29 November 2020

Misattribution of sincerity

There's an increasing concern for disabled people; it's clear that they don't get any additional support despite the pandemic and it's worrying that "you should die for the economy" rhetoric is solidly mainstream.  It's not very far between that and "we'll kill you for the economy", especially since that's what various governments' COVID policy amounts to in functional terms, just a little more random.

This tends to focus on "a drain on society" and the (entirely obvious from a disabled perspective) "I'd contribute more if you'd spend more", either on making economic contribution possible (e.g., the refusal to allow work from home prior to the pandemic; lots of folks could have a job if they can work from home, and not if they have to commute) or on providing basic support (e.g., public provision of mobility devices).

There's a couple-six tactical mistakes in all this.

Firstly, "drain on the economy" in "you cost more than you pay in taxes" terms isn't answerable; that's why the frame is used.  (Generally by people who seek to lower their own taxes to zero; presenting in complete seriousness a plan to cull oligarchs as unproductive might be a useful rhetorical response.)

Secondly, mammonism tries hard to present itself as factual, but isn't in any way; it doesn't accept falsifiability of anything, never mind its axioms.  No amount of pointing out material error will do anything because no mammonite is the least bit interested in being correct.  It's a sort of distributed mystery cult.

Thirdly, most people sincerely believe that it's OK to kill you for not being normal.[1]  Their entire childhood was structured around social norms where you hurt people until they acted normal, they were themselves certainly hurt for not acting normal, and their conviction that you must be normal is axiomatic, irrational, and close to absolute.  (And immutable; success with gay acceptance, such as their was and what there was of it, rested on "I don't want to kill someone I know fairly well" squeems.  There was no general expansion of normal and there was no refutation of "OK to kill you for not being normal".  There were a bunch of personal exceptions and an agreement that you should be allowed your personal exceptions if you were normal, since, well, yeah, having to beat someone to death when you kinda liked them would be icky.)

Fourth, no one (aside from a few marginalised economics hobbyists) wants to optimise productivity, economic participation, or any general measure of contribution; they want to optimise how much money they have.  Even when people aren't outright mammonites; what you hear repeated becomes true, and the degree of repetition of mammonite axioms is well past saturation.  Security arises from wealth, you must obey greater wealth, and there are no permissible collective forms of organisation save those which reinforce the gradient of wealth.  (why, yes, that does describe a slave society,and yes, they do mean that as a constraint on laws.)

So what do they want?

They really do want to kill you for not being normal.  It's a construction of virtue, in part because the people doing the construction derive their social power and standing from participating in the definition of normal.  (Every time you see complaints about "kids these days" and novel communications platforms?  The base complaint is "they're getting their construction of normal from a source that isn't me".  It's a real threat to the existing general social construction of power if the source of the definition of normal shifts.)

Everything else is a rationalisation for how they can want that and be a good person.  None of it is any more falsifiable than any other faith statement or any other rationalisation; no amount of pointing out that money is an entirely profane collective rationing system for agency that doesn't function without a state guarantor makes a dent on mammonites, because they know that money is the materialisation of the love of God and you can't have it, and you certainly can't have any of theirs.  (When it's not and can't be your money; money is inherently and inescapably socialist.  Agency isn't; agency is inescapably and particularly your agency.  That difference in scope is where much of the problem comes from once, structurally and socially, money and agency are equated.)

Is there a more helpful frame?

I think so; removing friction.  All this implicit difficulty in stairs and curbs and narrow stairwells and so on is a cost, and just like the deaths that lead to carbon monoxide detectors being required, it's a cost there's a general social motivation to reduce.

Places where ramps come in, splitting stairwells, the ramp gets a lot of use by people with roller luggage, garment racks, and so on; it perfectly straightforward to point that out as general utility.  Perfectly straightforward to point out that current escalator design optimizes the wrong thing.  It's not normal to want to make regular daily life more difficult, is it?

(Well, yes it is; it provides display opportunities, and thus status.  Trick is to move the basis of status.)

