow,” as Austin puts it in How To Do Things With Words. In Austin’s scheme, abuse is just one kind of infelicity, and I don’t want to be too strict about it, or pretend that the term covers all the instances in which asking does not come off as it should; but I’m drawn to talking about abuses of asking in part because I think it’s important to point out that acts professed but hollow may not only be insincere but also lack moral seriousness, in the sense that moral seriousness requires taking others seriously, giving them moral standing as second persons to whom one is accountable and answerable.

Abuses might take the form of a well-meaning effort to soften commands, so that people don’t feel pushed around or ordered about. That might seem like a harmless management ploy. But to allow that this professed asking is really a nicer way of commanding is to admit that abuses of asking can also mask real power relations. They don’t afford interlocutors equal standing or a share in power, or even the freedom to answer “no,” as genuine deliberation or serious conversation about what to do might.

An illustration is provided by what North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said just this Wednesday past, before the police moved into the Oceti Sakowin Camp:

Our big ask for tomorrow is that, you know, anybody that’s remaining in the camp, we want to make sure they know that they have an opportunity to voluntarily leave, take your belongings, remove anything that you think might be culturally significant, and we’ll help you get on your way if you need to do that.

This “big ask” followed an eviction order issued by the Army Corps of Engineers that was backed by heavily armed, militarized police. Those who did not take the “opportunity to voluntarily leave” were arrested and forcibly removed. Governor Burgum might have chosen to present what is essentially an ultimatum as a request in order to seem fair and reasonable, or to defuse a tense situation. But it’s curious — isn’t it? — that it wasn’t just the governor who indulged this bureaucratic habit of speech. The governor’s spokesperson later made the same request: “We ask those that are remaining to pack up their belongings, to take off,” he said, and again repeated the offer to “help” with transportation.

Neither he nor the governor wanted to be giving orders, apparently. If their statements on this occasion can be set down as abuses of asking, that abuse is hardly the worst charge to be leveled against the governor of North Dakota in this situation. And to parse Governor Burgum’s language or that of his spokesperson on this occasion probably isn’t the best place to start reflecting on all that just went down at Standing Rock. But it’s important, I believe, to be look at what was said on this occasion and what was actually meant, how power presented itself and how it actually went about things.

The two are not even close.

The governor and his spokesperson were not asking anything at all. They were disguising not just an order but a threat of violence as a request, and publicly refusing to take responsibility for what might ensue. Apparently, they weren’t the ones giving the orders. By asking, or pretending to ask, they washed their hands of the situation. In essence, the governor said that it was up to the water protectors at the camp to keep the forces under the governor’s command from doing violence to them.

It is a classic example of the abuser’s refrain: don’t make me hurt you.

Will Pruitt Retreat From the Yellow Dog Plains?

It’s no coincidence that the Marquette County Road Commission announced that it would renew the battle for County Road 595 just as the U.S. Senate geared up to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA.

CR 595 seemed like a lost cause after Judge Robert Holmes Bell denied a motion to alter or amend his dismissal of MCRC v. EPA back in December. (I wrote about that motion here). But if the election of Trump and his nomination of Pruitt can change the outlook for big mining projects like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, it can certainly help the MCRC build a haul road for Lundin Mining through the Yellow Dog wilderness.

A federal mediator is now scheduled to hear from both sides on March 9th. The appeal will go forward in the event the parties cannot agree.

The Pacific Legal Foundation — which now represents the MCRC — is clearly well equipped to appeal Bell’s decision. The libertarian-leaning PLF are even more likely than their Clark Hill predecessors to grandstand about federal overreach and economic self-determination. As I’ve tried to suggest in other posts (e.g., here or here), that’s cynical posturing: in this case a victory for the Road Commission will amount to ceding economic development authority to a Canadian mining company and its local proxies.

But libertarian huffing and puffing will not be what makes the Pacific Legal Foundation especially formidable. The PLF argued, and won, the Hawkes decision — which, as I explained in previous post, allowed the plaintiffs to challenge a ruling that wetlands on their property were subject to the Clean Water Act — and they regard Judge Bell’s rejection of the Hawkes decision in the CR 595 case as “a legally reversible error.” Indeed, the PLF are already advertising the Marquette County Road Commission’s case on their blog as “Hawkes Come to Michigan.”

And after today’s confirmation of Pruitt, the PLF will likely have have a much less formidable opponent in the EPA. The decision to go forward with this appeal clearly took that into account. Hawkes may not need to come to Michigan at all. Pruitt might just order the EPA to retreat.