The city engineer should be seen about towing a little instrumented cart, and public roads rated by where the greatest force is required; places of business should be rated by the ability to move a volume frame around in them.  You get the fire marshal and emergency services to do that one; can we get the stretcher to you? stuff.  Only you make sure it's one of those scissor-lift gurney things in current use, not an old-school pole stretcher.  If this coincidentally improves mobility devices, and if there are much less-publicised mobility device requirements, well, the point is to make the regulation harder to argue with.  It's normal to want them to be able to get the stretcher to you.

(This general idea of not making things difficult can and should be extended all over the place.)

From there, there's the idea that there's a general public responsibility to expand possibility.  Not for the worthy; not for immediate, direct, economic reasons, but because that's what it is normal for a society to do.  A society which pretends to prosperity by denying opportunity is both weak and a lie. [2]

(One could, in past times when some people believed in being judged after death, sometimes get somewhere with notions of duty and obligation; pretty much everybody getting hurt by COVID in the Anglosphere is that way because of government failure, and the successor government acquire an obligation thereby.  Nobody actually believes this today.)

So, yes, there's an immediate need to worry about all this and to care for the stricken in the specific and in general; insisting that it's wrong to measure people's worth with money won't work, because to a first approximation no one here in late capitalism believes that.  Pick a value of normal people want and advance that.  It might work.  "This is cruel" won't work; it never worked when they were kids, after all, and now they know what virtue is.

[1] it is OK for drivers to kill people if the people aren't in cars because driving is normal; walking and riding a bicycle aren't.  It is entirely that simple, which is also why it's so wretchedly intractable.

[2] "medical technology unable to free you from specific constraint is insufficient, and should be improved with the goal of attaining sufficient capability to free you from your specific constraints for all the values of you in society"  would be a controversial statement. (in large part because people correctly suppose that corporates would get the tech first, and make being able to edit you a condition of employment.)  It's still the appropriate social goal, and one where part of the goal has to be a social and systemic context where it's possible to have the capability as an increase in general possibility; your agency is increased by this, not decreased.


Slybrarian said...

The speed of changing attitudes towards LGB people (less T so far unfortunately) over the last ten to twenty years, even in fairly conservative areas, has been really remarkable. Once the idea of normalization got started it crystallized very rapidly, to the point that current teenagers can barely even imagine that within their own lifetimes gay marriage was almost unthinkable.* I think you're right that the success comes down to personal interaction and costs, and that it's a good model for success in the Anglosphere. Your child should have stayed in the closet if they didn't want a beating; my child being bullied is an outrage. Your son dying in Vietnam is an unfortunate necessity; my son being drafted at all is an unbearable tragedy. You not being able to get a wheelchair inside is your problem; me not being able to get the expensive new fridge into my door is everyone's problem.

So it is with disability. If improvements can be framed an a universal manner, they're much easier to get accepted. The elderly have been a wedge here somewhat, because everyone's got a granny that they really don't want to have to take care of and push around in a non-electric wheel chair, and there's a vague if reluctance acceptance that they too will be old some day. A lot of homes get designed / sold with the idea of not having to lug laundry up and down stairs when you're old, which also helps people with mobility problems at all ages.

*writing from a US perspective here; ymmv.

arborman said...

The notion of 'Universal Design' has been around for awhile. I spent some time working for a disability advocacy organization a couple of decades ago pushing for such changes to be incorporated into the building code in BC (with limited success).

Lots of it is fairly obvious. Instead of building steps and a ramp into the store, just build at grade and/or just have a ramp. Make hallways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs even when the occupants don't currently require a wheelchair. Put doorknobs and bells in reach from a chair - no difference in access to the majority, but difference for the minority.

Building stock is relatively durable and full universality will involve a lot of retrofitting, but I know from experience that a lot of accessibility is baked into any (commercial) renovation projects. Enough that it is a disincentive and barrier in some cases to embark on a retrofitting project. E.g. X wants to expand their business but if they open up the building code can of worms they will be required to install and maintain an expensive elevator etc. Effectively an insurmountable barrier to small businesses though a rounding error for larger entities.

Accommodation is another animal that has its own challenges. Universal design is desirable for any number of reasons - my parents don't currently have mobility issues but chose a home that will allow them to continue living there if that changes. If I were to develop a problem with stairs we'd have to move out of our home. Retrofitting might work but practicality suggests a move.

All of this runs smack into mammonism as a current barrier to anything that might limit profits. Have to be careful in this - profits for a large profit maximization 'slow AI' are a different function than profits for a small corner shop, for example. Recent history of corporate hostility to such innovations as seatbelts or other basic safety devices suggest that it will always be an uphill battle in a mammonite society.

Graydon said...

I think I could condense my whole point into "make the absence of Universal Design an inexcusable fault; this will work better than asking for compassion".

The current ... angle of narrative, call it, has anybody who is in some sense not who the building designer was thinking of required to engage in some sort of special pleading as a supplicant, which is both futile as a political process and tactically undesirable if you just want to be able to use the space for something.

(Small businesses can find themselves in partnership with the Crown for awhile; that wouldn't be hard to set up and the associated "found to be a good risk" could be constructed as a positive.)

And, yeah, mammonism is the problem here in large part because all costs are someone else's costs to a convinced mammonite. Not willing to spend anything on anyone else 's convenience.

James said...

People's attitudes towards ramps and stairs are, put mildly, irrational. Even if you don't have a disability, the stairs are among the most dangerous places in a typical house. And where you can have a ramp without switchbacks, stairs are not only a potential barrier and more dangerous, but actually slower: there is no benefit to having a drop (as the Toronto Eaton Centre does in several places) with both stairs and a ramp on the side.

On the way into Union Station down both Bay and York, if one is going directly to the trains, one can choose to walk straight down the sidewalk, quickly and more safely, or take the stairs. Most people take the stairs.

(The drivers killing people issue is just one aspect of the massive act of ignoring the risks of minimally-trained individuals driving multi-tonne blocks of metal around at high speeds. City council's refusal to drop speed limits, or decision to spend unnecessary funds to make the East Gardiner replacement a little faster, is an indication of how much of a hold it has on the general population. This is partly because if we priced in the downsides of driving at a reasonable level we would require prospective drivers to get levels of training usually associated with fighter pilots, and the insurance costs associated with driving in a populated area would be such as to make most non-commercial driving unaffordable. (Highways for transporting goods between cities can be engineered to be less risky simply by excluding anything other than trucks.) Whether the infatuation with the individual motor car is precisely mammonism or another derangement of the 20th Century is arguable.)

Graydon said...

+James --

It's becoming a thing to prove you're not weak by using the stairs. Band-forming primate; we'll do just about anything as a status display. (E.g., consumption of live goldfish.)

Stairs are more compact than a useful ramp; this is why they came in for tenements and such no later than the Roman Republic and have persisted that way ever since. It's just how it's done, and never mind the questions of utility.

The motor car is mammonism from two angles; it's public proof of your prosperity, for one (Remember Dougie making Rob buy a better -- that is, more expensive -- car to preserve the family honour?), and for two, the post-War prosperity was built on selling people cars so they could reach the suburban house you sold them. The detached or semi-detached single family home has reached an absolute nadir of delivered value (and thus an absolute zenith of retained profit) and there's an intense systemic, structural pressure to make you buy one anyway. And if you do, you have to buy a car. The car is better short-term value than it used to be, but the overall value is actively and increasingly negative as the carbon loading goes up.

Profitable, though.

(Which is, in and of itself, an entirely sufficient argument that markets can't set accurate prices.)

James said...

Per Flanders & Swann: "'I just bought a Mini Super.' 'What's a Mini Super?' 'Yes, I've got one in my boot.'".

Up to about the 1950s or so, cars as such (rather than the type of car) were a mark of status, but we have long since reached the point at which many relatively poor people drive cheap second-hand cars. However, the 50s are when the modern suburban model, which had been an ideal in the 1930s, really started to take root (Levittown, Don Mills) and success was defined by leaving the city behind every day at 5 pm. At the same time GM started their (for a long time successful) strategy if marketing essentially the same engine block with different trim to different price points associated with the names of companies they had gobbled up - a pretty well pure version of the type of car as a status signal.

The intrinsic support for the car as such has become a disconnected policy choice rather than a response to mammonite signalling; what has highlighted the arbitrariness of that choice is its conflict with any sort of sane climate goals.

What struck me about stairs vs ramps was that even where there is no benefit in compactness they still remain the norm, even in a place like a modern mall which is a seniors magnet.

Graydon said...


It's generally very difficult to get building trades to change; inherently conservative (we know what doesn't fall down, why change it?), and lately the work/capital separation is extreme, so the folks doing the building are even less willing to change how they do things; they can't afford new tools and methods.

(Ramps in particular have lousy industrial support; it's much easier to buy prefab stairs and stair parts than it is to by prefab ramps.)

I think today cars are a mark of meaningful adulthood; much like owning a home, which marks you as middle class and aspirational, owning a car means you're a grown up. Which is not going to produce especially rational responses when people point out that cities work better without cars.

arborman said...

Cars and car driving are clearly seen by the young as a mark of adulthood. My 15 year old is beside himself with anticipation at the prospect of driving, and talks at length about his future vehicle - this despite my constant talk about the actual cost/utility of a vehicle.

The legal age to drink is another highly regarded milestone, largely the ongoing blowback from out culture's Puritan roots and bizarro post-Prohibition legal systems creating an appealing and quite easy to acquire taboo item. Actual drinking is secondary for most, but reaching the age where it is possible is highly prized. More shaved ape status stuff.

My experience of building trades is that they do like to work with what has worked in the past. They are also quite limited by what people will pay for the work - even those who are interested in Universal design can only do so if it doesn't increase the cost, otherwise they'll just be undercut by someone else. This forces such builders into high value niches, which is fine but does not really work at scale.

Effective 'imposition' of Universal design principles has to be through Building Codes and across the board regulation. As with all collective action problems it cannot be solved by individual agency alone. It also cannot happen quickly simply because it is not a problem that exists in a vacuum - there are other competing issues to contend with as well (e.g. assuming unlimited resources and merely tearing down all old buildings and replacing them with UD structures is hardly environmentally sound).

Graydon said...


Confusion between cost and value is a real problem, yeah. (as is a complete lack of residential market; no one buys enough to know what they're buying.)

Tearing down all the old buildings is about what climate change is going to compel us to do; nothing's been built for the wind or the rain we're going to get. (This is, I think, much of why you just can't get traction for any sort of meaningful climate change response; you have to tell the voters they're not middle class anymore, their house isn't worth anything.)

Since we do need to change all the building codes and get rebuilding for the time of angry weather, might as well include universal design in that change. Pity it's political death to say so.

arborman said...

I'm inclined to disagree that it's political death to add Universal design, in my experience most people accept that accommodation is required in new builds etc. We all have family members who are aging, and are aging ourselves (a truism).

On top of that persons with disabilities fit somewhat into the notion of 'deserving', especially when said disability was acquired through work or war. The deserving poor are considered OK for 'charity', unlike the rest of those so-called lazy bums who leech off the taxpayer. Of course at minimum cost and corners must be cut etc etc.

The 'house isn't worth anything' is a hard one. There is a real value (by any definition of the term) to not being subject to rent - even if it is at the end of a long mortgage. Whatever the paper value of a home it is also a HOME, with a roof and walls in which to shelter from the world. That has an intrinsic value, and having primary say over what happens within that home has a value as well. Doesn't mean it is optimal, and the current absurdity of multimillion dollar 'homes' in particular neighbourhood or cities is certifiably insane (no matter how much it has benefitted me personally).

Some of my coworkers and friends are home owners, some are renters. In both cases you are paying a significant chunk of the proceeds of your labour towards the repayment of a mortgage loan. In one case there is at least a prospect of that not being the case at some point in the future.

I'd love to see a model where homes are universally available and accessible that doesn't involve reducing choice in some other way (i.e. you are all free to live in cardboard boxes).